February 22, 2018 No Greater Love- John 15:13, 1 John 4:9-12

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Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13 (NIV)

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 1 John 4:9-12 (NIV)

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean?

*I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. – from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism on Sanctification -the Third Article of the Creed.

Belonging to God is not our choice. God is the one who does the choosing and the naming and claiming. God created. God calls us to life in Him.  God loves us first and has plans for us.  In Baptism we become permanently and irrevocably His. The Holy Spirit equips us for a life of faith.  It’s not about what we do, but what God has already done and continues to do in and through us.

The gift of faith and of being named and claimed by God is incredibly freeing. Our salvation is not contingent upon our current emotional state, the good deeds we do, or our good behavior, but on Jesus crucified. He was the perfect example of love- laying down His life for not only His friends, but for every human being.

When Lutherans talk about loving God and those around us, we do so in the realization that we can only love because God first loved us. Much as the moon can only reflect sunlight and has no light of its own, we can only reflect God’s love.

This is not to say that it is easy or automatic to live a life that honors God.  The difference is that we are called to live in response to God’s love for us.  We cannot earn God’s love and we certainly do not deserve it.

If we say we love Jesus, it is only because He has loved us when we were unlovable.

What does that say for the love that we reflect?

If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 2, 2018 – The Pursuit of Wisdom- Proverbs 9:9-12, Matthew 6:33, Job 28:24-28

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Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years will be added to your life.  If you are wise, you are wise for yourself; if you scoff, you alone will bear it. Proverbs 9:9-12 (NRSV)

The phrase “fear of the Lord” is sort of an awkward translation into English.  When we use the word “fear,” it has a few different connotations.  “Fear of the Lord” correctly translated is fear defined as a reverent respect and awe. Jesus uses the parallel of a healthy father and son relationship, one of respect, dependency and love.

The story of the Fall, and of human nature and sin, is one of humanity getting too big for its britches in a figurative way. When we blindly trust in our own knowledge or ability and fail to acknowledge God, we are being unwise.  We are given many examples in Scripture of what not to do – the temptation in the Garden (Genesis 3 ) , the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), and the lawlessness that prevailed in the days of the Judges (Judges 21:25) all tell us of the consequences of separating ourselves from God and not having a respect or reverence for Him.

All of the above are also examples of trusting in human logic instead of going to the Source of wisdom. We all do it, too. The good news is there is a better way, and God is patient with us, like a wise father guiding his children.

Solomon was said to be the wisest man who ever lived. God offered him any gift that he would want, and he asked for wisdom (1 Kings 3:3-14). God not only granted him wisdom, but also prosperity and long life.  When our first passion is seeking God and His kingdom, His plan for our life comes to life.

(Jesus said): But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:33 (NRSV)

If we choose to find wisdom today, we still need to ask God and look to Him to find it. We will still find wisdom and the King of Kings present in the most unlikely and humble places- from the manger in Bethlehem to the needy, the lonely, the misunderstood, and the forgotten who are everywhere in the world today. We find wisdom when we seek God in the pages of Scripture. God reveals His wisdom to us in our times of meditation and prayer.

For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens. When he gave to the wind its weight, and apportioned out the waters by measure; when he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the thunderbolt; then he saw it and declared it; he established it, and searched it out.  And he said to humankind, ‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.’” Job 28:24-28 (NRSV)

November 6, 2017- Simple Faith in a Greater God- 1 John 4:4-5 (NRSV) Joshua 1:9 (NRSV)

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Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.  They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 1 John 4:4-5 (NRSV)

 Thankfully, God is so often the champion of the underdog. We see evil in so many places and in so many experiences in this world that it’s easy to get discouraged.  Terrorism, random violence, not so random violence, drug addiction, poverty, natural disaster and disease are regular features in the news.

We wonder why. We ask God why these things go on in the world and why they don’t stop.  We wonder if evil really will win out.

So how can we believe in a greater God when we are so powerless in a world filled with heartbreak and evil and sin?

If this life in this temporary world was the only and final reality, then perhaps there would be cause for despair.

But we have a greater hope, not just for the end of days (or the end of our own personal days) but for now and always.

I hereby command you: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 (NRSV)

 How can we keep on going on when we are afraid, depleted, discouraged, in pain, or just plain overwhelmed? How do we keep our faith and sanity when we see and experience the insanity that is so pervasive in our world?

God is with us. Have courage.

September 27, 2017- Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread- Matthew 6:11, 1 John 3:21-23

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Give us this day our daily bread. -Matthew 6:11 (NRSV)

Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment; that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 1 John 3:21-23 (NRSV)

The fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer has to do with God’s provision for us. God always provides for us, otherwise we would not have the ability to take our next breath.  The purpose of praying for our daily provision from God is to underscore that we are connected to Him, and that we can trust Him to provide everything we need.

Behold, thus God wishes to indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need, and faithfully provides also for our temporal support, and although He abundantly grants and preserves these things even to the wicked and knaves, yet He wishes that we pray for them, in order that we may recognize that we receive them from His hand, and may feel His paternal goodness toward us therein. – from the Explanation of the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Luther’s Large Catechism

God is a generous giver. He wants to give to us but often we hesitate to ask.  It is also true that He gives to us according to His will and not necessarily by what we think we want and need. Sometimes what we ask for is not the best thing for us.  When my son was 14 and going through a growth spurt he begged me for some outrageously hideous $100 skater pants.  He really wanted those pants, but he certainly didn’t need them, and I certainly wasn’t going to buy them.  He would have outgrown them in weeks, and he would have looked silly in them anyway. I said no- not because I wanted my son to go without clothes, but because I had better and more practical clothing options for him.

