Friday, December 17, 2010

Last Day at Our Shepherd

Today marked Andy's last day at OSL, as we will be moving soon to serve in Zanesville. Our Shepherd provided everything we hoped for him, and I'd like to thank Mrs. Wojkowski, Mrs. Lelle, and Mrs. Koscik for being "Jesus with skin on" to our son for the past two-and-a-half years. Here's Andy [far right] with his pals Jacob and Joshua, and the very end of the class Christmas party. God bless OSL!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Boar's Head in Hand Bear I...

The Herald and Good King Wenceslas relax after Tuesday night's festival.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's Boar's Head Time

My final Boar's Head series begins this week. For more info, go to

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Here Am I; Send Me

Pictured here is the beautiful Luther window of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zanesville, Ohio. I have accepted the call to become their pastor and will begin my service there in January 2011. Please keep St. Paul's, Trinity, and me and my family in your prayers at this time of transition.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Confirmation Class Look-in: Biblical Archaeology

Christian archaeologist Randy Greene speaks to our confirmation students about his experiences in Israel. Special thanks to Deb Hoffman for arranging this presentation.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The True Treasure of the Church

On October 31, 1517, 493 years ago, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed a paper to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. This in itself was not unusual. In those days the church door served as the town bulletin board. But this particular notice written by Luther was quite unusual compared to the conventional religious wisdom of that time. That paper began the Reformation, a worldwide revolution that has continued relevance today.
The subject of this paper was the sale of indulgences. Martin Luther had 95 things to say about indulgences and hoped someone would be willing to debate them in a scholarly setting. Why was this so revolutionary? Because Luther was starting to lead a charge back into the Word of God. The Church of Luther’s era had built something almost unrecognizable over the foundation of God’s Word—a religion governed by human tradition—a religion by which heaven could be purchased by the consumer. Luther would lead a charge back into the Word of God—a charge to dig back into the foundation—a charge to discover what God really has to say to His creation.
One of the Bible passages that would come to mean so much to Luther was today’s Epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The parallels between Paul’s situation and Luther’s are obvious, but no less striking. Paul was writing about his own people—the Jewish people at the time of Christ. The Jewish leaders had developed a distorted picture of themselves. By thinking they could fully obey the Law of God, they had developed a pride that was destroying them. The religious system of the Jewish leaders no longer required God. They felt they could fulfill the Law themselves.
But the Law, Paul asserts, cannot make us righteous. The Law shows us our sins. What we do to keep the Law will not make us right with God, because we could never do enough. And it was not only the Jewish people who had a problem with pride. Paul also cautions his Gentile audience. No one is righteous, he says. There is no difference. All have sinned. What then becomes of pride? It is excluded. A person who is truly walking with God has nothing to be prideful about. We are justified, literally, declared “not guilty,” by faith, apart from works of the Law.
The Church of Luther’s time declared just the opposite. Pope Leo X wanted to complete St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Much money needed to be gathered before the mammoth project could be completed. Pope Leo ruled that indulgences—certificates of God’s pardon—should be sold in Germany. Chief among the pardon peddlers was a monk named John Tetzel. When Tetzel rolled into town, bells tolled, organs sounded, a red cross was set up bearing the pope’s coat of arms. Once in the town church, Tetzel would preach about the miraculous power of indulgences. It was proclaimed and believed by most that whoever bought an indulgence not only received forgiveness of sins, but would also escape punishment in purgatory, a kind of holding tank for souls never once mentioned in Holy Scripture.
The pope, Tetzel claimed, had more power than all the apostles and saints, even more than the Virgin Mary, for all of these were under Christ, while the pope was equal to Christ. Tetzel claimed to have saved more souls with his indulgences than Peter with his sermons. He even had a little commercial jingle—way ahead of his time, that Tetzel—“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” As a result, many were led to believe that they did not need to repent of their sins, and that trust in Jesus Christ was unnecessary. Just buy some indulgences, and you’d be straight.
Luther was incensed when he heard about this. He knew that souls for whom Jesus died were at stake! The Gospel of Jesus was being denied by the very organization that was supposed to proclaim it! Luther protested the sale of indulgences because it threatened to destroy a Christian’s relationship with God. As Luther wrote in Thesis # 62: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
It is that same concern for souls; that same concern for getting the gospel of Jesus right that moved Paul to write to the Roman Christians. It was of utmost importance that they understood that Jewish tradition did not give Jewish people an advantage with God. Knowing the Law does not save people. Only those who always do exactly what the Law says can be saved by the Law. Since all—both Jew and Gentile—have sinned, all will die.
Luther used what Paul wrote here to demonstrate from Scripture that we are not saved by the things we do. We are saved by what Jesus has done for us. God offered His Son as “a sacrifice of atonement.” We have life “through faith in His blood.” The Church of Luther’s era had deteriorated into a self-serving, self-preserving organization. In almost every important way, God’s Word was only historically incidental to the organization. The immediate needs of the organization and its security took precedence over the Word of God. Luther used this passage and others like it to tear away the human organization where it needed to be torn. The Word itself was the demolishing and reforming force. The Law tore down. The Gospel built up. The Gospel built on the only real foundation—Jesus, the Messiah.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider the question: when is the best time to repair your home? Let’s say you notice a problem with a board on your porch. When should that be fixed? What will happen if you wait too long to fix it?
The Reformation at the time of Luther was a major event because the necessary ongoing repairs had not been done. Forget a loose board; the whole house was about to collapse. The foundation of the Church had been undermined. Because smaller repairs had been ignored, pride in tradition grew as Christ was displaced.
If reformation can be compared to keeping our house in good repair, then it is worth asking today, of ourselves, what do we need the Word of God to fix? What does the Law need to tear out of us? What does the Gospel need to build in us?
If we think of Reformation Day primarily as a day where it’s okay to slam Roman Catholicism, then we’ve missed the point entirely. We are no different than the Jews and Gentiles Paul wrote to. We are not “better people” than the Catholics, ancient or modern. We are always in danger of slipping across the boundary from confidence in what God does for us to pride in what we think we can do ourselves. Perversely, there is even a type of pride we can take in being “heirs of the Reformation” that amounts to a schoolyard attitude of “We’re smart and they’re dumb.”
But pride, of course, is excluded, according to the apostle Paul. How—by the way of works? No, by the way of faith. We are convinced that a person is justified by faith without the works of the Law. Pride is excluded by the faith that the Holy Spirit gives to us. Faith builds. Faith reforms in line with God’s Word.
The Law tears down our efforts to build a proud tradition. The grace of God points us to people who need to hear the Gospel in a way that makes sense to them.
The Law tears down our efforts to “protect the church.” The Gospel sends us to be God’s ambassadors, to take risks in showing Jesus to those who are as of now estranged from Him.
The Law breaks down our self-righteous attempts to make the church an exclusive club. The Gospel opens our hearts to other sinners that Jesus wants to reform.
The Law finds what is broken, what is rotten, what is dead, and rips it out. The Gospel of full forgiveness of sins in Jesus repairs. It makes new things. It reforms us in the likeness of Jesus, as we live through faith in His blood.

adapted from sermons by Rev. Paul Muench and Rev. Andrew Simcak, Jr.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lord, Have Mercy

