Thursday, March 26, 2015

Depression...Male AND Female

This interesting article gives the symptomatic clues of depression in males. My guess is that not all of this is exclusive to males.

A few nights ago during studio coverage of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Charles Barkley memorably said (I'm paraphrasing), "Anyone who has a perfect bracket right now is a lying dog."

Likewise, anyone who says they've never endured what Winston Churchill called "the black dog," depression in any of its forms, is a lying dog in denying their black dogs.

There are differences, of course, between being sad or feeling blue, on the one hand, and being depressed, on the other. The latter is more severe and often, physiologically rooted. Or at least, physiologically abetted.

It's not a black mark on one's character to suffer from the black dog. Nor is it a sign of weakness. Despair is a sin chosen by the self-absorbed; it willfully refuses happiness or hope. But depression in its varied forms, is usually something that happens to us. It comes to us unbidden, like chicken pox or the flu or cancer.

Treatments depend on the severity and longevity of depressive feelings.

But it seems to me that two things are essential in dealing with all the manifestations of depression.

First, you have to acknowledge that you're sad. Don't buy your own schtick, designed, often for very good reason, to keep other people out of your "stuff." At least acknowledge to yourself that you're depressed. To survive from day to day, you may have to wear masks of affability and good humor. But it's essential that at least, to ourselves and, more importantly, to God, we admit that behind the mask is someone wrestling with sadness.

Second, lean on God. Read His Word. Read devotional material from reliable Christian authors. And, by all means, pray. God is the life-giver. He can fill us with new life when even our taste for life is gone.

If you suspect you or people who care about you suspect that you're clinically depressed, then you absolutely should see your GP as a first step toward healing.

But, these first two steps--honest acknowledgment and prayer--will often be what we need to move on with our lives.

They won't necessarily take away our melancholy, because melancholy often is rooted in experiences--the loss of a love, a defeat to our dreams, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a friendship. There are some losses from which we never recover. The hurt is too deep. The loss is too overwhelming. And to "get over" the losses of other people from our lives fully, would be deeply disrespectful of them and of the love we shared.

But we have responsibilities to God, to our families, to those to whom we have made promises, to those for whom we care and who care for us, and to the futures in which God may have our participation planned, to forge ahead, to plod on. (You never know what God has up His gracious sleeve, by the way.)

Honesty with God and with ourselves. Reliance on and trust in the God made plain to us in Christ. This is how we go on. This is how we start to endure even when the black dog plagues us.

Hey, Want to Raise the Ebenezer?

In today's Journey Through the Bible chapters, 1 Samuel 7-9, we see the word ebenezer. It reminded me of how, almost every time we sing the hymn, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, a get the question, "What is an ebenzer?"

To tell you the truth, it's one of those facts that I seem to lose all the time: I look it up, then forget it; then look it up again and forget it again. Knowing the meaning of the word ebenezer, of course, isn't critical for a believer's salvation. But it does seem imbecilic for we Christians, including this pastor, to sing the line in Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing about raising the ebenezer and not knowing or remembering what it is we're raising.

Kyle Butt, a guy I've never heard of, writing on a web site I'd never seen before, has an interesting and, it seems, credible explanation of the meaning of ebenezer, going back to a passage from 1 Samuel that figures in today's reading:
One of the phrases that is of particular interest comes from the song...Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing...[The words] were written by Robert Robinson in 1758. The second verse of the song begins with these words: “Here I raise my Ebenezer.”...  
In 1 Samuel 7, the prophet Samuel and the Israelites found themselves under attack by the Philistines. Fearing for their lives, the Israelites begged Samuel to pray for them in their impending battle against the Philistines. Samuel offered a sacrifice to God and prayed for His protection. God listened to Samuel, causing the Philistines to lose the battle and retreat back to their own territory. After the Israelite victory, the Bible records: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’ ” (1 Samuel 7:12).  
The word Ebenezer comes from the Hebrew words ’Eben hà-ezer (eh’-ben haw-e’-zer)which simply mean “stone of help” . When Robinson wrote his lyrics, he followed the word Ebenezer with the phrase, “Here by Thy great help I’ve come.” An Ebenezer, then, is simply a monumental stone set up to signify the great help that God granted the one raising the stone. In Robinson’s poem, it figuratively meant that the writer—and all who subsequently sing the song—acknowledge God’s bountiful blessings and help in their lives.
I think it's safe to say that Robinson intended for those who might recite his poem or, later, sing its words as part of a hymn, was saying, "We raise this song of praise as a monument to God's saving grace, to the "Fount of every blessing," the God ultimately disclosed to us in Jesus Christ.

I hope I don't forget.

I Will by the Beatles

If You See Her, Say Hello by Bob Dylan

I love this song, taken from my favorite Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks.

In the lyrics, the narrator tries to play the tough guy, as guys often do: "If she's passing back this way, I'm not that hard to find / Tell her she can look me up if she's got the time." Of course, what he really wants to say is, "I love her. I need her. Please beg her to call me."

Harder to Believe Than Not To by Steve Taylor

I love it when artists who usually do a bit edgier rock break into a ballad. This is a great tune from a long time ago by Steve Taylor.

