Thoughts on Faithfulness

Thoughts on Faithfulness

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World Communion Sunday Liturgy

To all my pastor friends out there, here is a communion liturgy I wrote for World Communion Sunday. Feel free to us it and adapt it as you wish.

It began last night- as you were going to bed—World communion Sunday.
Asian Christians shared the bread and the wine. Churches in China met in secret so that they would not be arrested.
Christians in the Middle East, some of whom were saved only by having dreams of Jesus, met under the watchful eye of the government as they celebrated the Eucharist.
In Europe, Christians gathered in churches that used to be much more full and celebrated the Lord’s Supper.
In African the sacrament was celebrated in great numbers by a growing number of Christians, many of whom bare scars of persecution as they Commune together.
Those celebrating today include Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, thousands of other denominations, and even those without denominations.
Christ followers met both in public and in secret.
Some met in freedom while others gathered under threat of persecution and death.
Some take the sacrament today with organ music, others with simple singing, and still others in quiet so as not to be arrested.
In wealthy churches and in desperate poverty the sacrament is observed.
In churches, homes, huts, and in God’s creation this seal of the covenant was experienced.
The bread is given to people that could overeat all day and to people who had no idea what they would eat or where they would get it today.

The one thing in common- We all come to the same table of our Lord.

In many different languages, by ordained clergy and volunteer pastors, something like these words of institution were given.

On the night He was betrayed Jesus took bread. And when he had given thanks and blessed it, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the same way after supper Jesus took the cup and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Drink you all of it.”

The bread is many different types and colors and from many places. Some created primarily from wheat, others from rice or other kinds of grain.
Some will have bread left over. Some with very small pieces that could barely give every Christian there a morsel.
Still- it represented the body of Christ broken and sustained the body of Christ around the world today.

(Break Bread)

The juice around the world will be different. For many it will be wine, some will have juice, some will celebrate with water that had to be carried from a dirty well some miles away.
Some will use individual cups, others fancy goblets, still others have been passing around whatever cup was in the home where they were meeting
Still- it represented the blood of the covenant in their place and in their communities, just as it does in ours.

(Pour Cup)

Let us pray,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we thank you for this sacrament of communion shared with Christians around the world. Pour out your Holy Spirit on these elements and on those who partake—that we may be your body and the representation of your covenant in our lives and throughout the world. Amen.

Today, as you see the bread come around, you will see many different colors and types of bread. Remember as you see the plate all of those around the world with whom you share the table today.

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A reflection on the Pastor’s life from Ezekiel 37:1-4

Ezekiel is caught up in a vision of the Lord. It is a valley of dry bones. Perhaps it is a site of a past battle, or just an area where bodies are taken to decay. We do not know much about the valley. All we are told is that the bones are very dry. They have no life left in them. No flesh, no meat, nothing had been alive on them or in them for some time.

The Lord asks Ezekiel if these bones can live. Ezekiel responds- “O Lord God, you know.” I have always felt this answer to be a bit of a cop out. This answer does not work in any other contexts. Imagine answering a math problem in school like this. Or giving your boss this answer as to where your time sheets are. Ezekiel’s answer seems lame to me.

Of course, the other answers available to him do not seem much better. The obvious answer to the question is “No.” These are dry bones. The best doctor in the world could not bring these back. But you do not want to tell God that something is impossible, especially to His face. Saying “yes” defies the logic of our brains. These are dry bones. There resurrection is beyond the realm of possibility. How can these bones live?

Perhaps Ezekiel’s answer is more faithful than it appears at first glance. After all, he does not say “I don’t know.” He says, “Lord, you know.” Lord, if it is going to happen, it is going to have to come from you. You hold the keys. You hold the power.

When I look at churches in America today, I see a lot of dry bones. These churches had life at one time, but they do not have a lot of life right now. They have been dry and stagnant for some time. Many are worried about closing their doors. Every day churches die and more certainly will.

Can these bones live? Can there be knew life in these dry bones again? There a books of statistics and predictions that would say they cannot. Or, if they can, it will only be if they radically change. I am not so bold as to tell God what God cannot do. I am not sure if these dry bones can live, but if there is a chance it is possible only in God’s hands.