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men…” What a prayer! If you sense Jesus using some satire here, I think you’re right. He’s exposing the self-congratulatory religion of the Pharisees, that, when brought out into the light of day, is patently ridiculous. “God, I thank you that I’m better than those guys. God, look at the good I do.” Those prayers make us chuckle because they’re so blatantly self-righteous. But the funny thing about satire is that while it makes the Pharisee the obvious target, it allows us to pause and reflect. Maybe we’re laughing at the Pharisee because we recognize his attitude, alive in ourselves.
I’ve never heard a Christian publicly pray the way the Pharisee did in Jesus’ parable, but I’ve seen plenty of examples of the attitude in action. Anytime a Christian feels as if “God owes me something” because I go to church on a regular basis, the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. Anytime a Christian feels as if “the church leaders ought to do things my way because I give the biggest offering,” the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. Anytime a Christian takes smug satisfaction in their own so-called “Christian maturity” by pointing out the shortcomings of others, the spirit of the Pharisee is alive and well. If we’re still laughing about the Pharisee’s prayer, it’s probably to keep from crying. The urge to measure ourselves against other people is irresistible. It is also a sad attempt to justify ourselves before God, which misses the mark completely, because that’s not how God measures us.
The Lord does not measure our actions, words, and thoughts relative to other people; he measures us according to the exacting standards of His Law. If you are starting to squirm, that is most appropriate. The Law says, put God first in your life, as the only number one. The Law says, don’t misuse God’s name. Watch your speech. The Law says, honor God’s Word with your time and attention; and honor the authorities God has placed over you, beginning with your parents. The Law says, don’t murder. Don’t even hurt someone. The Law says, remain sexually pure, even in your thoughts. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Don’t destroy someone’s reputation with gossip or slander. Be content with what you have and help your neighbor to keep what he’s got. That’s the standard by which God measures you! Do you dare to say, “God, I thank you that I am not like those who do such bad things?” Are you really willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pharisee in the temple? If so, then remember Jesus says that man went home “un-justified.” He went home with no blessing from God. It was a waste of time for this guy to go to the temple, because the person he really worshiped was himself.
If, however, you have heard the Lord’s exacting standards and are embarrassed of your track record; if you are crushed by your own failures in living by God’s Law, then let’s go stand over by that tax collector—the one the Pharisee pointed out—and hear what he has to say. Wow—he looks crushed, too. He won’t even look up. He’s so upset he’s taking it out on himself. But listen to what he’s saying: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Now there’s someone God can work with—someone who has given up trying to impress God. Someone who has been deflated by their own sins—someone who just can’t seem to get it right no matter how hard they try. Someone who has hit the bottom and realized there is only one way out; one way to live; and that is to appeal to God’s mercy; to plead with God to spare us from the punishment we deserve. The tax collector knows that the only way life with God is going to work is if God shows mercy. God is going to have to hold back the hand of punishment. He is going to have to do something about our sin, because we can’t.
What we call the Good News is this: God did do something about our sin. He did not ignore it. He did not overlook it. He forgave it. Now, our sin had to be dealt with somehow—someone had to pay for it. That’s where the man who told this story about a Pharisee and a tax collector comes in. Jesus stepped into our world; stepped into a human body; stepped into our sin; stepped into the punishment; stepped into the unfathomable consequence of sin…and He did it all for you. He did it so that His Father could justly hold back the hand of punishment from you. “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy” has been the church’s song ever since. It is the song of the tax collector, and everyone else who understands, “I don’t deserve God’s blessing at all.”
What’s interesting is that a baby could not begin to claim that he deserves to be in God’s kingdom based on all the good he’s done. No infant I’ve ever seen (outside of the movies) is in any position to claim membership in the kingdom of God based on who they are and what they’ve done. Yet Jesus says, “…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” So how does that work? It’s simple, really. Jesus says, “…for to such [babies and children] belong the kingdom of God.” Babies can’t do anything to “get into” the kingdom, but Jesus can bring them in. By His Word, by His touch, by His name with baptismal water, Jesus brings them in His kingdom and says they belong. “Receiving the kingdom of God like a child” is a matter of letting Jesus bring you into His kingdom. It’s a matter of letting him give to you. Just like with babies—adults can’t do anything to “get into” the kingdom, either. But Jesus can bring you in. He’s the only one who can.
When we speak or sing, “Lord have mercy,” what we’re saying is, “Lord, I don’t deserve your blessing at all. But if you want to, you can bring me in to your kingdom.” And you can be sure that He wants to, because He went to the cross for you. Receive the kingdom like child. Let Him give to you. Let Him bring you in. Let God’s Law kill the Pharisee inside you, and find rest in the fact that it’s not about you. Life that matters is about a God who is merciful, and His Son, who is love.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Wrestling with God

It was one of those nights where the minutes feel like hours. All Jacob could do was wait for his brother to show up. Sounds simple, but word was that his brother, Esau, was coming with an army of four hundred men. Yes, there was a score to settle. Jacob had done his brother wrong in two major ways. He engineered a trade—some bread and red soup in exchange for his brother’s birthright—and the more boldly deceitful action of stealing Esau’s blessing by pretending to be Esau! Needless to say, Esau was ticked. His plan was to wait for their father Isaac to die, then kill Jacob. Wisely, Jacob is sent away. Many things happen to Jacob during this time away.
God makes some amazing promises to this deceitful, crafty man—one key one being “I will protect you wherever you go”—even as Jacob finds out what it’s like to be on the other end of a deceitful scheme. That’s another story for another time.
Eventually; inevitably, Jacob and Esau are coming face to face again. Jacob gets the idea to send Esau a generous set of gifts to smooth things over. Then he finds out that Esau is coming with a four hundred man posse. Night falls. The “moment of truth” has almost arrived. Jacob wonders, “Will Esau try to kill me and my family?” He prays to God, calling to mind the underserved promises the Lord has made to him. And then, all there is to do is wait. The minutes seem like hours.
Suddenly, the sickening tedium is broken by an invader in the camp. A fight breaks out between Jacob and the assailant, and it is quite a match. The scuffle continues through the night, until the day’s first light. Who is it? Esau is the obvious suspect. Whoever it is, Jacob fights. And fights. And fights. Even after his opponent knocks his hip out of joint, Jacob keeps his grip on him. That’s a tough guy right there.
So why does Jacob put up this sort of struggle? He believes the promises God has made to him. He aggressively believes the promises God has made to him. Jacob puts up a fight because God said he was going to do great things through him, so much so that he’s lying there with a dislocated hip and still defending himself. In fact, Jacob’s faith is so aggressive that he says, “I will not let go unless you bless me.” Somewhere in the smackdown, it occurs to Jacob that he wasn’t wrestling with Esau or an assassin, but he was wrestling with God. With the day’s first light, it dawns on Jacob he’s going toe to toe with the Lord God of heavenly armies. The Lord God of armies changes Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning “one who struggles with God.” Incredibly, Jacob/Israel struggled with God and lived. And as Jacob/Israel limps away from this experience, he is reconciled with his brother, Esau.
Now, as wild as that story is, you might feel like it is pretty close to your experience. What I mean is, you might feel like you’re wrestling with God right now. That nighttime invader might come to you as an illness or an accident. Or you might feel God wrestling with you in an important decision. Maybe you’re wrestling through a difficult relationship or financial hardship. So often, as we’re struggling, we’re wondering, “Why? Why me? Why now?”
Maybe, just maybe, God is wrestling with you for the same reason he wrestled with Jacob. Maybe he wants to see if you will trust his promises so aggressively that you will stand up and fight. When things get rough, will you grab hold of God, saying, “I won’t let go unless you bless me?”
This aggressive faith would be impossible, if it were not for God’s habit of taking on human flesh in order to wrestle. God took on human form to put Jacob’s faith to the test. More crucially, God took on human form to wrestle again, and this time it was a death match. In our flesh, as one of us, Jesus would clash with Satan, get hammered by sin, and suffer hell on the cross. And it would kill Him. Looked like total defeat. Easter changed everything, turning the results of the loss inside out. Jesus’ bout with evil and his victory over it has huge repercussions for you.
It means you, like Jacob, are forgiven. Your sins do not negate God’s promises. His Word to you stands. You are blessed to be a blessing. Life in this world will often feel like a struggle, and life as a Christ-follower will often feel like a struggle with Him. Don’t shy away from that feeling. Hold God to His promises. Fight the good fight of faith. Don’t let go until He blesses you.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Walking in the Word: LWML Sunday

“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119: 105

Most health experts tell us that it would be beneficial to do more walking. Some have set a goal of 10,000 steps a day in order to increase cardiovascular health. While we may know the benefits that walking provides, that does not mean that we are going to do anything about it. Many people say to themselves, “I should get some exercise,” but then they proceed to just sit down again. Exercise is an individual decision, and it is not enough to have the desire to go for a walk. You have to actually do it. You are free to walk or to sit still, but the decision you make will affect your health, one way or the other.
God’s Word has something to say about walking in the way of spiritual fitness: In Psalm 119 it says: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” God invites you today—and every day—to let His Word light your way through life. And just like walking itself, you are free to use God’s Word this way or to leave it alone. The decision you make here will also affect your health, one way or another.
As a pastor, I have visited many people in the hospital, and one thing that I have seen firsthand is that is does not take long for our muscles to weaken from lack of use. Without walking on a regular basis, legs that once worked well can now only hang there helplessly.
If I may be so blunt; I would say that far too many Christians have been sitting too long without being active in Word of God. As a result, their faith muscles have atrophied. In fact, many have wandered from the faith. They fail to apply the teaching of the Word in their lives and have become spiritually unhealthy. The church needs to return to the spiritual bodybuilding that happens when we let the Word of God speak to us. Only then will we be healthy enough to reach those who are even weaker than we.
One example of how the “church at large” is doing this is through the mite collections of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. City of Hope, right here in Cleveland, is supported in part by the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. They are providing spiritual and physical health to the community by opening “Urban Family Learning Centers” in Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Cincinnati. These programs reach out to children and families with Saturday Schools that provide a weekly round of music, crafts, and Scripture memorization along with a nourishing meal.
Walking daily in the Word of God can inspire us to serve others like the volunteers at City of Hope. That same Word also calls us to remember who we are. The Word shows us where we gone off track. The Word of God tells us the truth: All have sinned—and the paycheck for sin is death; death of the body and the death of the soul, cut off from God’s goodness forever. I need to hear this. I need to understand the danger of sin. I need the call to repentance—the call to change—the call to go in a new direction by the power of God. His Word also reminds me of a Friday on which Jesus died on a cross to handle the debt of my sin. Just as importantly, it reminds me of a Sunday on which the Lord of Life broke the chains of death for me. Instead of the paycheck of death, Jesus hands me an invoice that reads: ‘Paid in Full.” He paid off all that I owe. He shares the resurrected life with me. When I’m walking in the Word of truth, there is confidence, knowing I am walking in the right direction.
All people need to hear the truth of God’s Word. One of the mite missions of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League brings this truth by supporting a female missionary who works with Muslim women. In the Muslim world, women are not allowed to have conversations with men who are not their husbands or close relatives. But another woman can speak words of truth to them. And another woman does, at great personal risk, because the good news of what Jesus has done is too important to leave unspoken.