It speaks a simple truth: It's harder to hang on to belief in Christ, harder to strive by God's grace to truly pray, "Thy will be done," than to go with the flow and to live only for this world. I'm fortunate to have had a mentor teach me though, that enduring in faith and submission to Christ is the better way to live in the long the eternal run.

[This video, like the previous one posted, is part of a loop. Feel free to keep watching beyond the linked song.]

Magnificent by U2

"Only love, only love can leave such a mark
"But only love, only love unites our hearts"

Teach Us to Pray, Part 5

[This was shared during this evening's midweek Lenten worship service at Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio.]

James 1:12-16
Luke 4:1-2a
Tonight, we’re focusing on the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.”

Someone has said that the easiest thing to empirically prove about the witness of Scripture and Christian belief is the reality of sin and evil. The Bible asks us to accept as matters of faith, among other things, the existence of God, Jesus' birth to a virgin, the divinity of Jesus, Jesus’ resurrection, the true presence of Christ's body and blood "in, with, and under" the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and eternity as a reality that will be experienced by all who repent and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. But it requires no leap of faith for us to believe that each of us is a born sinner or that, except for the God-man Jesus, sin is endemic to the human experience. Each of us can testify to the reality of sin and evil from what we see in the headlines, in our homes, and in our own hearts.

My home pastor used to tell us, “If you doubt the existence of original sin, put two 2-years olds in a locked room with a single toy.” Our natural impulse is to be wrapped up in ourselves, to love ourselves but not God and not neighbor. Our inborn desire to be in control of the universe, to “be like God” is something we all share, no matter how hard we may try to hide it from others...or ourselves.

But after the Christian has prayed that God’s name will be hallowed, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will is done, God will provide our daily bread, and God will forgive us our sins as we forgive others who have sinned against us, Jesus tells us to pray for what may be the biggest miracles of all! Jesus teaches us to ask our Father to “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Think about that: Jesus is teaching us ask God to militate against our inborn impulse to do be our own gods and ask God for the power to not do all the selfish, hurtful things which, inside of us, we want to do. That the Holy Spirit actually moves us to pray for such things, let alone give us the power to mean the requests, is a miracle!

Of the sixth petition, "Lead us not into temptation," in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes, “God tempts no one to sin, but we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory.”

In this petition then, we do ask God for a miracle. But that’s OK; God can handle miracles!

On the First Sunday in Lent each year, we remember that Jesus, though sinless, shared the human experience of being tempted to sin. Hebrews 4:15 tells us, in Jesus, “...we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Jesus’ successful resistance of temptation in the wilderness--along with His life-long avoidance of sin--was a miracle of God’s compassion and grace. Jesus didn’t take the easy or the selfish or the safe way out. He endured in His faithful obedience to the will of God and because Jesus endured, He can help us to endure faithfully in the face of temptation and evil.

But we can do more than endure. The God Who has shared our life experiences has also conquered our temptations, our sins, and death itself through Christ’s cross and empty tomb! Whenever we ask God to “deliver us from evil,” we express our conviction that no matter what temptations bedevil us and whatever sins we need to confess in Jesus’ Name, those who entrust themselves to Jesus can be raised above all evils.

During our lives on this earth, God will minister to those who truly seek to walk with Him, just as God the Father sent His angels to serve Jesus during His forty days of temptation in the wilderness. To pray, “Deliver us from evil” is to pray for more than the power to resist evil in this life. God will give those who ask the power to live faithfully to God. In Matthew 24:13, Jesus promises those who follow Him: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” It was no doubt with passages like this in mind that Luther wrote of the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“Deliver us from evil”: “We ask in this inclusive prayer that our heavenly Father would save us from every evil to body and soul, and [this is the much more Jesus teaches us to confidently ask for]  at the last hour would mercifully take us from the troubles of this world to Himself in heaven.”

In teaching us the sixth and seventh petitions, as is true of all the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to trustingly live in the glory of two transcending Christian realities: Surrender and Triumph! When by faith, we surrender to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit makes it possible not only for us to confess our faith in Jesus’ Lordship, but also to be empowered to relate to God as “our Father,” our intimate and loving parent. We can speak honestly to God about our desires, our hopes, our requests, our troubles, and our temptations and our sins.

Pastor and author John Ortberg notes that to the world, surrender is equated with defeat. But for the Christian, surrender is the first step to life. In all twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to freedom for the addict is admitting that they have a problem too big for them to control or overcome. That too, is the first step to freedom from sin and the freedom to truly live for all of us: We must admit that sin and temptation, even blessings, gifts, good things, and life itself are too big for us to handle on our own. We need help and we need to surrender to the only One Who can provide it, our Father in heaven.

Surrender is a hard pill for us to swallow. But as Ortberg points out, when we play God, when we think that we must have things under control, take responsibility for something over which we have zero control: the outcomes of life. We need to remember that all our times, as well as our eternities, are in God’s hands. When we surrender our lives to God though, God gives us the freedom to live day by day, working, loving, and living faithfully and leaving the outcomes in the hands of God.

