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Carried to New Life (November 1, 2018)

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I grew up in a slightly different time.  When I was a kid we did things like drink out of garden hoses and ride bikes without helmets.  I’m not advocating a return to those days … I’m simply making an observation.  Speaking of riding bikes without helmets, we did some crazy things on our bikes.  There was a daredevil in those days named Evel Knievel who used a motorcycle to jump over cars (Evel Knievel Jump).  My friends and I were big Evel fans, but we didn’t have motorcycles to ride or cars to jump.  We did have bikes and boys.  So, we’d set up our ramps, have a bunch of boys lay down between them, and see who could jump over the most boys.  Needless to say, falling short on the jump was painful … for the last couple of boys and the bike rider.  Fortunately, nobody was hurt in this lunacy.

There is real pain, of an everlasting nature, for falling short in some instances.  Paul writes, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). God tells us that we know what His law consists of.  And, no matter how hard we try, we cannot save ourselves through adherence to the law.  All of us sin and fall short of God’s expectations.  The impact of falling short is painful and eternal … death (Romans 6:23).  But, this doesn’t stop people from trying to fulfill God’s law by their own efforts.

This attempt at “self-justification” is one of the key false doctrines 16th century Reformers fought against.  Many in the church believed one could, through their prayers, attendance at worship, and even payment of money do enough works to save themselves from eternal death.  Good works were believed to earn God’s favor, granting eternal life in heaven.  The problem … when had I done enough to ensure my own salvation?  The uncertainty caused great pain for church members who were often taken advantage of by unscrupulous lords of the church.  In short, nobody could ever be certain they had done enough … and so, they tried to do more.

The Reformers who studied God’s Word in the original languages of Greek and Hebrew began to see the scriptures used to validate this false teaching were improperly translated.  When they translated the texts properly, it became apparent that it wasn’t works that saved a person, but rather faith in God and His promises found in His Word that saved.  For example, key verses for Martin Luther were Romans 1:17 and Habakkuk 2:4

Faith in God’s Word and promise, that Jesus’ work through His sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead three days later, is the only means to achieve salvation and eternal life.  The law has a good purpose … it shows we are sinful and fall short of God’s expectations.  Then, the gospel tells us we are “justified by (God’s) grace as a gift (not by something we earn), through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:24).  On our own, we fall short, crashing and burning.  But Jesus carries all who believe in Him over the chasm of sin and death, safely to eternal life.

                                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Our Sanctifier (October 23, 2018)

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Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

There’s a saying, “You’ve got to see it to believe it.”  We say this when things that are truly spectacular.  I get that way when I travel to Wyoming and see the majesty of a herd of buffalo roaming against the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and crystal-clear waters.  When I don’t have the words to explain something, I’m left to say, “You’ve just got to see it to believe.”  Then I’ll find the YouTube video for them to see for themselves.

In Mark 10, Jesus continues His teaching on “wealth” as a barrier to entry into the Kingdom of God.  He paints an incredible image saying, (Mark 10:25) “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”  The disciples were “astonished.”  How can anyone get into the Kingdom of God?!  Once again, Jesus makes His point through imagery.  He says, (Mark 10:27) “With man it’s impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God.” 

So … how is it possible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God?  The same way it’s possible for any person … poor, tall, short, big, or small.  By trusting completely in Jesus’ saving work on the Cross.  By believing – God’s promise that Jesus’ death paid the price for our sins, Jesus’ resurrection proved He is God and has removed the power of sin and death to keep us from entering His Kingdom.  But, how can it be so … that someone would actually suffer and die as Jesus did to save another … and how can a dead person come to life again?  As Thomas said in the Upper Room, “I’ve got to see it to believe it.”  Fortunately for us, God has sent the Holy Spirit so we don’t need to “see to believe.”

In the Creeds’ Third Article, we profess our belief in the Holy Spirit.  He comes to us to help us believe what we can’t see, touch, or feel.  God’s promises of forgiveness and eternal life can seem too good to be true.  But, Martin Luther explains, the Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to believe because (Luther’s Small Catechism, 3rd Article Explanation) “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.“  The Holy Spirit enables us to not only believe in God’s promises, but also gives us the power to remain in the faith and to act out our faith by what we say and do.