So how much do you walk? It depends on how healthy you want to be. Do you need to change the way you walk in God’s Word? We need the help of the Holy Spirit to exchange our poor habits for good ones. When a child is learning to walk, there is a lot of falling that happens. But there is a built-in determination to get it right! Maybe you have fallen down in the study of the Word. Now is the time to get up and get into it again. There really is no in-between—you’re either walking in the Word towards spiritual health, or letting your faith muscles weaken with each passing day.
But there is help! Groups like the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League exist to help people walk in the Word and to help people communicate Jesus to their world. This congregation provides a variety of Bible Studies that are designed to help you exercise your faith. There are more personal devotional resources available to Christians now than at any time in history—many right here in our own church library—just waiting for someone to take them off the shelves and open them up. The point is that walking in the Word of God cements and sustains your personal connection with Jesus. Do you need to change the way you walk? The get on your feet and let God’s Word light your way through life. The Holy Spirit, sent from Jesus Himself, will give you energy and determination you need to be in step with Him.

Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Kenton Wendorf for LWML Sunday 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bible Study: the Gospel of John

Chapter Four
Lessons at the Well

Samaritans were descendants of Israelites left behind after Samaria’s destruction (722 BC) and included foreigners imported by Assyrian kings (2 Kings 17: 24—28, 33—34). Their Jewish heritage had been adulterated through intermarriage. They inhabited the area between Judea and Galilee. The accepted only the Five Books of Moses as authoritative, worshiped on Mount Gerizim, and rejected Jerusalem as the proper place of worship. Most Jews considered their observance of Judaism as corrupt and regarded Samaritans as outside the bounds of the covenant people and avoided them.

Why was Jesus crossing the boundary lines here?

Gift (v.10) Greek: dorea, occurs only here in the Gospels; “bounty”

Living Water (v. 10) Hebrew expression for flowing water (as opposed to stagnant); Jesus uses this phrase to mean what? (John 7: 38—39)

According to ancient manuscripts, it was an apostolic custom to baptize in living (flowing) water.

What do you think Jesus is talking about in vv. 21—24?

Jesus uses this venture into Samaria as a “teachable moment” for the disciples. What is trying to convey to them? (vv. 31—38)

What do we learn about “signs” from the Samarians—in other words, what had the greatest effect on their hearts? (v. 41—42) What lesson might there be for us here?

How is that same lesson reinforced by the story of the Official’s Son?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Contentment is Counter-Cultural

“But godliness with contentment is great gain.” 1 Timothy 6: 6

There once was a rich man who was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily beside his boat. "Why aren't you out there fishing?" he asked."Because I've caught enough fish for today," said the fisherman.
"Why don't you catch more fish than you need?' the rich man asked.
"What would I do with them?""You could earn more money," came the impatient reply, "and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you'd have a fleet of boats and be rich like me."The fisherman asked, "Then what would I do?"
"You could sit down and enjoy life," said the wealthy man.
"What do you think I'm doing now?" the fisherman replied.

Can you relate to that fisherman? Or do you find yourself on the rich man’s side? Today we have the chance to think about one of the lost values of the Christian faith. That “lost value” is contentment.

In our Epistle lesson, Saint Paul is writing to a young pastor named Timothy, and near the end of his letter, the topic turns to money. He writes, “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith.” Paul holds up contentment as a key value for us to live by. God would like for us to be happy with what we have and to enjoy the blessings we’ve been given. But are we happy— do we enjoy our blessings—or is there something always pulling towards more, more, more?

Contentment is counter-cultural. Have you ever heard an advertisement or a sales pitch that begins by saying, “You know what? What you have right now is OK. You don’t really need anything else”? Of course not! We are submerged in a consumer culture that is constantly trying to convince you that you won’t really be happy, you won’t really be fulfilled, if you do not buy this product immediately. What you’ve got isn’t good enough and people will think you are way behind the times unless you purchase this item as soon as you possibly can. This is a real force that influences our thoughts and motivates our actions. We have been trained to want more and our sinful human nature happily complies.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Amos was warning Israel, but it’s like he was thinking of 21st century America when he said: “You lie on beds…and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.” God is crying out through Amos, “Do you realize that you are teetering on the edge of spiritual ruin? Or are you too busy eating, shopping, and entertaining yourself to care?” Who’s he talking about? Israel? Or us?

God knew that we needed to be saved from ourselves and our own out-of-control desires for more. That’s why Jesus became one of us. That’s why he lived perfectly (and remember: his perfect life was totally devoid of huge houses, fancy cars and a mountain of junk). That’s why he sacrificed his life on the cross—because no bigger and better payment we could come up with would work to pay off the debt of our sin. That’s why he came back to life—to give you life that is free from the exhausting chase after more. In Christ, you truly have all things. Through the adoption of baptism and the gift of faith you become a family member and friend of the Almighty God. He shares his riches with you, and unlike worldly wealth, His riches go with you out of this world when nothing else does. He gives you identity. He defines you as His own child. You no longer have to define yourself by what you buy and how new it is or how expensive it is. Instead of running after those things, you are free to run after Christ! Content with what you have and who you are, you can run after godliness and faith! Content with the identity God has given you, you can pursue love, endurance and gentleness. It is good and right for you to want more of these things, because they will actually fill you up! Pursue the way of Jesus. Let Christ break the cycle of more that controls your thinking. Enjoy the life that flows from Him, and you may just learn that contentment is right under your nose.

There is a story about the millionaire William Randolph Hearst. He invested a fortune in collecting art treasures from around the world. One day he heard about a valuable artifact. So he sent his agent abroad to look for it. After months of searching, the agent finally found the treasure. To the surprise of Hearst, the priceless masterpiece was stored right in his own warehouse. He had been searching all over the world for a treasure he already possessed.

In God’s great design, you may already have what you thought you wanted. Let him take off the “more goggles” so you can take a new look around at your life. What riches you have! What love you’ve been shown! All of it given in hopes that you will be drawn to the Giver—that you will be overwhelmed by his generosity—and find contentment in Him.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Church Tour Artwork

We have wrapped up church tours for the preschoolers. Their artwork reflects some of the things they learned, as you see here. Our lighted cross proclaims Jesus as the light of the world that never goes out. Our preschoolers also learned that pastors talk about what is in the Bible, and that the Bible is all about Jesus. They heard that baptism is the way God brings people into His family. They also learned that the church is a place where we make music to praise God and learn about Him.

Monday, September 20, 2010

There's Nothing In Those Trucks!

The Preschool Support Board was wiped out after two of our three services this past weekend, and after the third service, there was nothing left. Thanks for your generosity!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Apostolic Prayer Priorities

