Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Monday Song #1: 'Come with Me Now' by Kongos

Have no idea what this song by the South African ensemble, Kongos, is about, but I enjoy it. A little accordion rock never hurt.

My favorite lines in the lyrics:
"I tried to sell my soul last night
"Funny, he wouldn't even take a bite"
The roaring lion who roams the world seeking souls to devour, wouldn't really pass on consuming any human being in his evil. But it's fun to think that we get so close to Christ, he might find us profoundly distasteful, even inedible.

(The video makes no sense, so far as I can tell. So, just close your eyes and listen to the song.)




Monday, August 25, 2014

Who is This Jesus?




[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, yesterday.]

Matthew 16:13-20
This morning’s Gospel lesson is so filled with good stuff that we need to dive into it right now, verse-by-verse. So, please turn to page 687 in the sanctuary Bibles and look at Matthew 16:13-20.

In verse 13, Jesus asks the disciples who people were saying He—the Son of Man—was. In the next verse the disciples give their answer: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Apparently, the buzz was that Jesus was the reappearance of one of the prophets.

Elijah and Jeremiah, of course, were Old Testament figures, while John the Baptist, the last of the great prophets, had just died.

In seeing Jesus as a prophet, the people were onto something. A prophet, as the Bible understands it, isn’t primarily someone who foretells the future. Rather, a prophet is one who speaks the true word of God to a world that doesn’t want to hear it, calling people to repent (turn from sin), and trust in God alone.

Like all true prophets, Jesus calls us to live for God alone. Not for our own interests. Not for our own desires. Not for the validity of our own emotions or intellectual analyses. Not for our country or preferred political ideology. But for God alone.

Eventually, Christians would see Jesus as THE prophet, THE priest, and THE king, among other things. But Jesus is much more than is encompassed by any of these titles. That’s why He asks the disciples in verse 15, “But what about you?...Who do you say I am?”

As we said last Sunday, this is the most important question any of us will ever answer. And, at least according to the witness of the Bible and of Jesus Himself, there is really only one right answer.

Jesus is the Word, the very living power of God, made flesh.

He is the only way by which sinful human beings like you and me can be saved.

He is the embodiment of God’s love, given to be the perfect sacrificial lamb for our sin so that all who repent and trust in Him as God’s definitive self-disclosure, as our only hope and Savior and God, will have their sins forgiven and have life with God, beginning in this imperfect world and brought to incredible perfection when we see God face to face in eternity.

These truths, God’s truths, have no expiration dates. You can bank your life, your eternal life on them and on nothing else.

In verse 16, Peter answers Jesus' question to perfection: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

The first thing to be said about Peter’s confession is that, given how Peter wanted Jesus to avoid the cross and be an earthly conqueror of the Romans, given how he denied knowing Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest, and given how hopeless Peter was after Jesus died on a cross, Peter probably had little idea of what he was saying at this moment.

We all know how that goes. Two people say, “I do,” with no idea of what the future holds in store. Husbands and wives agree to start a family without knowing what that decision will bring. Peter didn’t fully understand his own confession. But his answer was authentic and true, more than mere words.

The first title Peter uses for Jesus in his confession is Messiah. This is the English transliteration of the Hebrew word, mashiah. It means anointed one. It was a title given to all of Israel’s kings. The anointing of Israel’s kings was a sign of their selection by God. But the title came to be used of the special king God had promised through His prophets. THE Messiah would come set the world right with God and fully establish God’s justice. The New Testament Greek word for Messiah is Christos, or, as we know it in English, Christ. Peter confesses Jesus as the king of the world and the king of his life. So must we.

The second title Peter uses of Jesus is the Son of the living God. Israel’s kings were referred to as God’s sons. But here, Peter is saying more than he himself realizes.

Turn to page 821 of the sanctuary Bible and look at Colossians 1:15-16, please. The passage tells us what it means to call Jesus, “the Son of God.” (We looked at this passage this past week, Tuesday group.) It says of Jesus: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”

That’s what it means to call Jesus the Son of the living God.

It would be awhile before Peter’s faith caught up with his confession. But he had it right: Jesus is God.

