Monday, June 29, 2009

It Is Good To Wait Quietly

“It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Lam. 3: 26

You want to know what bugs me? I will admit this bothers me. I get a little perturbed when I go to a restaurant and someone who was seated well after me gets their food first, and I’m still waiting, sipping my water. Now, that kind of waiting is trivial. There are other kinds of waiting that can really break your heart and put your faith to the test. “Waiting quietly” is not something we normally think of as a Biblical virtue. Love, kindness, compassion, and yeah, maybe patience…but “waiting quietly”? Now that’s something (A) we probably don’t think of and (B) aren’t very good at, if we’re being candid.
The way the world is geared, combined with our human nature, doesn’t place much of a premium on “waiting quietly.” We are infinitely more interested in instant gratification; instant messaging; instant results. We prefer fast checkouts; fast food and faster service. And there is no slowdown in sight.
That means something has got to give when we don’t get our way right away. It can become confusing when we bring our hurry-up attitude to our relationship with God. One thing the mature Christian has learned by experience (not to mention the Word of God) is that God’s timing is always perfect—and it usually bears little resemblance to the timing we would prefer. It can be a hard lesson to learn (and re-learn), but the payoff is a peace of mind and heart that money can’t buy—as we grow to trust in the loving character of God.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, from which our Old Testament lesson is drawn today. And I’m willing to bet that Lamentations is not at the top of your list of inspiring reading material—after all, it is a book of lamenting—of crying! It’s a sad book. Jeremiah’s country, Judah, had just been destroyed by a foreign nation. His favorite city, Jerusalem, was ruined – just a pile of rocks now, with smoke rising up to the sky. It was truly a “9-11” type of situation for Israel, but worse. Most of the people of Israel were either dead or had been taken prisoner, and Jeremiah was one of those prisoners.
What makes it doubly sad is the fact that God’s people—leaders and normal folks together—had brought it on themselves by ignoring God and doing their own thing. It’s not easy reading, in part because it might mirror a little too accurately the way we live our lives. Yet having said all that, there is something inspiring here; something beautiful. Jeremiah is inspired to write, in the face of all the suffering, loss and grief that you could imagine, the following words: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in Him.”” “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” And a few verses later, “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.”
God’s people had been put in a situation where the only thing they could do was wait for the Lord to provide a solution. They had no power whatsoever. All they could do was trust that the Lord would deliver them. It is that thought that gives Jeremiah great hope and courage. Why? Because Jeremiah knows what the Lord is like. He knows the Lord’s personality. He knows that God longs for things to be good between himself and his creation. And because Jeremiah knows the Lord, he trusts that God will do the right thing.
And God did. He used the tragedy of Judah’s destruction to bring the survivors back to him—many of the survivors of Israel would repent of their sinful lives and come back to God. And years later, the survivors returned to Israel, and rebuilt the city, and eventually the Messiah was born right there in Bethlehem, just as God had promised. God never fails. But He works at His own speed. It is rarely the speed that we want him to work at, but it is the perfect speed. He gives us all the time we need to look in the mirror, to study that reflection, to see where the problem might be me and my sin. We are not to deny that sin or try to cover it up, but just confess it. Own it. Admit it. When you do that, then God can give you what His people waited so long to receive—the blessing of His Messiah. The full pardon and forgiveness created by Jesus’ death on the cross. Life the way it was meant to be lived that flows from our risen Lord Jesus. Those precious gifts can be yours today—no waiting necessary—by faith; by believing Jesus purchased these things and would give them to you. I have waited for things that just never came, and I’m sure you have too. But God never fails. He always has a plan. And when we are under adverse conditions, we don’t have to lose heart. Instead, we wait, and we wait confidently. Because we know, just like the prophet Jeremiah, what the Lord is like. We know the Lord’s personality. And because we know the Lord, we trust that He will do the right thing. If God sacrificed his Son for me, will certainly take care of me as I go through whatever problems come my way. It is good to wait quietly for the Lord, because we are waiting on someone who always shows up and always follows through in just the right way and at just the right time. Great is our Lord’s faithfulness to us.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ohio District Convention Bible Study

