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.”