As we confess our belief in the Holy Spirit, we also confess it’s only through His power, sent by God the Father, that we can believe and have faith in His Word and promises.  We have rest in the Kingdom of God, because we believe.  We believe because the Holy Spirit enables us to do so.  There’s a verse from the band U2 that goes, (Walk On) You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been, a place that has to be believed to be seen.”  The Holy Spirit enables us to say of God’s Kingdom, “You’ve got to believe it to see it.”

                                                                  In Christ’s Love,

                                                                  Pastor Jim, Your Brother in Christ

Our Redeemer (October 21, 2018)

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Photo by Robert Nyman on Unsplash

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

One of the notable characteristics of the American people is the “can do” attitude.  Many in our history have been acclaimed for “lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps” and making something of themselves.  Personally, while I don’t mind some help now and then, I take a certain level of satisfaction in knowing I “fixed that,” “made that,” or “did that” without assistance.  However, there are times, and it pains me, I need to hire someone to take care of something I can’t do … or worse, I know I can do myself, but need help.

In Mark 10, a man needs some help too.  He’s a teacher in the temple who’s struggling with his heart.  He’s heard about another great teacher named Jesus and thinks maybe he has some thoughts on how he can improve his standing before God.  The man, seeing Jesus as a teacher like himself, asks a simple question, (Mark 10:17) “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The man is struggling with how he can achieve his goal of eternal life.  Like many in 21st century America, this 1st century Israelite, is trying to “lift himself up” to achieve salvation.

Jesus responds by first letting the man know He is more than a teacher, (Mark 10:18) “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.” Jesus lets the man know … “You’re right to call me good … because only God is truly good … and I’m God.”

In the Creeds’ Second Article, we profess our belief in the only Son of God.  Jesus, Martin Luther explains, is the one who (Luther’s Small Catechism, 2nd Article Explanation) “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil … with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.”  Jesus is only way we can have eternal life in God’s new creation.

Why does Jesus do these things for us?  Because we can’t lift ourselves up … we can’t save ourselves.  Luther tells us Jesus does this so “we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” 

Out of love for us, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to remove sin’s power over us.  Through Christ, we’re redeemed from sin’s effects.  Through Christ, we’re made worthy to live for eternity as His brothers and sisters in the presence of God our Father in His new creation as He intended when He created us.

As we confess our belief in Jesus Christ, we also confess we’re helpless to save ourselves.  We hear Jesus’ invitation in the gospel, (Mark 10:21) “Come, follow me.”  Trusting in God’s Word and His promises found there, we drop those things which distract us from Christ and we follow Him … in this life and to eternal life.

                                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                                        Pastor Jim, Your Brother in Christ

Our Creator (October 16, 2018)

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Photo by Yash Raut on Unsplash

Dear Children of God,

I like to, when I can, make and build things.  There’s a certain satisfaction in being able to say, “I did that.”  And when it turns out well, I even take ownership in what I made, “Look at my shelf!  I made it and … it’s actually square and holds books without falling down!”  We all tend to have some pride and claim some ownership over what we do with our minds and hands.  And, in a sense, we might be right.  But …

The reality is that while we “made” it … we didn’t “create” it.  To me, “making” involves taking things we have and shaping them into something else.  But, everything we make begins with some kind of raw materials … wood, flour and eggs, paper, string … or ideas in our heads formed from knowledge we gained elsewhere.  On the other hand, when I think of “creating” something … that’s a task reserved for just one person … God our Father, the Creator of heaven and earth.  The Hebrew word, and its root, ברא (bah-rah), which means “to create”, is used 48 times in the Old Testament.  Each time, it has only one subject … God.  Whenever a created being, for example man, “creates” something, the word, used almost 2600 times, is עשׂה (seh) or, used almost 400 times, בנה (ben-ah) which mean “to manufacturer, do, build.”  We make things – using things God created.

In the Creeds’ First Article, we profess our belief in the Creator, “God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  Martin Luther’ Small Catechism explains what this means saying, “God has made me and all creatures … my reason and senses … He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.”  God created the wood I built my shelves with … He created my reason and senses to visualize and understand how to build them.  In essence, I made them, but God created them.  And the shelves aren’t mine, but His … loaned to me to use as He sees fit.