This is the Bible Study I offered a week ago at the Ohio District Convention, minus a personal illustration I added the night before it was presented.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, You withdrew yourself for times of prayer and brought your disciples with you that they might also rest with you. Be present with us during this time, that gathered together in your name, we may profitably meditate on your Word and be strengthened with a good will to serve you and your people; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Good Morning. If you have your Bible with you, please turn to Matthew chapter 6, beginning at verse 25. If you don’t have a Bible, then just sit back and listen. Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” So far our Lord’s words.
The one Message is Christ Jesus; crucified for your sins and mine and raised from the dead for your life and mine— today and eternally. The context in which St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church seeks to broadcast this message is Painesville and Painesville Township, Ohio. Painesville is located 30 miles east of downtown Cleveland, and is bordered to the north by Grand River and Fairport Harbor, and beyond that, Lake Erie; to the East by Perry and Perry Township; to the West by Mentor, Ohio, and to the south by Concord Township. It is the fourth largest town in Lake County, with an approximate population of 17, 500 people; it is the county seat; as such, the major employer in Painesville is the county government, followed by the Lake Hospital System.
There’s much more that could be said about our context and region: like many places in America, we live with the ghosts of former industrial prosperity. Nursery land still dominates our landscape, but those have been scaled back, as well. There is a stunning variety of people in Painesville; if you are familiar with these demographic categories, you’ll see what I mean: 19% of our population could be described as Inner Suburban; 19% as Affluentials; 18% qualify as Middleburbs; 17% as Country Comfort; 14% as Landed Gentry and the rest a specialized mix. In other words, within a ten-mile radius of Downtown Painesville you have every type of person in every type of living condition; we are urban, pseudo-urban, suburban, exurban, and rural. And though many folks have found a lot to like about Lake County and the Painesville area and its diversity, there is one thing that binds us together. That is a creeping sense of anxiety and worry about the future.
Rather than try to read people’s minds, I asked a handful of real-life Painesville residents: what are you worried about? Here’s what I got back: “Losing a job in this economy. Will I lose my house? Will I have money for food? Bad times lie ahead. With the bad economy—theft. Terrorism. Government mistakes. Government intervention in our lives. The cost of living in general is rising steadily. There seems to be a general lack of respect in the way people treat one another. So many people have lost considerable value in homes and other investments. Will God see them through?”
Will God see them through? Will He see us through? Into this stew of uncertainty, the Church has been called to speak and to act. It has been called to speak Jesus’ own words that challenge and console. And it has been called to act in ways that embody Jesus’ words. Jesus says, do not worry; do not be anxious about your life; what you will eat or drink or what you will wear. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you. What Jesus is saying here goes far deeper than “Don’t Worry; Be Happy.” He is teaching us that there are things worth chasing after, and things that aren’t. He is comforting us with the knowledge that we live under the Father’s care at all times as we seek His Kingdom and righteousness. He is drawing us into himself, orienting our lives in His Gospel, and freeing us from needless anxiety. It is this possibility—this reality—that we are called to bring to an anxious culture.
Sometimes worry needs to be called out and confessed as the sin that it is. Sometimes worry needs to be rebuked as the lack of trust in God’s provision that it is. Most of the time, we understand this at a gut level, as God’s people. You can hear it in the responses I got, when I asked some of the Christians at St. Paul’s, “What temptations do you face?” They said: “Doing it all myself and not “giving it to God.” Self-reliance. Not relying on God’s promise to provide for me. I’m tempted to stay away from downtrodden people. Jealousy. Selfishness. Addiction. It’s easy to be caught up in constant worry. Another one: rely on self rather than God. Materialism.”
These people are self-diagnosing (with the help of the Law) the fact that worry and anxiety is not just a problem, but that it is temptation, and it is sin. At times, the best approach to worry is to turn from it, confess it, and receive forgiveness from Christ Jesus.
Our Lord takes a little different course to that same goal in this passage from Matthew 6. Through a series of gentle, rhetorical questions, Jesus invites his disciples to remember they are living under the Father’s care.
He says: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And if God clothes the grass of the field in greater array than Solomon—grass which today is alive and tomorrow in thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
The invitation to be free from worry is an invitation to remember. It is an invitation to remember the way that your Father has ordered your steps throughout your life. It is an invitation to remember all that Jesus willingly did for you in His Passion, Death and Resurrection. And it is an invitation to remember your identity in Christ. You are a royal servant of the King—and as such, He will not withhold from you the blessings of His kingdom. That doesn’t mean that we will never be grieved or concerned or troubled. But it does mean that our true focus and strength can be the reign of God and his righteousness which has come into our world in Jesus himself.
