1 John 4:8

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“God is love.”

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Many years ago a family moved in across the street from some friends of mine. On the very first day the husband invited my friends over for coffee. The next week they were invited again, this time for dinner. The new neighbor waved smilingly across the street each time he saw my friends. That is until one day when this new fellow approached my friend and aksed him if he needed any help with life insurance. My friend said no, he was well taken care of in that area. The new neighbor smiled and went home. That was the last time he heard from him.

It is important for me to know that even if God gets very little done with me He loves me nonetheless. In fact, it is truly a travesty when we use love.

Our language does not have a word for God’s love. The ancient Greek language of the New Testament does. That word is ‘agape’, which may be translated ‘undeserved’ or ‘unmerited love’. 

The love of God is an end in itself. He does not use it for other purposes. He doesn’t love us in order to save us or change us or do something to us.  If God accomplishes nothing with us He loves us still. God loves His children that are forever lost to Him as much as He loves those who have come home. God does not use His love to get something done.  This is part of of what it means to say ‘God is love’. God’s love is not an emotion or a feeling. It is not a responsive love that is attracted to the beautiful and repelled by the ugly. It does not calculate or count the cost.

A Coast Guard captain called for his crew to launch their ship into a great and terrible storm. A ship was foundering and the distress signal had gone out. One of the crewmen objected. “Captain”, he said,”If we sail out into that gale we may never come back.”  The captain replied, “Getting back is not our chief concern. Getting to that ship is.”

The love of God in the church, reflected in His people, is not an instrument. It is an end in itself. We are not to seek the welfare of others so that they will join our church or give money to the church or think well of the church. God loves and that’s it. And His people are to love whether it achieves anything or not.

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 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Knowledge, Power, and . . .

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“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,”

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Our time has been called the information age. We have more of it at our fingertips than previous generations could have imagined. And each day we gain more knowledge.  For many the key to the human future is knowledge. Knowledge will power us to a utopian human future, they say.

For others, power itself is what matters. Power in the form of money, political leverage, military might, the capacity to wheel and deal and aquire wealth. Life coaching types make millions off the promise of helping people discover and apply ‘personal power’, which is supposed to unleash one’s power to achieve success, however defined. The world is obsessed with knowledge and power as the levers, once properly controlled, that will bring us the life we want. We see it all around us and in ourselves.

You were created in the image of God. The Bible tells us so and this is a high calling. Therefore, the fact that knowledge and power preoccupy us is no accident. They are supreme gifts that distinguish us among all creatures. God is all-powerful and He has given you some power. God is all knowing and has given you some knowledge.

But there is a third characteristic of God for which you were also made and it is more important by far than the other two: holiness and righteousness. God is all-holy, we are not holy. This, not the lack of knowledge or power, is the great human tragedy. When the awesome gifts of knowledge and power are in the hands of a creature that lacks the most important quality God has given us, His very holiness, those gifts become tainted and our lives and the world look the way they do. And we have no solution.

In Christ Jesus, God has addressed our betrayal of Him and our descent into unholiness. He took up a cross and allowed our unholiness to crucify Him. Three days later he was raised from the dead. Now in a miracle of love and mercy, God has determined that His holiness and righteous are His gift to us through faith in Christ. It is this faith, not what we know or are able to do, that restores us to our Creator, the world and ourselves. Why has God done this? Is some remnant of righteousness left in us that makes us worth loving. Hardly. God loves us not because of who we are but in spite of us. His love is sheer, undeserved gift. The Bible’s word for it is grace. Our knowledge and power will not save us. The grace of God in Christ Jesus will.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

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1 John 3:18-24

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“By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before Him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts.”

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The letter of 1 John reminds us that love shows itself by action. But what if it doesn’t? What about those times when we look inside ourselves and have to face the truth that we have not lived up to the great commandment?  

I knew a Christian man years ago who was obsessed with how unloving he was. He complained about it, lamented it, wore it like a thorny crown . His own sinful heart became his prosecutor. I said to him, “The way you carry on, you would think that your sinful heart is greater than Jesus your Savior.”

God is greater than our hearts. Our hearts may prosecute us but God is our judge, He sees through us and knows us. God knows our spiritual condition and He knows that the measure of love we do have in our hearts, born of faith, means that we have passed from death to life.  Although we are imperfect in love – and our hearts will tell us this – we are, nevertheless, born of God’s great love in Jesus and we are His beloved children. Now, there is something to be obsessed about!

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 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

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Matthew 28:19

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Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,…”

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The photo above was taken at Pisa, Italy, sight of the famous leaning tower. You can see the tower at the far right of the picture just behind the cathedral. The tower, however, is only one structure in this large complex. It is actually the bell tower for the cathedral. And in front of the cathedral, in the foreground of the picture, is the baptistery. If there was ever an unapologetic statement about the importance of baptism, this might be it!

In Matthew 28 our Lord Jesus issued his final command and promise to his disciples. These words represent the “marching orders” of the Church. Sometimes they are called the “Great Commission”. Significantly, baptism has a prominent place in our Lord’s command.