The Christian who surrenders to the Father in faith also shares in Jesus’ triumph over temptation, sin, evil, the devil, and death. The person who asks their Father to deliver them from evil is claiming their share in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Surrender to Jesus Christ brings triumph as God sets us free to be our true selves, our best selves, our God-ordained selves!

The seventh petition brings us to the close of what Jesus taught when His disciples asked Him, "Teach us to pray." "For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever" is a doxology we've added to it. I'm glad that we do. But we also usually same something more at the end of this and other prayers.

We say, Amen.

Luther says about that word: “Amen means Yes, it shall be so. We say Amen because we are certain that such petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him. For He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us.”

When we say, "Amen" in our prayers, we take Jesus up on His offer of new life to those who surrender to Him and walk in the triumph of new life for all who repent and believe in Him!

So, as we close this Lenten series on prayer, let's do something different. Let's pray, trusting that as we pray that God's will be done, what we pray for shall be so.

Lord Jesus: Teach us to pray as You have taught us and to live our lives in surrender and triumph through the power of Your death and resurrection. In Your name we pray. Amen!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Galatians 3:24 (A 5 by 5 by 5 Reflection)

Today is a reflection day for those using the Navigators' 5 by 5 by 5 Bible Reading Plan. This morning, I read Galatians, trying to more fully glean and assimilate this tremendous section of the New Testament.

The verse on which I perched was Galatians 3:24:
Therefore the law [God's law] was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.
In this chapter, Paul, himself a Jew, is explaining to Gentile Christians how they could be heirs of God's promises to Abraham, the founding patriarch of the Jewish people.

He asserts here, and elsewhere, that Abraham was God's choice to found a people to save and to bring His salvation to others, was made not because Abraham obeyed God's law. (Which wasn't formally given until hundreds of years later, through Moses at Mount Sinai, anyway.)

Abraham became the heir to God's promises by believing in or trusting his life to the promises of God, however imperfectly he did so. "Abraham believed and God reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6; Galatians 3:24).

God's law, holy though it is, cannot make us right with God.

We can't be made right with God by obeying the law and our inborn impulse to sin and "go our own ways." Our sinful nature makes it impossible for us to keep the law in its entirety over the course of our lifetimes or even over the course of a nanosecond.

It's true in all of our lives, as Paul demonstrates in this chapter, that  until we meet Jesus Christ, the One Who brings God's promise of a right relationship with God and with others (in other words, peace or shalom with God, with others, with God's creation, and with ourselves), the law serves to curb us from the full expression of our sinful natures.

The Bible says that God's law is written on our hearts. We're born with a sense, however imperfect or fuzzy, of right and wrong. (Read the first few chapters of C.S. Lewis' book, Mere Christianity for a fuller and intriguing exploration of this topic.) God's law is a bridle, a hedge against our sin.

And when we do sin, we offer reasons at least partly rooted in the law of God written on our hearts, to demonstrate to ourselves or others that we're justified in committing the sins we love.

The law is a whip commanding our submission until...relief, Christ comes to us and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe in Him.

The law keeps our sin tamped down and teaches us the foolishness and futility of self-reliance until, like cool water to a person dying of thirst, Christ comes to us.

Christ may come to us in a Sunday School class, through the witness of a friend, in the loving service Christians render in Christ's name, or in a Bible study or a sermon, or in other ways Christ might choose.

But however He comes to us, He teaches us that we cannot be made right (made righteous or justified in taking up space in the universe) by our performance of God's rules, by doing good works, but solely by faith, simple moment to moment trust, in Christ and what He has done for us in dying on a cross and rising from the dead on the first Easter.

I am justified by my faith in Christ's perfect goodness, not by trusting my imperfect and always failed attempts to be good.

That is really good news. The best I'll read or hear about all day, every day, for all eternity.

Therefore the law [God's law] was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Book of Judges and a "Modest" Proposal

Reading the Old Testament book of Judges with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in the past week has underscored an important truth articulated famously by Lord Acton: "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The Old Testament judges started out as people without status. But God called them to exercise military and judicial authority on behalf of His people. The judges often had success. But they often forgot that their power was from God, became selfish and self-serving.

Government, in a world composed of fallen human beings, is necessary. The Bible teaches that governmental authority is God's idea, an emergency measure necessitated by the human penchant for selfishness and injustice. Christians are enjoined in the New Testament to pray for those in authority.

But what Judges makes clear is that power is a danger to the souls of those who exercised it and therefore, a danger to those over whom power is exercised.

It seems to me that in addition to terms of office, the dangers of power might be mitigated or minimized by deciding as a society that we won't elect anyone to the presidency or any other public office who wants those offices.

Those who desire power, irrespective of their party, are probably more prone to the abuse of power and a sense of entitlement than others who are more indifferent to it.

America has been and remains fortunate that we have never had a tyrant in the presidency, partly because of the genius of our constitutional system. But we have seen in the presidency of Richard Nixon how corrupting the desire for power can be.

