God – not Guns – Will Save Us

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S (Scripture): Psalm 46

1

God is our refuge and strength,

    a help always near in times of great trouble.

That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,

    when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,

    when its waters roar and rage,

    when the mountains shake because of its surging waves. Selah

There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,

    the holiest dwelling of the Most High.

God is in that city. It will never crumble.

    God will help it when morning dawns.

Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.

    God utters his voice; the earth melts.

The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!

    The God of Jacob is our place of safety. Selah

Come, see the Lord’s deeds,

    what devastation he has imposed on the earth—

    bringing wars to an end in every corner of the world,

    breaking the bow and shattering the spear,

        burning chariots with fire.

10 

“That’s enough! Now know that I am God!

    I am exalted among all nations; I am exalted throughout the world!”

11 

The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!

    The God of Jacob is our place of safety. Selah

O (Observation): Images of chaos and insecurity are all around the psalmist. Yet something brings safety and comfort:

God is our refuge and strength,

    a help always near in times of great trouble.

Whether the seas are rising, the mountains around us are crumbling, or we are under threat of attack, God has spoken, is speaking, and will speak.

Which God, you ask? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The one who claims us, the one who makes war to cease.

Our God is our Mighty Fortress.

A (Application): If you are familiar with Lutheran hymnody, you will no doubt recognize the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” which I jokingly refer to as “The Lutheran National Anthem.” I don’t denigrate the song. It is beautiful and a good reflection of Psalm 46, which Martin Luther May have used as inspiration for the nature of this hymn.

Many images from scripture are present in this hymn, but as I focus on this psalm this morning, I am reminded of the power of God over evil, ultimately.

We see historically black churches burned just recently this year (2019), all in one Louisiana parish. We have seen attacks on mosques and synagogues, active shooter situations at concerts and schools. These are the waters rising around us. Chaos pursuing us.

What do we do?

Many believe the solution is more violence, more guns. Yet this seems counter to the message of Christ.

Our God will equip us and give us what we need, ultimately. I don’t know that path, nor the means by which this will take place. But violence begets violence. This is hard to reconcile. I don’t want innocent people to be hurt, so I want to see security. Maybe that is part of the solution, but the biggest role my faith has in my life is that I will not fear. We can prepare for the worst, but I will not…I refuse to live in fear.

My God is the one who speaks and the nations melt. I will trust in God, not just guns.

I will trust that God will work in and through leaders and those trapped by evil to help the good come out of our humanity. It will be God, not guns that save us.

P (Prayer): Lord, clear our hearts and minds to make us new, to make us whole. Amen.

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God’s Math

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S (Scripture): Romans 8:5 People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. 6 The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace.

O (Observation): Paul relates how the Spirit brings new life to folks, and how selfishness leads to death. The Law alone didn’t satisfy the desire God has for new life in people, because we are selfish! When we think mostly for our own good, we fail.

Yet in Christ, the Spirit is now our guide. The Spirit is in us, yet beyond the reach of sin. How? Christ’s death and resurrection, in bodily form, has overcome the power of sin.

A (Application): God is good. God wishes only life and peace for us, but we find ways to mess that up. Our selfishness pokes its ugly head up and snatches away life-giving actions and words for others.

We like to think that the world is made up of only so much good, and that if we give enough away, we won’t have any for ourselves.

I think new life in the Spirit actually creates more goodness! How do I know? Well, when I give my time to a service project, I feel “full.” I may be exhausted physically or mentally, but spiritual, I’m overjoyed.

God’s math just works differently.

P (Prayer): Lord, give us generous hearts! Amen.

The Law…The Rules

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S (Scripture): Romans 3:28b We consider that a person is treated as righteous by faith, apart from what is accomplished under the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Isn’t God the God of Gentiles also? Yes, God is also the God of Gentiles. 30 Since God is one, then the one who makes the circumcised righteous by faith will also make the one who isn’t circumcised righteous through faith. 31 Do we then cancel the Law through this faith? Absolutely not! Instead, we confirm the Law.

O (Observation): Paul is once again speaking to the Jewish Christians (those who were Jewish and now following Christ). He points out that their adherence to the Law (or lack there of) had nothing to do with their salvation.

When a Jew expresses the Law, this comes from faith in God. The mark of circumcision is the outward expression of an internal faith.

If that external marker was removed, what then? Could someone…say…a Gentile show faith in God? Yes! And if so, that person would not need the Law to become righteous…for God instills faith in both the circumcised and uncircumcised.

Anyone who believes in Christ has been joined to Christ’s righteousness. This is a free gift. The Law stands as a reminder of who we are called to be as God’s people. The Law was a guide and identity marker, not a path to salvation. Salvation is about faith in God.

So, should the Law be thrown out? Absolutely NOT!

A (Application): What barriers are we putting up as God’s people? What rules do we put in place for members and church leaders that make us stumble along the way? Shouldn’t we throw them all out? Well, not so fast : )

Just like we don’t throw out the Law, we don’t throw out everything that are good boundary markers in organized religion.

Healthy boundaries can be good, so that we can care for each other and build up healthy community. When we don’t trust one another and break down these barriers, we can lean on forgiveness and reconciliation, which we have first received from Christ.

Now, following the rules of the Church is not the goal…faith in Christ is the goal. As such, when the rules of the Church inhibit certain groups of people from access to faithful community, then perhaps the rules need to be updated.

The Law guides us and is an outward expression of what it means to have faith in God. Rules of the Church exist to guide us into community. But faith in God is what makes us righteous. And this righteousness comes through Christ, who gave himself for us. Believing in Christ – thanks to the Holy Spirit instilling faith in us – brings us to righteousness. The Law…the rules…don’t make us righteous. Christ does.

P (Prayer): Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief. Amen.

Finite

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S (Scripture): Romans 1:16 I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

O (Observation): Paul speaks of the Gospel to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He is clear: the Gospel is God’s saving power. Not adherence to Law alone, but receiving grace through Jesus Christ. The Law was meant to guide God’s people, not be a litmus test for whether or not God loved God’s people. The Law was never a litmus test to decipher who should be loved and who should be considered an outsider (and thus treated as less than human).

The gift of The Law (which includes the Gospel – God’s saving power) was given to the Jews first. And so as the first recipients of God’s saving power, Paul does not deny access to the Gospel for the Jews. Instead, Paul adds into the list of recipients, the Gentiles who have faith in God.

And Paul clarifies: God’s righteousness comes to us through the gospel, instilling in us faith. This faith is what makes us righteous. Not adherence to The Law. Not being a good person. Not being perfect in prayer or praise. No! Faith comes from God giving us the gospel.

Nothing in us is good or holy, apart from God’s saving grace. Only the gospel saves. Whoever believes this is made righteous.

A (Application): Last night, as I led Ash Wednesday services, I was reminded of our mortality and frailty. I was reminded that my finiteness cannot compare to God’s vastness. As we surrender our lives, through the gift of baptism, we surrender our earthly frame to God’s saving power.

In our weakness, there is Christ. In our sadness, there is joy, for there is Christ. We spend a lot of time covering up our weakness to make us strong.

Instead, let us expose the frailty of our lives to God to let God lead us into healing. We can do this by sharing in faithful community. By prayer and fasting.

Let God care for you in the midst of your brokenness. Let God love you and re-shape you this Lenten season.

P (Prayer): God, you give your gospel gift to all humanity. Help us to let down our guard and embrace it. Amen.

Good News in Disguise

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S (Scripture): Acts 28:23b …many people came to the place where [Paul] was staying. From morning until evening, he explained and testified concerning God’s kingdom and tried to convince them about Jesus through appealing to the Law from Moses and the Prophets. 24 Some were persuaded by what he said, but others refused to believe. 25 They disagreed with each other and were starting to leave when Paul made one more statement:

“The Holy Spirit spoke correctly when he said to your ancestors through Isaiah the prophet,

26 

Go to this people and say:

You will hear, to be sure, but never understand;

    and you will certainly see but never recognize what you are seeing.

27 

This people’s senses have become calloused,

    and they’ve become hard of hearing,

    and they’ve shut their eyes

        so that they won’t see with their eyes

        or hear with their ears

        or understand with their minds,

            and change their hearts and lives that I may heal them.

28 “Therefore, be certain of this: God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles. They will listen!”

O (Observation): Paul stands trial in Rome. He does not try to escape this trial. He welcomes it, that he might share God’s Good News to all people.

Paul continues God’s direction: to the Jews first, but also to the Gentiles! That desire to reach ALL people (even the Gentiles) is blasphemous to the Jews…but God never intends to exclude. God chose Abram, and blessed him and Sarai, and so they had been the first recipients of God’s love and mercy.

That love to the people who would become the Hebrew people (the Jews) was simply the first people to receive the gift. Through these people, God would show the world what steadfast love looks like: mercy and love is extended to God’s covenant people. And God wishes for more to become part of that covenant.

Paul reminds folks using Isaiah’s words that all people who wish to receive God’s covenant love are welcome to receive it. And if the Jews don’t want it, God also gives it to the Gentiles. See if they want it : )

A (Application): When you get a gift, do you fuss if it isn’t what you wanted? Aren’t you glad you got a gift? I know I can be picky sometimes, but receiving a gift you don’t want can be tough to handle. Of course, when relating to this text, God gives us what we need, not something that will be bad for us.

Sometimes the gift we get from God, while not bad for us, may not be what we want, nor what we expect! Sometimes what God gives us goes against every fiber of our being. We reject it at times, because we don’t want to face the reality that what God gives us will inconvenience us.

God wants to give me the gift of helping to be a part of a start-up ministry to serve homeless or poor folks? Won’t that cut into my family time or free time? But aren’t I thankful for what I do have? Can’t the ministry opportunity involve my family along with me, thereby strengthening our bond as a family unit AND inspire us in our faith as a family? Is this gift really Good News or bad news?

Facing the gifts from God can look like pure joy when we are facing difficulty. Facing the same gifts from God when we are arrogant and boastful may trouble us deeply. Either way, the Good News shows up at our doorstep.

May we be humble enough to receive the gift of the Good News and see how it guides us in times of plenty and in times of want.

[Disclaimer: sometimes, bad news is just bad news. Sometimes crap just happens and we can’t explain it. So, check yourself and check with others. If we all agree there is not Good News in that gift…then it’s not Good News. Plain and simple. The point is this: not all things that seem bad that show up on our doorstep are necessarily bad. But sometimes it just is bad. Never assume. Get friend and loved ones together to help you through it.]

P (Prayer): Lord, give us wisdom to accept the Good News freely given to us all. Amen.

Stumbling Blocks and a Promise

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S (Scripture): Ezra 4:1 When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the families and said to them, “Let’s build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we’ve been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Assyria’s King Esarhaddon, who brought us here.”

3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of the families in Israel replied, “You’ll have no part with us in building a house for our God. We alone will build because the Lord, the God of Israel, and Persia’s King Cyrus commanded us.”

4 The neighboring peoples discouraged the people of Judah, made them afraid to build, 5 and bribed officials to frustrate their plan. They did this throughout the rule of Persia’s King Cyrus until the rule of Persia’s King Darius.

O (Observation): God’s people returned to Jerusalem thanks to God’s ability to persuade Babylonian King Cyrus to not only allow God’s people to return, but also to give them their stuff back (and more!).

So they begin to rebuild. They are elated!

But a neighboring group comes over and they want part of the action. When they are told “No!” they go tattle-tailing to the king, until a new king shows up back in Persia: King Artaxerxes. This new king doesn’t like what God’s people are up to…so he tells his people to stop the rebuilding.

Ugh!

A (Application): Just when we think we have a clear path for ministry, something likes to get in our way. God worked on King Cyrus to get him to support the people of God. Now, it’s all turned upside-down.

Lots of times I think I have a great idea for ministry or life, and things get in the way. Stumbling blocks.

Is it my fault? What did I do wrong? Why is this so hard?

Doubts and challenges creep up on us all the time. Does that mean we are headed down the wrong path? Or just tired? Or unclear?

I don’t think I can answer that question. Instead, we turn to Christ. Jesus is ready to take on our frustrations and concerns and the Spirit will guide us.

If I can assure you of anything, it is this: God is with us every step of the way. We are constantly reminded in the scriptures of God’s command and promise: Fear not, for I am with you.

P (Prayer): God, release us from frustration. Guide us forward. Amen.

In Exile…but Hope

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S (Scripture): 2 Chronicles 36:11 Zedekiah was 21 years old when he became king, and he ruled for eleven years in Jerusalem. 12 He did what was evil in the Lord his God’s eyes and didn’t submit before the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke for the Lord. 13 Moreover, he rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, despite the solemn pledge Nebuchadnezzar had forced him to swear in God’s name. He became stubborn and refused to turn back to the Lord, Israel’s God…

15 Time and time again, the Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers because he had compassion on his people and his dwelling. 16 But they made fun of God’s messengers, treating God’s words with contempt and ridiculing God’s prophets to such an extent that there was no hope of warding off the Lord’s rising anger against his people.

17 So God brought the Babylonian king against them…

19 Next the Babylonians burned God’s temple down, demolished the walls of Jerusalem, and set fire to all its palaces, destroying everything of value. 20 Finally, he exiled to Babylon anyone who survived the killing so that they could be his slaves and the slaves of his children until Persia came to power. 21 This is how the Lord’s word spoken by Jeremiah was carried out. The land finally enjoyed its sabbath rest. For as long as it lay empty, it rested, until seventy years were completed.

22 In the first year of Persia’s King Cyrus, to carry out the Lord’s promise spoken through Jeremiah, the Lord moved Persia’s King Cyrus to issue the following proclamation throughout his kingdom, along with a written decree:

23 This is what Persia’s King Cyrus says: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the earth’s kingdoms and has instructed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Whoever among you belong to God’s people, let them go up, and may the Lord their God be with them!

O (Observation): The same God who let the Hebrew people of Judah be taken over by the Babylonian king is the same one who brings them back. This exile lasted about 70 years (or about 2 generations).

God’s people were doing evil in the eyes of the Lord and openly mocking the prophets (who were trying to give guidance to God’s people).

This exile allowed God’s people to see the err of their ways, but how were they to get back to the land promised to them?

This is the tricky part of the understanding of how God works. Nothing that God’s people have done gets them back into God’s good graces. God initiates the return of God’s people by affecting change in King Cyrus, the king of Persia. Cyrus does as God wishes: he commands God’s people to go and to take their stuff with them.

In those days invading a land meant breeding the people out by intermarrying and making the captives adopt your customs. Well, God’s people were kept intact and got to take most of their stiff back with them. And with the support of the foreign king!

So back they go…well, most of them…

A (Application): We all have our exiles. Death of a loved one. Surgery awaiting. A relationship gone bad. No money in the bank account.

We are lost. Some thing or someone has taken over your life. Some desire to be something you’re not drives you to succeed, but all you feel is emptiness inside.

What are we yearning for? Wholeness? We won’t get it on our own.

Are we striving for justice or peace? Is the pursuit rooted in empathy for neighbor or wanting to be known as a “good Christian”?

What does God speak to us in our baptism? “You are my daughter / son, you are my beloved! You are marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit!” And God makes a promise to us, to set us free to love and serve God and neighbor and to bring us back in when we push ourselves to the point of exile.

We try to cover our brokenness by fitting in or making believe all is well or getting people to like us.

Maybe it’s okay…maybe it’s better if we just admit that “it” is not all well. That we do not have it all together. Then, in the midst of our emptiness and the sharing of our emptiness, we might find a community based on our common element: we are broken.

As such, brings us back, reminding us that it is not our own action, but Jesus’ saving action on the cross that brings us back to God. That grace alone saves us, because our efforts fall woefully short.

In a community in which we are being healed…we can serve others out of a sense of compassion and empathy towards the brokenness of others.

And together, with God’s guidance, we at just find the hope we need.

May your exiles turn into freedom.

P (Prayer): Lord, you save me. Help me to see my own brokenness. Heal me. Amen.