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Expanding Your Comfort Zone (February 22, 2023)

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CREDIT: Marco Verch

Dear Children of God, 

We like comfort. Why else do we heat/cool our homes? Or – put cushions on church pews? It’s about comfort. We have different ideas about comfort, but we like it. But there’s a problem with the comfort zone – it can keep us from getting things done. We want to stay there. But eventually we need to move out of our comfort zones.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain to escape the crowds and chaos. There Peter witnessed, first-hand, Jesus’ full glory as well as the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter was so engrossed he wanted to stay on the mountaintop. He 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) Peter, focused on his comfort zone, had forgotten Jesus’ mission. It wasn’t to live on a mountaintop bathed in glory. He was the Christ who came to suffer, be killed, and rise from the dead (Matthew 16:21). This wouldn’t be possible if Jesus remained in mountaintop comfort. Jesus needed to go down the mountain, into the world, to fulfill His Father’s mission.

It’s good to linger in the mountaintop comfort zone, worshipping God with friends. God calls us to this mountaintop each week to receive His grace and to nourish our faith through His word and the Lord’s Supper. It’s great to hang out there for a while, but there’s still work to do. 

Lent, which starts this Ash Wednesday, is a good time to step out of our comfort zones. It’s a good time to sacrifice some of our comforts while remembering Jesus’ sacrifice for us – praying for strength to fight Satan’s temptations to give in to our cravings.  It’s also a good time to stretch our comfort zones by spending more time in prayer and God’s Word – pick up a Return to the Lord Lenten devotional to help you. Lenten ideas like these might help you experience more fully the Easter mountaintop that awaits. 

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Real Fast (February 8, 2023)

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Dear Disciples of Christ,

Not to get too far ahead of myself, but it’s February. February means Lent is almost here. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 22nd. And with that, many will go into a Lenten fast. When many think of “fasting,” they might think of not eating. But fasting is about more than food. Fasting is giving up something we find pleasurable. As you begin preparing for Lent, it’s a good time to think about what “pleasurable” thing you might fast from during Lent’s 40 days. However, more important than the “thing” you fast from is this – who you’re fasting for and why.

As always, a great place to understand what God desires from us is – HIS WORD! In Isaiah, God tells us the fasting He does not desire is the kind of fasting to earn the favorable opinion of others, fasting that leads to unhappiness and conflict, fasting that is for show (Isaiah 58:1-5). 

Instead, God encourages us to fast in ways that involve loving self-sacrifice in response to His grace toward us (Isaiah 58:6-7). This means responding to God’s love for us by fasting, giving up some of our God-given provision, to benefit others. Maybe providing food, clothing, shelter in some way to those who have none. Fasting might look like this, fasting from your daily gourmet coffee experience or another luxury treat and donating money saved to a food bank or organization like Food for the Poor. Or maybe fasting from that new outfit you’ve had your eye on and supporting a local homeless shelter (e.g. Project Echo or Safe Harbor). Or possibly fasting some of your time spent in personal entertainment and leisure to volunteer at a shelter, school mentoring program, or other organization that helps people in need.

Fasting is a wonderful practice. It worships God by loving Him and others first. It also helps us learn to more fully trust God to provide for our needs as we willingly give to others from what He has generously provided us. Fasting for the Lord – give it a try.

                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                        Pastor Jim

Top Priority - February 1, 2023

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

What do you think the priority of a university should be? Many say, “The education of students, pushing the frontiers of knowledge through research,” or similar words. But to see the amount of money spent on extracurriculars, such as athletics, one might argue that education is a second or lower priority. When the University of California, Santa Cruz entered the world of college athletics, the students wanted to establish a proper priority between education and athletics. They did so by adopting the name “Banana Slugs” for its teams. The odd name brought some attention, but it also promoted a more balanced perspective between the school’s priorities – education first, athletics somewhere below that.

Here's a similar question, “What do you think the priority in our lives should be?” The answer, I hope, would be something like, “I should love, trust, and obey God above all else.” That’s a great answer. But how do we show this is our top priority? The Prophet Micah tells us what Israel thought its top priority should be – burnt offerings, rams and rivers of oil, and offering their firstborn (Micah 6:6-7). It sounds good, but does God really want our sacrifice of things to Him as our top priority? No. God requires the following, “Do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8)

God desires that we show what our top priority is by being living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) … loving Him by giving ourselves in love to others in accordance with God and His word. To “walk humbly with God” involves trusting and loving Him by obeying His word as we live out our lives together. We do that by showing our love to those around us – not just the people we love and care for, but all people everywhere – treating them fairly, helping provide for their needs, protecting them from injustice, forgiving those who sin against us … in short, loving them as God loves us. Let us seek to live like this, establishing our top priority – God is #1!

                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                        Pastor Jim

Bright Lights (January 25, 2023)

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Dear Disciples of Christ,

I read the other day of a regular traveler along I-68 in western Maryland. It’s a scenic, very hilly piece of interstate. He’d gotten quite used to the scenery until it became a blur to him, especially in the winter when the trees were bare and the ground was brown (or white with snow). But, one night he experienced something new! As he descended toward Exit 50 he noticed a beautiful array of lights in the valley below. The lights caused him to wonder, “What’s that?! I gotta see it!” The bright lights, invisible by day, shone brightly in the dark to draw Him in.

A continuing theme in this season of Epiphany is light … lights that contrast with darkness to reveal the light of Christ in world. It’s a light we see growing as the season progresses to lead people to God and the light of His grace and mercy. God speaks through Isaiah to promise His people, living under the oppression of foreign powers at the time, it’s not always going to be like this, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). Joys will multiply. Burdens and oppression will be lifted. And these promises are realized centuries later when the Light of the World, Jesus Christ begins His ministry.