So far as I know, only two of our presidents came to office without seeking it: George Washington and Franklin Pierce. Washington was a triumph, worthy of historian Garry Wills' assessment that Washington is the greatest political leader in world history. Pierce was a lowest common denominator choice of pols in a smoke-filled room and was a disaster.

That 50% success rate doesn't daunt me. I would much rather opt for picking people not animated by a desire for power than for those who disingenuously insist that they only want power as a means of doing good.

It's all a pipe dream, of course. But if, by this principle, we had a 50% chance of getting an even a lower-case Washington, wouldn't it be worth trying?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Please Pray for the Christians of the Nineveh Plains

Teach Us to Pray, Part 4

[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, this past Wednesday, March 18, 2015.]

Matthew 6:12
Matthew 18:21-35
To help us think about the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer tonight, here’s a literal translation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:12, where He teaches it: “And forgive us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave the debtors of us.”

Now, I’ll grant that this literal rendering of Jesus’ words is awkward, as almost any literal translation from one language into another will be. But I do think that it helps us to understand more clearly what Jesus is saying should be part of our praying and our living as Christians. More on that why that is in a few moments.

In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, Anglican scholar N.T. Wright says that if you ask the average person today what is meant by the word “forgiveness” today, you’ll hear some version of “tolerance,” not forgiveness.

And rare is the person who actually asks for forgiveness. If they do, we suspect that they’re doing so as a formality designed to induce us to put up with their bad behavior and move on.

“I’m sorry,” one family member says sullenly to another, when forced to.

“Mistakes were made,” the politician says, with no acknowledgment of who made the mistakes.

“We accept the judgment of the NCAA,” says the basketball coach of sanctions meted against his team, with no acceptance of culpability.

“Tolerate—or put up with—me,” these apologizers seem to say, with little hint of repentance or of the intention to do things differently in the future.

Before we scale too far up on our high horses in condemnation of phony forgiveness-seekers though, we should say that often, the forgiveness we seek is of the fake variety as well. “Forgive me,” we may say, more as a stratagem for getting people off our backs than anything else. “Look, I did something wrong,” we say, in effect, “Deal with it. Tolerate it.”

But Jesus sees this business of forgiveness differently. In the way Matthew says that Jesus taught the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our trespasses as we already have forgiven those who trespass against us--we understand that Jesus views our sins as something more than endearing flaws in our personalities that we must accept in ourselves and tolerate in one another.

In the eyes of God, sin is intolerable. Failure to love God and failure to love others is not something that God tolerates. Sin does not exist in heaven.

And when, in the words of 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us,” Jesus felt the full weight of sin’s horror and consequences. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

God can’t bear the sight of sin, even when the bearer of our sin is the Son Jesus.

Sin brings alienation between God and us.

Our sin, even the sin we think of as trivial and meaningless, is intolerable to God.

The magnitude of all the sin of the human race which the sinless Savior bore is so immense that, at His death, Matthew 27:51 tells us “the earth shook and the rocks were split.” Creation convulsed with grief.

God grieves over our sin because, as Paul says in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.”

If you and I are to live with God for eternity, we dare not see our sin as something that God, the world, or we ourselves must tolerate.

Jesus says that our sin is a debt we owe to God.

God gives us life and we overdraw our accounts by misusing that gift. That’s what sin is: A misuse of the free gift of life.

When we do that—whether by using God’s Name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving; or, taking or craving things that don’t belong to us; or, engaging in shady practices with money; or, withholding help from the poor; or, failing to work for justice; or, in any other way, failing to love God and love neighbor, the gulf between God and us grows larger. We add to what one of our Lenten hymns calls, “the debt of love I owe.”

And this is why Jesus’ crucifixion is the most important event in all of human history…why it can be the most important event for our personal histories--past, present, and future.

On the cross, Jesus pays our debt for sin with His life. 1 Corinthians 6:20 reminds Christians: “you were bought at a price.”

But, as the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, on this side of the grave, we still live on earth and not in heaven. Our habits and our inclinations all pull us toward racking up more debt, toward letting sin be at home in our lives. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

This is why confession of sin should be a regular part of our praying.

And this brings us back to the strange verb tenses uses in the fifth petition of His prayer. He says: “And forgive [present tense, now] us the debts of us, as indeed we forgave [past tense, already done it] the debtors of us.”

“Lord,” Jesus teaches us to pray, “Please forgive the debt of love I owe, just as I have already forgiven the debt owed to me by others.”

We dare not ask God for forgiveness in Christ’s name unless we have already willingly let go of our grudges against others who have sinned against us! This is a daunting, even frightening, thought for me, to be honest.

We know that we human beings aren’t equipped with the divine capacity for totally forgetting the wrongs have done to us. God can say, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” [Hebrews 8:12] But we have memories for the wrongs done to us.

Maybe God equips us with memories that remember sin, not so that we can keep grudges, but to avoid future hurt from people who would otherwise chronically sin against us or do us harm. If someone chronically abuses us, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, our memories can signal us to love them and understand them, but also to stay away from them, just as the memory of other pain reminds us to stay out of harm's way.

Yet even when we can’t forget, we can forgive.