God as our heavenly Father is equipping us for eternal life, not just life here on this earth in these mortal bodies. God wants us to ask Him for everything and to come to Him with everything- but like a good parent He knows when to say “yes,” “no,” or “I have a better option for you.”

Perhaps as we pray it is best to leave our options open to God. He knows the desires of our hearts better than we do.  He knows what we need better than we do.

It is telling that Jesus instructs us to pray for “daily” bread.  Not bread for a week or a month or a lifetime, but daily bread. We are supposed to come to God with everything, trusting that He supplies our needs all the time, every day- not just on Sundays or in times of crisis.  It’s not possible to wear God out. He has the ability to take anything we have to throw at Him- our anger, our frustration, our needs, and our desires.  He wants us to bring it all to Him.

Sometimes we feel guilty about praying for ourselves and our own needs. But the act of praying for provision is much like the pre-flight instruction to parents to put the oxygen masks on themselves before attempting to put the masks on their children.  If we are not equipped ourselves, how can we be of service to others?  The key to putting this instruction in proper perspective is our motive in prayer.  Do we pray for ourselves simply so we can benefit ourselves, or do we pray for provision so that we can care for our families and serve our neighbors?  The more we pray the closer we get to the heart of God. Even if our prayers come from an imperfect motive, it is not about our prayers, but the One to whom we pray.  He uses our prayers to transform our motives and to renew our minds and hearts.

Have we brought our every need and heart’s desire- as well as our request for daily nourishment-to God in prayer today?

September 21, 2017- Love Builds a Fence?- Exodus 20:12-15

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Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

 You shall not commit adultery.

 You shall not steal.

Exodus 20:12-15 (NRSV)

The first three of the Ten Commandments focus on our relationship with God. The remaining seven have to do with our life in our families and our community.

Commandments Four through Seven have to do with our actions toward others as well as our heart toward others. There is an old saying that “good fences make good neighbors.”  This is why God gives us boundaries regarding our relations with others.  The Commandments give us healthy boundaries for living in community.

Honoring our parents means that even though they may be flawed, we must at the very least acknowledge that they have given us birth and life. We are also commanded to respect their authority and the values that they have passed down to us. The Fourth Commandment is one of the few that carry a promise- God promises that we will retain our inheritance that He has given us if we honor our parents and respect those in authority as it is God Who has put them in authority over us.  Should we rebel against authority and violate the law, we open ourselves up to the consequences that disobeying civil law can bring.

In Luther’s Large Catechism he expands upon honoring and obeying the temporal authorities in his explanation of the Fourth Commandment:

“The same also is to be said of obedience to civil government, which (as we have said) is all embraced in the estate of fatherhood and extends farthest of all relations. For here the father is not one of a single family, but of as many people as he has tenants, citizens, or subjects. For through them, as through our parents, God gives to us food, house and home, protection and security. Therefore since they bear such name and title with all honor as their highest dignity, it is our duty to honor them and to esteem them great as the dearest treasure and the most precious jewel upon earth.” – Luther’s Large Catechism (on the Fourth Commandment)

The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Commandments (Luther’s explanations of them in the Large Catechism can be found here) have to do with boundaries in our relationships with individuals.

The Fifth Commandment tells us to refrain from murder (the premeditated and purposeful taking of a human life) but it also means we are called to lift up those around us by offering help when we can. As Jesus followers we are called to be life-bringers and to shine His light in the world.  Our words and actions should help bring life to the world rather than death and despair to others.

In matters of sexuality, which are addressed in the Sixth Commandment, we are commanded to keep our expressions of sexuality within the marriage bond. As evidenced in society and in the tabloids (as well as in our own personal lives) we see what becomes of people and of families when this boundary is broken.  God puts a boundary around His good gifts of sexual expression- not because they are “dirty” or “wrong” or “bad,” but so this physical and spiritual connection is reserved for a husband and wife in a lifelong commitment to each other.

When that bond is broken, the fallout reaches far and wide- there is financial and emotional hardship for children who must grow up without the benefit of a father (or mother,) possible transmission of horrible (sometimes even fatal) diseases, unplanned pregnancies, lost friendships, and public scandals.  While God assures us that there is nothing that can separate us from His love in Christ, (see Romans 8:38-39) the spiritual and emotional consequences of adultery are deep and lasting and difficult to overcome. God gives us this command for fidelity in marriage (and abstinence outside of marriage) for our own protection, because He knows how devastating overstepping this boundary can be for ourselves and our families and communities. He loves us and He wants to spare us this pain.

The Seventh Commandment appears to be as straightforward as can be, but there is a deeper message in this Commandment also. God tells us: “Don’t steal.” But how do we steal from others?  Obviously violating civil laws against robbery constitute stealing, when we take tangible objects or property that belongs to others, but we steal in other ways too.  We steal when we commit fraud against others, such as failing to give someone an honest wage for honest work- or when we accept wages for work we do not do.  We steal when we fail to help someone when it is in our power to do so.  We steal when we treat other people harshly without cause- we steal their peace and joy.

We know that there is both Law and Gospel throughout the Commandments, and all through Scripture. The Commandments are given to us because God loves us. God gives us boundaries for our own- and for others’- protection.  In these Commandments God gives us the gift of respect for authority so that there is order in society, the ability to have and share life, the gift of intimacy and fidelity, and the confidence that we may retain what belongs to us.