If you’ve ever wondered why we make it a point to pray for our nation’s President, our state Governor, and other elected officials, today you have your answer. The Apostle Paul tells us to. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life…” One of the kings Paul was writing about was Nero, notorious ruler of the Roman Empire. So, clearly Paul is not saying, “Pray for those officials with whom you agree, who belong to your party or worldview” but “Pray for all who are in high positions.” So we do, almost every week, in the Prayer of the Church.
Why should we do that? Paul answers that question, and answers it well. A peaceful and quiet life, he says, “is good and pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Paul’s reasoning makes sense. Good leaders provide stable civil government. A stable civil government allows Christians to live and work without harassment. The uncommon peace and prosperity of the Roman Empire opened many doors for Paul to carry out his ministry throughout the Mediterranean region, even as today, American Christians are, for the most part, free to live as followers of Jesus, the Son of God. Praying for our leaders is in the best interest of the Gospel, though we might not have thought about it that way to begin with.
One of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about prayer is that it has that quality to it. What you started out praying for may not be where you end up. What you asked for at the beginning may not be what you end up getting. If you think of prayer mostly as “asking God for things,” then this might seem pretty frustrating. But there’s a lot more to prayer than that.
Paul begins this section of his letter to Timothy by saying that it is of “first importance” that “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,” including kings and authorities. Each of the four words used here gives a different perspective on prayer for us to think about. First of all, Paul urges supplications to be made. In that word you can hear another: supply. A supplication is indeed a request for God to supply us with specific needs. But when we make these requests in faith, we make them with an openness to the way that God is going to answer that request. In other words, what we ask for may not be what we get, but faith enables us to see that what God supplies is always best. To give you a personal example, when I became the pastor here at St. Paul’s, I prayed and prayed every day that our house in Twinsburg would sell, so we could move up here as a family and purchase a new home. As months went by, my prayers started to become more questions than comments, until the day that it became clear that we were to move in next door to the church. That’s not what I was originally praying for. That wasn’t the ‘order of operations’ I had in mind. But God supplied what was best, and months of prayer helped me to receive His better gift.
Next, Paul urges that prayers be made for all people. Prayer is a pretty generic word, but it is worth reminding ourselves that prayer is simply speaking to God in words and thoughts. It is nothing more complicated than that. If you can talk, you can pray. If you can think, you can pray. The idea is, you are communicating with your heavenly Father. But here’s the thing: a life of prayer is more about relationship than it is outcomes. A life of prayer is more about relationship than it is outcomes. If someone close to you suddenly stops speaking to you, there’s a problem, right? Relationships depend on communication. Faithful prayer should be more like checking in with a beloved friend, but too often we come making demands, saying give me this, give me that, do it my way, on my timetable, or I’m gonna get mad. It has been said that prayer ought to seek the face of God more than it seeks His hand, and I believe that that is when prayer is most meaningful, when the focus is not “God, give me something,” but just “God.”
Paul also urges that intercessions be made for all people. An intercession is a prayer that you offer on behalf of someone else, and therefore it is a very Christ-like way to pray. It is one of the great privileges of discipleship that we are allowed to approach the throne of God in order to “plead the case” of people we care about. This too is reflected in our weekly Prayer of the Church, as we intercede for those with all manner of special needs.
Lastly, Paul urges that thanksgivings be made for all people—to say “thank you” to God in our words and thoughts. Forgive me for sounding pessimistic, but this type of prayer is the one probably said the least. Remember when Jesus healed ten lepers, and only one came back to say “thank you?” One in ten might just be the ratio that He is used to in this respect.
However, the serious Christian knows that we could never adequately thank our Lord for all He has done for us. He’s better than the best friend we could possibly have. We could never pay back what we owe Him for what he did on the cross. He deserves our never-ending thanks for all He has done. And even though eternal life in His light and peace is the greatest blessing, He still gives other gifts of grace every day. Giving thanks to Him will always be part of our prayers, because the gifts that Jesus gives last forever.
One last thought, and in a way, we’re going back to the beginning. Paul, remember, urged that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. He continues, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
Here again is Paul’s progression of thought: Praying for those in authority contributes to stable civil government. A stable civil government allows Christians to bring Jesus into everyday life. This is a good thing, because God wants everyone to be saved and to come to know the truth. And the truth is that Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all of us. Since God wants everyone to be saved by this message, then it follows that our prayers will center on what God wants. We will pray a lifetime’s worth of prayers of repentance leading to the forgiveness of our own sins in Jesus. We will pray that the message of Jesus will break into places where it is not welcome, and we will pray for the safety of those who are not afraid to stand for Jesus in those locations. We will pray for the people we know who still hold Jesus and His gifts at arms’ length, bringing the Holy Spirit to bear on their hearts and minds. And we will pray that the message of Jesus goes out into our community, and the more we pray this in faith, the more we will understand that we are the ones called to take it there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Preschool 'Church Tour' Card

I received this card after leading preschool church tours today. Thank you, Sam!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Puppets with a Purpose

Sue and Andy performed at the Great Geauga County Fair with the "Puppets of Peace" from Peace Lutheran Church in Munson/Chardon. Despite a rainy, cold day, they reflected the Sonlight in a wonderful way!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rally Day: Repentance and Renewal

In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15: 10

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” 1 Timothy 1: 13--16

Imagine—our congregation and countless others are named after a man who attempted to stamp out the Christian faith, only to be given a second chance by Christ. The mercy and grace given to him through Jesus changed him so profoundly that he began promoting the faith he once persecuted. Reading his letter to Timothy, it’s obvious that Paul was very up-front about what he had done, and what Jesus had done to him. In fact, what Paul is saying here is, “Hey, look, I was the worst sinner I know, and if Jesus can change me and turn me around, he can do it for anybody. He can do it for you.”
Our church is named after a man who tried to destroy Christianity, only to be given a second chance by Christ. We are worthy of the name St. Paul’s only if we continue to be a place where Jesus offers second chances; and third chances, and fourth chances. We’d better change our name if we act in a way that shows we don’t really believe in second chances. Paul’s example shows us that being a Christian means living a life of repentance.
In today’s Gospel lesson we have two stories Jesus told to get his point across. The ones we heard today are ultimately stories about repentance. These parables are among Jesus’ most well-known tales. The plots are simple. A sheep goes missing. The shepherd goes looking. A woman loses a coin and turns the house upside down to find it. But here’s what I want you to notice today: the stories end exactly the same way. Both the shepherd and the woman, having found their lost objects, call their friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me! I have found my lost sheep! I have found my lost coin!” Jesus uses that to say, “…in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent,” and “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” According to Jesus’ words, heaven erupts in celebration when sinners repent.
Do you see how these readings line up? First we meet Paul, who, with his past and his second chance, is a model of repentance and faith. Then Jesus tells us stories about the joy in heaven over the sinner who repents. Are you getting the idea that repentance is a crucial part of your life with God? But do you wonder, what repentance really is?Well, there are a number of ways of trying to describe repentance. Going for a literal meaning, it is a turning around—a change of direction in life. I’ve heard repentance described as admitting your sins, feeling sorrow over them, and asking God for forgiveness. More and more I have come to think of repentance simply as being honest with God.
If I am honest with God, then I will be forced to admit that even as I am serving Him, there are evil thoughts and feelings that well up from my heart and mind. If I am honest with God then I have to admit that my love for Him is far from full and complete, and I don’t love my neighbor as I do myself. If I’m honest with God then I have to tell him where I have done far less than I am capable of, that I have nursed grudges, that I have been unfair and unloving in even the most important relationships. It’s this type of honesty that repentance is made of.
Remember Paul’s example of honesty. Writing to Timothy, he admitted, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” He confessed to being the worst of sinners. He wasn’t trying to fool anybody. Just the opposite. He was telling the truth about himself. “Lord, here’s who I am and what I do. Save me. Forgive me. Change me.”Do you have this kind of honesty with God? Are you just beginning to discover it? Are you at a point in your life where it is painfully obvious that sin is ruining your life? If so, then rejoice, because heaven is rejoicing. Take heart, because you’re being honest with God, and that’s what he wants. Listen to this and believe it: your sins are forgiven before God through Jesus Christ. The Son of God himself took your death sentence upon himself at the cross, releasing you from the penalty of your sins. Your record is clean. There are no charges against you. A life of ongoing honesty with God keeps you plugged into the freeing power of forgiveness. Paul was not afraid to talk about his past, because it meant he would also be talking about Jesus, the giver of undeserved blessings. We do not have to be afraid to talk about our sins, either, because the same do-over given to Paul is given to you. Honesty with God allows you to enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and his triumph over death on Easter. It is dishonesty about your sin that prevents you from living in the gifts of Christ.
On this Rally Day (weekend) we have the specific chance to renew our commitment to the study of God’s Word. We have yet another chance to be honest with God and admit that we have prevented ourselves from living in His gifts as fully as we could because we do not immerse ourselves in the Bible as we ought to. We can recite lines of dialogue from our favorite films, but we cannot recite verses from Holy Scripture. We proudly reproduce sports trivia, memorizing stats and player biographies, but we don’t know the biographies Moses, Elijah, or Deborah. We know where all the good stores are located, but we don’t know if the book of Colossians is located in the Old or New Testament, and worse, we might not particularly care. For people who claim to follow Jesus, this is simply unacceptable. Disciples of Jesus are not Biblically illiterate. How could that be possible? Why would you willingly ignore the words of the person you claim to follow? Return to the Lord! Renew your commitment to listening to His voice by studying His Word in whatever setting words best for you. Plug into God’s Word. It is the source that powers a life of faith in Jesus. It is the source that powers a life of forgiveness. And it is not too late to be honest about your need for this power, and to plug into it. It is waiting there for you. Jesus is waiting there to fill you up.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