Why does God do this?  Luther explains that too, “All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” 

Sin entered God’s creation shortly after He created our original parents, Adam and Eve.  They decided they wanted God’s power for themselves.  Their sin upset the order the Creator had in mind when, in love, He created “all things visible and invisible” (Nicene Creed). 

However, out of love, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to remove the stain of sin from His creation.  Through Christ, we’re redeemed from sin’s effects.  God adopts us as His children in baptism.  He forgives our sins.  So, He is our Father in heaven.  As His children, one day we’ll inherit eternal life in His kingdom, the New Creation.

As we confess our belief in God the Father, we also confess our true, eternal identity – “Children of God.”  We are children of God … created by Him to be … fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, workers or students.  All we have, including our lives, is His … on loan to do His will in His creation.

                                                                   In Christ’s Love,

                                                                   Pastor Jim, Fellow Child of God

One of Those Days (October 3, 2018)

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Photo by Rodolfo Cuadros on Unsplash

Dear Saints,

I’m sure we’ve all had at least one of those days … The alarm goes off and we don’t hear it.  Then we find out we forgot to get the coffee pot ready the night before.  Traffic is a bear.  People at work and school are all in terrible moods.  All day long … complaining, griping, and whining seem to be the order of the day.  It’s one of those days!  Ugh … what do we do?!

We hear about one of those days in Moses’ life in Numbers 11:4-29.  Moses has been “privileged” by God to lead His people, Israel, out of Egypt.  Sounds like a great honor.  However, often it was anything but … on this day the entire people complained in unison that they were sick and tired of manna, “We want meat!”  They longed for the good old days when they had all they wanted to eat … for free!  They forgot about the other costs … beatings from slave drivers, increased production demands without time and materials, prohibitions on worshiping God, and so on … “Ah, the good old days!”  Moses was at his wits end.  He cried out too. “Why have You (God) dealt ill with (me)? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You lay the burden of all this people on me?” (Numbers 11:11) His complaint is a prayer … Moses cries to the one person, God, who can help.  Knowing God put him here, Moses cries out, trusting God will help.  And God does, though not in the way Moses asked.

First, God gets Moses some help.  He gathers 70 elders to help Moses in his work.  Moses is still the leader, but now he has assistants, whom God has also called, to help him.  Then, though we don’t hear that part of the story this morning, God gives the people what they ask for … meat … lots of it (Numbers 11:31-35).  More quail than you can possibly imagine suddenly appears.  They greedily snatch up all they can handle … at least 10 bushels per person.  They lustily begin devouring it … but they did so forgetting God’s already gracious provision of manna, all they needed for their journey to the Promised Land.  So God, once again ignored by His people, punished them for rejecting bountiful His gifts of freedom, food, and water.  This wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time Moses had “one of those days.” (e.g. Numbers 12, 14, 16, 20, and 21).  Each time, Moses prayed.

When we have one of those days, it’s okay to let God know you’re not happy.  Even Jesus, on occasion, let His Father know He was having a bad day and didn’t like what was going on … asking Him to help (Mark 14:35-36).  When we go to the one person who can help, God … it’s called prayer.  It’s a sure sign that we trust Him, above all others, to help us out.  James writes, “Pray for one another … the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16) When we have “one of those days,” God wants us to come to Him for relief … and He will provide.

                                                                                                In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                                         Pastor Jim

Denial ... It's not a River (September 27, 2018)

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Photo by Ethan Haddox on Unsplash

Dear First Lutheran Family and Friends,

In the middle of the night, there’s a cricket in my room.  It chirps loudly and incessantly.  It’ll go away … but it doesn’t.  I lay there wide awake, hoping the cricket will go away because I don’t want to get out of bed.  It doesn’t.  After a while, I face reality, get up, and find the cricket … by the way, I throw it outside.  Anyway, have you ever been in a place like that?  You see or hear something bothersome or even a bit disturbing … so you ignore it … hoping it’ll just go away.  Some call this tactic “denial” … “refusing to admit to the truth or reality about something unpleasant.”