We can release people from the debts of love they owe to us and so, free ourselves to live.

We can forgive and when we do, a wall that would otherwise block God’s forgiveness of us from our lives is torn down.

The king in Jesus’ parable, read just a moment ago, was perfectly willing to forgive the massive debt of the slave, just as God is willing to forgive our sin. God is the one most offended and hurt by human sin; it’s the lives He gives us that are being misused when we sin and it's the people He created in His image against whom we sin who are being hurt.

Imagine the cumulative debt each of us owes to God.

Yet, for the sake of Jesus, God is willing to forgive our debts.

But, as with the king in the parable, God will not forgive our massive debts unless we are willing to forgive those who have hurt us.

This is one of the hardest of all the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s tempting not to forgive others. Withholding forgiveness, keeping track of people’s sins against us, makes us feel powerful, better than others.

But God doesn’t want us to think we’re better than any other human being created in His image; God wants us all to be children of God.

He wants us to lay aside everything that might prevent His life-giving forgiveness from penetrating into our lives!

It boils down to this: Jesus says that we can’t grab hold of God’s grace if we insist on keeping hold of our grudges.

Grace or grudges.

Forgiveness or separation from God.

Life or death.

Those are our daily choices.

May we learn to truly pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Go, Buckeyes!

I feel apprehensive as my Ohio State Buckeyes men's basketball get ready for their first game in the NCAA Tournament this week.

It's been an up-and-down year for the Buckeyes, marked by the incredible play of freshman D'Angelo Russell, the suspension of Marc Loving, and the difficulties associated with integrating Loving back into play once his suspension was served.

Ohio State is seeded 10th in its bracket, facing 7th seeded Virginia Commonwealth University.

There's no doubt in my mind that Ohio State has the talent to make a run in the tournament. But I'm skittish.

With all that said, Thad Matta is a great game coach and I wouldn't bet against him, if I were a betting person.

And guess what? Next year's team looks to be tournament-worthy too.

Go, Buckeyes!

Hope in the Wilderness

[This message was presented during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
I collect buttons. The message of my favorite one is simple: No whining.

People who whine do more than just make unpleasant sounds. Whiners, whether they’re children or adults, are really saying: “I want to be the most important person in this relationship, this family, this business, this church, this country, this world.” “I want life to go the way I want it to go.” Or, like Adam and Eve in the garden: “I want to be like God.”

Whining is especially galling when it comes from people who repeatedly go down destructive pathways in life, then complain that the rest of the world hasn’t been fair to them. A man I know has been married three or four times and complains that women are impossible to get along with, not once wondering whether the source of at least some of his marital problems might be found by looking in a mirror.

Today’s first Bible lesson recounts God’s reaction to the whining of His people Israel during their wilderness wanderings from Egypt. They had been slaves there. God miraculously freed them so that they could go to the land He had promised them. Throughout their forty year journey to the promised land, the people repeatedly caved in to the common human temptation of wanting to do things their own way and to ignore the will of God.

In Numbers 21:4, we’re told: “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way…” The Israelites are whining: “Are we there yet?”

Verse 5: “...they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?...’” Talk about gall! Here, in effect, the Israelites were saying, “God, why did you answer our prayers and set us free from slavery in Egypt? Why did you take us from a place where we did back-breaking labor for masters who whipped us, beat us, and owned us?”

We can be like this. “Yeah, God,” we seem to say, “I know that Jesus died on a cross because of my sins. I know that through baptism and my belief in Christ, You are saving me for eternity. I know that You’ve given me a new life and that nothing can separate me from Your love. But, really God, when are you going to let me call the shots?” Even we who bear the Name of Jesus and have the free gift of new life through Him, can be world class whiners!

There are two things we tend to forget in our daily lives.

First, we forget that we aren’t God. We didn’t invent this amazing thing called life. We didn’t create the universe. We aren’t in charge and never will be!

The other thing we forget is that, like the Israelites, you and I haven’t yet reached our promised land. Today, we’re in the wilderness.

1 Peter 2:11, tells we Christians: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” Christians are foreigners and exiles. We’re not “there,” not in our real home, yet.

Until we get there, things won’t be easy.

The moment we are baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are no longer citizens of this world. We're just passing through. We can expect to be attacked by the tests and temptations that come from, as Martin Luther puts in The Small Catechism, “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.” This world isn't perfect and never will be.

But, thankfully. our ultimate destination is not in this wilderness. Our destination as believers in Jesus is what the New Testament book of Hebrews calls “a better country,” the eternal kingdom of God. This fallen world, wonderful though it can be, is a faint hint of the perfect, sinless, eternal new creation God is preparing for us. We take heart from Jesus’ words in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Now, go back to Numbers 21:5. The people are still whining: “...There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’”

The “miserable food” they’re talking about is the manna that God had been giving them virtually every day of the forty years they were in the wilderness. To get the manna, they never had to plant a single seed, water a single sprout, or remove a single weed. Like every blessing that God gives to us and that we take for granted--from breathing all the way to everlasting life for those who trust in Christ--the manna was simply there for the taking. It was a gift of grace. But the Israelites wanted more!