There Can Only Be One # 1

Back in the day, I used to try to make time every Saturday morning to listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top Forty. It was kind of a big deal to find out what song was #1 on a given week. These days, I don’t know if there even is such a chart—I know records are kept for how many times a song is downloaded from iTunes, which is not quite the same thing. But back then people were really paying attention to what the # 1 song was.
Pretty soon college football season will be in full swing, and the hotly debated question will be, who is #1, according to the BCS rankings? With all the win/loss records, strength of schedule, and whatever other formulas go into that, at the end of the day, there can only be one #1, although when it comes to college football you wonder sometimes.
That’s a hard reality for athletes and entertainers and for everybody: there can only be one #1, and all our charts and lists pale in comparison to the command that God gives and the expectation that Jesus lays out here in Luke chapter 14. What God demands from his disciples is this: He needs to be your #1. There can be nothing more important to you than Him. Jesus asks you to think about it; to count the cost. Can you do it? Do you even want Him to be #1 in your life? Your answer is extremely important, because Jesus goes on to say that salt that loses its taste is no good, and it gets thrown out. If you’re into a comfortable Christianity where nothing is really expected of you and you hope you don’t really have to do anything in Jesus’ name, this message is not for you.
Kind of scary, isn’t it? This is not the smiley, huggy Jesus of our imagination; this is the real Jesus, God in the flesh, the teacher, saying to you and me, “There can only be one #1. If you’re going to roll with me, I’ve got to be it. If not, you’re just pretending at this.” And somewhere deep in our hearts, we know that this is the type of commitment that is called for when it comes to life with Jesus. The faith in us, fighting for life, allows us to sense that God should be #1 in our lives, and that our decisions and actions ought to be in harmony with God’s #1 spot. But all too often, we let go of that lifestyle. There are other concerns, other issues, other people that we prioritize above Jesus, the Son of God. Our families are an excellent example, and it is no coincidence that Jesus uses that example himself.
At first, the language here is extremely off-putting. When Jesus talks about hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even your own life, well, we almost make a little mental deal to ignore Jesus here—to pretend that He didn’t just say that. But good scholarship tells us that in Biblical Hebrew, the word ‘hate’ can mean loving someone less than another. You don’t hate them in the sense that you despise them; but “hate” in this Hebraic figure of speech means that there is a pecking order. Both are loved, but there is a favorite. So it would be valid to translate verse 26 this way: “If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, more than your own life.” Now that takes the weird “hate” part out of it, but it still leaves us with an extremely difficult choice. But there can only be one #1. There will be a personal price to pay in your family if Jesus is your #1. It’s true. Same thing in your daily work and your friendships. Nothing can be more important than Jesus, not sports, not your boyfriend or girlfriend, not your hobbies, not your business, not your own personal comfort. It’s not hard to figure out what you love more and what you love less—just look at the decisions you make every day and where you’re spending your time. It’s not hard to tell where God is on your list. There can only be one #1.
If Jesus’ words have hit a nerve with you, then the thing to do is be honest. Be honest about how impossible it seems to put God at #1 in your life. Ask Him for the forgiveness that only He can offer. Come to Jesus, and look at the commitment He made to you. Jesus loved His Father more than He loved Himself. That’s how He could empty himself of all majesty to become truly human. That’s how He could be obedient to His Father and carry out the mission that had been given Him. What’s equally true is that Jesus loved you more than He loved himself. That love, not the nails, held Him to the cross, where His total commitment to you resulted in His suffering and death. Because Jesus loves you more than He loves himself, you are spared from having do deal with sin and death on your own; you are spared from eternal separation from God. To use the Hebraic figure of speech, Jesus hated Himself and loved you. Otherwise He would have never gone near the cross. But he did. His love for His Father and His love for you is the only explanation “why.”
When you trust in this Jesus and when you have been connected to Jesus through Baptism, you have access to His commitment. The apostle Paul urges us to remember our baptism and to daily “put on Christ.” I don’t think we really realize the great power we have been given access to. Through baptism and faith, Holy Scripture promises that we share in the mind of Jesus. We share in the humility of Jesus. We share in Jesus’ way of life, which values and loves others more than self. When Jesus starts talking about carrying our own crosses, this is what He’s getting at, and let’s take his advice: let’s count the cost, here. What does it mean to carry a cross for Jesus?
First, carrying a cross for Jesus means dying to self, meaning, I’m not # 1. This is a good thing. It means freedom from lusts and passions and being controlled by them. It means freedom from a life of trying to get more, newer, better stuff. Secondly, carrying a cross for Jesus means living a life of love and sacrifice. When God is #1, we are free to commit ourselves properly to relationships that are supposed to bring blessing into our lives. That’s by God’s design. He wants us to serve and love our spouses, our children, our co-workers, our friends and everyone with whom we live. We can get those relationships right, because our most important relationship is right.
Too often, we stunt our own spiritual growth, because we’re afraid of total commitment to Jesus. We’re afraid that we’ll miss out on something or lose the things we like. And, in truth, you will lose old ways of thinking and acting. But take a second to count the cost and see all the freedom that you gain when you carry a cross for Jesus. You lose old ways that lead to despair and death. You gain a new way that is life, unending, in the light of God’s commitment to you.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Humility: How to Enjoy a Feast

Have you ever sat in the wrong seats at a ticketed event, like a sporting event or a play? That can be embarrassing, especially when you think, “Wow, we really got good seats,” and then an usher appears, asking to check your ticket, and then you have to move to seats that are less than ideal. That can be really awkward. A lot of times, those mistakes are unintentional, but they are still embarrassing nonetheless.
What would be worse would be going to a dinner or banquet and, even though you are not the guest of honor, or a member of the wedding party, you decide to sit at the head table. Then the host would have to come over and ask you to move. Everyone would feel uncomfortable. Someone who knows you well enough might ask you, “What were you thinking?”
Jesus describes a similar scenario in today’s Gospel lesson, and he offers what, at first, just seems like good social advice—proper etiquette, if you will. When you show up at a wedding banquet, Jesus says, take a lesser seat, and let the host decide where you belong. Makes sense. You’ll certainly avoid the embarrassing scene of being asked to move And you just might enjoy the honor of having the host say, “Move up here, to a better place.”
What I would suggest to you today is that this “where should I sit” story is more than just a lesson in manners or social interaction. If we look closely, we will see Jesus highlighting a fundamental attitude he wants us to have. That attitude is humility.
Humility is a peculiar virtue and is easily misunderstood. The author and performer Garrison Keillor has gotten a lot of mileage out of describing the extreme humility of the people of the Upper Midwest., where folks are brought up to be deeply mistrustful of any compliments, to the point that they don’t believe they have any good qualities at all! But humility is not self-hatred. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are well acquainted with the language of humility, but don’t believe a word of it. When they say, “It was nothing,” they really mean, “I was awesome, wasn’t I?” It turns out, false humility is just pride in disguise.
Now we have named the real enemy: pride. “Where should I sit at the banquet” is really a question of pride. How important do I think I am, really? What do I think I deserve? These are important questions to consider, not just when it comes to choosing a table at the next wedding you go to, but in all of life, including how you relate to God Himself.
Here’s what I mean: we are tempted to seat ourselves at God’s best table based on us; on what we do. We perceive that our kindness toward others, or our link to a church, or our belief that we are really being obedient to God means that we deserve a plum position of some sort. These attempts at self-glorifying seem appropriate, because we are constantly told that hard work will get you moving up the ladder. You deserve good things because you’re a good person. Ok, you’re not always good, but you’re not as bad as the people sitting next to you. Pride plants the idea in my heart that God owes me something. Pride says that what matters most is what I want. But Jesus is saying that if you bring a prideful attitude into His kingdom, the least that’s going to happen is that you’ll end up embarrassed. The reality is that pride is a far more serious threat to faith. Not surprising, then, that pride takes a beating in Holy Scripture.
Listen to these passages that leave no room for pride in the Christian heart: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3: 23). “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse (Galatians 3: 10). “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all out righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64: 6). We cannot barge into God’s banquet and demand a seat based on our best performance. God will not allow it. So where does that leave us? Embarrassed and awkward? Maybe. Recognizing our sin can make us feel that way. But when we confess those sins and own up to them, we are voluntarily taking the lesser seat. When we finally see how helpless sin makes us, we are beginning to understand what real humility is. And when we come in repentant humility to the feast of God, you will let the host seat you wherever he wants to. That is the great news for us today: barging into his banquet won’t work; but when you come confessing your sin, when you come to the party in humility, the host will be happy to come out and get you and bring you to where you belong.
This summer my son and I had the experience of waiting in a long line for a special store to open. We got in that line about an hour before the store was to open, and even so there were quite few people in front of us. There was no way that we could’ve forced our way in. But with about forty minutes to go, a friend of ours who worked in that store came out, saw us waiting, and said, “Come with me.” We waltzed past those who had been ahead of us in line and right through the front entrance. It was a pretty great feeling. It really is about who you know.
That’s how it works in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. We can’t muscle our way in—the truth is we don’t deserve to be there at all. Jesus was made like us in every way so that he could step in for us, be punished on a cross for us, suffer hell instead of us. Jesus became one of us to defeat the devil and to break the power of death by rising to life on Easter. When we approach God’s feast in humility, the crucified and risen Savior actually comes out to get us to bring us in to where he is. He comes out with forgiveness and life, saying, “Friend, move up higher!” Move up higher—be washed in the baptismal water and joined to Jesus. Move up higher—receive forgiveness of your sins and be reconciled to others. Move up higher—hear the Word of God and let the Holy Spirit create a new heart within. Move up higher—eat and drink at the feast of the Lord, where Jesus’ body and blood are offered for pardon and peace. Let’s never forget that all of us are here in the kingdom of God, feasting at His table, for one reason alone: we have a forgiving, gracious Host. With humility and faith in Jesus, let’s live gratefully and generously. Your host will seat you now!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