This is the Word that God has for an anxious, worried world. It is that Word about Jesus that brings real hope to human hearts. Not the vague hope of a better tomorrow; but the aggressive trust that God is making things right in Jesus Christ. Not the hope that wishes for a given outcome in the face of uncertainty, but a straightforward expectation that God will make good on his promises to save and restore and feed and strengthen his people with His Word, His washing, and his very body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins.
I asked the saints in Painesville: How does the Gospel bring hope to you? “They said: “The Gospel is my true reason for living. Christ has done all the work that is needed for me and my loved ones to enjoy an eternity in heaven. I am grateful for the grace and forgiveness Christ offers. I know that no matter how out of control things are or may get—God is in control—everything works together through Him to accomplish His plan. No matter what we endure in this world, we have eternal life. In spite of I, Me, My, God still loves me and forgives me.”
This is the Gospel confidence that the Church has to offer with our community and our world. Historically, St. Paul’s has utilized Lutheran education as a major vehicle for disciple making. We were a founding partner of Our Shepherd Lutheran School, that continues to instruct children in the Word of God on a daily basis. We also provide a Christ-centered Preschool program for 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, and pre-Kindergarten students, and this has given us not just the opportunity to teach children the fundamentals of the faith, but it has also served as a real window into our community. Last year we were privileged to serve 115 children and their families, and one third of those families claimed no church home. We are always trying to think of new ways to attract these families to the invitation of Jesus—just a few months ago, a number of folks from St. Paul’s offered babysitting services to our preschool families “just because,” and it really confused some people—they were trying to pay our volunteers and couldn’t believe people would just do something kind for someone else. We take sanctified pride in being not just a preschool housed in a Church, but a Church preschool that has Christ as its one constant feature.
By God’s grace and direction we are looking at other ways to share this Gospel confidence with our community. We’ve explored a partnership with the Lake County Council on Aging and have someone who is here today who took it upon himself to start serving the elderly in our neighborhood. We are in the infancy stages of the Transforming Churches process, and are hopeful that it will help an external focus to really take hold, and in a sense, help us return to our origins as a mission plant of the Finnish National Evangelical Lutheran Church. If you’re going to do well in my neck of the woods, you’re going to have to learn some Finnish—at least be able to say, “Hyva Paaiva” (which means good day) or know the directions to the Finnish Heritage Museum. There really is one in Fairport Harbor, if you’re ever in the neighborhood. That reminds me of a good Finn joke: How can you tell the difference between a Finnish introvert and a Finnish extrovert? When he's talking to you a Finnish introvert looks at his feet. A Finnish extrovert looks at yours! Evangelism takes us awhile, as you can see.
Let’s return to Matthew 6, and let’s notice again, beginning with verse 31, the antidote that Jesus prescribes.
He says: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”
Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Stop chasing stuff, and start chasing Christ! Stop chasing security, and start chasing Jesus! Seek Jesus and what He is doing and bringing into the world. We have a wonderful theology that enables us to point to specific, discreet places where Jesus can be sought and found. The reign of God is happening where the Word is purely proclaimed. The reign of God is present where reclaims his creation through water and His Name. The reign of God is exercised in the merciful meal our King sets for his Church. There God is at work forgiving and making things right. There people receive the blessing and calling of Christ and are joined in community with fellow disciples. And from there those disciples carry Christ into the world, and where Christ goes, there goes the kingdom.
Hear how Jesus comes through in the answers I received to the question: “What images of Christ’s work touch your heart?” Love. Incredible love—that He would lay down his life for sinners. Humility beyond measure. Serving others. His unconditional love for me. His continual patience, forgiveness, and undeserved love—over and over and over. The images of Christ’s work that touch my heart are: Jesus as the Good Shepherd. No matter how old I am, that image of “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb” brings me great comfort. Jesus welcomes the little children. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet—a perfect example of Christian service. The images of Christ’s work that touch my heart are: his miraculous healings, being passive in the face of adversity and accusation, and his going to the cross, knowing he’s going to die for our stupid sins. I am touched when I see people leave church fulfilled with the Word and hope.”
You’ve heard about [rural], you’ve heard about [urban], and now you’ve heard a little bit about the Painesville context, which is truly a little bit of everything, and is constantly changing. Let us be thankful today that the One Message does not change. Let us be grateful that we have inherited a clear confession of faith that gets that message right. In the face of many concerns and challenges, let us chase after the kingdom of God, and by the grace of God may we discover that real life-- life in Christ-- is found in the chase.
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.”