Some pastors answer with a resounding “Yes.” They think these bones can live and they work hard to bring that life. They read books about church renewal, go to conferences, and try new initiatives and programs. They easily lose sight of the reality that they are powerless to bring life to dry bones themselves. They wear thin, burn out, and begin to feel like dry bones themselves.

Some pastors answer with a defeated and deflated “No.” They think these bones cannot live again. They may love their church and their people, but they do little to help it find new life. They keep it going as long as it can—providing organizational hospice and continuing business as usual until the bills can no longer be paid.

Perhaps as pastors we need to remember the answer of Ezekiel. Only the Lord knows because only the Lord can do it. But what, then, is our part?

How does God bring life to these bones? He calls on Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones. To prophecy is not just predicting the future. It means to speak God’s words to them. Often prophets would reinterpret past, reorient the present, and reveal the future. The prophets of the Old Testament would create new metaphors, stories, and ideas that capture both mind and heart.

It can be hard to prophecy to dry bones. It feels futile. Ezekiel must have felt foolish to prophecy to a valley of lifeless bones. The bones had no motion or emotion, no response, and no signs of any in the future either. Most pastors know this feeling. We look out at our congregation and see those heads that nod not in agreement with our words but in sleep that must have been lost at a bar the night before. We see the couple who is making their quarterly appearance at church. We see the woman who sits in the pew every week like every good Christian should but who will gossip during coffee hour about everything and everyone. We see the man who is a leader in the church but who’s real lord is his job.

Is there no life here? Is there no transformation here? The church may say that it wants to grow and have life, but what it actually means is that it want to stay the same with more money so that it does not have to close.

How do you stand, week after week, in front of a valley of dry bones, and continue to prophecy? How do you continue to proclaim and bring creativity to an impossible work? The hard truth is that not everyone can. Every day pastors leave the work. It is not for everyone. They do not tell you this in seminary, but you have to have a certain amount of dysfunction to love an underdog that much. You have to be able to not care what anybody thinks and cling to your call from God to do it.

In Ezekiel’s story, it is important to note the slow process of life being put in those bones. The passage describes it very graphically. There is a sound, then the bones come together. There is sinew, then flesh, then skin. This takes time and comes in stages.

Bringing life to dry bones can be be gross. It could stink. It could be messy. Even as these bodies come together, the Spirit may not fill them right away. It takes time.

One of the biggest challenges for pastors is that they do not always get to see the life in the bones. It could be that your ministry at a church might be related to bringing the bones together. You could be the pastor when the sinews are forming. This can make the work feel even more meaningless because you do not get to see the new life that God may have in store for the church in the long run.

Wherever you are in the church’s life, I think that one of the keys to keeping your prophecy fresh, creative, and energetic is to celebrate the little wins. When you see signs of life you have to get excited about them. They do not always come around often. As you see sinews form here or a life transformed there, you need to take note and be thankful. You need to gather with other pastors and not just complain but also celebrate new life.

Above all, remember from Ezekiel that new life can come but it can only come from the Lord. Your job is the work of a prophet.

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Getting into the Bible

I have been hard at work writing a devotional for my church to encourage them to get into the Word of God more. It is available at At then end of that devotional I gave a few comments for continuing to get into Bible more. I though they would make a good blog post. It seemed fair, as well, since that devotional was keeping me away from my blog. Here it is:

The Bible is not a document from which you should take simple sayings and maxims. It is God’s Word and needs to be digested and wrestled with. I would challenge you to commit to a lifetime of daily Bible reading. Try to read from different parts and passages. Here are some ideas that may help you.

The Daily Lectionary- This is a two year cycle of daily scriptures that does not cover the entire Bible but covers many of the important passages and themes. It includes a Psalm, an Old Testament reading, a Gospel reading, and a New Testament reading. You can find these reading plans if you search on the internet for “daily lectionary” or talk to your pastor.

One Year Bible- You can order a Bible online or at most major bookstores that gives you passages every day so that you read the entire Bible in a year. The are most often broken down into sections like the Daily Lectionary but you can also get ones that are put together chronologically based on when the story or text occurs.

