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Love Drives Out Fear (March 18, 2020)

CREDIT: Faithlife

Dear Children of God,

This "blog" usually contains my thoughts on a part of God’s Word we’ll hear from during worship.  This week, however, I received some encouraging words from Rev. Mark Schroeder, a part of the Southeastern District staff. In this time of great uncertainty and fear, I found his thoughts to be an encouraging and comforting reminder of God’s work in His creation … even today.

Pastor Schroeder writes of God’s perfect love and how that love drives out any fear we might have. God’s Word reminds us that “God is love …  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment (1 John 4:16b,18).”

“There is much fear circulating. The coronavirus is at pandemic proportions around the world and the death toll is rising. Economic uncertainty is at pandemic proportions also. The media reports are just as infectious at causing heightened anxiety.

“Most of us have given some thought to addressing the fear of the virus by resorting to physical precautions—proper handwashing, face masks, avoiding crowds by staying at home, passing around hand sanitizer.

“Of course, for us Christians, we have the Lord and his good will for our lives to calm our fears. But that begs a question. Is the Lord the cause of this? In all honesty, he could be. It would be just for him to send this plague to the world to punish it for sin—you and me included. Some folks are claiming just that. We all deserve a plague and its life ending result.

“But Saint John in 1 John 4:18 reminds us—those who are in Christ—that is not the case. We have been ‘sanitized’ completely by the work of Jesus on the cross. As a result of his work, there is no punishment for us for our sin. Jesus took that upon himself because he didn’t want you and me to bear it. That work was perfect love manifest. And because that is true, John says, it is the solution for managing our fear—both physical and spiritual.

“So, in these uncertain times, continue to hold on to the truth that in Jesus we experience perfect love. His love ‘sanitized’ us completely. The Lord is not out to get us with this virus. It is just another profound way for him to open people’s hearts to know that he loves both us and them perfectly. And it is a profound opportunity for us to reflect that perfect love by demonstrating in word and actions that we can live fearlessly since we know full well that he is caring for us perfectly.” – Rev. Mark Schroeder, Southeastern District (LCMS)

The “living water” Jesus speaks of as He encounters the Samaritan woman at the well is faith and trust in God and His Word. There we find hope as His Word helps us to endure in times of suffering (Romans 5:1-5). Trusting God’s perfect love, we come to Him first. In prayer, we ask Him to protect us and guide those He has gifted with abilities to care for us and find new ways to protect us. In prayer we trust, “Thy (not my) will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.”

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Crystal Clear Illustration (March 10, 2020)

Dear Children of God,

Sometimes when I’m struggling to understand something, it’s helpful to see an illustration to explain the concept. It helps if it’s something that connects with personal experience. So, if you’re trying to explain something to me, and I have that “deer in the headlights” look, see if you can put into a different context I’d understand. Things that work best for me … an illustration using sports, military, or gardening. 

Jesus often used illustrations, called parables, to get His point across. Generally, people had little idea what He was talking about. So, Jesus might use a parable to illustrate a greater truth through a common experience they could understand. 

One night a Pharisee named Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of darkness to avoid detection by the other Pharisees. He knew Jesus was a great teacher because of all He’d been doing. Unfortunately, Nicodemus didn’t understand who Jesus truly was. First, Jesus tried explaining through the illustration of being “born again.” Nicodemus, though born of woman, couldn’t get the idea that when you’re born, you receive life. To be “born again” would mean to receive “new life” … to have new life by believing in Jesus and His work to save mankind from sins by bring them into the kingdom of God. All Nicodemus could see was reentering his mother’s womb …

So, Jesus, knowing Nicodemus was among the most educated of the religious elites, steeped in God’s Word, adds to the illustration. Jesus recounts the story of when the Israelites, complaining incessantly about God’s provision of manna in the wilderness, were bitten by a swarm of fiery snakes. The people were dying for mocking God. Realizing it, they repented and asked Moses to save them. God said, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live. (Numbers 21:8)” All who looked on the serpent, raised on a pole, and had faith in it’s healing powers were saved. Referencing this incident, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15). Surely, Nicodemus could see what Jesus was saying to him through this illustration … Jesus, the Son of Man, would one day be lifted up … and all who look on Him in faith would also be saved.