Let us pray:

Almighty and gracious God, you want all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Magnify the power of the Gospel in the hearts of your faithful people that your Church may spread the good news of salvation. Protect, encourage and bless all who proclaim the saving cross, that Christ, being lifted up, may draw all people to himself, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Like A Mustard Seed

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…

It is such a simple comparison. The kingdom of God is like a tiny seed that eventually grows up into a relatively gigantic plant. It starts small and ends up tall.

From a historical perspective, we can see the truth of Jesus’ words. One teacher and twelve disciples changed the world forever. Long before the era of instant communication, Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations. Any reasonable person would quickly conclude that was just ridiculous. There’s no way something like that could be done. Except, it was, and it still is. Today, there are people on every continent who trust in Jesus and follow Him. The tiny seed has grown explosively.

But is there any other way in which this comparison might be helpful to us? Can it shed light on our understanding of God’s Kingdom as we know it today? I believe it can. I believe this mustard seed story can help us to find God’s Kingdom in the right places. It can help us to recognize the hand of God at work.

What does Jesus want us to notice in this comparison? It isn’t just that a seed grows up into a plant. It’s that a teeny-tiny seed becomes a gargantuan bush—in some cases, close to fourteen feet tall! And in pointing out this sharp contrast, Jesus seems to be saying, “Don’t underestimate this tiny little thing. It doesn’t look like much, but it is packed with power and life. You’ll see.”

It’s here where our lesson really begins. If the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, then that means it always starts out small. It seems tiny and insignificant. The thing it is trying to accomplish seems ridiculous and impossible.

God’s kingdom seems to offer so little: a splash of water on the head; a round wafer and a sip of wine; people who are just like me; and lots of words from an old book about Jesus.

And though those words about Jesus may seem insignificant; though they may seem to have nothing to do with solving the problem you’re going through; though those words about Jesus may seem like a tiny voice drowned out by louder ones; those words about Jesus are the mustard seed, packed with power and life. From this seed something totally new and unexpected can take root and grow. That something new is faith in Jesus; the surprising, Spirit-led ability to trust in Jesus for life, forgiveness, and meaning.

