November 14, 2018 – Comfort, Suffering and Christ-Reliance- 2 Corinthians 1:3-11

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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. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 (ESV)

There are some troublesome trends in American Christianity that are not healthy for us to follow. The phrase, “God will never give you more than you can handle” is an example of a not-so-biblical teaching that gets spread around on blog posts and such.  We think that it is comforting to others when we repeat such nice-sounding platitudes, but we are simply putting the burden on the other person and the emphasis on “you” rather than sharing the blessed comfort that God has our circumstances in HIS control.  We like to believe that we are the ones who are in control, but we are not. We do encounter more than we can handle.  Apart from the grace and mercy of God we cannot handle anything.

A more accurate and ultimately more comforting phrase would be, “God can handle everything you have been given, because apart from Him you can’t.” We share in the good news and in the real comfort that God offers in and through our suffering, beyond the limits of our strength, and beyond our afflictions. Suffering is not a surprise. It is inevitable. Suffering is part of the human condition we inherited in the Fall. As believers in Jesus we are not going to be spared suffering, but we are given the hope that suffering will eventually end.  Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow Him.  We necessarily share in the Cross of Christ, but we who share in the suffering of the Cross also share in the triumph and eternal life of Christ.

The apostle Paul experienced just about every imaginable obstacle and type of persecution on his missionary journeys. Apart from the grace of God, Paul would not have been able to continue to believe or to persevere in his mission.

Our trust is in God who raises the dead, God who delivers the captives from bondage, God the I AM before and outside of time.

It is interesting that Paul asks the church at Corinth for their prayers. We trust God, yet we still pray for each other in thanks for the blessings God gives us.  Prayer is one of the evidences and the results of our faith, that springs from our confidence that God is the one in control not only of us and our circumstances, but of the ultimate redemption and restoration of all things.  Prayer is the way that God invites us to align our wills with His holy and good will, such as He teaches us to pray- “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” in the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Paul is teaching us not to be self-reliant. Paul assures us that God handles those things- pretty much everything- that is beyond our ability to manage. Our culture teaches us to be independent and headstrong, but Jesus is teaching us through the apostle Paul that we need to be Christ-reliant. We need to pray together with other believers, trusting that God’s will is being, and will be done just as Jesus taught us to pray.  God is the master of our circumstances as well as He is the bringer of all comfort and peace.

June 20, 2018- Preserve Us From Violence- Psalm 140, Romans 12:19

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Deliver me, O Lord, from evil men; preserve me from violent men, who plan evil things in their heart and stir up wars continually. They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s, and under their lips is the venom of asps. *Selah

Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; preserve me from violent men, who have planned to trip up my feet. The arrogant have hidden a trap for me, and with cords they have spread a net; beside the way they have set snares for me. *Selah

 I say to the Lord, You are my God; give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord!  O Lord, my Lord, the strength of my salvation, you have covered my head in the day of battle. Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked; do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted!  *Selah

As for the head of those who surround me, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise!  Let not the slanderer be established in the land; let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!

I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy. Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name; the upright shall dwell in your presence.

Psalm 140 (ESV)

This Psalm is attributed to David. Many times during David’s life he encountered people who didn’t have his best interest in mind.  His predecessor, Saul, tried to kill him more than once. (1 Samuel 19) His own son, Absalom, tried to take over David’s throne. (2 Samuel 16:5-13 ) We encounter adversaries and people who oppose us also.  We will rub some people the wrong way just because we believe in Jesus (John 15:20).  We will encounter people who take delight in scandal, and in spreading lies, or who are unwilling to forgive us for real or even perceived wrongs.

Our prayers to God are meaningful. He hears every one of them. God knows our anguish when wrong things happen to us and other people are cruel to us. The psalmists in Scripture bring every condition and emotion to God in prayer.  God knows when we are angry or unforgiving or frustrated anyway.  We should be honest with Him when we pray, because prayer is one of the ways that God changes our hearts and minds to conform to His will.  When we pray the Psalms we discover a depth of sincerity and emotion.

This being said, in the frank and sometimes violent language of the Psalms we see the humanity of the writers. We want violence done to our enemies, especially for the times we don’t deserve to be slandered or harmed by them. It is better for us to commit our enemies and those who oppose us to God in prayer. God does protect His people.  He forgives us when we do wrong things, and we can trust Him for His vindication and for His mercy when people treat us in wrong ways.