This encounter must have had some effect on Nicodemus. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we next see Nicodemus defending Jesus’ rights to a fair trial against the accusations of the temple authorities. Then, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, takes Jesus’ body for burial

We, like Nicodemus, can’t grasp the truth of God’s Word by on our own. However, by the power of the same Holy Spirit, God gives us understanding. And illustrations can help us too … as we learn and as we seek to help others understand God’s Word. What’s crystal clear is the gospel proclaimed after Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

                                                                                        In the Love of Christ,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Our Best Weapon (March 4, 2020)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Dear Saints and Sinners,

I was in the military back in the “Cold War” days. In those days I was responsible for defending the nation serving as a Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch officer. Fortunately, I never had to do what I was trained to do. Though I spent hours and hours over the years practicing for my mission in the simulator, I never had to execute it. One could argue that through our nation’s preparedness, we were able to deter this horrible conflict from ever happening.

Preparing is something we often do to be ready for some event we hope never happens. For example, we prepare for hurricanes by stocking up on food, water, and, in my case, propane so I can still make hot coffee in the morning. We prepare for serious injury or illness by trying to stay in shape, eating right, and taking out insurance to pay expensive medical bills. These kinds of things happen because of sin which entered the world the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They are part of the curse Adam and Eve brought upon all mankind (Genesis 3:17b-19a). The deception of Adam and Eve came about because they weren’t prepared to face evil. Have you ever thought about how you might prepare to encounter the face of evil itself?

God tells us the best way to prepare … Paul in his letter to the Ephesians urges us to “put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11) to include “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Jesus demonstrates in vivid fashion as, accompanied by the Holy Spirit,  He encounters the “face of evil” himself, Satan, up close and personal. After 40 days and nights fasting in the wilderness, Jesus was hungry and, I would imagine tired and thirsty too. Satan tempts Jesus to turn rocks into bread to feed Himself. Jesus, counters Satan by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then Satan tempts Jesus to test His Father’s promise to protect Him from harm by quoting from the Psalms. Jesus reminds Satan, there’s more to God’s Word than cherry-picking a few verses here and there quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Finally, Satan offers the ultimate temptation to Jesus. He tries to trick Jesus into worshiping him in exchange for something he actually can’t give, God’s creation. Again, Jesus fights back with God’s Word, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” In the face of the sword of God’s Word, Satan flees!

Evil certainly exists in the world today, looking for targets to turn against God and His will.  The best defense against Satan’s attacks is the strong offense of God’s sure, certain, and truthful Word. Satan cannot stand against it. It takes constant preparation to be able to fend off Satan’s vicious attacks. Through regular study and devotion over God’s Word in groups and on your own, as well as prayer, you can be prepared, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to stand firm against Satan’s attacks too. 

                                                                                        Your Fellow Saint and Sinner,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Move from the Comfy Place (February 26, 2020)

Photo by Mitchell Gaiser on Unsplash

Dear Faithful Followers of Christ,

It’s a cold morning and the alarm rings. You stretch and begin to move your foot to the floor … “Wow! It’s cold out there!” But, it’s warm and cozy under the covers. You know you need to move to begin the day, but … it’s so warm and cozy under the covers. It’s hard to move when we’re comfortable … maybe it’s the comfortable bed in the morning … or the recliner in the afternoon. The problem with “comfortable” – nice as it can be – not much gets done. You can’t get the day going if you stay in bed. You can’t make progress on the “to-do list” if you stay in the recliner. It can be easy to get trapped in comfort.

There’s an account in the Bible we might be able to relate to when we’re trapped in our comfort. The Transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9), in some ways, might’ve been a pretty comfortable place for Peter, James, and John. Jesus took them to the top of a high mountain. Suddenly Jesus was transfigured, “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light (Matthew 17:2).” And if that wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, the entirety of Scripture at the time, also appeared! While it may not have been as comfortable as a nice recliner, Peter was eager to stay up there, basking in the glory of the Lord while in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter said, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If You wish, I will make three tents here, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah (Matthew 17:4).” But Jesus had other plans … having enabled Peter, James, and John to be eyewitnesses to this amazing event and hearing God the Father proclaim Jesus as His Son (Matthew 17:5) … it was time for them to descend from the comfort of the mountain into the world. 