There’s nothing wrong with wanting more good in our lives, as we said this past Wednesday evening. But in our wilderness, in this life, God wants to teach us to not let our dreams--our desires--supplant God in our priorities. God wants to show us that nothing this world may offer us can match the gifts God wants to give to those willing to receive them by faith in Him.

God wasn’t happy to hear His people whining yet again. It was a sign of faithlessness, selfishness, and sin. Numbers 21:6-7: “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you...’”

The people had broken God’s commandments. I can think of three: They failed to honor God as God (first commandment). They had used His Name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (second commandment). They had borne false witness against both God and Moses (eighth commandment). And they had broken these and other of God’s commands repeatedly. That's why God allowed the serpents in the desert to be so deadly to the Israelites.

Apparently though, the people were awakened by God’s action because verse 7 says that the people asked Moses to pray for them. Moses did. Now, look at verse 8: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’”

What a weird prescription!

Why was this God’s fix?

In the hymn Amazing Grace, we sing, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.” Before the undeserved grace of God can bring us forgiveness of sins, we have to be aware that we have sin that needs to be forgiven. Before we can have our relationship with God restored, we need to know that we’re separated from God.

God doesn’t force forgiveness and new life on us. We must receive it by faith. When the Israelites turned to the bronze serpent, they were reminded that their sin was what triggered their situation.

Forgiveness, healing, and life could only come to them when they acknowledged their sin and trusted in God.

Now look, please, at John 3:14-15, from today's Gospel lesson. Some 1500 years after the incident in our first lesson, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

In the wilderness, the bronze serpent became the repository, the scapegoat, for the rebellion and sin of God’s people and through their honest repentance, the means by which their lives were restored.

In our own wilderness, it’s easy for us to wander away from God, to get caught up in our own agendas, to think that God has wandered from us. It’s easy for Christians to say, “I know what God says about sexuality, or covetousness, or loving others, but I just don’t agree with Him.”

That’s where the Savior on a cross comes in. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says of Jesus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus volunteered to be the repository, the scapegoat, for our sin.

He calls us to turn our eyes away from the wilderness and turn instead to Him. Every time we picture Jesus on the cross and remember again that He had no sin, but that our sin--your sin and my sin--put Him there, we’re forced to acknowledge our need of Him. We confess our sin. When that happens, our faith in Him is renewed and the life and forgiveness that only Jesus can give floods us once again!

The wilderness in which you and I live each day is hard. But God lets us decide whether he or our sin have the last word over our lives.

Look at Jesus‘ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 to 18: “ For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Christians who observe friends and acquaintances who aren’t believers going through difficult times and sometimes ask me, “How do they get through it, pastor? How can they face a life without hope?”

Good questions.

The bottom line is that, while we’re here in the wilderness we will never have all of life’s answers.

But it’s clear to me that life without Jesus leaves us with nothing to hope for, while life with Jesus is filled with God’s presence now and with hope for eternity with God.

Turn to Jesus each day.

Acknowledge your sin.

Seek His forgiveness.

Affirm Him as the only way to life with God.

And He will stand by your side.

He will lift you up.

And He will give you life, here, now, in the wilderness...and beyond.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Teach Us to Pray, Part 3

[This was shared last evening with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, during midweek Lenten worship.]

Isaiah 25:6-8
Psalm 37:4
Matthew 7:7-8
Ecclesiastes 3:11

"Give us this day our daily bread..."

In his book, The Journey of Desire, author John Eldredge addresses the ambivalence Christians feel about what we want, the things we desire. Because the ninth and tenth commandments tell us not to covet our neighbors’ property, spouses, servants, or possessions, some Christians seem to have the mistaken notion that it’s always wrong to want anything. But, Eldredge reminds us that desire isn’t bad in itself. To have desires is part of what it means to be human.

And we have enormous desires. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God “has...set eternity in the human heart…” In other words, we were made by God for wanting a lot more than stuff. Though we may try to fill our lives with the stuff of this world, the fact is that you and I have a craving for what only eternity with God can give to us.

So, what does all of this have to do with the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread”?

Martin Luther is right, I think, to say that, “daily bread includes everything needed for this life…” Luther included things like food, healthy family relationships, work, and so on.

But I also think that if these daily blessings are all God had in mind for us, Jesus would not have been born, wouldn’t have died for us, wouldn't have risen from the dead. Truth be told, we need more, much more, than all these things.

If the earlier petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are to be believed, God believes that we need these blessings now. We need God’s kingdom to come to us now, today. We need God’s will to be done in our lives as it is in heaven, now, today.

He also believes that we should, through the ministry of the Church, have a taste of the rich futures belonging to all who trust in Christ. God thinks that you and I need eternity! In Isaiah 25:6-8, God paints His promises for the eternal future of those who follow Him: He will feed us with the best meats and the finest of aged wines and death will be swallowed up forever and God will dry all our tears!

But there’s a problem. The condition of sin distorts our desires.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to eat food, for example, until sin turns hunger into gluttony.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the sexual intimacy that God engineered into our beings, unless we seek it outside the bounds of marriage between one man and one woman.