Jesus Himself could be compared to a mustard seed. When He was born in Bethlehem, it was like a mustard seed being planted in the ground. Hardly anyone noticed, outside of the angels and the shepherds. By worldly standards, it was an insignificant event. As Jesus grew up, he tried to tell those who would listen that He had been sent from the Father to give his life for the world. It all seemed ridiculous and impossible, especially when Jesus was executed on a cross. Surely this had been one big, tragic mistake, and Jesus’ death marked the end of another tiny life played out on planet Earth.
But the seed had not stopped growing. On that first Easter, the earth shook as a living Jesus exploded from His grave. His great tree of life continued to grow as He ascended into heaven and sent his Holy Spirit to his friends, and they began preaching his words with fire and passion. Two millennia later, His tree of life—the kingdom of God—still preaches repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name. From one seed, the true redemption of the world has grown. Jesus himself started small—born of a human mother in a stable—and ends up tall—lifted up on a cross; raised up from the dead; taken up into heaven to guide and govern our world until its end.

This is the principle by which God operates: from humble and almost embarrassing beginnings—he works life and growth by connecting people to His Son. With a splash of water on the head and His own name, God adopts a person as His own and gives them the gift of trust in Jesus. With a round wafer and a sip of wine, Jesus delivers his blood and body into ours, so that we never need doubt that our sins are really forgiven. With words from an old book, God speaks to us and makes promise after promise. And He even uses people just like us to carry out his work of compassionate service to each other and our world.

All of this can lead you and me to a major shift in perspective. With the mustard seed in mind, we might start thinking about new and potentially risky ways of sharing the good news with others. With the mustard seed in mind, we might not give up on the person who seems “unlikely” to trust in Christ. With the mustard seed in mind, you might realize that He is calling you today to plant the seed in someone else’s life. He’s not asking you to make the seed grow. That’s His job. So don’t be worried or intimidated. Just take that little seed and give it a chance.
Let’s learn the lesson of the mustard seed and learn it well. God will always provide the growth he desires. It may sometimes look like the seed is too tiny or that things aren’t happening, but when the time is right, it will be harvest time. What starts small will end up tall. There is power and life packed into that little seed. You’ll see!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Holy Trinity: The Way God Wants To Be Known

32This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. Acts 2: 32—33

What do you do when the emperor sends you into exile for the fifth time in three decades, and you’re 70 years old? A normal person would consider his options. With a lifetime of accomplishments, Athanasius deserved better than a one-way ticket to nowhere.
In earlier years, Athanasius had been elected bishop of Alexandria; he’d written a landmark book identifying Jesus as God; and he had played a significant role at the council of Nicea—the first worldwide conference of the church.
He ended up fighting his whole life for what he thought had been decided at Nicea: the Biblical teaching that Jesus was fully human and fully God: begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things are made. When the council voted in favor of this creed, which we still speak today as the Nicene Creed, Athanasius thought that the opposing viewpoint (a teacher named Arius said that Jesus was created and therefore not equal with God) would finally be put to rest.
But he was wrong. People who agreed with Arius not only hung around, but managed to gain positions of power. They whispered into the emperor’s ear that Athanasius, who kept publicly insisting that the emperor enforce the Nicene decisions, trafficked in murder, sorcery, and treason.
Emperor Constantine, who valued peace above anything else, held a hearing. Condemned on trumped-up charges, Athanasius was send packing to what today we would call Germany. When Constantine died two years later, Athanasius was allowed to return to his post. Two years after that, when followers of Arius gained control of key leadership positions in the church, Athanasius had to flee to Rome for asylum. On and on it went for decades, where Athanasius would repeatedly lose and regain his office. When he was allowed to return to Alexandria at age 68, he no doubt was looking to end his service in peace. Not quite. Within two years, Valens, the western emperor and—you guessed it, a follower of Arius—ordered Athanasius banished again.
To make a long story short, Valens reversed his decree four months later, and Athanasius was allowed to come back, and for seven more years he served in Alexandria until his death in 373 AD. Arius’ point of view still held firm sway in the church. It seemed that Athanasius’ bold stand for the truth—and all the heartache it had caused him—had been for nothing.
However, eight years later, when Emperor Theodosius took the throne, the teachings of Arius were banned, and the decision of the Council of Nicea was reaffirmed. The church never considered Arian teaching an option again, and the Nicene Creed is still used as a basic statement of the universal, Biblical, true Christian faith. For this we have—at least in part—Athanasius to thank.
I share his story with you today for a couple of reasons. First of all, if you would take Lutheran Service Book, and open it up to page 319, you’ll find a little something called the Athanasian Creed. From time to time this creed is spoken on Trinity Sunday, because it carefully says what can be said about our triune God. And as you scan this document, which Athanasius at least had a hand in writing, you can see his concerns rising to the surface, especially page 320, starting with paragraph 28: ‘Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man; He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother, in this age; Perfect God and perfect man…’ In other words, Jesus is no second class citizen, he wasn’t just a nice guy that God chose, Jesus is God. Period. Whether of not we’re conscious of it, this was a battle the church had to fight. People like Athanasius had to endure terrible difficulty just to say that Jesus is true God and true man, and those who say that Jesus is only God or only man have got it wrong.
This Day of the Holy Trinity is the only festival in our Church Year that is not based on a historical event, like Pentecost, for example, or Jesus’ birth. Instead it is based on the nature of God himself. Some might therefore say that it is based on a teaching or a doctrine. That seems a little impersonal to me, but whatever you say about Trinity Sunday, the bottom line is this: it is of eternal importance to know who God is, and the way God has described himself to us is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
There are an awful lot of people out there who will tell you they believe in “God.” But what God are they talking about? The grandfatherly god of a child’s drawing? The inventor god who created the world and then stepped away to watch things unfold? The faceless Force that runs through the universe? Or the God that Peter refers to in His Pentecost sermon: The Father who sent His Son; the Son who send His Holy Spirit; the God of Holy Scripture? The God who has acted in time and history to produce forgiveness of sins and endless life through the cross and empty tomb of the Son, Jesus Christ? If you want to call this personal knowledge of God “doctrine,” that’s fine. And I hope that you will see for this very reason that having the right doctrine really matters. It’s the difference between a God who is watching us from a distance and a God who came down here and got his hands dirty, who got his heart and his body broken just to tell us that he loves us and wants us back. That’s what’s at stake when we talk about doctrine. Doctrine is not a dirty word. Doctrine is knowing God the right way—the way he wants to be known. And when you get right down to it—what is more important than that?
Athanasius felt that knowing God the right way was so important that he was willing to lose his job and the respect of his peers. To him, it wasn’t even a choice. He would not stay silent. How about you? When you know that standing for the truth might hurt someone’s feelings or make somebody mad, what do you do? When I consider that question myself, I know that I must repent before the Lord and seek his forgiveness. There have been plenty of times when I have massaged my response or not answered as fully as I could have, for fear of offending someone—even though I knew that what I wanted to say—what I should have said-- was God’s truth, drawn right from Scripture. For that I must repent.
If you share this conviction with me—there is hope and good news. The God who explains himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit offers full pardon and forgiveness to those who trust in the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son. The Father waits for us and welcomes us with open arms. The Spirit fires faith in our hearts. That same Holy Spirit changes us into bold and loving Christians, people who will speak the truth in love and who will live that love and whatever happens, happens.
Some folks will get upset at that. They’ll claim that truth is relative—there are no absolutes. Others won’t really care one way or the other. And once in a while you’ll even run into some Christians who suggest that love and doctrine don’t go together real well. When that happens, we can take a page from Athanasius and just keep standing in there, holding onto what’s true. Love doesn’t let a child play on a busy street; or stick his hand in boiling water, and it’s love that causes us to share this simple message: There is a right way to know God—a way he wants to be known—and when you know him that way, you have everything. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Prayers for Missionaries--Delivered Right To Your Computer or Mobile Phone

My wife, Sue, has started a new Twitter feed. Just about every day she will mention an individual or group involved in Lutheran missionary work and seek your prayers for them.