If we see Jesus as anything less than the one true God and King of the universe, we have no part in Him, whatever words we may say.

Please go back to our Gospel lesson, verse 17: “Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven...’”

Peter’s confession about Jesus was pure miracle. His fledgling faith didn’t come from flesh and blood—not from a collection of human thought or the confluence of human emotions or human experiences. God Himself had revealed the truth about Who Jesus was to Peter.

The same is true for us whenever we confess faith in Jesus.

First Corinthians 12:3 tells us: “...no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

My inborn sinful nature dictates that I trust no one but me, that I look out for me and my interests, and that I not believe in a God Who is greater or more important than myself.

Yet, by God’s power, it’s possible for a self-centered, self-driven, skeptical, untrusting person to trust the God revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. Only God can give me (and you) the ability to believe in Christ.

In verse 18, Jesus continues by explaining to Peter the meaning of the new name He had already given to him, Peter, Petros in the Greek of the New Testament. It means rock and never in history before this time had it been given to someone as a name. Jesus then says, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades [the gates of hell, the gates of death] will not overcome it.”

Jesus builds His Church on the faith confessed by Peter.

The Church isn’t made up of bricks, mortar, carpeting, or sound systems, but of flesh and blood people who believe in Jesus. Without a faith in Jesus as God and the only Way to eternity with God, the Church doesn’t exist even if people sing hymns, light candles, recite creeds and prayers, play guitars, sing praise song, hold meetings, and listen to preachers.

Article 7 of The Augsburg Confession, one of the key confessional documents of Lutheranism, says that the Church exists wherever the Word of God is preached in its purity and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are administered rightly…in other words, wherever people meet Christ in faith.

In verse 19, Jesus says that to this flesh and blood people who believe in Him, He will give “the keys of the Kingdom.”

Filled with the Holy Spirit and taught by God’s Book, the Bible, you and I are given the responsibility to tell others about the will of God in His Law—the Ten Commandments—and the will of God in His promise that all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus will be saved.

We are to declare God’s condemnation for unrepentant sinners and to declare God’s forgiveness to repentant sinners.

The Office of the Keys is a scary responsibility for which none of us would be qualified were it not for the fact that, by grace through faith, Jesus lives in us.

Faith in Christ qualifies us for graces and responsibilities for which we, on our own merit, have no qualifications.

And using the keys of the kingdom can open up an eternity of hope and peace to the world.

Berhanu Ofga’a is a pastor of the Lutheran body, the Mekane Yesus Church, in Ethiopia. Once, during Ethiopia’s long civil war from 1974 to 1991, he was imprisoned. One night during his incarceration, he heard a man weeping and begging, “Does anyone here know Jesus Christ? Does anyone here believe in Jesus Christ?” Because Pastor Ofga’a was imprisoned for his confession of faith in Jesus, he was at first afraid to say anything. But finally he declared that he was a Christian. The voice then asked, “Please, how can I know Jesus?” From his prison cell, Ofga’a helped that man confess his sins and confess his faith in Jesus. And his own faith in Christ was deepened in that experience, sustaining him through a hellish time.

I first learned of Berhanu Ofga’a three years ago. At the time, he was the general secretary of his Lutheran body in Ethiopia. And even today, he and his fellow Lutherans are daily at risk of their lives for their faith in Jesus. Radical Jihadists destroyed dozens of their church buildings. Members were persecuted and subjected to violence. Yet, from 2009 to 2010, the Mekane Yesus Church grew from 5.3-million members to 5.6-million, an increase of nearly 1000 members each day.

There may be many different reasons for the explosive growth of the Lutheran church in Ethiopia. But the biggest reason no doubt is that our fellow Lutherans there are bold and unapologetic in confessing the same faith confessed by Peter in our Gospel lesson: Jesus is the Messiah and God!

Nothing—not prison cells, not hell, not death itself—can prevail against Christ’s Church. Those with faith in Christ are set free, today in this imperfect world and one day when we see God face to face, to live and speak for Jesus and to live lives of purpose that glorify Jesus for all eternity! We may as well get in the habit today, confessing and following Jesus, God and King.