Bible in 90 Days- This is a specific program that is an intense immersion into the Bible. The goal is to read the Bible from cover to cover in 3 months. It comes out to about 12 pages a day and takes people between 45 minutes and an hour every day. The value is that you make a solid commitment and push through. It is a great way to see the major themes of the Bible because you see things unfold in a compact period of time. There is also curriculum available so you can learn more in weekly meetings and can share your learning with others.

If you want to get more out of your Bible reading I suggest that you get a good study Bible. I prefer the ESV Study Bible but you can find one that works for you. Joining a Bible study or Sunday school class can also help you.

My biggest suggestion is that you find a way to balance a macro-view of the Bible with a micro-view of the Bible. In other words, you need to read sometimes just for fun or devotionally so that you get the big picture of the Bible. You also sometimes need to dive into texts deeper through reading or studying.

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10 Temptations of the Church

I breezed through a great book recently for pastors and church leaders called 10 Temptations of Church by John Flowers and Karen Vannoy published by Abingdon 2012.  I found this to be a quick read but an excellent and insightful one.  The subtitle of the book is “Why Churches Decline and What to Do About It.”  It looks at the ways churches get tempted to decline or to stay in decline rather than to grow spiritually or numerically. 

What church wouldn’t want to grow?  Actually—most.  Flowers and Vannoy have a descriptive way of describing this.  They say that people and churches get “incentivized for decline.”  In other words, there are incentives for churches to get smaller and stay smaller.

Let’s look at how this plays out in “Chapter 1: The Temptation to Accrue Power.”  Many times in a church one person or one family kept things going when things get really small.  If new people come, those with power may have to share their power.

Flowers and Vannoy share a similar trend in chapter 3 on “The Temptation to Gather Information.”  Some people are on the “know” in a small church.  But if a church gets larger, things start happening without them knowing about it.  Groups and classes are formed that they are not involved in so they do not know what is going on.

Lets take one more—“The Temptation to avoid the hard work of assimilation.”  In a small church, everyone knows each other.  When a visitor comes, it takes effort to talk to them and many would rather talk to the people they are very close to.  It is also more comfortable for people to come to church and know everyone already.

The challenge for pastors and Christian leaders to avoid these temptations and create a culture where people want to follow God’s will even if this is uncomfortable.  To help with this, I highly recommend the book. 

One thing that I would add to the book is how this also applies to the personal life of the Christian.  I think we get incentivized to decline in our own spiritual lives.  If we grew in our faith, it may mean that certain areas that we have not given over to God may have to be turned over to him.  Some skeletons in the closets of our soul may have to be cleaned out.  And what if God called us to do something crazy—like tell someone else about Jesus?  Or become a pastor or a missionary?  Sometimes it is safer to stagnate spiritually so that we are not challenged.  Perhaps it is time we had a little more healthy fear of God.

How have you stagnated in your life or in your church?

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Right Expectations

One of the most important things that I have learned in the last few years of my life is the importance of having proper expectations.  As I talk to a lot of people, I see many problems in this area.  Some have too high of expectations such that they could never be met.  These people live frustrated lives or, at their worst, do nothing because they know there expectations could never be met.  Others have too low of expectations.  They are happy to have life stay as it always has been.  After all, if you do not expect much you are never disappointed, right?

We do this a lot with God too.  We expect God to act a certain way and are disappointed if God does not come through.  Or we have such little expectations of God that we do not look for God to show up and do much of anything. 

The key, I think, is total openness to God.  It is taking the position of “not my will but your will be done.”  In saying this, we acknowledge that God does have a will and is at work.  At the same time we admit that we do not know what that will is.  We submit to that will. 

My experience has been that I am a lot less stressed or frustrated if I can find this position with things in my life and especially about God.  I try to be open to whatever outcome but expecting for God to show up. 

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Getting Your (Christmas) Story Straight

The Christmas story is one of the most beloved and supposedly familiar story of the Bible. Unfortunately, I have come to find that people assume much of the legend is also part of the story. This dates back to a very old problem. Kenneth Bailey notes in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes that many of these problems stem from a novel written around A.D. 200. The anonymous author of The Protevangelium of James did not understand Jewish culture or geography and embellished the story quite a lot.

