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Thus says the Lord: I will encamp at my house as a guard. Zechariah 9:8

Jesus said to Peter, “The gates of Hades will not prevail against my church.” Matthew 16:18

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Bluebonnets and a Windmill Under the Texas Blue Sky – III | Willow City Loop | April 2019

The state of the church in North America is not good. Congregation after congregation is reporting declining attendance. Our own Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod has lost almost 1 Million members since its high point. Even though St. John has been an exception to this decline over the past decade, more recently we have seen a decline in worship attendance. So when Jesus tells Peter that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church, we have to wonder: are we seeing Jesus’ words evaporate before our eyes? Is this still true?

A look around the world, however, reveals just how true Jesus’ words actually are. Decades ago we were sending missionaries to Africa. Now the largest Lutheran Church in the world is in Ethiopia. The church there is adding thousands upon thousands to the company of believers there each year. They are seeing the same kinds of growth and power of God as is recorded in the book of Acts. There are amazing things happening in India and other areas of East Asia. In fact we support missionaries who work in that area of the world – although we can’t name them or the places they serve.

Luther once warned his dear Germans that the gospel is like a summer rain shower. Therefore, we are to be eager to hear Jesus’ words while they are proclaimed in our midst. The prophet Amos warns of a famine of the Word of God when through man’s persistent rejection, God lets his Word move on to other places. There are places mentioned in the New Testament where once there were Christian congregations alive and thriving, but if you go there today you will find none. Think also of the majestic European cathedrals that today are nearly empty on a typical Sunday. Do you realize that on any given Sunday, there are more people attending Lutheran services in Africa than all of North America and Europe combined? The eternal gospel moves on. – Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN as quoted in Logia Lutheran Theological Journal

The water of the gospel may pass us by for a time. That is largely because we as a nation and people are far too proud, wealthy, and (we think) in control to embrace our need for it. The church has a bad name in many people’s minds because of the truly bad behavior of some who have had the highest offices of trust. We may wonder whether the church can even survive.

God will see that his church is protected – and more. The gates of hades will not prevail against Christ’s church. Whatever the devil may send our way will not overpower, overcome, or defeat the gathering of those called out by God: his Church. We’ve been called out by God for his grace, protection, love, and salvation. That’s what “church” (ἐκκλησία) means in the original – the called-out ones.

This Easter will find thousands upon thousands of people around the world celebrating the victory of Jesus over sin, death, and the devil. His victory was complete. No power of the enemy will ever prevail against Christ and his church. For those who call Jesus Lord, there is protection and safety. The Lord, “will encamp at my house as a guard.” For that we can say, “Thanks be to God!”

My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning. Psalm 130:6

Beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.   Jude 20-21 .

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Bluebonnets and a Windmill Under the Texas Blue Sky – II | Willow City Loop | April 2019

Easter is just around the corner. Confirmation Sunday will follow two weeks later. Then comes Mother’s Day. Then graduations, Vacation Bible School, and a host of anticipated events. There’s a cruise we’ve planned for more than a year. And a visit from family from Washington state and Germany. I’m looking forward to these next few weeks! 

What if I were that hopeful for God? What if I looked for, hoped and trusted in, and waited for God with that same level of anticipation and yearning as I do for a vacation, a family visit, or even our Easter celebration? 

Hopes for God’s presence, blessings, and love are often tied to the trouble, distress, anxiety, and frustrations of this present age. This is one of the problems with the current level of affluence we experience today in the United States. We have job reports that tell us that the economy is booming. We have interest rates that allow investors to achieve a return and those who borrow money for a home to do so each day. Hot? Turn up the air conditioner. Bored? Stream a movie or schedule a trip to Disney World. Hungry? Call DoorDash. We are all too easily unaware of our need for God. 

When we are in distress we can call on God and look with anticipation and hope for God. When we pause to look beyond the pleasures of this life – or when we are reminded of the fleeting nature of this world’s delights – we can look beyond these joys to a better blessing. 

We may need to be reminded on occasion that our truest blessings come from God. The limits of this world’s riches may sometimes need to be unmasked for us. But those who hope for God will not be disappointed. They who center their hearts in Jesus’ love and the mercy of God will not be disappointed. Doing so is one key way that we build ourselves us in this holy and precious faith to which the Holy Spirit has called us. 

My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Psalm 84:2

Jesus said, “Abide in my love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” John 15:9,11

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Windmill & Bluebonnets and a Texas Blue Sky | Willow City Loop | April 2019

Diane and I have had a much-needed 5 day getaway/vacation. I actually slept until 7:30 on a Sunday morning. My alarm has usually gone off long before that – or not at all because I’ve awakened before 5. Not today. We had a leisurely breakfast. We set out for worship at the church that a former associate pastor of mine nowserves. The service was edifying and the message right on. The days have been spent seeing the Nimitz and Pacific War museum here.Then came the wildflower trek. The day before we toured four local vineyards. Relaxing. Refreshing.

There is a deep sense of joy in my heart. We’ve enjoyed good food, some excellent wine, some beautiful vistas, and some great experiences. Worship today was surely a building block of our joy. Diane and I talked over dinner about the message here. It was about how God keeps us from harm and danger. It was a great reminder of how God does that by keeping us from eternal harm. We will not be spared from every evil in this world. Not even God’s Son was spared the troubles of this world.

The Bible tells us that Jesus suffered, “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He endured the insults of sinful men. He made satisfaction for our sins. He endured the cross – all in anticipation of the joy that he would experience when he sat down at the right hand of God. He reigns there now. He welcomes all who look to him into his realm of perfect live, forgiveness, salvation, and joy.

This is a good reminder for those of us who want to make heaven on earth. There are moments of joy we can all glimpse. But they are all fleeting. As I write this – in the joy of having this wonderful time away – I have a headache. My cough has been so incessant that Diane has nearly lost her patience having to endure it. I’m tired of it as well.

There will, however, come a Day when all the troubles of the world will melt away. All the joys of the world will be fully experienced – without any condition or exceptions, delays or qualifications. Our joy will be completely complete. Total. Absolute. Full. Then we can say with the psalmist: “My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Amen.

They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, “Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.” Ezekiel 37:11-12

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” John 5:25

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Texas Hill Country | April 2019

Our son learned a difficult lesson one year in high school. He was late by a day in turning in required application materials, and as a result was preempted from being received into the National Honor Society. He had fulfilled all the other requirements. But when he turned in the actual final application, he was told, “too late.”

Perhaps you’ve missed a deadline as well. You didn’t get the sale. You were eliminated from a work group you wanted to join. You missed your flight. You lost your opportunity to meet an important socialite. Too late. Sorry. Better luck next time.

Some people have come to an end in the road financially. Others have had failed marriages. Some diagnoses are simply too grave. Abandon hope. Give up. It’s over.

That is not the message of God to you today. “Today, if you hear his voice,” writes the psalmist (Psalm 95). He goes on to warn God’s people not to harden their hearts, having been delivered from Egyptian slavery. For this reason, we must not only embrace the hope of God’s never-too-late deliverance promises, we must also live into that hope.

God is rich in mercy, powerful in deliverance, and patient in anticipation of our repentance and faith. He years to show us how he can and does redeem lost causes, hopeless situations, and impossible challenges. It’s never too late to call on him. It’s never too late to start over. It’s never too late to repent of your sin. It’s never too late to call on him to rescue and redeem. It’s never too late for God to bring life out of death, hope from despair. 

Think of Sarah – 90 years old when Isaac – the son of God’s promise – was born. Elizabeth was well past the age of childbearing when John the Baptist was born. Harlan Sanders was 62 when he franchised KFC. Anna Mary Robertson Moses (Grandma Moses) was 78 when she took up painting. 

God’s ability to bring hope to the worst possible situation was never more clearly shown than on the first Easter Sunday, when Jesus rose from the dead. The final enemy has been defeated. Even death is not our end. I’m looking forward to celebrating that this Easter!

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? Exodus 15:11

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. 1 John 5:20,21

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Arches at the Moody Mansion | Galveston, TX | August 2018

Unique. One of a Kind. Distinctive. Special. None of these words adequately describe the character and nature of God. A seminary professor is famously to have said, “We know precious little about God, but the little we know is precious.” We know so precious little about God because he is so unlike any other. Metaphors fail him. Comparisons don’t fully express his glory, his being, his character or his nature. We know God is good. We know he is loving. In fact he is love. He is also holy, righteous, just, mighty, glorious, merciful, omniscient, and omnipresent.

The sum of these attributes – together with any additional attributes of God we may list for that matter – never fully express the depth of who God is. We can have a clear sense of the precious nature of God, however, if we consider the attributes of God in light of the best expression of God: Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the fullest, best, most revealing and precious expression of God’s nature, character, and being. When we look at his life, his teaching, his miracles, his sacrifice, his promises, and his victory, we begin to see aspects of God’s nature ever more clearly. When we engage in the fullness of his teachings and ministry we will be challenged, encouraged, emboldened, confronted, invited, rebuked, exhorted, and deeply honored.

Want to know more about God? Read and learn more about Jesus! Jesus provides us with the preciously perfect perspective on who God is and how we are to relate to him.

When the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer, who delivered them. Judges 3:9

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Revelation 1:5-6

Imagine being one of the fifty-two American diplomats and citizens being held hostage in Iran from November 1979 to January 1981. For 444 days a group of Iranian college students kept them prisoners in the American Embassy.  The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the face of evil for many Americans, and a symbol of our impotence to gain our own people’s release. Eight American servicemen and one Iranian civilian were killed in a failed attempt to rescue the hostages. The movie Argo portrays the successful effort to gain the freedom of six American diplomats who had managed to evade capture.

I’m not particularly aware of a need for deliverance – certainly not as urgent of a need as those Iranian hostages. I live a mostly-comfortable life. I have no debilitating problems that have me unable to function. Sometimes I even feel as though I’m nearly thriving. Nearly.

Although my need may not be pressingly obvious, it is no less real. A lack of urgency does not mitigate our true need for deliverance. We are hostage to our sin, to death, and – without God’s help – to the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. We need a deliverer.

Sometimes the need is obvious. We’re facing a life-and-death battle with a fatal illness: we need a deliverer. We are stuck in a debilitating addiction: we need a deliverer. We are plagued with a guilty conscience – for good or bad reason: we need a deliverer. We are enslaved to things or people more powerful than we are: we need a deliverer.

This was Israel’s situation. They needed a deliverer. And God showed up. Through Moses he delivered the people of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians. The city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, the walls torn down. God showed up. He sent Nehemiah to rebuild the walls and gather the people back to Jerusalem. David, Ezra, Daniel, Elijah: All these were deliverers. They were God’s instruments to bring freedom and deliverance from evil.

Through the prophet Isaiah, he announced a coming deliverer who would bear our sins and carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53). Jesus is the fulfillment of all those Old Testament deliverers and the One who alone has redeemed us and delivered us from the gravest evil. Sin and Satan has been defeated. We’ve been set free from our sins.

We were once hostage to sin and death, satan and hell. But we’ve been exfiltrated: Delivered. For that we can say, “Thanks be to God!”

UO Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart. Psalm 10:17

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

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Moody Mansion Front Porch | Galveston, TX | August 2018

I’ve never watched the movie Braveheart. I hear it’s really good. But I began watching it when it got to a particularly gruesome scene and I had to turn it off. I have no stomach for such intense portrayals of suffering and anguish. As I understand the movie, however, it is about men (and women?) who are strong of heart – even in the face of intense persecution and opposition.

The problem with life, however, is that there are a million ways that opposition and persecution comes our way, and not all of them are so obvious or direct. The devil seeks to steal, kill, and destroy. He wants nothing more than to take us away from Jesus and the life and salvation he offers. The world also conspires against faithful people. Who hasn’t seen the success of the godless, their opulent and glamorous lifestyles, and wondered why they have all the fun?

Our flesh joins these two enemies of faith, life, and hope, forming an unholy trinity of deceit, despair, and doom. We lose heart. We fail to stay strong at heart. Too many times we are not even aware that we have given in. We miss seeing the places and opportunities that God provides for us to be strong in heart.

When we realize this, however, God’s mercy comes to us and lifts us to a new and higher awareness of the hope we have. We see more clearly his goodness toward us and all people, and the clarity of our calling to stay strong in the faith.

This is never something we do by ourselves. We cannot hike up our pants and enter the battle against sin, satan, and temptation in our own strength. Look at Acts 19:11-16 and the account of Sceva’s seven sons who try to take on one of Satan’s minions. They leave the encounter wounded and bleeding!

Perhaps you need to do a brave thing. It might be speaking a hard word of truth (in love) to someone near to your heart. It could be resisting temptation that has come calling so many times that it has worn a rut through your heart. You may really want to share the Gospel with someone but fear any number of things – from rejection, to the loss of the friendship, to being considered a fool.

When we face these moments in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the certainty of the resurrection of Jesus, God shows up. When we acknowledge our desperate need for God’s grace and mercy, help and boldness, we are most ready to see his glory shine through us. It may never be a Braveheart moment – in the sense of the movie. But it may be a brave heart moment of God’s strength, courage, and confidence for his glory and our good.