Amen

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What the "Annoying" Woman Knew

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, today.]

Matthew 15:21-28
A young woman visited me in the office of a former parish. I knew her to be a kindhearted person. She was then in her twenties. But during her teens, her mother died and a grandmother took her in. She had been close to her entire family, coming to be, despite her youth, someone everyone depended on. But when an uncle abused her and she felt that she could confide in no one, her life grew worse and worse. Feeling isolated and hopeless, she became promiscuous, then got involved with alcohol and hard drugs.

Not long after we talked, she checked herself into a hospital and later, a treatment program. The counselors and other patients urged her to rely on her “higher power.” For her that could only mean the God we meet in Jesus Christ. But that created an early and enormous snag in her treatment regimen: She couldn’t believe that God would care about her.

I visited her several times at the treatment facility. Along with many others, I urged her to read Scripture and to pray, talking with God just as she would with a good friend, and to be unafraid to ask God for help. Over time, that young woman gained the strength not only to deal with her addictions, but also to face life.

The last time I saw her was some years ago. But the last I heard of her, she was still doing well. And her real progress seemed to begin when she vetoed worrying about her own worthiness and asked God for help.

Over the years, I’ve met many people who wanted to have God’s help and guidance, but felt, like that young woman, that they didn’t dare turn to God.

They didn’t feel they were good enough or important enough for God to care for them.

Yet one of the consoling truths of Biblical is that while none of us is worthy of God’s help, God wants to help us anyway.

We see this truth in today’s Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus passes through the non-Jewish--a Gentile--region around the cities of Tyre and Sidon. The people who live there aren’t the targets of Jesus’ earthly mission. First, Israel’s Messiah must claim His kingship over the Jews, the people of God. Then, enthroned through cross and empty tomb, He would send His disciples into the world to share the good news--the gospel--that all who trust in Christ, Jews and Gentiles, would be saved from sin and death and live eternally with God. But during His earthly life, Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy of a Messiah Who came to call God’s own people, the Jews, to follow God into His kingdom.

And yet, in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, for one of only two times that we know about in Jesus' life, we encounter Jesus as He chooses to travel outside His native country, beyond the boundaries of the promised land. He may have done this because the opposition against Him is increasing and in God’s plan, it isn’t yet time for His crucifixion. We don't know for certain.

While there though, a Canaanite woman shouts out to Him. The Canaanites, you’ll remember, were bitter enemies of God and of God’s people back in Old Testament times. Yet this woman cries out to Jesus for help. Why?

It appears to me that there were three things that this woman, confronted with an awful problem--the demon possession of her child--did know.

They’re three things that you and I need to know when we face our own awful problems.

First: She knew Who Jesus was. That’s clear from what she called Jesus. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” she says in verse 22. “My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.” Son of David was the title associated with the long-promised Savior, Messiah: the King of the Jews. Not even many of Jesus’ own disciples, like Him, Jews, had yet applied this title to Jesus. Yet this foreign woman did.

Who knows how the woman had come to know this about Jesus? Probably reports had come from Judea about Jesus. On hearing them, she may have resolved that even if there was a one-in-a-million chance that she would ever meet Jesus, if she did, she would go to Him and beg Him to help her daughter. She believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that He could help.

The most important question that Jesus asked during His earthly ministry was one He posed to His disciples and appears in Matthew 16:15: “Who do you say that I am?” Who we say Jesus is, is a question that we all must answer for ourselves.

Many in contemporary culture try cutting Jesus down to their own size, spinning Him down into nothing more than an affable preacher.

Others, even those who occupy seats in churches every week, don’t think much about who Jesus is, instead relying on their memorized creeds and liturgies and religious traditions to obscure the God-Man-Savior of cross and empty tomb.

But Jesus won’t let us cut Him down to anything less than “the way and the truth and the life.” And, as much as I love liturgies and the creeds, as helpful as they can be to our faith, unless we believe in Jesus, they don't mean much.

We must know Who is Jesus because we know Him personally. The Canaanite woman knew that Jesus was (and He remains) the Messiah Who came to show mercy and give life to all who believe in Him as their God and King.