God's Love Is Wide, But His Door Is Narrow

Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
And we say, “Really? A narrow door? Isn’t it a bad thing to be narrow-minded?” Here we have more uncomfortable words from Jesus—words that put us, His disciples, at odds with conventional wisdom. For while it is true that God’s love is deep and wide, the way to that love is a narrow door. Salvation—being re-routed from hell to heaven—is the work of Jesus alone. This is the holy, Christian, apostolic message: “There is no other name for people to call on to save them.” No other name but Jesus.
If you really live by this narrow truth, you can expect some blowback, or opposition. Jesus never said discipleship was easy.
One of our members here at St. Paul’s tells the story of being invited to say a few words at a nursing home memorial service for his father. Now, his father had never made a confession of faith—it was just something that he didn’t talk about. So when it came time to talk, this Christian man made a clear witness to Jesus as the one and only way to heaven. Then he went on to say that he hoped his father went there, although he could not be sure.
If you can imagine a wheelchair-bound angry mob, that is what this man faced after the service. They rolled up to him, fingers wagging, “How can you say that? Of course your father went to heaven! He was a good man.”
And that is what passes for conventional wisdom and cultural spirituality today: as long as you’re a basically decent human being, heaven, if you care to think about it, is a shoo-in for you. But that’s not the narrow door of which Jesus speaks. In fact, our Lord ups the ante considerably when He teaches that mere knowledge of Him is not enough either! Being a “passing acquaintance” of Jesus isn’t going to do it! Listen to His words: “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us,” then he will answer you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!”
To put this in everyday language, just knowing about Jesus is not enough. Having your name in a church record book is not enough. Participating in the rituals of the church is not enough. Even calling yourself a Christian is not enough. The question is, do you trust in Jesus? Do you believe the things you say about Jesus in our creeds? Do you believe the things you say about yourself in our confession of sins? Is it your sincere conviction that you deserve nothing but punishment for your sins and sinfulness? Do you truly believe that Jesus has provided the only way out from under God’s wrath through His innocent suffering and death? Do you believe that his resurrection paved the way to heaven not for “good people” but for repentant sinners? Jesus has some alarming news to share. People who are, in fact, casual acquaintances of Jesus are going to be mighty surprised on the day of judgment, whether that’s the big one or the little one of their own death. “Hey Jesus—I knew about you!” isn’t going to work. “Jesus, I believe in you—Jesus, I depend on you completely—you are my life…” That is the relationship He is looking for from us. “Jesus is someone that I know because I’ve met Him in His Word, I trust in what He’s done for me, and I thankfully live life His way!” People who have that attitude are being drawn through the narrow door by the undeserved, unending love of Jesus, the Son of God.
However, there are still those who object to this singular focus on Jesus. And, truth be told, in our private thoughts we may harbor an occasional doubt or two. The idea of all religions being equal in value and validity can be persuasive, especially when we have connections to people who practice those religions. But consider this scenario:
Just imagine that a new, mutant virus begins to spread around the world, creating a panic that makes last year’s swine flu scare look like a birthday party. People are dying by the thousands. There is talk about the 21st century Black Plague. The virus is introduced to the United States through air travel, and the plague begins to spread rapidly inward from both coasts, cutting a wide swath of death across our country. Then, in an amazing turn of events, a cure is discovered. Pharmaceutical factories work around the clock, cranking out pills that, once swallowed, can reverse the effects of the disease, and restore life to the individual. In every case where they had been tested, they proved to be effective, with no adverse side effects. The pills also worked as a vaccine, ensuring that the virus would never be able to kill the person who had taken them. Best of all, the pills were free and readily available to all who wanted one.
How likely is it that someone would say, “I don’t think the plague is a problem?” Or “I won’t get sick. I’ve never been sick before, and I won’t catch this either.” Or “I don’t think it’s right that the cure is only in pill form—I want mine as a shot!” Or “I don’t believe that this pill will help. I’ll go chew on some plants instead, that ought to work.” Human nature being what it is, I have to grant that some folks might actually answer that way. But by and large, I believe most people would gladly take the pill that would save their lives.
There is one cure for the plague of sin, and His name is Jesus. He has negated sin’s heavy price at the cross of Calvary. He has reversed the effects of death with His resurrection. He offers protection and peace to the person who takes Him as Savior and Life-giver. He invites you to help yourself to His gifts at no cost and to live in connection with Him. Turn away from sin. Turn away from self. Run to the open arms of Jesus. A celebration that lasts into eternity is waiting for you through His narrow door

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bible Study: the Gospel of John

Signs and Teaching

John calls the miracle at the Cana wedding “the first of [Jesus’] signs.”

Signs: Greek semeia; revelations of God’s mind and work. Not only are these miracles but they are actions demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah.

John refers to “signs” seventeen times in his Gospel. What effect did these signs have on people? (See John 2: 11, 23—25; 12: 37—38; 20: 30—31)

After the “Cleansing of the Temple,” Jesus is asked to produce a sign that will give evidence to his authority. What “sign” does he give the Jews? (2: 19) What does John “give away” in verse 22? Why do you think he does this?

For that matter, why do you think John places the “Temple Incident” towards the beginning of his book, when the other Synoptic Gospels put it towards the end? (John 1: 11 might be helpful in answering this question.)

Why is Nicodemus willing to call Jesus “a teacher come from God”? (3:2) What stereotype does Nicodemus instantly explode? (3:1)

According to Jesus, how does one “see and enter” the kingdom of God? (3:5)

The original language adds clarity and a greater sense of wonder to Jesus’ saying about himself as the “Son of Man” in 3: 13. Rendered literally, it says, “And no one has gone up into the heaven except he who out of the heaven came down, the Son of Man who is in the heaven.” (Remember the full meaning of “Son of Man” from Daniel 7: 13.) What does Jesus say must happen to the Son of Man? (3: 13; Numbers 21: 9)

John 3: 16: Loved: Greek agapao; sacrificial, unconditional, selfless love

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bible Study: the Gospel of John

The Baptizer’s Message and the Calling of the Disciples

The Pharisees sent priests and Levites to ask John, “Who are you?”

Why would they ask, “Are you Elijah?” (2 Kings 2: 11; Malachi 4:5; Matthew 17: 12)

Who are they talking about when they ask, “Are you the Prophet?” (Deuteronomy 18: 15—18)

What identity does the Baptizer claim? (Isaiah 40: 3—5)

To what is John referring when he calls Jesus “the Lamb of God?” (Exodus 12)

What experience is John recounting in John 1: 32—34? (Matthew 3: 13—17)

It appears that Andrew was a “disciple” of John the Baptist before he was a disciple of Jesus. Who may have been the other of the “two” mentioned in v. 35? (The film assumes this is the identity of the “other” disciple.)

What do you think of Philip’s “evangelism technique?” (v. 46)

In the span of two verses, Jesus is identified as both “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” This reference Jesus makes ties together two Old Testament events—what are they? What is Jesus saying here? (Genesis 28: 12; Daniel 7: 13)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Worried Sick

Jesus says to you, “Do not be anxious. Don’t worry.” What do you say to Him?
Do you say, “Well, Lord, it’s not that simple. You don’t know what I’ve been going through. There are so many terrible things going on in the world. I just can’t help it.”
Jesus says to you, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.” What do you say to that? Do you say, “Yeah, Lord, that sounds very spiritual and everything, but I’ve got to put food on the table and clothes on my family’s back somehow!” Or do you say, “How can I not be anxious about life when I just received this diagnosis or when my loved one is in declining health, or they live far away, where I can’t help them?”
When Jesus starts telling his disciples “Do not worry,” we start to tune Him out. For so many of us, the idea of being free from anxiety is a beautiful thought, but so far from reality that we don’t even take it seriously. That’s a shame, because our Lord Jesus clearly intends for us, His disciples, to do something other than worry ourselves sick.
What does He intend for us? He lays it all out in today’s Gospel lesson. First of all, Jesus calls us to consciously reject worldly priorities. He does this first with the story of the Rich Fool. The meaning of the story is easy to understand: God calls this man a fool because he spent his whole life trying to accumulate more stuff; then dies, effectively losing all the stuff he had dedicated his life to gaining. Now sitting in church we may piously give our agreement to this story, but in our everyday lives, do our actions match our agreement? Have we consciously rejected “getting more stuff” as something that matters to us, or are we still on the treadmill of going after more, bigger, and better? In addition to being a meaningless goal, it brings with it many worries, to the point that we stop possessing our possessions and they start possessing us. Worry is neutralized when you consciously reject the lie that “getting more stuff” is going to make you happy. That takes some doing, especially when so much advertising is based on creating a desire in you for something you don’t have. That’s why Jesus doesn’t just say, “reject this mindset,” but continues by saying “replace it with something better.”
But before we get to that “something better,” Jesus pauses and asks us, His disciples, to reflect on His Father and our Father. Jesus asks us to think about the birds that fly around our backyards and the flowers beautify the landscape. God tends to them both. Neither birds nor flowers worry about their existence, yet God provides for them. And if that is the case, Jesus says, don’t you think that God is going to tend to you, as well? You are much more valuable to God than a bird, Jesus says, and that’s not a put-down to birds. It’s just that God values you more; so much so that His Son was raised up on a cross to take your punishment. He didn’t do that for the birds or the flowers; he did that for us, for you and for me, so we could be forgiven; so that we would trust Him with our eternal well-being, along with everything else.
That is the choice Jesus holds before you today. You can worry, or you can trust God. You can torture yourself with a thousand “what ifs,” or you can place your problem in the hands of the God who formed this world and still tends to it. You can worry yourself sick, or you can enjoy a healthy trust in your Father to do what is best for you. You are invited today to just trust that God knows what is best for you, and is working through every little detail of your life, to provide for you and put you on the path that will bring the most blessing to you. That doesn’t mean the most stuff; but that does mean freedom from the agony of anxiety. Just trust that your Heavenly Father knows what to do and will never leave you. Let go of the illusion that your worry is going to change anything. It’s not. Just trust that God has it handled and that He loves you and that His answers are the best answers. They are. The sacrifice of His Son on the cross is proof of how far He would go to care for you.
And when you just trust in the Lord, you are ready to replace old ways of thinking with something much better. Listen to Jesus describe that “better way”: “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after such things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”
Seeking the kingdom of God, Jesus says, is the better way to live. But what does that seeking mean, exactly? Well, at this point, it would be tempting to refer to what our sister in Christ Rachel is doing, by going to Taiwan to share the light of Jesus there. And that is wonderful work, make no mistake. It is a privilege to be a part of that and to be involved in sending her today. But what I am afraid of is giving you the impression that its only people like Rachel who are seeking the kingdom of God by going to far-off locations, or for that matter, that it is only professional church workers who are out there seeking the kingdom, and that’s simply not the case! He wants you to seek His kingdom, and you can do that without ever leaving this community! Seeking the kingdom means living in a way that shows God’s reality in your life. It means knowing what He says in His Word. It means valuing what He does for you in the divine service. It means adopting God’s priorities as the priorities that you will live by. It means giving freely from what you have and who you are in response to Jesus’ kindness. Seeking God’s kingdom means that you are sold on Jesus Christ and want to bring his compassion and mercy and truth into your corner of the world. Jesus promises that when going after His kingdom is your first priority, you will lack nothing. You’ll have nothing to worry about.