There’s nothing wrong with desiring to better ourselves unless the desire becomes covetousness or a drive to look down our noses on other people.

The human problem, from God’s perspective, isn’t that we want things. Many of the things we desire are good things, things created and given by God. But sin happens when we desire or take good things at the wrong times, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons. Food, sex, and success, along with orderly communities, good governments, and positive reputations are all legitimate things for us want, to ask God to grant to the times He ordains, for the reasons He ordains.

This is important for us to remember when we pray because some people refuse to acknowledge their desires to God. A person once revealed to a group of us that she never asked God for anything. “I don’t feel that I can do that,” she told us. “God has already given me so much. I just don't want to bother him for more.” Thankfulness is a virtue, of course. But that individual underestimated God’s love for her.

When Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer as a model for our prayer lives, He didn’t mean for us to eliminate asking Him for the things we desire. He teaches us, in fact, to pray for them.

But He also put this petition--”Give us this day our daily bread”--in a larger context. Often, our praying is sporadic, episodic. We pray when we’re desperate for the needs we see in our own lives or in the lives of others we know and care about and then more or less shut down the prayer hotline. We risk turning God into a cosmic ATM.

In the Lord’s Prayer though, Jesus shows us that God wants to have an ongoing, eternal relationship with us. He teaches us to pray, Our Father, not Dear Sir. In intimate relationships, you don’t feel restrained in asking for things. Everything is on the table. So, Jesus doesn’t tell us to stop asking God for things. In fact, in Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus tells us: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

The way I see it, Jesus doesn’t want us to reduce what we ask for, but to ask for everything with trusting hearts. He wants us to come to God with the same confidence that a child who is loved has when she comes to her mother or father, but also with the same submission, the same surrender. A trusting child will feel free to ask a loving parent for anything, but will, at least on reflection, also want to submit to her parent’s judgment, love, and will, when the answers are no, wait, or maybe.

In the context of a relationship with the Father we know through Jesus Christ, God’s and our perspectives begin to meld. We begin to see things as God sees things. We start wanting what God wants. We desire what God desires. Our laundry lists continue; but as we continue in a relationship with God, that relationship changes our lists.

When I was a young Christian, I struggled with the meaning of a verse in the Psalms. It’s Psalm 37:4: “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” I knew that my desires were infinite and not always pure. Did that mean that God would give me anything I wanted, even things that may seem good on the surface, but in the end would lead to my own undoing or to my separation from God?

Then I took a closer look at the verse. God will give us the desires of our hearts when we take delight in Him, when nothing and nobody is more important to us than God Himself…when our relationship with God is central to our lives. That’s why three petitions--“hallowed be Thy Name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”--come before “Give us this day our daily bread.”

The more intimate we allow our relationship with our Father to become, the more similar God’s desires and our desires will become. And the more we realize that in telling us to pray for our daily bread, Jesus isn’t commanding that we ask for or to expect less. He’s commanding us to ask for every good and perfect blessing God has in mind for us every single day we live. Amen

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Where God Lives

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

John 2:13-22
Talk to anyone who has ever had their home broken into and they will always speak less of what was stolen and more about their sense of being violated, the feeling that their personal space has been desecrated by greedy hands. The experience evokes anger, even fury. Remembering this may help us to understand something of what Jesus felt and why He acted as He did during the incident recounted in today’s Gospel lesson.

Please turn to the lesson, John 2:13-22 (page 740 in the sanctuary Bibles). Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Verse 14: “In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.”

The temple was the one place on earth where God had promised to dwell among His chosen people. It was a holy place. The word holy, as we’ve mentioned before, means set apart. God had set apart this place on all the earth as the place where He would encounter all who worshiped Him.

But what Jesus saw when He arrived at the temple infuriated Him!

This holiest place on earth, set apart for the worship of God, was being violated, turned into a shopping mall.

As you know, one of the things worshipers did when they arrived at the temple was offer sacrifices to God. Depending on their incomes, they might offer oxen, lambs, doves, or, if they were exceptionally poor, grain. Because many Passover celebrants traveled long distances, they didn’t always bring their offerings with them, instead purchasing them at the temple. Merchants sold livestock there. And because the temple had its own money system, “money changers,” people who dealt in foreign currency exchange, also did business in the Temple court.

This was all authorized by the temple priests. They would have argued that, by doing so, they provided a service to people who had traveled hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles to obey God by celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem.

But these practices were far more sinister than that.

Under the Romans and their pretender kings, the Herods, the chief priests of the Jewish faith were appointed by the Roman governors. Being the chief priest was a plumb job for which many of the priestly types vied. In exchange for priestly appointments, the Romans got a cut of all the temple taxes collected.

The rates of exchange charged by the money changers and the prices commanded by the sellers of sacrificial livestock were inflated exorbitantly to allow the Romans and the priests to profit handsomely. It’s easy to do that when you have a monopoly.

This entire system was driven by greed and selfishness.

It desecrated the holy place where God dwelt.

This explains what happens next, in verses 15 and 16. Jesus “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’”

The house of God and the grace of God had been monetized.