Here are some corrections that many people need to make about the Christmas story.

Mary did not ride a donkey on her way to Bethlehem. The text says nothing about a donkey. It is not likely Joseph could have afforded a donkey.

Jesus was not born on Mary and Joseph’s first night in Bethlehem. We have this image of Mary rushing to find a place to have her baby when she gets to Bethlehem. The text says clearly in Luke 2:6 that her time to give birth came while they were there.

There was no Scrooge for an innkeeper. The word badly translated as inn probably refers to the guest room of a home. There is another Greek word that means inn. Further, it is unlikely that a dinky town like Bethlehem even had an inn.

Jesus was born in a house. There are not really caves around Bethlehem and most people did not have barns. People kept animals in their homes where they could come in at night and help give heat to the house. Houses were typically one room, sometimes with a loft, and a section of that room would have been for the animals. Several wooden or stone mangers would have been commonplace in nearly every living room in Bethlehem. Joseph, being of the family of David, could have found a place to stay. Further, a pregnant woman would not have been put out in a hospitable Jewish town. Also, Joseph had time to make accommodations and Mary had family in neighboring towns. What really happened is that the guest room was already filled so Mary and Joseph had to stay in the family room and laid the baby in the manger that was right there.

The shepherds did not follow the star. The angel told them to look for a baby lying in a manger. Since the shepherds were watching their flocks at night, it is about impossible that Jesus was born in December, where even in Israel it is too cold for shepherds to stay out all night.

Here is another big one—the wise men did not come to see Jesus that night. Matthew 2:1 records that they show up in Jerusalem after Jesus has been born. Since Herod kills all the male children 2 years old and younger, the wise men might have come to see Jesus when he was 2 years old. Jesus is called a child in Matthew 2:11, not a baby. Also of note— There is no number of the wise men given and they are not called kings or given names. There are 3 gifts and the other traditions are developed later.

Now, does this mean we need to abandon or change our carols, recreate our nativity sets, or rework our Christmas pageants? I do not think so. I think instead our challenge is to never take the Bible for granted. We need to keep reading it, studying it, and digesting it, that we might correct our wrong beliefs. We need Jesus to speak to us through His Word.

So this year, read the story for yourself in Matthew and Luke. Read it to your children. Read it at Christmas dinner. Read it in church. May the mystery of this story not be in our misconceptions, but may the mystery be in the saving incarnation of Jesus Christ.

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Advent Spirituality

Jeremiah 33:14-16
14 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’

Luke 21:25-28
25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves,
26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Revelation 1:4-8
4 John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,
5 and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood
6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
7 Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Who was and is and is to come…
Let me remind you of elementary school grammar- this is called tense. Not like when I mentioned elementary school and you got tense. I mean tense in the sense of when something happened. Was and is and is to come. This is past, present, and future.

The Bible is full of this understanding of past present and future. In the Old Testament, very often it reminds Israel about its past—God reminds them again and again that he is their God that brought them out of the land of Egypt. The Old Testament is also filled with the present tense- do this, don’t do that… Sometimes the books praise God for His presence, other times the books question where God is in the moment.

Our text from Jeremiah is an example of the Old Testament looking to the future. Jeremiah is prophesying just as the Assyrian Empire, which has dominated Israel, is losing strength and the Babylonian kingdom is gaining strength. The people are worried- might God rescue them or will the Babylonians come in and be even crueler? Jeremiah’s message is not what they want to hear. God will allow the Babylonians to control Israel. But Jeremiah also promises that God will be with them.

God remembers His promises in the past- “I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”- PAST.

Prophecy about Jesus” 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. This is good news right, except for one problem- it is future tense. Israel has hope, but they will have to wait for it.

Jesus and the New Testament have similar range of tenses. He talks about the law and what happened with God and Israel in the past. Jesus also talks a lot about the present— that he is fulfilling the law, that He is the way, the Truth, and the Life.

But like this text in Luke, Jesus also looks to the future… Signs that the world is coming to an end. Jesus coming in the cloud with power. At this time, Jesus says that redemption is coming. In other words, all things will be made right. But again- it is future tense. We are to look forward to it, but we have to wait.