The woman also knew that she didn’t deserve Jesus’ help. She would agree with Paul, who, in Romans 3:23, makes an honest confession for the whole human race: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The Canaanite woman doesn’t say, “Lord, take away the demon because I’m a good person.”

She doesn’t say, “Lord, help my daughter; she’s always been such a nice girl.”

She knew that nobody is good enough to deserve the help of God.

And so, she says simply to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord.” She bases her request not on what she deserves, but solely on the infinite love and mercy that God bears for all people!

So, this woman knew who Jesus was and she knew that she didn’t deserve Jesus’ help. But she also knew that Jesus cared.

Of course, you and I have the advantage over those who, like the Canaanite woman and the first disciples, encountered Jesus during His earthly life. We live on this side of His crucifixion and resurrection.

Through His cross, we know the depths of His passion for us.

Through His resurrection, we know that He has power over our worst enemies: sin and death.

Jesus' care for us has been shown in His sacrificed flesh and blood and in His resilient love for us that will not die! As we follow Christ, we take comfort and strength from the truth underscored by Paul in Romans 8: "...nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

But it’s amazing that the Canaanite woman knew how much Jesus cared, because not even His disciples appreciated this.

When the woman first approached Jesus, He paused. I think He did this in order to test the disciples. If so, they failed miserably. They didn’t urge Jesus to help this desperate woman as Jesus had helped them just a few days before when, during a storm, they thought they would drown at sea. Instead, they begged Him to send her away.

“Her shouting is really annoying us!” they tell Jesus.

The disciples remind me of the "good" members of some "good" churches. They want their churches to grow so long as the people who start coming look and act just like them and don't annoy them by bringing any problems to church with them.

Many of you know that my friend, Steve Sjogren, started a congregation in the Tri-County area of Cincinnati in the late-80s. Early in the life of the congregation, they began attracting all sorts of dysfunctional people (dysfunctional, by the way, is another word for ordinary) who felt the need for Christ in their lives. When they showed for worship and Bible study, they brought all their annoying problems with them.

One day, a couple got into a fierce fight on the church parking lot and the police had to be called.

At that point, the leadership of the church had to choose: Did they want to take the easy way, asking only "good" church-broken people to be part of their fellowship, people who knew how to hide their problems beneath a veneer of niceness? Or, did they want to take the harder route, inviting dysfunctional sinners into that fellowship? They took the harder route. Many have come to follow Christ because of that courageous decision.

After the disciples beg Jesus to send the Canaanite woman away, Jesus turns from them and toward the woman. He tells her in verse 24, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” Then Matthew tells us, “The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said. He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’”

Jesus’ response is part of a playful dialog between Him and the woman. While Jesus clearly had a mission to complete with His fellow Jews, He had already healed the servant of a Roman centurion, in response to a Gentile's request. And of that centurion, who had sought the healing, Jesus had said: “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

Jesus is seeing the same kind of faith in this woman. But His disciples only see an annoying foreigner who threatens to take what they think belongs only to them and their fellow countrymen.

In those days, Jesus’ fellow Jews referred to non-Jews as wild dogs. Most scholars surmise that the twinkle in Jesus’ eye as He looked at this woman didn’t match the sternness of His words, which were a parody of the attitudes of His fellow Jews, including the disciples. She would never dream, the Canaanite woman seems to say, of taking anything from the children of Israel, “yet even dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

At this, Jesus lays aside the banter and declares, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Matthew tells us, “her daughter was healed instantly.” The woman had known that Jesus cared.

The Bible records only two of God’s saints--Enoch and Elijah--leaving this earth without going through death. Not even God in the flesh Himself, Jesus, escaped death.

And we know that one day, this demon-possessed girl who Jesus freed would, like the rest of the human race, die.

Nor did Jesus’ exorcism of her demon free her from the problems that go with life in this world.