In the world, Jesus embraced sinners of all kinds. He engaged the antagonistic temple leaders. And ultimately, He went to Jerusalem where He endured another mountain top experience, the excruciating agony of death on a cross … earning for us what we can’t possibly gain on our own. Then He rose to new life. Through Him, we receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life. We who believe in Jesus are the beneficiaries of these amazing gifts. 

We’ve been forgiven. We live in the promise of eternal life. So, it’s tempting to get comfortable. As we enter the Lenten season, consider stepping out of your comfort zone. We can do this is by sacrificing some of our comfort (and remembering His sacrifice as you crave comfort throughout Lent). Then pray for strength to help you fight off Satan’s temptations to give in to your cravings.  Another idea – expand your comfort zone by spending more time in concentrated prayer, reading His Word, and listening to Him – pick up an “Our Daily Bread” devotional in the lobby and meditate on His word each day. Putting aside some comfort during Lent might help you experience more fully the Easter mountain top where Jesus proves He is who He said He is, the Son of God. 

                                                                Following Him in Faith,

                                                                Pastor Jim

Look What God Did! (February 19, 2020)

Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon on Unsplash

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

February’s a time of year when things start pointing me to Spring. I can’t wait to see new life … buds on the trees, flowers popping up, and planting my gardens. I like to plant … so I can grow … harvest my vegetables … then have the satisfaction of saying, “Look what I did!” I can be pretty proud of my achievements when all my preparation, planting, and watering pays off. This pride can show up in other parts of life too where I might find myself saying, “Look what I did!”

Pride of this type, when it comes to God’s people, His church, and the growth of His church is what Paul addresses in much of 1st Corinthians. The Corinthians had become enamored with certain leaders, crediting them with growing the church and enriching their faith. Twice in the first three chapters of 1st Corinthians, Paul calls to account those who line up their allegiance to Apollos, himself, or other leaders by giving them credit for the church’s growth (1:11-13 and 3:4). But Paul scolds them. This pride creates divisions because it’s idolatrous – creating idols from human leaders. In the 3rd chapter, Paul responds to the Corinthian’s idolatry saying, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7) While God calls on His servants to work in the fields of His creation and proclaim His Word to all mankind, it isn’t the workers who bring in the harvest. It’s only by the power of the Holy Spirit that people grow from unbelief into belief. That’s God’s work, not ours.

And this is good news! It’s God who brings in the harvest! It can be frustrating to continually proclaim the truth of God’s good news – the forgiveness of sin and eternal life through Jesus Christ’s life, suffering, death, and resurrection for all who believe – especially when so many ignore it. We can think, “Well I guess I’m not worthy to spread the gospel. Jesus better find someone else.” Or worse, “What’s wrong with me?! I must not be a strong believer because nobody is coming to faith through me.” The good news? God isn’t measuring the quantity of the harvest. He’s simply measuring the faithful efforts we put into the planting and watering work we do. God is the one bringing in the harvest. Paul assures us by saying, “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God's fellow workers.” (1 Corinthians 3:7b-9a) 

All God asks you and me to do is to do our part – to put in the effort through our faith-filled, faithful words and deeds which show the love of Christ to others. He’ll take care of the rest! Then, one day in His kingdom, we’ll be able to say, “Look what God did … through me!” Come to think of it, that’s how I should respond to my gardening results too … I may have planted and watered, but God gave me the seed, caused the rain and sun, and guided me in my tending and harvesting there too.

                                                                  In Christ’s Service,

                                                                  Pastor Jim

Spring Training (February 12, 2020)

Photo by Megan Ellis on Unsplash

Dear Saints,

Spring is near! It seems like almost forever ago when the Washington Nationals won their first World Series … but this past week was one my wife’s favorite days … “Truck Day.” The day her favorite team loads up a semi-truck with thousands of bats, balls, and other equipment – and heads south for Spring Training. That time of year where coaches and players get ready for the new season. Players will be knocking the rust off bodies that maybe haven’t swung many bats or thrown many balls in months. They’ll get ready by watching and listening to coaches intently and then going out and doing what they’re told. This doing is key. One can talk all day about the steps needed to play baseball, but doing it is completely different. And doing it is the only way to get ready.