So we see this idea of was and is and is to come, or past and present and future, at work throughout the Bible. Fast forward to today. I think that we talk about Jesus in the past tense a lot more that we talk about Jesus in the present or future tenses. This seems especially true at Christmas, when we focus on Jesus as a baby. But Jesus did not stay a baby. He grew up and did some important stuff. He is alive today. He is coming back and will make things right. But primarily we talk about Jesus in the past.

I think the early church understood this tendency that we have. To help with this, the early church developed a season of the year called Advent. It is actually the start of the Christian year. So… Happy New Year. Earliest mention of Advent is 490 in Gaul-modern day france. So it is not as old as Easter, but still a long tradition.

The word Advent comes from the Latin meaning to come. It actually refers to Jesus coming in 3 senses, or for our purposes, 3 tenses. Jesus came in the past as a baby born and laid in a manger. He lived a human life and died a cruel death on a cross. He rose again on the third day. This is Advent in the past.

Jesus also comes in the present to each and every one of us. He calls us, woos us, and speaks to us. He is up to something today as His Holy Spirit works in this world and in our lives. This is Advent in the present.

Jesus also will come again someday. He will return to this world and make all things right. What is paid for will finally be redeemed as the entire world is brought under the rule of Jesus. This is Advent in the future.

In the meantime, we, like Israel in the days of the prophets, wait with expectation for Jesus’ return. Advent is a time of reflection on this waiting. It is a build up toward Christmas. It is a season of expectation.

We sing hymns calling for Jesus to come that are often in a minor key and sometimes a little long. Did you know that traditionally the church did not sing Christmas songs until after Christmas? We do not do this anymore because of the commercialization of Christmas. By the time Christmas comes around people are tired of Christmas songs. But traditionally Advent was a season of expectation for Christmas and so Christmas songs were held until after Christmas.

Many churches light a candle of the Advent wreath every week so that there is a visual reminder of the coming of Christmas. It is a weekly sign that we are getting there but going slowly. Some churches also have a banner for each week of Advent for the same purpose.

Advent was often a time of preparation for baptisms that would be held on Christmas day. People would take time for study and reflection as they prepared to join the church and make a public profession of faith.

I think today that we need this season of Advent more than ever. Our only hope in this world is not a Jesus stuck in the past. Our only hope is a Jesus that is alive and active today and someday coming to make all things right. We need a Jesus who was, and is, and is to come.

I think we can all identify with this sense of waiting. Maybe instead of using the word Coming we could talk about Breakthrough. We need Jesus to break into this wold. Things are not as they should be. We want to believe the gift of Christmas is real, but can we in our beat down, messed up, and stressed out lives

Our problem with Christmas is that it is associated with so many stories- fat guys in red suits fitting down chimneys, elves, flying reindeer, talking snowmen… Can Jesus’ birth be real, or is it really like one of these other stories?

And how can we lean to wait on God? I do not know about you, but I do not like to wait. I do not shopping lines. I despise traffic. I do not like to wait. It makes me edgy, tense, and downright uncomfortable.

But wait we must. Believe we must. Hope we must. So I want to encourage you to take seriously an Advent spirituality this December. Pray, study, and meditate on Jesus who was and is and is to come. Pray that God would help you to understand the meaning of Christmas. Because the truth is that Christmas is not a break from real life. Christmas is a glimpse of real life. I pray God shows you this throughout Advent.

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Trust only in God

Several times a week I pick up a little book of quotes and readings for pastors called The Minister’s Prayer Book put together by John Doberstein.  Every pastor should own and use this book!  Today I was especially moved by an excerpt from Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures to my Students.  Even if you are not a pastor, I think there is a lot in here for you to digest.  Here is the quote with a few of my own comments mixed in. 

By all the castings down of his servants God is glorified, for they are led to magnify him when again he sets them on their feet, and even while prostrate in the dust their faith yields him praise. They speak all time more sweetly of his faithfulness, and are the more firmly established in his love. Such mature men as sonic elderly preachers are, could scarcely have been produced if they had not been emptied from vessel to vessel, and made to see their own emptiness and the vanity of all things round about them. Glory be to God for the furnace, the hammer, and the file. Heaven shall be all the fuller of bliss because we have been filled with anguish here below, and earth shall be better tilled because of our training in the school of adversity.