To get these updates, you will have to set up a Twitter account which is easy and, best of all, free! Just go to Then you will be able to "follow" We Pray 4 Missions, and you can either have the updates sent to your mobile phone or they will simply appear on your Twitter home page.

To see an example, go to:

Behind the Scenes with the Holy Spirit

I will admit it; I am one of those people who actually watches the bonus features on DVDs. I am fascinated by the process of filmmaking. One “behind-the-scenes” documentary I was watching claimed that one sixty second sequence in a certain special effects-filled movie (Revenge of the Sith, if you must know) was the result of 910 artists and workers; and that same sixty second sequence represented 70, 441 man hours of labor. Those figures are staggering, but think about it: just an average film is the result of a Producer; a scriptwriter; Concept artists; computer technicians; a director; props are needed, as well as costumes; set designers and builders; hair and make-up artists; catering, because people need to eat; not to mention sound designers, composers and musicians for the musical score; stuntmen; a production office to pay the bills; and of course there are those behind the camera to record all that happens. All of those people work behind the scenes so that the focus can be on the actors and the story can be told effectively.
On this Day of Pentecost, the Christian Church traditionally highlights the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the third “person” of our triune God. The Day of Pentecost recorded in Acts chapter 2 is a dramatic story, filled with cinematic flourishes; the Holy Spirit’s arrival is signaled by the sound of a rushing wind; his presence is indicated by the appearance of fire over the heads of the apostles; the same Spirit gave the gift of communication to the apostles, so that religious pilgrims to Jerusalem could hear the news about Jesus being proclaimed in their own languages. This sounds like summer blockbuster stuff. But that’s where we have to be careful and discerning with Pentecost. Did the Holy Spirit show up simply to show off some special effects magic and “wow” the crowd? Or was there something deeper going on? And by the way, how does this spectacular event relate to you and me? Today I invite you to think of the Holy Spirit as the ultimate “behind-the-scenes” worker, whose mission is to put the focus not on himself, but on Jesus. The Holy Spirit labors to ensure that the story of Jesus is told—and believed--effectively.
It’s important to recall that Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to his followers. In John 16 He says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Before His death, resurrection and ascension Jesus had told his disciples what to expect. When he was sent, the Holy Spirit would guide them into all the truth about who Jesus was, what he had done, and why it mattered. Jesus said “He”—that is, the Holy Spirit—will glorify me. The Holy Spirit would aim the camera at Jesus, the suffering Servant and risen Lord. The Risen Lord would go on to tell his followers, just before His ascension, “Stay in Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high.”
That’s where we find Jesus’ band of about 120 believers gathered on the Day of Pentecost—a festival day on the Jewish calendar—when the special effects of the Spirit started to pop. Jesus had kept his promise. The Spirit blew in and ignited something in the apostles—something that enabled them to glorify Jesus as never before. The Holy Spirit worked “behind the scenes” in the apostles’ hearts and drove them to speak out. He worked “behind the scenes” in the apostles’ minds and caused them to communicate God’s truth in foreign languages, so that the travelers to Jerusalem could benefit from the Gospel message. You have the list of nationalities and cultures in Acts 2: 9—11. By the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the story of Jesus was told effectively—as evidenced by the comment in verse 11, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And then the Holy Spirit works “behind the scenes” in the apostle Peter. This is the same Peter who was intimidated by a couple servant girls the night before Jesus was crucified; the same Peter who denied even knowing Jesus of Nazareth. Forgiven and restored, this same Peter, now clothed with the Holy Spirit’s fiery confidence, launches into what certainly has to be one of the greatest sermons ever delivered. It is one of the most Christ-centered sermons you will ever hear or read. It leads to the repentance, forgiveness and baptism of some three thousand souls. The climax of Peter’s sermon is heartfelt invitation: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