Jesus was persecuted and wronged also, yet He bore the punishment for us -for all the times that we were and are the evil wrongdoer.

It is good to pray first and let God deal with our anger when other people hurt us. The apostle Paul reminds us that God reserves vengeance for Himself.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Romans 12:19 (ESV)

Only God knows the entire story behind us and our enemies, and only He can see both sides impartially.

We need to take everything to God in prayer- thanks, praise, supplication, grief, anger- He wants us to come to Him with it all. We can trust God that He will protect us.  We will be vindicated and forgiven, as well. In Christ, we have the freedom and the grace to commend our enemies to the judgment and mercy of God.

April 13, 2018- Pray, Let God- Psalm 4, Luke 12:4-7

prayerAnswer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!  You have given me relief when I was in distress.  Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!

 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?  How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?- Selah –

But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.

 Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. -Selah-

Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.

 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?  Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.

 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. – Psalm 4 (ESV)

Prayer is conversation with God. The Psalms are timeless prayers given to us in the word of God. They are given to us to memorize and write on our hearts. They are prayers of praise, prayers of thanks, prayers of supplication, and prayers for those times when we are crushed in spirit and can’t find the words.

We learn much about the character of God, and how He reaches out to us when we study and pray the Psalms. God does hear and answer our prayers- though His answers aren’t always what we expect.

We all come into difficult times. Those difficulties are no secret to God.  He knows our every need and He knows every detail about us. He knows our trials, He knows our thoughts, and He calls us to trust Him with everything.

Jesus said: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.  But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.  Yes, I tell you, fear him!  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Luke 12:4-7 (ESV)

Fear in this context is a reverent respect. Jesus tells us to be aware of who we are made by and to whom we belong, and to whom we pray.

We aren’t telling God anything He doesn’t already know when we pray. He knows when we are distressed. He knows our anxiety, our anger, our need, and our distress already anyway, even if we aren’t comfortable admitting them to ourselves or bringing those not-so-nice things to Him.

Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent (Psalm 4:4)

God does not want us to deny our anger, but He does want us to keep from acting in anger. He wants us to live according to His will.  We can trust Him even when we cannot trust others or ourselves.  We can let Him deal with our anger. Yes we get angry and there is plenty of misery out in the world, and there are plenty of bad circumstances in our lives to be angry about…but…take those concerns and fear and worry and anger to God.  Don’t deny what we feel, but don’t let feelings lead us into sins. Let God deal with that anger and frustration and pain instead. Let Him bring us His peace.

God who spoke the universe into being can deal with our anger- a LOT better than we can.

The Psalmist reminds us that God has brought us through past distress in our lives. We are reminded that God has named and claimed us for His own.  We are reminded that we find our joy and our peace in God.  Our very life is in His hands. We can trust Him with everything when we come to Him in prayer.

God who is the omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Creator of all, is also God of the sparrows, God who knows the number of hairs on our heads, God who comes to us in, with and through His Sacraments. The almighty God who suffered and died a cruel death on a Cross to save us from our sins, cares about every part of our lives.

March 1, 2018 God is a Jealous God- Exodus 20:1-11

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Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Exodus 20:1-11 (NRSV)

The first three of the Ten Commandments deal with our relationship with God. Four points stand out in these passages:

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol.

I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.

Most of us are probably not into making golden calves, Baal worship, or sacrificing things to other assorted ancient demons. The bad news is we have modern idols to who we gladly sacrifice our attention and resources.  Do we indulge in anything to excess? Are there things that we put at a higher priority than God?

We all do this at times. Whether we put good things on a pedestal higher than they should be, or put good things in improper balance, or we indulge in things that just plain aren’t healthy for us and the greater community, we are all guilty of getting caught up in things. We make gods out of things that were never meant to be gods, things that have no intrinsic power.

God warns us about idolatry because He knows it’s not healthy for us. It’s easy to look at the Law as a buzz kill- ruining our fun so to speak- but in reality the Law serves two purposes. One is that the Law is a protective boundary.  When we chase idols we harm ourselves and others, and separate ourselves from God. The other purpose of the Law is to lead us to Jesus and show us our desperate need for Him.  None of us can completely obey the Law 100%.  Only Jesus was capable of living by the Law 100%.