In our casting down God is glorified…I am not real happy when things do not go well.  I do not find it enjoyable to be attacked or to be overwhelmed.  But Spurgeon is right—in our own humility and brokenness God gets glorified.  It is in humility that we are best used by God.  This changes our perspective of life and ministry.  We count it a blessing to be challenged.  Glory be to God for the furnace, hammer, and file.  We may not like them, but through them God gets glory.

The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience. Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness. Cast not away your confidence, for it hath great recompense of reward. Even if the enemy’s foot be on your neck, expect to rise amid and overthrow him. Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not his saints.

See soul-trouble as ordinary in ministry.  I admit that I do not like this idea.  I had hoped that ministry would come together and be great and fulfilling without any conflict or trouble in my soul.  Expectations are important because they can set us up to feel fulfilled or disappointed in our lives.  If we see soul-trouble as normal, then we are less threatened by it.  And we remember that we can always go to the Lord with our doubts and fears.

Live by the day—ay, by the hour. Put no trust in frames and feelings. Care more for a grain of faith than a ton of excitement. Trust in God alone, and lean not on the reeds of human help. Be not surprised when friends fail you: it is a failing world. Never count upon immutability in man: inconstancy you may reckon upon without fear of disappointment. The disciples of Jesus forsook him; be not amazed if your adherents wander away to other teachers: as they were not your all when with you, all is not gone from you with their departure. Serve God with all your might while the candle is burning, and then when it goes out for a season, you will have the less to regret. Be content to be nothing, for that is what you are. When your own emptiness is painfully forced upon your consciousness, chide yourself that you ever dreamed of being full, except in the Lord. Set small store by present rewards; be grateful for earnests by the way, but look for the recompensing joy hereafter.

One of the challenges with ministry (and life) is that one must deal with people.  People can often let you down.  They often do not meet our expectations.  But people are sinful.  Sin is what we should expect in one another.  That does not mean that you lose faith and stop trusting people.  It just means that you should not be surprised when people do what people do.  Hang on in good times.  Be thankful when you are thanked and affirmed, but do not need it, because it will not always come.  Remember that you want to be thanked in the world after this one.

Continue, with double earnestness to serve your Lord when no visible result is before you. Any simpleton can follow the narrow path in the light: faith’s rare wisdom enables us to march on in the dark with infallible accuracy, since she places her hand in that of her Great Guide. Between this and heaven there may be rougher weather yet, but it is all provided for by our covenant Head. In nothing let us be turned aside from the path which the divine call has urged us to pursue. Come fair or come foul, the pulpit is our watch-tower, and the ministry our warfare; be it ours, when we cannot see the face of our God, to trust under the shadow of his wings.

It will be bad sometimes.  Life happens.  Still we must do what we are called to do.  For us as pastor we must stick to our work, our watch tower, and our warfare.  It is interesting that Spurgeon says “When we cannot see the face of God.”  He is assuming that dark times happen, even for pastors, and we will feel as if God is far away.  But still we trust.  We cry out to God, and we press on.

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Martin Luther Part 3

The Rest of Luther’s Ministry and Legacy

Luther spent the rest of his life establishing the church and trying to lead the reformation, as well as trying to temper this social upheaval.  Luther got married to an ex-nun and had a number of children.  Luther died of a heart attack in 1546.


When he died, this movement he had been the spark for, called the Reformation, was spreading like wildfire.  A man named John Calvin was working out the principles of the reformation in a place called Geneva.  A man named John Knox would come to learn from Calvin in Geneva and eventually take the reformation back to Scotland and start Presbyterianism. 


Even bigger than Luther’s impact on religion, this marks the downfall of a “Christian” Europe.  There would now individual nations and a concern for individual freedom.  This would change the world.  One can hardly understand history without recognizing the impact of Martin Luther.  He was devoted to his principles, cared for the individual, and was willing to speak out against the authorities of his day, even to the point of his own death if necessary. 


Some lessons:

First, I want to give you 2 disclaimers and then I want to challenge you through the life and thoughts of Martin Luther.


Disclaimer #1- This is not a sermon against Catholicism.  I have gone to great lengths here to show that the Catholic church of the 1500’s is not the same as it is today.  The Catholic Church has reformed a lot since then.  I am not beating up on the Catholics.  I believe in a lot of what they do.  I have done a lot of ministry beside Catholic brothers and sisters and we have a number of Catholics in our very own church.  Many Protestants are discovering some of the great traditions that the Catholic Church today has preserved, such as the daily hours, the sign of the cross, and so on. 


Disclaimer #2- I am not trying to lift Luther up as a perfect person.  Luther had plenty of flaws.  His strong and sometimes violent language really may have spurred on the revolutions of that time.  He would later get in trouble for some strong and hateful words and actions against Jewish people.  Luther is a great and important man, but not a perfect one.


Now, here is why I think you need to know about Martin Luther. Luther started a huge movement, a movement that you are a part of.  And at the heart of Luther’s life and works were three things:

1. First and foremost: Salvation is by Grace through faith.  We cannot earn our salvation.  It is a gift that we receive.  We live into it not that we can earn it or out of guilt, but out of gratitude.

2. The church is part of God’s plan but it is not the way that you get right with God.  You get right with God through Jesus Christ, to whom the church points.  In other words—Jesus is the sole mediator between God and humankind.

3. The importance of scripture as the authority and double check for our beliefs and our lives.


From Luther’s protests on these three things we get the protestant church and eventually changes to the Catholic Church.  But I wonder if the things that Luther fought against are not still in our pews today. 


Do we really believe that salvation is by grace and we receive it through faith alone?  I worry that people still try to earn God’s favor.  Do we punish ourselves and feel we have to pay for God’s love?  Is God out to get us?  The problem for us is that if you are wrestling with this, then it is hard for others to see.  Two people can sit in church next to each other and be reading the same Bible.  They are doing a lot of the same things.  Neither is sleeping with someone other than their spouse or saying the Lord’s name in vain.  But one is doing what they are doing in gratitude for grace and the other is trying desperately to earn God’s favor.  If Jesus died for us and was beat up on our behalf, then we do not need to beat ourselves up. 


Do we still think that salvation is through the church?  I wonder.  When I ask people about their faith often they tell me how involved they are in church or the last time they were in church.  I do not think that answers the question.  I think going to church is important and that is part of your faith, but your relationship with God and your relationship with Church are not the same thing.  Don’t tell me how involved you are in church.  Tell me how involved you are in Jesus.  That may include church but it is not the same thing.


And what of Scripture?  Is it really of authority anymore?  And if it really is authority, then why don’t more Christians actually read in and know what it says?  Why isn’t it the basis for our decision making?


Here we are, 495 years after Luther nailed those 95 Theses to the wall.  The issues have changed formats, but they are still around.  And so I find Luther’s words inspiring and important to this day. 


May you think on Luther’s life this week, and may you especially come to know the loving Father who gave His son Jesus on the cross for you, and find the peace that Luther found.



Much of the above material is taken from an excellent documentary on Martin Luther called Empires: Martin Luther by PBS.

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Martin Luther Part 2

Luther goes to Battle

Luther’s work would come in response to a new Pope.  Pope Leo X spent the church’s treasury within a few years of becoming pope and had to stop work on Saint Peter’s Basilica.  Artists and architects had created a huge cash cow to make their money and Leo had to come up with the money to pay them. 


So Leo issued new indulgences- people could pay not only for their own way out of purgatory but also the way of their dead relatives.  Leo sent out a man named Tetzel to sell these.  Tetzel was one of the first great advertisers.  He presented the horrors of hell and purgatory.  He claimed that the indulgence could even get the person forgive of having intercourse with the Virgin Mary.  Tetzel said, “When coin in coffin wings- a soul from purgatory springs.”  Tetzel traveled and attempted to raise the equivalent of millions of dollars.


Luther thought this was wrong.  He saw salvation is a gift from God received by faith.  The church had no right to sell it.  Further, this was a pastoral issue for him.  He had his own church members bringing him these papers and being excited about their freedom from purgatory.  Luther thought these were a lie.