What is the gift of the Holy Spirit? It is nothing less than faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the resurrected Life. It is the Holy Spirit working “behind the scenes” in you, causing you to repent of yourself and your sin and to trust in Jesus alone for favor and standing with God.
The Holy Spirit is the “unsung hero” of the Trinity, and that is by design. He attaches to every good Word spoken about Jesus and goes to work with that Word, destroying our defenses in order to lay a foundation of faith. The Holy Spirit does not awaken in me great thoughts about myself; thoughts about my own holiness or worthiness that make me better than others. Just the opposite! As soon as the Holy Spirit enters me, I become smaller; I know that there’s nothing in me worth boasting about; in fact, my sin becomes frighteningly real and sin’s consequences a grave threat. But the Holy Spirit will not let me despair because of sins. He opens my eyes to recognize how great the love of God really is by leading me to the willing sacrifice of the Son on the cross. Those without the Holy Spirit are at their most eloquent when they talk about their own great deeds or about the stuff of this world. The person who has the Holy Spirit in their heart, by contrast, speaks of what eternal Love has done for a world of sinners. That person speaks of Jesus; believes in Jesus; glorifies Jesus. The Holy Spirit is content to stay behind the scenes in order to shine the spotlight on Jesus. The believer embraces Jesus by faith and depends on Him for pardon and peace. At the same time, the believer gratefully acknowledges that, to quote St. Paul, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”
There are Christians out there who claim they are experiencing all kinds of miraculous things with the power of the Holy Spirit. They speak in tongues. They heal diseases. They have increased their wealth. And in general they are happier people, so they say. Something about this message is “off.” And it is not that miracles can’t happen, because they can. Instead, this is what is “off.” If someone really has the Holy Spirit, they do not speak mostly about themselves and what they are able to do so victoriously with a little help from God. If someone really has the Holy Spirit, the heart and soul of their faith will NOT be the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit! The person who has the Holy Spirit will be all about Jesus Christ and what God has done in Him! Remember, Jesus said: “He [The Holy Spirit] will glorify me.” It is a potentially dangerous mistake to pay so much attention to the behind-the-scenes Spirit that you downplay or even ignore the Leading Man, that is, Jesus. The special effects of that Pentecost morning were attention grabbers, and the foreign languages spoken that day were real. They had purpose, and their purpose was to proclaim Christ Jesus as Savior of the world. We have no need to seek these lesser miracles as “proof” that God is with us. Those were just announcing the arrival of the greater miracle that we now have and is available to anyone. It is the greatest miracle of all. It is faith in Jesus Christ.
There will be times when you and I will be tempted to wonder if we’re really “in touch” with God at all. We will weigh ourselves against those who seem really victorious and upbeat and wonder why we can’t be that way. We will hear about people who got their miracle, be it a healing, or the reconciliation of a relationship, or the check that showed up in the mailbox at just the perfect time, and we may feel a little resentful because I never got a miracle like that. And then you might run into people who are not afraid to tell you that if you haven’t spoken in a babbling tongue or been re-baptized as an adult then you’re not actually a Christian. And they really mean it. And it plants a seed of doubt in your mind.
Don’t be fooled. Don’t be misled. If you believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, suffered eternal punishment on the cross—punishment that should’ve been yours, but isn’t, because of Him—you are experiencing the greatest miracle of all. The Holy Spirit has drilled down into the depths of your soul, and even though the soil was not fertile, he planted faith in Jesus Christ in there and it has grown! If you believe that Jesus is the ONLY reason you are bound for heaven, you have the full, miraculous power of the Holy Spirit at work in your heart right now—because you could not believe that without Him. If you are willing to walk away from sin and you sincerely desire to be close to Christ Jesus, you have reason to be joyful today, because the same Holy Spirit who inspired the preaching of the apostles on Pentecost is inspiring your repentance and faith in Jesus right now.
May this be our confidence as we celebrate the Holy Spirit on this Day of Pentecost!