In our gospel today, the disciples were in denial … and they weren’t swimming in a river in Egypt.  Jesus, for the second time tells them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And when He is killed, after three days He will rise.” (Mark 9:31) The first time, Peter rebuked Him and Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan!” (Mark 8:31-33) So this time, the disciples didn’t say a thing.  They went into denial.  In fact, immediately after ignoring the obvious, they got into a heated discussion about which of them was the greatest!  Later, when Jesus asked them what they were talking about, their lips were zipped.  Embarrassed, they went into … denial, “Maybe Jesus will move on to something else if we just ignore Him.”

Jesus didn’t ignore their silence … He didn’t deny their ignorance.  Jesus met it head on saying, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) While the “greatest” in the world might be the rich and the powerful who have many people falling all over themselves to serve them, that’s not the way it is in Jesus’ kingdom.  Jesus uses the example of a helpless child who can do nothing to return any favors done for him to show the disciples what true greatness looks like.  True greatness is serving someone in need who can’t possibly pay you back.  True greatness is sacrificing time and talent and treasure, each of which are gifts given by God – for the sake of someone else in need.  In this way, the “great ones” put themselves last before others by serving others.  And when they do, they end up receiving Jesus.  They end up receiving our Father who sent His only Son, Jesus into the world.  Jesus gave up everything, including His glory in heaven and life on earth to serve us … hopeless, helpless sinners … and bring us into His kingdom for eternity.

Each of us is a disciple of Christ.  He’s called to us through the Holy Spirit.  And, we haven’t ignored the Spirit’s voice dwelling inside us since baptism.  The Holy Spirit opens our eyes and ears to the world around us.  Enabling us to hear God’s call in things we see and hear … the many in the world desperately in need of Christ’s love.  They won’t go away … so, humbly and joyfully we hear, respond, and serve those Jesus calls us to serve.

                                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                                        Pastor Jim

You've Got a Friend (September 25, 2018)

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Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Whenever I enter uncharted territory … a new school, job, or home for example … it always helped to have someone help bolster my confidence.  When I went to my first school as a little kid, my buddy next-door went with me.  It gave me great confidence knowing he was there.  Two years later, I moved to Arizona and had to go to a new school all alone.  I was terrified.  Until I met Jeff … or actually he met me because he was assigned to be my “buddy.”  Jeff and I became friends and shared a lot of great times on the playground at Lulu Walker Elementary School.  It truly helped to have a buddy when I entered that new territory.

In our walk of Christian faith, it can also be daunting to go it alone.  There seems to be both subtle and, at times, not so subtle hostility toward Christian faith in the world.  So, it can also be easy to simply go through life quietly, not making any waves, in order to avoid being harassed.  Isaiah was called by God to tell the people in his own country, to include its kings, that they were acting in open rebellion toward God and His Word.  This was difficult work indeed, but God was with him throughout. 

In Isaiah 50:4-10, God reveals His love for us by telling us that He has sent someone to help us navigate through the unfriendly and uncharted territory of our lives in this world.  This someone is the “Suffering Servant” … one who knows all that God commands AND lives in total obedience to these commands.  Isaiah writes that the Suffering Servant says, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.  I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. (Isaiah 50:5-6) A servant who does not rebel … who does not turn back from God’s task for Him.  Here, as well as other places in Isaiah, the Suffering Servant is identified by the way He lived out His earthly ministry as Jesus Christ, our savior.  As God, He knows everything.  As God, He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s commandments.  As man, He also willing submitted to beatings, whippings, spitting, and, of course, crucifixion. (Matthew 26:67-68, 27:26) Through it all, despite the powers of the world allied against Him, Jesus was not alone … His Father was there by His side, “But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced … He who vindicates me is near.” (Isaiah 50:7-8)

Jesus took the sins of the world, including your sins and mine, upon Himself.  Yet, despite this, He was vindicated by His Father.  Therefore, you and I are also cleared of all blame and eternal consequences for our sins.  As the Father stood by His Son Jesus, Jesus, the Suffering Servant stands by us as we “walk in darkness and (have) no light.”   Darkness is scary, but as we “trust in the name of the Lord god and rely on (Him)” (Isaiah 50:10) He is with us in all things.

                                                                               In Christ’s Love,

                                                                               Pastor Jim

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