September 13, 2019- In the Day of My Trouble, Psalm 77:1-14, 2 Corinthians 1:3-6

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I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints.- Selah
You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old, the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night; let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased? Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”- Selah– Psalm 77:1-10 (ESV)

All human beings at one point or another will experience times in which it seems God has abandoned us. There is spiritual and emotional pain that is so deep that when one is buried in it, it is easy to believe there is no comfort, no help, and no hope.

Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, sweating blood and imploring God to take the cup of crucifixion and death away, yet God’s will was done. Jesus was wrongfully condemned, beaten, scourged, and left to die a death of ignominy and unspeakable pain on a Roman cross.  We may not understand why or fathom the purpose for it, but God does not always stop the suffering.

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34 (ESV)

Jesus endured being separated from and abandoned by God. Jesus took the punishment we deserve so that we can be forgiven and reconciled to Him.
When we reach out to God in prayer, the Holy Spirit intervenes on our behalf, especially when our grief and pain are so deep we don’t have words.

Jesus is with us in and through our suffering. He comes to us with consolation and solace even when we are so depleted and torn and broken that we can’t acknowledge His presence.

Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”
I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. Psalm 77:11-14 (ESV)

Suffering is a reality in this not-yet world, even suffering so painful it seems beyond our endurance. The apostle Paul reminds us that we who belong to Christ share in His suffering as well as His comfort.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 2 Corinthians 1:3-6 (ESV)

Part of the Christian’s vocation is to give encouragement to those who are suffering. Another lesser known and observed part of our vocation is to be willing to seek out other believers in our families and our churches when we are suffering and need help. We also fulfill the law of Christ when we come to others when we are suffering and give them the opportunity to help us.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.- Galatians 6:2 (ESV)

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)

There is hope in Christ. God created us to love and serve Him. We have Jesus with us even when we feel abandoned. He does not abandon us.

August 9, 2018- The Strength of Jesus for the “Three Score and Ten”-Psalm 34:1-8, Romans 15:1-6, Psalm 139:16

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I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together!

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Psalm 34:1-8 (ESV)

(The apostle Paul writes:) We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”  For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.  May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Romans 15:1-6 (ESV)

There is a distinct irony in the apostle Paul’s teaching here, especially in referring to the persecuted church as, “We who are strong.” Who is Paul kidding here?

He is speaking of the strength that we who believe have in Christ. In  2 Corinthians 12:1-10 we learn of the struggle that Paul endured with the thorn in his flesh.  He doesn’t come right out and say exactly what that thorn was, but we can infer that it was some sort of painful physical infirmity.  Those of us who live with chronic pain can certainly identify with Paul’s struggle.

(The apostle Paul writes:) For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (ESV)

Human beings are vulnerable in many ways. Even the most robust and physically sturdy among us are only a slight electrical charge- the one that tells our hearts to beat- away from sudden death.  Our physical bodies are vulnerable to disease and injury.  Our mental and spiritual states are tenuous as well.  In this life all of us are only a missed heartbeat or a rogue driver away from the end of worldly existence, and no amount of money, influence or anything else can change the reality of our physical mortality. We might think we can delay the inevitable, but we learn from Scripture: Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Psalm 139:16 (ESV.)

Human strength and the promises of health or longevity via modern science are fleeting at best. Try as we might, we don’t see too many people who live beyond the “three score and ten” of Psalm 90:10.

The omniscient God of the universe knows exactly how long each of us is set to live on this earth. He has equipped each of us to meet the challenges that we will face, and He gives us what we need to endure this life.

When we realize that we have no real strength or power in and of ourselves, we are free to abide in and trust the mercy and the strength of God. We look to God knowing our own fragility and powerlessness. We can trust Him to meet our own needs and also to provide for the needs of others.

In Jesus’ strength– not our own- we can lift each other up. In Jesus’ strength we can endure the unendurable for ourselves and we can help bear the burden for others. In Jesus’ strength we have hope, renewal and peace now, even in this wretched, paradoxical place of “not yet.”

 

 

 

April 9, 2018 Forgive and Be Forgiven- John 20:19-23, Luke 23:33-34, Matthew 11:25-30

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On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” John 20:19-23 (ESV)

So what could Jesus say to us today about forgiveness?

Most Protestant Christians, including Lutherans, don’t practice regular confession and absolution. Since every human alive is also a sinner, it might be a good practice for us to revisit. While Lutherans don’t view confession as a sacrament like Roman Catholics do, we are called to confess our sins and to hear the words of absolution proclaimed to us. When Pastor proclaims the forgiveness of our sins during corporate confession in worship, or in private confession, he is simply passing along the forgiveness and absolution that Jesus has already won for us.

It is not possible to go through life without being offended in some way or another. It is also not possible for us to go through life without offending others. We sin without thinking about it, all day long. We make comments, we forget to do things we should do, and we break the Law all day long whether we know it or not.  Other people do the same things to us that we do to them, because they are lawbreakers too.  We are iustus et peccator (saint and sinner at the same time) indeed.

Someone might cut us off while driving, or take the last donut that we really wanted. Those are fairly easy offenses to forgive.  Other offenses are not so easily forgiven.  Those of us who have suffered physical or emotional abuse, or have otherwise endured serious harm from another have a lot harder time forgiving.  If the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that affirms “Thy will be done” is the most difficult of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, the petition to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” is the second most difficult petition.  It’s not easy to let go of a grudge, even though it’s hard to see how hanging on to our angst against someone might somehow punish them in some way.  It’s like taking poison in the hopes of making one’s enemy ill.

Even though on examination we find holding a grudge doesn’t make rational sense, the pain of suffering from serious offenses is nothing to trivialize. Everyone who has spent much time on this planet in the company of other sinners is a member of the “walking wounded” to some degree.  Some of us suffer from unspeakable wounds both deep and profound.  How are we supposed to forgive the most evil of offenses?  Just ignoring things and failing to acknowledge our pain is not a valid answer. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or not feeling, rather it is a choice to let the offense go and to leave our pain and anger to God.  Sometimes we also have to seek other believers who can pray for and with us, and offer us spiritual and emotional care, as God ministers to us through the Body of Christ (as in other Jesus followers!)  We who have the same hope and the same Lord need to encourage each other and give each other strength. (1 Thessalonians 5:5-11)

We follow Jesus’ example when we forgive, Jesus who forgave His tormentors (as they were rolling the dice to divvy up His clothes,) even while He was enduring the unfathomable and unimaginable suffering of the Cross.

And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.  And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And they cast lots to divide his garments. Luke 23:33-34 (ESV)

When we forgive as Jesus forgives us, not only are we forgiven, but He gives us His peace. Because He has taken the punishment that brings us peace, and bears the wounds that bring our healing (Isaiah 53:5) we can endure.  We can surrender the burden of our pain to Him.  We look to the Cross for our healing.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:25-30 (ESV)

It may sound simplistic and silly to simply trust Jesus and surrender our sins, our burdens and our pain to Him. But it is only in Him- and in entrusting those who offend or “trespass against us” to Jesus. We look to the Author of our salvation to find forgiveness, healing and rest.

December 1, 2017- Faith Fulfilled, John the Baptist and Joy in the Morning- Luke 1:1-25, Psalm 30:5

zechariah

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.  Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  

 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:1-25 (NRSV)

Infertility is not just a modern issue. In Biblical times children (specifically sons) were viewed as gifts from God.  If a woman was not blessed with children those around her wondered what was wrong with her.  She was viewed as “defective,” and her husband was considered to be “cursed.” Zechariah and Elizabeth both wondered what they had done that was so wrong that God withheld children from them.  They had come to that place in life where they had probably accepted that they would never be parents.

Yet they still prayed, even when what they were seeing didn’t coincide with what they believed and hoped for.

Faith is not the absence of doubt, nor is it denying reality. Faith is trust in God that He has made a way, even if that way doesn’t fall in line with our expectations. God has the infinite ability to exceed our expectations and to answer our prayers in ways that we can’t envision.

For Zechariah (who had his doubt issues!) and Elizabeth the waiting and disappointment ended when God gave them the joy of a son in their advanced age, a son who God had very special plans for, who He chose to reserve for a couple who would cherish him and raise him in a home that honors God.

It seems a bit confusing that John the Baptist was a very austere man- set aside from the time of his conception to follow the Nazirite vow, (Numbers 6:1-21) a man who lived frugally, by himself, yet Jesus, his cousin who followed, enjoyed eating and drinking and celebrating.

John was a man who paved the way- a man who pled with us to get rid of all the things that aren’t necessary, to open our hearts and minds to receive God With Us. It is said he was the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament disciples.  He walked that long, lonely path of waiting and anticipating the “not yet.”

Many of us who walk similar paths of waiting and praying- those of us who are anticipating a breakthrough in our lives, whether it be an improvement in health, healing of relationships, financial worries, often have a hard time holding on to faith. We endure loss, suffering and pain of myriad kinds in this lifetime.  Whether we are aware of it or not, God does hear our prayers.  He does walk with us.  He does weep and mourn with us.  And He holds the promise of joy in the morning.

Our lives carry stories of tragedy redeemed. We live stories like the story of Ruth, who had lost everything and whose life looked hopeless, until she discovered Boaz, who married her and redeemed her. (Ruth 4)

Zechariah and Elizabeth had their joy in the morning. Infertility wasn’t the end of their story. Many of us are still in our lost and mourning and suffering part of the journey, wandering in the wilderness.  In this world we are waiting, anticipating, and almost consigning ourselves to the fact that the status quo will prevail.  God says differently. In the season of Advent we learn there is a Savior coming to us.  We can endure the waiting, the doubt, the suffering, because God With Us has promised healing, redemption and hope.  There will be joy in the morning.

For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Psalm 30:5 (NRSV)

 

 

December 23, 2016- Bringing Gifts-Matthew 2:10-11

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“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:10-11 (NRSV)

There’s a saying that it’s more blessed to give than to receive.  How do we really feel about that statement though?

Sometimes it’s really easy to focus on our own needs and lose sight of what those around us might be going through.  It’s easy to be so focused on one’s financial or material needs that it’s hard to remember that another person could benefit even by a blood donation at the Red Cross, or a by donation of clothing or furniture that we aren’t using anymore.

It’s even easier, when we are suffering and in pain, to wall ourselves off and not be aware of the ways we might be able to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. In so doing, we just become more deeply mired in our pain and more stuck in a bad situation. We often have no idea how much joy we could give- and receive- by reaching out to someone who might also be in pain or suffering.

Yet in giving, and in gratitude, we receive far more than we could think to ask for.

The wise men brought Jesus precious and expensive gifts, and this was a beautiful act. Yet there is no gift they could have brought that would compare to the gift He came to give us.

How can we be a blessing- and receive a blessing- by giving today?  Not necessarily materially or financially, but how can we give a gift of service, or care, or time?