Tony Graffanino went through at least 13 spring trainings with 8 different major league teams. He is also a Christian missionary who used his skill in baseball to spread the Good News. He spent his life as a Christian, but found that even as he was knowledgeable about the gospel in his own life, he was still learning. And one of the things he learned was from St. Paul, “I was with you in weakness … my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and … the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5) For years, though he had taught 100s of kids the game of baseball while proclaiming God’s Word, only three became believers in Christ. Then, Tony realized his methods were wrong. He’d been trying to reason with kids to convince them Christ existed through facts about God. Using “plausible words of wisdom” he tried building rational, winning arguments nobody could logically dismiss. 

Then, inspired by the Holy Spirit, living inside him and leading him in faith, Tony decided to try a different approach. He and his team changed direction from facts and arguments to simply telling of the things Jesus did and still does to people. They allowed God’s Word to show unbelieving people who Jesus was and what He did. In essence, they simply showed them the love of Jesus Christ and Him crucified to save them from the effects of sin … eternal death … so they too could have the gift of eternal life (1 Corinthians 2:2). Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the wisdom of man, more children came to hear, listen, and then believe in Jesus. 

Dave Branon, who told this story through a devotion he wrote, says, “We should be knowledgeable about the Bible and about the reasons for our belief (and sometimes explain them) … But the most compelling and effective story we can tell puts Christ in the center.” As we faithfully serve God and His kingdom, Jesus urges us to respond to His Father’s love for us by loving Him back … and showing His love to our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). As we show Jesus’ love in our faith-filled works of mercy – which He has already equipped us for (Ephesians 2:8-10) – rather than just talking about them, the Holy Spirit will move people to believe in Him also.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

I Know How You Feel (February 5, 2020)

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

When someone we know is struggling in life, we might say something like, “I know how you feel.” The intent, even if we don’t really know how they feel, is to let them know they aren’t alone in their trouble. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to try to know how people with struggles feel. I read about a man who wanted to be able to empathize with minorities, so he darkened his skin to live life like they did. A school teacher had her class tie an arm to their side to experience the struggles people without limbs have doing routine tasks. It might help to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes” … but at the end of the day, the “minority” became the “majority” again … the students regained their limbs again. It’s hard to really know how anyone feels as they struggle in life.

There is one person though who does know how we feel. He knows what it’s like to be us. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “For because (Jesus) Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18) Jesus is true God … fully God in all things. But, being born of a woman, by the power of the Holy Spirit, He is also true man … fully man in all things, except sin. In Matthew’s detailed account of Jesus’ wilderness experience, He was tempted like us - tempted to satisfy His hunger as He fasted for forty days and nights, tempted to test His Father’s willingness to protect Him by throwing Himself off the temple’s highest point, and tempted with limitless earthly power and glory in return for worshiping Satan. Yet Jesus never succumbed to Satan in the way we often do when we’re tempted.

Because He was fully human, just as we are – and He dwells within us in baptism – He knows how we feel. He experienced hunger, sadness at the death of friends, and times of distress over the way things were going. But Jesus never wavered as He trusted His Father’s will in all things. He trusted Him because, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) But, He was also one with all mankind, “He Himself likewise partook of the same things (as we do) …” (Hebrews 2:14) so He could, in fact, “know exactly how we feel” … so He could, in fact, be the perfect sacrifice on the Cross to defeat forever the devil’s best weapon … death. 

Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23a) The punishment we all deserve is death. But our Creator loves and cares for us so much that He allowed His Son to become flesh and blood. Then He bound Him to us. Jesus knows how we feel. But He also remained fully God so that “through (His) death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” (Hebrews 2:14b) He has paid the sacrificial price for us, so we may be forgiven, made holy, and gain eternal life with Him in His heavenly kingdom. Because of Jesus’ work on the Cross and His resurrection, all these promises belong to us now and forever.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim