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Kingdom

Deuteronomy 11:26–28

Moses said, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God.”

John 14:6

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

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There are currently two people in our lives’ orbit whom we are trying to help. They are unrelated. One is a man. The other is a woman. Both, however, are having a difficult time putting the pieces of life together effectively and navigating good decisions consistently. The result is a continuing pattern of financial failure, relational dysfunction, and a string of misfortune: an object lesson and dim image of the curse of disobedience of which Moses speaks in Deuteronomy.

The danger of not following God’s commands, however, is far worse than a string of bad luck and financial failures. When he speaks of the curse of not following God’s laws Moses was speaking of direct divine judgments that Israel would experience because of their rebellion. They would experience defeat in battle, destruction of their cities (even the temple itself), and exile to a foreign land because of their disobedience, and failure to acknowledge God’s proper place in their lives. It would lead ultimately to Jesus harsh condemnation: “Behold your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38).

Jesus’ words stand not only of his claim to be the only source of God’s salvation, but as a Good News message against the backdrop of our failure to keep God’s laws and commands as we should. What Israel and all of humanity failed to do Jesus did perfectly. His grace, love, forgiveness, and victory over sin is the way to true life. He alone can make that offer.

Some have difficulty saying that eternal life and salvation comes only through Jesus. It is not politically correct. Never mind that Jesus never worried about political correctness. But think of this: if there is another way by which we may be saved, why did Jesus have to die? Why did he pray in the garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)?

We need look nowhere else: Jesus alone provides the way to the father. The abundance of God’s blessings flow to those who seek him and believe in his name. No one else is able to make that claim or deliver on that promise. We are thankful for Jesus’ promise as we strive to help these two people, for it reaches especially to them in the midst of their struggles. It also gives us a picture of God’s disappointment but continuing love in the face of our own failures, calling us back to the way of Jesus: love, truth, and life under God’s grace.

Isaiah 66:18

I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory.

Matthew 25:31–32

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him.

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee - "O Lord, how manifold are your works; in wisdom you have made them all." Psalm 104:24

A friend of mine shared with me recently that he is becoming more and more distressed about the state of the world. I suspect that the recent terrorist attacks in Paris won’t lessen that distress. Controversies and protests, firings and political scandals, rampant immorality and indecency all trouble his heart. He admits, also that he is also becoming more intolerant; a difficult combination to be sure. More than 200 dead in Paris Terrorist Attacks. Black and Blue Lives Matter. Mizzou President Resigns. FBI Probes Clinton’s Emails. Allegations Dog Ben Carson. These headlines trail through his mind. It’s enough to make a guy yearn for the End of the World.

That, however, is not the best motivation for our yearning for the life of the world to come. We are not most fit for heaven when we are least happy on earth. We live in a fallen world to be sure. There will be wars and rumors of war, famine, distress and troubles of many kinds before the end. Jesus taught that clearly (cf. Matthew 24). He even promises that for the sake of the elect the terror of those days will be shortened. But let me show you a more excellent way.

According to Irenaeus, the Early Church Father, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” If that is the case, then the culmination of all of history will be a day full of life. God speaks through Isaiah of people from all nations and tongues seeing his glory. Jesus says that when he comes on the Great Last Day he will sit on his throne of glory.

I used to worry about Jesus coming when I was doing something wrong. I’ve heard radio preachers say, “When Jesus comes do you want to be in a bar?” The implication being that such a discovery would exempt one from gaining heaven. It’s as though God is saying, “Sorry, I caught you sinning. I don’t save sinners.” What!?! Isn’t that why Jesus came?!? 

If God’s glory is man fully alive, and God’s praise will be for his glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6), then the glory of Jesus on that Great Last Day will be expressed by the fully alive redeemed sinners praising God for his mercy, love, forgiveness, redemption, and salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. That will truly be a great day!

Ezekiel 34:2 (NIV)

Woe to you shepherds who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?

Romans 12:7 (NIV)

If your gift is serving, then serve.

 
The month of October is observed in some places as Pastor Appreciation Month. I was delightfully surprised to receive a very special work of art from the children of the Early Childhood Center one Sunday in October. I am thankful, too, for a gift card from the church, as well as gifts from several members. Those reminders of God’s faithfulness and ability to use one such as me to serve his people and the cause of his kingdom are welcome and appreciated. I will confess, also to having a “KEEPERS” file in which I save notes, cards, and emails that speak words of appreciation and encouragement to me.

These words from God through Ezekiel and St. Paul speak to the other side of that coin. Jesus says, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:49). Here God is speaking to me and all others given the responsibility of shepherding his people. This isn’t to be a cushy job, designed to allow you to hide behind your collar, remain aloof, pontificate, or manipulate people for your celebrity status, financial benefit, or personal satisfaction. This is not about you. This is about serving my people. This calling is both a privilege and a burden.

Admittedly, it is virtually impossible to serve Christ and his church and mission with totally pure motives. That is why I need the message of the cross as much as anyone. Martin Luther’s sacristy prayer says it well:

Lord God, You have appointed me as a Bishop and Pastor in Your Church, but you see how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task. If I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago. Therefore, I call upon You: I wish to devote my mouth and my heart to you; I shall teach the people. I myself will learn and ponder diligently upon You Word. Use me as Your instrument — but do not forsake me, for if ever I should be on my own, I would easily wreck it all.

The task of serving as a pastor in the church of 2015 is a decidedly complex and challenging one. There are financial, governance, social, cultural, and legal constraints and realities all of which surround the care of God’s people. It is impossible to serve in a medium to large size church and preach the gospel in a vacuum that does not touch on one or all of these realities. But there is no greater privilege in this world than to serve as a shepherd of God’s people. I think I will use Luther’s Sacristy prayer today in earnest.

Psalm 38:22

Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.

2 Timothy 4:17

Paul wrote: But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength.

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I am just now recovering from a stomach bug that had me in severe discomfort and pain. I am thankful to God for anti-diareahal and stomach-soothing medications! I am thankful for a loving wife who put up with my moaning and, more importantly, prayed for me. I am most immediately thankful for God’s healing mercy that lets me be up and out of bed and on the mend. So these words have particular significance to me today. “Make haste to help me, O Lord!” I am truly thankful that God stood by me and has given me strength.

Sometimes our need for God’s help is urgent and obvious. It may come in the form of illness, broken relationships, or financial crisis. It may come because of a grievous sin or deeply guilty conscience. It can be in response to grave temptation or a difficult path of faithfulness. In those times, our prayers become more earnest, and perhaps more simple. When the need is focused and intense our prayers can be simple and direct. We may not need to say more than, “Make haste to help me…”

In the meantime, however, we wait. The very call to, “make haste” indicates an urgent need that has not yet been realized. Paul’s witness implies a long-standing presence of God who provided strength through a time of testing and challenge. In those times of waiting and yearning faith holds on to the promises of God. In the thick of the fight we pray more earnestly and seek our help from the One we know can help.

When the help has come; when the healing has taken hold; when the crisis is past; when the brokenness has been healed; we do well to thank God and witness to his presence and help during the struggle. So I say with Paul, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength.” Thanks be to God!

Isaiah 58:11

The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places. 

Philippians 4:19

My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 

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Diane and I recently met some new neighbors. Since we’ve moved to a new house in a brand new neighborhood, we have been anxious to meet the neighbors. We’ve met Charlie and Peggy, just across the street. We met SB and his daughters Mary and Linda, as well as a few others nearby. The other night we had a long conversation around our firepit with Richard and Elizabeth. Each of these people have unique personalities. Each of these people appear also to be fairly well rooted in their personalities and values. 

We know some are members of Lakewood United Methodist Church. Others are reportedly Baptists. One has a cross displayed in the window. But when you combine mature age with affluence you have the makings of self-sufficient stability. That’s good for social order and society as a whole. The danger, however, is that we lose sight of our need for God in such situations. The belief that God will supply all our needs is not as precious. God becomes a mascot; we are proud of him, but we don’t look to him for anything of substance.

Just last night, however, there was a murder not far from here. It wasn’t in our subdivision, but it was in the development of which we are a part. I believe this might be a wake-up call for people to look more closely and intentionally to God for needs like security, peace of heart, courage, and wisdom. 

We actually are in a parched land – though we disguise that by our nice homes, gated communities, and enviable lifestyle. We need God and his provision more than we know. I’m not worried about trying to change the Baptists and Methodists to Lutherans. I’m thankful for the cross in the window of my neighbor. I do, however, hope somehow to help people remember that God has what we need. That’s true whether we’re in parched places or in gated communities. Maybe I need to start that with my own intentional awareness of God and his rich supply of love, grace, salvation, and peace through Jesus Christ my Lord. How about you?

Revelation 7:9-10

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

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Many years ago I sat with my good friend Jerry Snell in his grandfather’s living room as two Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to convert him to their religion. They lean heavily on the book of Revelation as well as a false belief about God’s holy name. Sadly I didn’t think to ask them about Philippians 2:9-11).The idea that there would be only 144,000 in heaven was the issue we took up. We did, therefore, point them to the verses above.

What a scene this is! A myriad of peoples: languages, tribes, peoples, nations all gathered before the throne of the Lamb of God, the crucified and now risen and reigning Son of God: Jesus whose name is above every name. Jesus the one at whose name every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth. Oh that glory of that day! What a splendid hope is ours in Jesus!

November 1 is All Saints Day. We celebrate the reality that there is gathered around the throne of Jesus, the Lamb, singing his praise. When we gather for worship today – whether in the most grand cathedral, giant worship space, or small group of believers – when we hear God’s word and receive his gifts through faith, and raise our songs in praise to him, we join angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven in praise and honor of our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

May it be so for you today.

1 Kings 8:57

The Lord our God may not leave us or abandon us.

Acts 17:27

Indeed God is not far from each one of us.

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This morning’s World and Everything in It podcast offered the thought that a strong truth held weakly is better than a weak truth held strongly. Weak truths tenaciously held to will easily prevent us from grasping a stronger and more salutary reality. A strong truth, on the other hand, will endure our doubts and sustain itself in the end.

That is different from Bob Sutton’s Strong Opinions Weakly Held approach to business, industry, and science. Such an approach is certainly a valid one in those realms. For even science operates on opinions about theories, and the application of laws and observations. Those convictions are ever changing

Biblically-founded convictions, however, are another matter. Such convictions are essential to strong faith and the advancement of the Mission of God. People of deep biblical convictions move the Kingdom of God into the consciousness of people. The light dawns about God and his true glory and ultimate reign. In that light the Good News of Jesus is sweeter still.

Now to the weakly-held truth that is witnessed to in the passages above: God is near to us. He will not leave or abandon us. It seems to me that we hold that truth too weakly. That’s better than holding a weak truth to strongly. For example to hold strongly to the idea that God’s goodness means our lives will always be pleasant (a weak truth) is dangerous. Holding to that will set us up only for disappointment and maybe even abandonment of faith. In the face of that to hold more strongly to the reality of God’s promised presence will sustain us.

We surely ought to examine our weakly-held beliefs, and claim more fully those which align with God’s word. They will sustain us far more fully and productively than weak truths held stubbornly.

Isaiah 40:15

The nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales.

Revelation 14:6

I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.

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I recently learned that The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (the denomination of which I am a member) is the second most monolithically-white denomination in the United States. This does not make me happy for at least two reasons. First of all, we do not reflect the reality of the cultural and ethnic mix of the nation in which we live. Like it or not, legal or otherwise, our nation is a mix of ethnic and cultural groups, and our failure to reflect that is surely not pleasing to God. Secondly, and more importantly, this is a far cry from the vision of heaven in the Bible:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10

I realize that we LCMS Christians are not the only tribe, but sometimes we act and speak as though we are. Even more sadly, however, our monolithic makeup point to a sectarian bent (not on purpose surely!) that is difficult to deny. We pride ourselves on being pure in our doctrine. But somehow we must ask ourselves how pure we are if we are not reaching and embracing the many tribes and nations in our communities and nation itself.

Thank God we are not saved by our purity! Thank God for the Gospel message of God’s love in Jesus Christ, his atoning sacrifice, his perfect faith, his mercy and goodness, his promises and power, his resurrection and reign, his second coming on the Great Last Day. I look forward to that expression of the fullness of God’s redemption as we “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” stand before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in our hands, and cry out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Come Lord Jesus!

Genesis 39:20–21

Joseph remained there in prison. But the Lord was with him.

Hebrews 13:3

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.

The entrance to Death Row inside Angola Prison

The entrance to Death Row inside Angola Prison

I walk from my car to the double gated entrance at which there is a three story guard tower. There is massively strong and reinforced steel door at ground level, and thick tinted bulletproof windows around the top of the tower. A small walkway twenty feet off the ground runs around the perimeter of the tower. A basket with a rope and pulley is attached to a arm on one side of the walkway. The guard asks, “Name, and purpose of your visit?” There is no chit-chat; no friendly banter. I tell them I am there for a pastoral visit. He lowers the basket to me and instructs me to put my identification in the basket. Once they have seen my ID and verified that I do have an appointment in the chaplain’s office, they return my drivers license and I am allowed to go through the first of two gates giving me access to a 20 foot no-man’s-land between two 15 foot razor-wire-topped fences. The electronic lock clicks shut. Seconds later the other lock opens and I walk up a sidewalk to a second security station. At this station I go through a similar protocol. Only this time I walk through a metal detector, and they do not return my drivers license. I am in prison. I am about to visit a prisoner who is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.

When I meet Bobby, he is dressed in white pants and shirt – as are all the prisoners in this maximum security prison. The visit begins with prayer and a Bible reading. I learn his story. He professes to be Christian. He acknowledges his guilt. But he also says he should not be here without the possibility of parole. Some time later the visit ends and I am allowed to retrieve my drivers license, walk out through the double gates, past the guard tower, to my car, and make the 25 mile trip back to my family. That memory is more than 25 years old: my first of several visits to the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas State Penitentiary. I got to know Bobby and visited him several times before moving to Texas. He is still in prison as far as I know.

Since that time I have visited several other units in the Arkansas system as well as the once most bloody prison of all: Angola Prison in southern Louisiana. One major difference between my experience in Arkansas and in Louisiana: there is a seminary inside the prison at Angola. Through the efforts of Burl Cain, the prison warden at Angola, that prison has undergone the most incredible change imaginable. From a reputation as the bloodiest prison in the United States, to becoming a model of true rehabilitation and Christian redemption, the change is nearly beyond belief. Burl Cain is a man of faith and wisdom. He even brought a Bible College program into the prison there!

I have only the faintest inkling of what it is like in prison – though I have visited prisons several times in my life. But I do know there are people there who have been redeemed and whose lives have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They have heard the gospel, repented of their sins, and in some cases – as in the seminary and inmate-chaplain program at Angola – have experienced the fullness of God’s grace by mediating that grace to others within the prisons.

There are some very bad people in prison; people who deserve to be there (including even some of the prison pastors serving in Angola and now also at the Darrington Unit near Sandy Point, south of Houston). But if God’s word is for sinners, and God’s grace is for the lost, there is no place more clearly in need of the grace and truth that is embodied in Jesus Christ than in prison.

We may think that tougher laws and harsher prison sentences are the way to save our society from evil’s influence. But the game change that society needs is the message of the Gospel, the call of Jesus to repent and believe, and the power of the Holy Spirit shaping our lives as sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father. That message changes lives in prison. Whether or not these men ever see the outside of the prison walls those who have been freed by the Gospel are precious to God. We are called to remember them.

Psalm 146:9

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.

James 1:27 (NIV)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

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Who cares about true religion? Too often the attention to religion is negative.  Sexual abuses on the part of prominent protestant pastors or Roman Catholic priests gain 120 point headlines. Hard-line socially-conservative churches take a stand against homosexual marriage and fingers are pointed back accusing: You’re too judgmental! Everyone has his or her opinion about what constitutes true religion. The Christian church doesn’t fare too well in that regard in today’s secular news outlets and social media feeds.

There is another group, however, who cares about true religion in a very positive way. Widows, orphans, strangers, and those otherwise overlooked by the world deeply care about true religion as God defines it. True religion reflects the Father’s care for those most vulnerable. True religion cares for widows and orphans. True religion seeks not to be carried along with the rest of the world in pursuit of the better life at the expense of the care for the needy.

I notice that nothing is said in these verses about correct forms of worship, proper sacrificial practices, church polity, or even pure doctrine. Surely these things are important – as is clearly expressed in other portions of the Bible. But true religion does not make an end of these things. It might be that they are assumed to be settled. But it is clear that God does care for things beyond those concerns. Living out our faith in everyday ways, expressing our beliefs and values apart from worship stand tall in the eyes of God.

Certainly this does not mean that our treatment of widows, orphans and others justify us. We are not pleasing to God because we do these things. We do these things because we are justified. For Jesus’ sake he is already pleased. We do these things to express our faith in God, and to reflect God’s nature and character to the world around us. That is our kingdom calling. It matters to God and to those to whom we reflect God’s nature and care.