Why not try it, and see?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bible Study: The Gospel of John

Grab your Bible and join me in this study of John's Gospel, which I have been leading on Saturday nights, in conjunction with the 2003 film, "The Gospel of John."
The Gospel of John
Session One
Prologue: Establishing the Identity of Jesus Christ

What deliberate connection is John making in 1:1? (Genesis 1:1)

What does it mean to call Jesus “the Word”? (How did God create? (Gen. 1: 3))

Word: Greek logos; root of English words such as “logic” and “-ology” (the study of…)

What event and action does John want us to know Jesus participated in?

Take a look at what the Old Testament says about the connection between the Word and light in Psalm 119: 105, 130;

“John” in verse 6 is not John the author, but John the Baptist, whom we will meet in verse 19. How does verse 7 describe John the Baptist’s task?

What is the tragic irony of the arrival of the true light in the world? (vv.10—11) At the same time, what does John say also happened? (vv. 12—13)

Right: Greek exousia; meaning “freedom” or “authority.”

“Dwelled among us” in the Greek is eskanosen, which means “tabernacled.” Why would John describe Jesus taking on human flesh as “tabernacling”? (Exodus 40: 34—35)

According to verse 15, what did John the Baptist proclaim about Jesus?

Fullness: Greek plaromatos; meaning “plenty of,” “abounding in,” “complete”

What basic interpretive principle is described in verse 17?

Verse 18 sets up a major theme of John’s Gospel. What is it?

Monday, July 5, 2010

One Nation Under God

Polite society, we are told, welcomes neither religion nor politics in everyday conversation. Well, I guess this is going to be an impolite sermon, then, because we’re going to talk about both. And how can we not? We are Christian citizens after all, and Scripture has much to say about navigating our way through life as both Christian and citizen.
Let’s start here: God has revealed the directions for national strength in a program that is surprisingly plain. These words of God say nothing about imports or exports; inflation or deflation; unemployment; bailouts or campaign finance reform. They don’t even mention the words Democrat or Republican. Yet these words are intensely practical. They penetrate to the first cause of everything helpful and everything destructive to the nation. Here is God’s direction for building a better nation, from Proverbs 14: 34: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” Sin destroys. Righteousness builds a nation.
When God warns that “Sin is a reproach to any people,” this is not theory or pessimism—this is history. Where today is the mighty Roman Empire? The world dominion of Alexander the Great? And this is more than ancient history. We see the ugly results of greed in our own nation today. The Biblical concept of marriage and family is disintegrating before our eyes, and in the families that are together, living in relationship with God is seldom the top priority. We hear every day about environmental disaster, ballooning national debt, attempts to destroy lawful and representative government. Behind all this, in one form or another, is the sure consequence for every uprising against God.
Here it is again, and it is no more complex than this: “Sin is a reproach to any people,” no matter how wealthy, how large, how proud, or how brilliant. Don’t argue that we are too strong or too resourceful to fall; if our programs and plans disregard divine truth, dethrone God, and smile on the carnivals of sin, no matter how ingenious or scientifically correct these plans may be, they must fail. Over the lost glory of every nation both the hand of God and the pen of history have written the verdict, “The reproach of sin.”
However, that is not the only word God has for us: remember, He also says, “Righteousness exalts a nation.” This again is not merely idealism talking—this is history! Wherever people have been blessed by Christian righteousness, they have proved themselves to be the “salt of the earth” that has prevented decay. Early Christianity changed the world of its day, exalting marriage, children and parenthood. The first Christians brought honestly and love to cultures that had never thought such a way of life was possible. Christian missionaries literally changed entire regions through the power of the Gospel message. And these things still happen when Christians are courageous enough to actually live out their faith!
Of course, Christians must vote intelligently and prayerfully. But more than this, the United States needs Christians to be Christian—to not just go to church but be the Church, so that our fellow citizens will be persuaded by our lives lived to God and attracted by the righteousness of Jesus that they see in us.
Every single day, Americans are bombarded with promises of happiness and fulfillment: just buy this product; try this exercise system; go on this diet; read this book; practice these principles; take advantage of this government program and you will get what you want. And if that doesn’t work, you can entertain yourself to death. But the Christian Church has something better for our people—and every nation—the one power that can create a clean heart and a right spirit within them—and that is faith in Jesus Christ, his cleansing blood and his victorious resurrection.
To overcome the reproach of sin for you, to break the curse of death in your life, to free you from the nightmare of hell, your heavenly Father did not simply overlook sin. Instead, he sent his only Son, Jesus, to bear on the cross in his crushed and bleeding body my sins and yours, to stand before the bar of eternal justice and plead guilty for us, to take upon himself everything sinful and wrong in our lives, to pay the penalty for sin on our behalf, to bring us full forgiveness of that sin and to open the gate of heaven to all who believe this. This is the most vital message of all human history; this is life; this is heaven and eternal blessing. Believe it, because he did it for you. Even if you have been living like God doesn’t matter and that you matter most, listen to this: Even at this moment, Your heavenly Father invites you to turn around and come back to Him. His arms are open wide, and so is his heart. Reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace are real, thanks to Jesus and his suffering, death, and resurrection.
When Jesus is your Savior, the faith in your heart will show itself. You will have the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures and the Sacraments by which sinful passions are tamed, selfish desires removed and small faith enlarged. You will want to make Jesus known to people, so that they can experience this peace and new life as well.
This is the righteousness our country needs more than any Senate legislation or government program. You and I have been chosen to be the delivery system by which people are introduced to the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the great gifts that he loves to give. In these critical, decisive days, we still have the freedom to speak of Jesus and to peaceably come together around His Word and Sacraments. May the Spirit make us bold to seize the opportunity our freedom affords us; to broadcast, in word and deed, the power and love of Jesus Christ. Because with Jesus in more American hearts and lives, we will have, by His promise, the righteousness that will exalt this nation!

Inspired by and adapted from a sermon by Rev. Dr. Walter A. Maier

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Are You Bearing Fruit?