In response, Luther wrote 95 Theses- bullet points against indulgences, and nailed to the door of Wittenberg church.  This was the common place to post things as an invitation for academic debate.  With that document, Luther attacked the greatest power of his day.  He questioned the limits of the church and even the pope.  For him, indulgences say that salvation is easy.   But for the gospel, salvation is made at great cost to Jesus Christ and demands repentance and a transformed life in response.  It is a gift to be accepted but also a gift that makes us change.


Luther also changes the criteria of debate.  No longer is it the pope’s authority or the authority of councils.  Luther calls for proof based on Scripture and clear reason.


The Theses were written in Latin, on door where it invited academic debate, and not intended to be published.  But the printing press was just invented.  They are translated, printed, and spread quickly throughout Europe.


Luther probably did not think this would cause such a problem.  But as his work spread, the higher ups in the church would begin to attack him using their power.  As they had done with heretics before Luther, they could put someone to death.  Only 100 years earlier John Huss questioned the church and was promised a safe hearing, only to be burned alive at the stake.

They would turn the person over to lay authority to be killed “without the shedding of blood.”  This typically meant drowning or burning.


Luther must have been scared- but Luther understands that suffering is part of faith.  The resistance to his work is to him a sort of confirmation that he is in the right.  Luther would not recant the theses.  He is called a heretic- but he demands that the church shows him what was heretical.  Ultimately, Luther is excommunicated.  It was believed that you would go to hell if you did not reconcile with the church, but Luther did not believe this to be true.  You could also you could be arrested by secular and church authorities at any time.


Luther responded by his writing.   He is really the first propagandist.  He used the printing press.  He writes in the common German tongue.  For those that cannot read, Luther draws humorous comics.  Luther is funny, witty, and can have a very sharp tongue.  Rather than appeal to the church authorities, he appeals to the nobilities of the country and to the common people.  The nobles, sympathetic to Luther’s claims and also tired of sending so much money to Rome, begin to agree with Luther.


Luther was eventually called to trial by the Roman Emperor Charles V, at the next Diet or gathering of the nobility.  It would be held in Worms, and is known as the Diet of Worms (great name!)  Luther goes to this meeting as if going to his death.  He is showered with gifts by his publishers along the road.  There are parties and celebrations in every town along the way. All of Worms turned up to welcome Luther.  As Luther goes to what he believes is his death, he also realizes that his ideas are gaining in the world. 


He stands strong at the Diet of Worms, saying this in conclusion:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.


This marks a new era in human history.  The idea is that we should stand up against authority based on conscience.  That we are free to have our own opinions.


Luther is not killed, for fear of the crowds of his supporters.  But his is given a status sort of like outlaw.  He was not allowed to be given food or shelter in Germany.  He could be killed without consequence.  He expected to be killed on the way home, and he does disappear, but he is taken by some of the nobles of Germany and put into hiding in the castle of Wartburg.


Luther in Hiding

In that castle, Luther again experiences the isolation, depression, and anguish of his earlier years.  He feels defeated by the devil.  He gets physically sick.  He got out of these feelings the way he had in the past—by throwing himself into study and work.  This time, he sits down to translate the Bible into German.  He believes that Bible needs to be accessible to the common people.  His work becomes the bases for the King James Version and propelled the work of Bible translation forward.


As he sits with his Greek, Hebrew, and Latin texts, the movement that he started continues, but goes in a different direction than he intended.  A revolution begins. Monks and nuns begin to leave the church.  Priests start getting married and living as common people.  People ransack churches- destroying crucifixes and pictures of the saints.  Some priests and nuns were even killed.


In the Spring 1522 Luther returned to Wittenberg.  He was not happy with the revolution.  It has not just overturned the church, but the whole society.  Communities can reorganize without the church’s permission.  You could have local rules, local governance, and local ways of dealing with social issues.  In Wittenberg, the government was taken over, church funds were taken and made into welfare systems, and the schools were taken over from the church.


This is not what Luther wanted.  Remember, he did not even want to leave the church.  He was kicked out.  He tries to call things back.  He does not want his ideas cannot be connected with violence and property destruction because then the rulers that supported his ideas will stop their support.

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