People who should have known better were ignoring the fact that the Temple was a space set apart for God to meet His people, not a place to transact business or to steal from the pious.

The understandable anger that people feel when their homes are broken into is but a fraction of the fury that Jesus felt on seeing the house of God being used wrongly!

Verse 17 says that Jesus’ disciples remembered a passage from Psalm 69:9, written by King David about one-thousand years earlier: “...zeal for your house consumes me.”

There, David was saying that God was so central to his existence that passion for God’s house, for the place where God lived, had subordinated all his other thoughts, motives, and priorities! This is what Jesus was feeling as He entered the temple.

But truly, it wasn’t the desecration of the temple as a place that aroused such fury in Jesus.

In the end, the Temple was just a building.

It was never meant to be anything other than “a shadow” of the heavenly throne room from which God reigns.

The real issue in all this commerce in the temple was this: If the people were buying and selling as though they were lining up for an attraction at Disney World had no zeal for the place where God had graciously promised to meet them on earth, what sort of zeal did they have for God Himself?

Verse 18. “The Jews [meaning here, the Temple authorities] then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’”

Jesus had already given one sign of His authority and identity as God in the flesh, at Cana, where He turned water into wine.

Now, in response to the priests’ demand, Jesus gives a new sign of Who He is, a miracle that will require patient faith to see and believe. Look at verses 19-22. “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’ They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.”

The temple in which Jesus and the others stood at that moment wasn’t the first one built on the temple mount in Jerusalem. And, the one in today’s Gospel lesson would, in 70AD, about forty years after Jesus' death and resurrection, be destroyed by the Romans. Today, all that remains is a wailing wall in Jerusalem.

But the temple’s days were numbered in another and more important way. Look at John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” You’ll remember that this literally means that Jesus, God the Word, tabernacled or pitched His tent in the world. God no longer would live in buildings so easily desecrated by human beings who forget the fear and love for God that make up faith in God. God would live among us on this earth in other ways.

First of all, God would come to the world in the person of Jesus Himself. Colossians 1:19 says that, “...God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus Christ].” Jesus is the Holy of the holies. He is God.

Short-sighted human beings thought they could be their own gods, buying and selling salvation and sinning with no accountability to God. (We still think that, it seems.) So, just as Jesus foretells in our Gospel lesson, they tried to tear down the new and best Temple, Jesus. They crucified Jesus. But He rose again.

In John 10:18, Jesus says of His crucifixion and resurrection: “No one takes [My earthly life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

This, Jesus says, is the sign of His authority, that He, by his own decision voluntarily gives Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin that nobody has to buy or pay for and He, not human beings, has the power to take up the life He voluntarily sacrificed.

Nobody--not the devil and not sinful people trying to swipe our money, or plague our consciences, or build their own egos at our expense--can put themselves between God and us. In Jesus, God has acted and today, He lives.

But if Jesus is God among us and He is the temple, how can we be made right with Him? The temple was a place where people made sacrifice for their sins. This is like a question once asked of Jesus: “What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’”

Jesus was outraged that people who should have known better forgot that God had blessed them out of pure fatherly and divine mercy, made them His own people, and called them to be a light to all nations, helping the nations see that all who will turn from sin and believe in Him will live with God forever.

Because of God's grace, through Jesus, God’s presence on earth is no longer confined to a tabernacle on a Judean hill!

He can be seen today in God's Word and in the Sacraments, of course.

But He can also be seen in the people who follow Jesus.

First Corinthians 6:19-20 says that whoever turns from sin and believes in Jesus Christ is a temple of the Holy Spirit where God dwells! Imagine that.

Through Jesus, Christians are the places where God today dwells on this earth.

We don’t need to go to buildings to find Him.

We don’t need to make sacrifices to reach Him.

We don’t need to burn candles in order to attract Him.

He comes to live in all who welcome Him into their lives. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."

Now, the holy of holies can be found in all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ and who daily live that belief by turning to Christ for grace, guidance, forgiveness, and hope.

God lives in all who acknowledge with both their lips and their lives that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior and King over everything.

That's a somewhat scary thought because, speaking for myself, I know that I can be a somewhat shaky temple for the Holy Spirit. I can forget to trust God. I sin. The truth is that like the temple in Jerusalem, we frail temples of the Holy Spirit, we believers in Jesus, must regularly be cleansed by the savage grace of Jesus Christ.

Without regular prayer, confession and repentance, worship with God’s people, receiving Christ’s body and blood, personal study of God’s Word, and submission to examination and correction by our Lord, these temples of flesh and blood can be desecrated by sin as certainly as the temple in Jerusalem was.

In Psalm 51, David prays: “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” Each day we need to pray, “Lord, cleanse this temple.”

Christ can cleanse the repentant, forgive our sin, strengthen our faith, and fill us with His Holy Spirit’s power for living.

Christ can make each of us ever fitter places for the King of kings to take up residence, places where the devil, the world, and our sinful selves are kept at bay and Jesus reigns as our loving God, Lord, and King.

May we daily submit to Christ so that, like the temple cleansed, God will live in us and through us, now and eternally. Amen