But this act by Jesus, in response to a foreign woman’s faith, demonstrated that the things she knew about Jesus were (and still are) true:
  • One, Jesus is the king of all creation.
  • Two, none of us deserves Jesus’ help, but He wants to give it anyway. And the greatest help He gives comes to those who turn from sin and trust in Him as their King and Savior.
  • Three, because of His great mercy, Jesus cares for each of us.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, dare to trust that each day, calling out with the same helpless faith exhibited by the Canaanite woman. All who dare to call out to Christ in this way have life with God that never ends. Amen



Saturday, August 16, 2014

Saturday Song #3: 'Let the Day Begin' by The Call

While their sound was very different, the passion and sensibilities of The Call, formed in 1980, were similar to a band formed across the pond just four years earlier, U2. Like his Irish counterpart, Bono, Call lead singer and main composer Michael Been was a Christian who viewed the Church with a critical eye and had a commitment to justice.

As was true of U2, The Call excited me in the 80s because they weren't a Christian band; they were a band whose music was Christian. They never achieved the commercial success that U2 has enjoyed, probably justly. And they broke up, leaving one to wonder what they might have done together. But they made fantastic music.

Been died in 2010.

I love this song!


Here's to the babies in a brand new world
Here's to the beauty of the stars
Here's to the travelers on the open road
Here's to the dreamers in the bars

Here's to the teachers in the crowded rooms
Here's to the workers in the fields
Here's to the preachers of the sacred words
Here's to the drivers at the wheel

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin, let the day begin

Here's to the winners of the human race
Here's to the losers in the game
Here's to the soldiers of the bitter war
Here's to the wall that bears their names

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin, let the day begin, let the day start

Here's to the doctors and their healing work
Here's to the loved ones in their care
Here's to the strangers on the streets tonight
Here's to the lonely everywhere

Here's to the wisdom from the mouths of babes

Here's to the lions in the cage
Here's to the struggles of the silent war
Here's to the closing of the age

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin, let the day begin, let the day start

Songwriters MICHAEL KENNETH BEEN
Published by Lyrics © CHRYSALIS MUSIC GROUP

Saturday Song #2: 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' by Israel Kamakawiwo'Ole

It's an infectious medley of the Harold Arlen tune sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and A Wonderful World, sung most famously by Louis Armstrong.

Saturday Song #1: 'Someone to Watch Over Me' by Willie Nelson

This great Gershwin tune gets a beautiful treatment by Willie. I love it!

I Have Seen the Future...

...and her name is Mo'ne Davis. Just ask Mamie Johnson.

Major league baseball is the pro sport most likely to see a woman enter the ranks alongside men, I've always felt. And pitcher is the most likely position where that will happen. Wouldn't it be great if the young Davis were the one to hurl through the glass ceiling and even sweeter if Johnson had a "behind-home-plate" seat to witness the event?

A Good Parent Caught in the Act

The good moms (and dads) never do for their kids what their kids can do for themselves.

And it would break their hearts to leave even one behind. (And it really breaks their hearts when tragedy intervenes and their children, despite all their good parenting and prayers, are taken from this world.)

Much of what animals do from instinct, we human beings can opt to do or not, which is why so many kids are hurting these days. Too many parents opt for what's convenient or easy, be it over-protectiveness, insensitivity, or both.

But the good parents choose day to day, moment to moment, to do what is best for their kids--from the womb to near-adulthood. It's dazzling to watch them do their parenting thing. They amaze me. They raise kids who are strong and kind, resourceful and at peace with themselves, able to reach for the achievement of all that their gifts will allow.

If you don't have such dazzling people in your lives and you want to be a good parent, watch this video. You could learn a lot from this mother duck.

PS: I don't draw the same exact lesson from this video as the person who posted it on Facebook. To me, it's the mother duck who's doing the hardest work in this video. Any parent, manager, volunteer coordinator, or leader of any kind knows that sometimes, it would be a lot easier to do things for the people they lead, but then those we parent or lead wouldn't learn or experience the sense of accomplishment that goes with completing a task, facing a problem, making a decision.


Friday, August 15, 2014

A Great Prayer...

...to offer for ourselves and for those we care about. Hold us, Jesus.

This is by the late Rich Mullins from his A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band LP.