The first thing to note about our Lord’s words is that they are a command. Baptism, therefore, is not an option the church or the Christian can take or leave. We are not to despise baptism or treat it lightly. Neither are we to speculate on what happens to those who are not baptized. As followers of Jesus, our job is to carry out His command. He will deal with the exceptions. After all, Jesus stated, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” Although this text is often quoted as a condition that people must meet to be saved, that is not what the text actually says. The text says that Christ will decide who has access to the Father. How Christ will handle those who do not receive baptism is His business. Our business is to baptize, as He has commanded.

The most important words in Jesus command, however, are these; “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We baptize with water together with God’s name. It is not our word (our decision to repent and follow Christ) that is added to the water (as in what some call believer’s baptism). In baptism God adds His word to the water. That is why the Lord includes the Triune name of God along with His command to baptize. He wants the Christian to know and trust that in baptism God promises to give you His name. This is the central promise God gives you in baptism. This is the promise that we are called to trust, in which we place faith. It is a promise designed to comfort and encourage sinners.

Though some may challenge it, you don’t have to apologize for your baptism. God has promised in baptism to be your God, to identify you with everything he has done for your salvation in Jesus Christ, to give you the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. In baptism, God has made a decision for you. 

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Romans 16: 21

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“Timothy my fellow worker greets you, and so do Lucius and Jason and Sosipater, my kinsmen.”

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The greeting above comes at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. We don’t know much about the people he mentions but we do know they were with him. And this is significant. In nearly all of his letters, Paul references someone who accompanies him on his journeys, supporting him in his work.  He gives thanks, by name, for individuals in congregations. He expresses gratitude for their support, for their efforts on behalf of the Gospel.

Nowadays, if a pastor were to write letters to congregations and single out people by name, I can imagine some of the responses; ‘What about the others? isn’t everyone important? You don’t want to hurt their feelings or diminish their self-esteem, do you?’  In over 30 years of pastoral ministry, when I think back on the people I have served, I don’t remember them all. But I do remember many of those, by name, who actively served with me in ministry.

The life of any congregation is made up of the participation, commitment, involvement of persons. The first few generations of Christian people did not have church buildings, constitutions and bylaws, business plans, or programs. They had each other.  And their communities were not centered around their perceived needs, comfortable worship schedules or a salad bar of programs and activities. They were centered around the new life in the Spirit that had taken hold of them in Jesus Christ as they heard the message of the cross and resurrection. Against pressures from their families, society at large and often at great personal risk, they gathered together in joy and gratitude for worship, witness, learning and service. 

The institutional character of today’s church can obscure something important. At it’s heart the church is a community of persons in relationship; in relationship to Christ through Word and sacrament, in relationship to one another through faith, hope and love, the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Paul’s mentioning of people by name was certainly not meant to slight others. But in mentioning them he reminds us of our relatedness in Christ and how important it is to love and support one another.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John 17:17

 

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“Sanctify them in the truth, for your word is truth.”

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During the 1920’s a great debate occupied the church as it struggled with the relationship between modern scientific knowledge and the authority of the Bible; a struggle brought about, for the most part, by the theory of evolution. Even then, the faculty at my alma mater, Luther Seminary, was divided. Some held to a literal, seven, twenty four hour day creation story. Others believed that where scientific knowledge was irrefutable (which may or may not include the theory of evolution), it should be accepted. It was during this time that the expressions “verbal inspiration” and  “without error” were applied to the Bible by many, in order to strengthen the former point of view. At the same time, other biblical students and scholars looked increasingly to scientific tools and insights in order to understand the Bible more fully. In the decades since, Christians remain divided. Some, on both sides, going so far as to say that if you do not accept their view, you cannot be Christian.

The deeper issue, of course, is the authority of the Bible. If I do not believe, for example, that the word ‘day’ in the Genesis creation story means a literal twenty four hour day, can anything in the Bible be trusted?  Must I accept the Bible as a verbally inspired, inerrant scientific textbook even when it contradicts secular scientific knowledge? Or, do I simply dismiss the miracles in the Bible and everything else that offends reason or makes me uncomfortable? Does anything go? What is the nature of the Bible’s authority?

Faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior does not require that you must hold to a particular view of the Bible. What it does mean is that you must take the Bible seriously. Both the perspectives outlined above, though reaching different conclusions, are efforts to do just that. And as difficult and contentious as discussions over these issues may be, there is no viable option for the Christian – and the Church as whole –  other than continuing to struggle with the meaning of the Bible for faith and life. All Churches read the Bible but no church owns the Bible. All churches are called to stand, in humility, under the authority the Living Word, Jesus Christ whose prayer for us remains, “Sanctify them in the truth, for Your Word is the truth.” 

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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2 Corinthians 9:15

 

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“Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!”

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A friend was helping clean out the house as an elderly widow prepared for a move into more manageable accommodations. She picked up a small piece of wood that had fallen onto the floor and tossed it into a nearby waste basket. “Oh, no!”, said the elderly women. “Don’t throw that away.” Her friend was puzzled. it was just a scrap of wood. Then she heard the story.

The old woman recalled a day years ago. She and the man who would become her husband for over 70 years had spent an afternoon strolling along a lakeshore. It was the first day they had met. They spoke of their lives, inquiring after one another, getting to know one another. The shoreline was strewn with small bits of driftwood which they would casually pick up and toss out onto the water. Within a few months they were married. One year later, on their first anniversary, he gave her a small box tied with a ribbon. Inside was a piece of driftwood he had kept as a reminder of that first day. It was his gift to her.

The friend reached into the waste basket, retrieved the piece of wood and almost reverently handed it to the elderly lady. Something had changed. The friend now saw more than a scrap of wood. She saw the gift.

You and I were born into a world where everything has been provided, including life itself. Sin reveals itself in us when we see life’s gifts only as things to be selfishly used, manipulated then cast aside. Many treat life this way, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes willfully. Then they hear the story, the story of Jesus. They hear of His love, His mercy, His deep concern for their lostness, they hear the story of His cross and resurrection. And when the Holy Spirit brings this old, old story of Jesus and His love to life in us something changes. We begin to see the gift in everything because we have seen the greatest gift of all – Jesus Christ our Lord.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Peter 3:9

 

“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy,..”

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Most of us grow impatient if we have to wait too long. You have probably been in line for groceries and seen how much abuse the check stand servers have to endure at the hands of impatient shoppers, through no fault of their own. Having to wait can bring out the worst in us. Waiting can be hard, long, tiring and aggravating. 

The photo posted above is of the Sawyer Glaciers, located at the end of the Tracy Arm Fjord in Alaska. These massive rivers of ice and snow crawl along slowly, their movement virutually imperceptible. Slow as they may be, however, they are irresitable. Everything before them is wept away and the effects of their progress are permanent, their purpose inevitably fulfilled.

For the Christian, waiting is the matrix in which faith grows. Waiting keeps us grounded in the here and now and focused on the opportunities for living that each day brings us. In waiting we learn that walking, not running, is the proper pace of living.  At times, when our needs and longings seem too much for us, we can grow impatient with what appears to be God’s slowness to act. At those times it may be helpful to remember that creation rides on God’s glacial purposes. The power and inevitability with which they move are staggering, beyond us. 

Therefore, on this new day of grace, take up Paul’s prayer on behalf of the Colossian Christians as your own. Pray that God’s power and might may translate into your life as endurance and patience, keeping you in the faith and confident that His purposes in Christ Jesus are carrying you along as surely as those rivers of ice, imperceptibly yet inevitably, flow into the sea.

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

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1 Peter 1:3-4

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you,…”

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A recent TV commercial spoke of how using a certain product supports a “sustainable future”. This phrase has become more common in recent years, as has the symbol above representing sustainability. Is the future “sustainable”? I suppose it depends on what future we are talking about.

If we are referring to the management of natural resources, in the short term, there is room for discussing sustainability. Good stewardship of the earth’s resources is in everyone’s best interest. To work for a “sustainable” environment is simply a matter of good stewardship. Nothing more and nothing less.

But some of the current rhetoric surrounding “sustainability” is also saying something else. Namely, that there is no future beyond what we can create for ourselves in this world. There is nothing beyond what we can see and experience. In this respect, the language of sustainability is competeing for a view of the world and of existence which is utterly devoid of God – and authentic hope.

Christian hope is not rooted in human efforts at environmental management, in our capacities to bring about a “sustainable future”. A closer look at even what science says about the future of the created universe is that it is ultimately unsustainable. Theories may vary – Is the universe collapsing in on itself? Is it flying apart? – it hardly matters. The outcome is the same.  Your life, the world and the universe are not progressing, they are coming to an end.

It was to secure a real future that Christ Jesus died on the cross and was raised for you. In Christ Jesus God has promised to be there when the unsustainability of your life proves itself in death. Then He will raise you from the dead and usher His people into the joy of the new creation, “…to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you…”. 

There is a truly sustainable future. And God alone will bring it.

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 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Colossians 1:17

 

“In Him all things hold together.”

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‘Connect’ is a popular word these days. Its use reflects a variety of contexts but the goal is the same; to join together, to link, to bridge a gap, to cohere. The wide usage of the term is meant to speak into a world that is disconnected. People are looking for meaningful connections because life, at a very fundamental level, is about connections. We need to be connected. But where do I look? Where do I find them?  Marketing types have picked up on this. Thus, the appeal goes out; ‘Get Connected’ through our product, service, etc. 

“In Christ all things hold together”, Paul wrote to the Colossian church. Another translation for ‘hold together’ is ‘cohere’. I like that. When Christ Jesus takes hold of life He brings real connectedness, real cohesion.  The self comes to rest in its own skin. I see the whole creation as gift, with all the implications that awareness brings. Nor are the most tragic and apparently godless of circumstances outside the cohesive power of God’ s grace. Remember Paul’s words to the Romans? “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes.”  

Many of life’s connections are temporary, break under pressure or turn out to be forms of manipulation. Not so the connection with God in Christ.  In Him the broken fragments of our lives are brought together in the cohesion of love and mercy. To be held in this love is to be truly connected.

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 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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