Jesus begins His ministry, not to bring the royal throne of David back to Jerusalem, but to bring an even greater kingdom into reality. He says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Jesus commands Israel, and you and me, to turn away from reliance and trust in the powers of the world - the sin of idolatry - and return to reliance and trust in God. He calls on His disciples, including you and me, to be bright lights shining in the world … lights which attract others to Jesus and into the kingdom of heaven that awaits all who believe in Him.

                                                                        Your Brother in Christ,

                                                                        Pastor Jim

If You Build It (January 18, 2023)

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Dear Disciples of Christ,

One of my favorite movies, about my favorite game, is Field of Dreams. It’s the story of a down on his luck Iowa farmer. The harvests are bad. The bills are worse. The bank is getting ready to foreclose. Then a voice says, “If you build it, they will come.” Once he figures out that “it” is a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield, he plows under the field and builds “it.” Then, from the remaining cornfields, players from bygone eras mysteriously show up to play pick-up games. And suddenly, “they come” – people from all over come to Iowa to watch baseball games. It wasn’t easy. The farmer endured a lot of ridicule. But in the end, his farm was saved.

God uses people, human beings like you and me, to draw people to Himself – not by building anything on our own, but rather by using the gifts He’s given us to draw others into His presence. It’s hard work due to the sinful resistance of the world we live in. Isaiah, arguably one of God’s greatest prophets, knew well the frustration of serving God’s calling in the world. He felt his work was “for nothing and vanity” (Isaiah 49:4). But God encouraged Isaiah saying, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6) – essentially, “If you build it, they will come … if you proclaim my word faithfully, people will come.” God never says it’s easy. But He does promise it’ll be worthwhile.

It can be frustrating to live as a disciple of Christ. People aren’t too keen on hearing much of what we have to say. But it’s not for nothing. It’s not vanity. God, through the power of the Holy Spirit working in each of us will bring people to Himself. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Trust God’s promise and follow His guiding. In the end, as we gather around Him in the kingdom of heaven, it’ll be worth it.

                                                                        Your Brother in Christ,

                                                                        Pastor Jim

A Light in the Dark (January 11, 2023)

Photo by Sergey Zhesterev on Unsplash

Dear Children of God,

Whatever the Winter-version of “the Dog Days of Summer” is, that’s where we are right now. The beautiful lights brightening Christmas are coming down for another year. All that’s left – bare trees, cold days, and … the good news of Spring’s promise! It may be dark, dead, and cold now; but we can sense a light in the darkness. It’s faint, but it shows Spring will return in a few months!

Epiphany is a church season of faint light in the darkness too. After the “glory of the Lord” and the songs of choirs of angels announce the birth of our Savior, a single light illuminates the sky. This light shines on the home of Jesus, His mother Mary, and Mary’s husband Joseph. It led some men to Him – bringing gifts and worshiping Him. Then the light vanished. And the men went home – not unlike our visitors who brightened our lives for a few moments, helping us celebrate Christmas, before going away. 

Isaiah writes of gloom the darkness can bring, but also of the hope a single light provides, “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:2) God’s promise of a growing light, all because of Jesus’ birth, bursts forth here and throughout His word. 

It seemed darker than ever after the “wise men’s” visit (Matthew 2:13-18). However, as we move through Epiphany the light of Jesus’ glory grows – from His baptism, to the calling of His disciples, to His revealing God’s will in the Sermon on the Mount. Until finally, the “glory of the Lord” reveals Jesus’ true identity as He is transfigured before Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:1-9). 

Even today it might seem darkness has overtaken the world. But we live with the certain promise of eternal life in God’s unending glory (Revelation 21:23-26) all because of a single light, shining over a home in Bethlehem, illuminating it for some “wise men from the east” – and us.

                                                                                        In Christ’s Love,

                                                                                        Pastor Jim

Blessed New Year (January 4, 2023)

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CREDIT: Marco Verch Professional Photographer

Dear Saints of First Lutheran,

This week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, is a time of reflection on the old year while awaiting the new. Each day signifies the passage of time, but New Year’s Eve and Day are special in many minds because of the passing of years. I like to remember in my mind the good times and challenging ones and how God was there as He promised through it all. Psalm 111 captures it well “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart …” (Psalm 111:1)

The psalmist doesn’t say “Praise the Lord when things are going well.”  He simply says, “Praise the Lord!”  – no matter what! Even if He seems far away, He is always close, waiting patiently for us to call on Him in all things – good and difficult, beneficial and bad. The same psalm closes saying “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psalm 111:10) We “fear”, not in a terrified, scared, cowering kind of way, but in a manner of healthy respect for one in whom we have the utmost trust that He can and will do anything for us when we call upon Him.

I’m sure as we all reflect on the year past, we remember blessings – new jobs, healings, new friends and family, successes and achievements. We also remember trials – illness, difficult family situations, loss of all kinds (job, friends, family), and failures. I praise God for many things – the joy of our daughter’s wedding, working with many of you through lows and highs of the “steeplechase” and other challenges we faced together, and sharing with you in baptisms, funerals, illnesses, and achievements and struggles. I praise God for being with us through it all.

I look forward to a new year, 2023, filled with God’s grace and mercy given to us through His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. May the true peace of God fill your hearts and lives now and always.

                                                                                        Happy New Year!

                                                                                        Pastor Jim