You can learn quite a bit by planting a garden or caring for fruit-bearing trees. One of those things you can learn quickly is how little control you have when it comes to making things grow. Sure, you can help the process in a variety of ways, but in the end, and you green-thumbed people know this best, there is really nothing we can do to make fruit appear. The appearance and growth of fruit—and the conditions that support it—are controlled not by our willpower but by the patterns woven into creation by God Himself.
The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Galatia, urges them—and us—to “walk by the Spirit,” that is, to allow the Spirit of God to lead us in thoughts, in attitudes, in what we say and of course in what we do. Significantly, Paul refers to these right thoughts, attitudes, words and deeds as “fruit of the Spirit.” The idea is not hard to catch: Paul is saying that if the Holy Spirit is present in a person, then the Spirit in that person will produce right thoughts, attitudes, words and deeds. And just like in the created world, this is not a matter of our willpower, but it is a process that proceeds from God Himself. He has chosen to live in you, and since He is there, He will produce certain characteristics in you. Paul spells out what those characteristics are—so let’s look at each one in a little more detail.
The first fruit listed is love. Love that proceeds from the Spirit of God finds its highest expression in self-sacrifice. “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus said, and He also lived it. Not to be confused with infatuation or lust, Godly love is a willing commitment to put the needs of others ahead of your own. Are you bearing the fruit of love?
Paul also mentions the fruit of joy. This is not simply happiness, but truly enjoyment of God and His gifts. Joy is being amazed at what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. For that reason, joy is not dependent on favorable circumstances. Joy is what the Christian still has, no matter what, even in the worst of circumstances: membership in God’s family! Are you bearing the fruit of joy?
The next fruit of the Spirit named is peace. While we’d settle for a definition of peace such as “the absence of conflict” or maybe just “quietness,” peace rooted in the Holy Spirit means that a lasting truce has been called between you and God. The great big debt incurred and compounded by your sin has been paid off by the agony and death of Jesus on the cross. There is now no doubt about your identity: you are a baptized, adopted, forgiven child of God, and when you know who you are, there is wholeness. Are you bearing the fruit of peace?
Paul says that patience is also a fruit of the Spirit—but I’m afraid it’s fruit that nobody really wants. We live in a world in which “instant” almost isn’t even fast enough for us. And yet those walking in step with the Spirit will have patience. Maybe it would help us to think of patience not so much in terms of “waiting,” and instead think of it as “accepting God’s timing as the right timing,” and trusting that he knows the best “when.” Are you bearing the fruit of patience?
Kindness is next, and while it seems like simple fruit, it also seems to be sorely lacking nearly everywhere you go. Interestingly, kindness is not just a state of being. I’ve never heard anyone being urged to “have kindness.” No! We are urged to be kind! Kindness is being mindful that how we speak and the way we act matters—a lot. Kindness could be thought of as grace in action. Are you bearing the fruit of kindness?
Goodness is another fruit of the Spirit, and let’s not confuse “goodness” with “being nice.” In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not easy to be good and to do good. The opposite of good is evil, and being good will sometimes mean you have to confront evil and call it out, and that takes courage only God can provide. Have you taken a stand for good lately? Are you bearing the fruit of goodness?
The Apostle Paul says that faithfulness is fruit produced by the Spirit, and it is a special and beautiful fruit. Faithfulness is not merely possessing faith, but it is the ongoing pattern of being true to that faith. Faithfulness means orienting your entire life around the Lord and His Word and His wishes. Are you bearing the fruit of faithfulness?
The fruit of gentleness might be the most underrated quality on this list. Men, in particular, might hear “gentleness” and think “that sounds wimpy and weak.” But Spirit-grown gentleness is actually strength under control. Some of you have met our dog, Theo, a one hundred and two pound Newfoundland. He could knock just about anyone off their feet if he wanted to. But he knows not to, and he doesn’t. That’s gentleness, and that’s not a bad way to deal with people, either. Are you bearing the fruit of gentleness?
Finally, there’s self-control. The Spirit grows in us the ability to say no to things that are bad for us and yes to things that are good and Godly. The fruit of self-control makes it hard for the Christian to use the excuse, “I just couldn’t help it.” Self-control means you can always say no to the devil’s lies. Furthermore, you can say yes to meeting God in His Word, yes to His presence in your life and in worship, yes to anything that is going to make that bond stronger. Are you bearing the fruit of self-control?
I love what Paul says next. After making this list of Spirit-borne fruit, he says, “against such things there is no law.” There are plenty of laws against sinfulness, but you cannot be too loving. There is no restriction against being too joyful, or too filled with peace, or too patient. There is no penalty for being too kind, too faithful, too gentle, too self-controlled. God will only be pleased to produce this fruit in you and let you use it.Now, an unfortunate by-product of this “fruit list” is that it does point out what we are not. At the end of each fruit, the question was asked, “Are you bearing it?” And you may have honestly answered, “no,” or “I don’t know,” or “not as much as I should.” If that’s the case—and it’s the case for me—you are urged to confess this before God and admit where you fall short. Do so knowing that even now your sins are forgiven, removed, and cancelled by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The punishment that brings you peace was placed on Him. By His wounds you are healed. And then simply ask the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in you and for you to be aware of it. You may not realize all that the Holy Spirit is already doing in you. You may be bearing this fruit unconsciously. That’s how it is supposed to happen. After all, our tomatoes and apples don’t grow by our own willpower. Neither does the fruit of the Spirit appear in us by our own determination. It is His work in you that makes it happen. Just ask Him—provide Him withthe fertile soil of your heart—and let Him grow miraculous fruit in you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Love, Obedience, and Abraham Lincoln

I took our car in for an oil change, and I was sitting in the waiting room, which was empty except for me and one other man. There wasn’t much to do, so I struck up a conversation, and pretty soon we were talking about United States Presidents. And that’s when things started to get a little strange. You see, this man began talking about Abraham Lincoln; that he not only considered Lincoln to be the greatest President ever, but also the greatest American of all time and possibly the greatest man in history, period. In fact, he even said that he tried to live his life according to the teachings and example of Abraham Lincoln.
Well, now, this piqued my curiosity. I’d heard of Buddhists and Confucians, but I’d never met a Linconian—a disciple of Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. So I just had to ask a few more questions:
“Are there others like you?” I asked. “Oh yes, there’s a group of about 40 here in Lake County; we meet once a week on Friday evening—that’s the day Lincoln was shot. Our leader has a Masters Degree in American History. Every week, he reads a selection from Lincoln’s writings, and then he gives a talk explaining what it means and suggesting ways we can apply it to our lives. And of course, February 12th, Lincoln’s birthday, is a big holiday for us. We have parties, exchange gifts, and sing Civil War songs. It’s fun.”
“That’s fascinating!” I said. “So you must study Lincoln’s life and writings?” “Well, not exactly,” he said. “I do own a leather-bound copy of Lincoln’s complete works—his speeches and letters. I also own several biographies of Lincoln. One of these days I really do plan to read them. I just haven’t had the time.”
I started to push him a little. “But how can you be a disciple of Lincoln if you don’t read what he wrote?” “Well, it’s mostly common sense stuff, really,” he said. “Do unto others, the golden rule, be nice to people, free the slaves, that kind of thing. And besides, I listen to a half-hour speech about Lincoln every Friday.”
“I see. So how does being a follower of Lincoln affect your life?” “Well, like I said, I go to a meeting every Friday. I celebrate Lincoln’s birthday once a year. I own a leather-bound edition of his writings and speeches. Oh, and most of my friends are also Linconians.”
“So, when you get together with your friends, do you talk about Lincoln’s life and how to live out his teachings?” “Oh, no, not really. That stuff’s for Fridays, when we go to the meetings. No, we mostly talk about sports, politics, our families. We’re normal people, you know.”
As you may have guessed, this conversation never really happened. I just made it up. But it would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it, for someone to claim to be a follower of Abraham Lincoln, and yet not study his writings…not be familiar with the events of his life? You might reasonably doubt the depth of someone’s devotion to our sixteenth president if they had never heard of the Gettysburg address, or the Emancipation Proclamation, or Ford’s Theater. You would rightly expect that if a person claimed to be a disciple of Lincoln’s, it would have an affect on how they lived, beyond attending a meeting once a week.
Do you see where I’m going with this? If you are a Christian…if you are truly a follower of Jesus Christ, it will affect much more of your life than just Sunday morning. Following Jesus isn’t a hobby. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of life that makes us different from the world around us. It’s a matter of identity—it’s not just a matter of what you know, it’s a matter of who you are. To say it another way, Christians define themselves by their connection to Jesus Christ. That connection is a real thing. Again, it makes us who we are: people who have Jesus living inside them. Question number one in Luther’s Small Catechism: What is Christianity? Answer: It is the life and salvation given in and through Jesus Christ. Not a code of regulations. Not a list of do’s and don’ts. Not a burden of guilt to motivate us. Christianity is being chosen by God, adopted by him, cleaned up, forgiven, and being plugged into life with Jesus that lasts forever.
So how does someone respond to all this? Jesus tells us in his usual straightforward manner, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Now, right away you might hear that and think, “whoops,” because we know ourselves. We know our own track record with keeping God’s commands. We are weak-willed, rebellious, in a word, sinful. That’s what made Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross necessary. But again he did that for you so you could be chosen, adopted, cleaned up, forgiven, and plugged into eternal life. So if you return to God and admit your sin and spend some time at the foot of the cross, then your debt is paid in full. You have the proverbial clean slate. Not only that, but you have the Holy Spirit as your counselor and advocate. He goes with you through life pointing you to Jesus. Having given you these priceless gifts, your resurrected Lord gently asks you, “Do you love me?”
If you do love Jesus, then you will want to obey his commands. You won’t have to be forced to. You won’t obey Jesus because you’re scared of what’ll happen if you don’t. You obey his commands because you love him and know that’s what’s best. If you didn’t love Jesus, then you wouldn’t really care what he commanded, would you? If you do love him, then you do care, and you’ll want to do things his way.
By the way, what are the commands Jesus wants us to obey? Any idea? Earlier in this same conversation, Jesus said it clearly. This is chapter 13 verse 34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Are you sensing a theme here? Love seems to be very important to our Lord Jesus…but he’s not talking about sticky sweet sentimental feelings or warm fuzzies. When Jesus talks about love, he’d usually talking about sacrifice.

How will you respond to Jesus? As you think about that, consider this poem quoted by Pastor Gregory Dawson:

Christ has no body now
But yours
No hands
No feet on earth
But yours

Yours are the eyes
Through which he looks
With compassion on this world
Yours are the feet
With which he walks to do good
Yours are the hands
With which he serves all the world

Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are his body

Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Let’s show Jesus to each other by obeying his commands.