The practical application of these first few Commandments is to underscore God is a jealous God. He made us for His good purpose and we belong to Him. He doesn’t want just a little bit of us on Sunday mornings- if we bother to drag ourselves out of bed and away from the TV for an hour or two to come to church to sing a few songs and (hopefully) pay attention to a 20 minute sermon.  He doesn’t just want a little bit of us when we are hurting and need comfort.  Yes, God does want us to come to church because we need each other as the Body of Christ, and we need Word and Sacrament to sustain us- but He wants us the rest of the time too.

He wants all of us, all of the time, even when we are running kicking and screaming from Him.

God has given us His name to call on Him- in praise and worship and thanks, to bless others, and in times of trouble. It is a privilege to be able to call upon Him, and a terrible insult to use His name as a curse.

Worship and prayer are regular spiritual disciplines that remind us that God is the One in charge.

Worship is not just going to church on Sunday- though Sunday worship at church with other believers and staying in community is important- so important that God commands to dedicate a day out of our week to worship. Worship is actively acknowledging that God is Who God says He is- the Creator, the I AM God of the universe.  The concept of worship actually covers a LOT of ground.  Thanking God for the gift of breath, for the beauty of creation, for the privilege of being able to come to Him anytime with anything, these are all part of worship.  Prayer is simply talking with God about anything.

Of course if we examine ourselves against the first three Commandments we discover we are not so hot at upholding our end of our relationship with God. We are all law breakers. We all fall short of God’s ideal for us.

Worship and prayer are regular spiritual disciplines that remind us that God is the One in charge.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk, wrote a short but insightful book called Practicing the Presence of God.  He models a way of living our daily lives in prayer and worship- in how we work and in how we serve others.

Everything we do should be an act of worship, and we should always walk with God in prayer. The Law reminds us that we fall short of that goal, but the Good News is that in our Baptism we put on Christ.  In Christ God does not see our imperfections, but only the sacrifice of His perfect Son.

 

 

February 12, 2018-Visit the House of Mourning- Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Matthew 22:36-40

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It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools. -Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 (NIV)

On Ash Wednesday most of the liturgical Christian traditions begin the season of Lent. Traditionally Ash Wednesday is a day in which we remember that we come from dust and are returned to dust.  This life is a limited time offer.  What are we doing with it?  Are our lives being lived in response to the grace and glory of God?

The only caveat to going to a house of mourning- or being in that place of reflecting on our own mortality- is that while it is good and sometimes needful to visit, don’t stay there. Reflection upon the end of this life is meant to bring us to appreciate and live fully the life that we have. The season of Lent is just that- a season- in which we focus upon what is truly essential. Hopefully along the way we discover what is not essential, and that which would be better for us to give up. More importantly, hopefully, along the way we also discover that part of following Jesus is taking up our own crosses.

In our times of loss and sadness we learn what is really important and what is really lasting. Our social status doesn’t mean anything.  Neither do our possessions or our accomplishments have any lasting value, save the ones we give in the service of God. No one regrets not having spent enough time at the office on his or her death bed.

In our times of loss and sorrow we should cling first of all to Jesus. He is always there for us even in our most profound loss, our deepest sorrow and our most cutting and agonizing pain.

Sorrow and pain do not last forever, but the love and care of God is constant. His understanding transcends the confines of this world as well as our ability to express it.

We learn much about priorities when we go to a funeral or a visitation to honor the dead. We learn about who and what the deceased cared about.  We learn about the family dynamics of the deceased- sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill.  Most of all we learn that life is short and fleeting, and as Solomon, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes points out, “chasing after wind.”

During the season of Lent we will spend much time on the theme of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are not punishments, but good exercises to take up. There are many practices that can be considered spiritual disciplines, but in our Lenten studies we will concentrate on seven of them: worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender.  These disciplines do overlap at times, and that is OK. Some things we do to grow closer to the heart of God may combine worship and service, or prayer and fasting.  That is perfectly fine.  Spiritual disciplines are simply things we do to connect with God, to invite Him to transform our hearts and minds, and to live according to His purpose.

As God’s people are commanded in the Shema from the Old Testament:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.   Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NIV)

Jesus expanded on this theme:

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

Spiritual disciplines- worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender– are all ways to love God and our neighbor with our minds, hearts, souls and strength.   Some of the disciplines are easier to practice than others depending on our strengths and weaknesses, but all of them serve to bring us closer to the heart of God.  As we journey through the season of Lent, and from time to time visit the house of mourning, we can also explore the spiritual disciplines and discover what they reveal to us about loving God- and the love that God has first and always had for us.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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