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Simple Life

photo of gray and black touring motorcycle on asphalt road
 
“I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Galatians 2:20
 
Life should be so simple. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 14 years old—a long time ago—and I remember a motorcycle ad from the 1980’s that showed a virtually empty kitchen with only an old fridge, a plain, chrome leg kitchen table, two chairs and, in the middle of the kitchen, a beautiful new motorcycle.  The caption read:  “Life should be so simple.”
Now, I have never moved a motorcycle into the kitchen, but I understand the appeal.  Let’s get down to what matters and celebrate what we really love. 

Paul has this same direction in our verse.  He says that his life can be summed up in this one relationship.  He has joined his life with Christ and so many things that used to matter are gone.  Paul, the former Pharisee, gave up his pursuit of keeping a perfect record before God and admitted he would never achieve that.  Instead, he saw himself and his failures killed in the crucifixion of Jesus.  And the resurrection of Jesus was the resurrection of himself, a new person in God’s sight.  Good Friday was Paul’s death also and Easter was his start of a new life.

In the end, it comes down to love.  You only move the bike into the kitchen if you really love motorcycles—and you probably also live alone. Love is what makes this relationship with Christ, this new-every-day life.  Paul makes the simplest statement for us:  “The life I live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”  This is a love that doesn’t empty our lives; this love is what fills life.  Life is simple—with his love, life is full. 
 
Heavenly Father, thank you for the simple life.  When everything is busy and too full, thank you that you have one thing in the center of our lives.  You let us start new every day by faith with you. Make our relationship with you the one thing that matters. Fill the empty space in our lives with this truth:  You love us and have given yourself for us.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.


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Accept No Substitutes (Part 1)

person holding red strawberries during daytime
 
“In the same way, we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Galatians 4:3-4
 
You have to wait for the right season to get the real thing. Summer fruit is wonderful when it’s fresh and right here. Strawberries you pick yourself, fresh sweet corn, and your own tomatoes are all somehow better than what we get in January. I’m glad to find blueberries in the grocery store in January, but somehow, they’re not as good as what comes in summer.

Accept no substitutes. Wait for the real thing and buy it as soon as you can. That’s good advice for summer fruit. It’s also the theme for this week with the great verses of Galatians 4:3-4. Paul says that there is nothing like the genuine Gospel of Jesus’ coming. In fact, he is absolutely insistent on this in chapter 1:8, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”  What makes the Gospel of Jesus so unique that nothing else should be on the same shelf with it?

Paul would begin with the ideas of Galatians 4:4. Jesus came at the right time and was both true God and true man. The genuine article, the perfect summer fruit, for example, comes when it is time. Be patient and it will come. So, the world waited for God’s timing to be fulfilled and then Jesus came. The good news for us is that we don’t have to wait for his coming, but we can read all about it.

He came as the perfect combination of God and man, the Son of God and born of Mary. This is a combination that no other religion can claim. Only God’s grace would bring him to us and cause him to be more than a visitor. Jesus didn’t come merely to check on us or inspect us and leave. By his incarnation into the flesh, he forever is one of us as well as being truly God. Here is the completely original idea that makes our faith unique, a Gospel that only God could imagine and bring.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, remind us of the unique Gospel that comes only with your Son. Thank you that he came at the right time and for all time is now true man and true God. Help us to celebrate the uniqueness of your incarnation by which you’ve saved the world. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Lessons from the Vine (Part 3)

grapes on trunk photography
 

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”  John 15:8

There is no such thing as a useless believer.  Christians do works of service, for God and for others, as the expression of their faith.  Theologically, you can’t opt for salvation without service anymore than grape branches can change their genetic code.  Practically, Jesus wants us to take the theology we learn into the street and enjoy doing the things that people attached to Jesus do. . . things like little bursts of worship when we see beauty and blessings in our life, things like hugging hurting people (well, when we’re past covid-19, I guess) and helping those who have needs.  Connected to Jesus, the Vine, Christians bear fruit.  That doesn’t make them Christians; that demonstrates that they are Christians.  What we do to please God doesn’t make him love us; we do these things because he loves us.

Some people want to define Christians by what they don’t do, a whole list of bad behaviors.  Jesus defined his followers by what they do; and what they do is inspired and characterized by love.  God’s love for us results in a corresponding love for him and for others.  Directed toward God, that love is worship – hymns in a church or praise in our hearts, confessing a creed or testimony to a friend.  Directed toward others, that love is encouragement for the distressed and celebrating with the blessed, giving food to the hungry and giving suggestions to the wealthy, holding hands in hospice care and reminding the grieving of the eternal life won by Jesus.  Just two chapters earlier in John, Jesus told his disciples: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our purpose in life is to glorify our heavenly Father, to make him happy, make him look good.  Come to think of it, two chapters later in John’s Gospel, Jesus said that his purpose was to glorify his Father.  Because we didn’t, he had to.  Because he did that for us, we can now do it freely, joyfully.  Scripture says that at God’s right hand there is pleasure forevermore and that we will serve him day and night.  We don’t have to wait till heaven to understand that our greatest pleasure is serving our God.

Did it ever occur to you that God finds pleasure just watching you try to sing a new hymn or praise song….no different than the pleasure a parent gets watching a small child take her first toddling steps?  God gets satisfaction from your awkward efforts at witnessing to others, just as a mother smiles when her little boy brings her a bouquet of dandelions.  But God enjoys watching his children grow up.  Jesus said it twice: we glorify our Father by bearing much fruit.

PRAYER: Be glorified, Father, in our humble efforts to worship, to witness, to love and to serve.  Because Jesus lived and died for us, we seek your help to live for him, for as he said: without him we can do nothing.  Amen.


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Living Sacrifice

church interior
 
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Romans 12:1-2

Worship.  We all have our picture of what it is.  Sitting in a pew.  Then standing.  Then sitting again.  Hymns, songs, prayers, confession-absolution, readings, creed, sermon, communion, benediction, done.  Go home. 

And do it all again next week…maybe.

But Paul would have us redefine what worship is.  More than an hour a week, it’s every hour of every week.  Worship is how we live our lives.  Paul calls it “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.”  A “living sacrifice” – that’s a new one.  Old Testament worship was all about sacrifices, dead ones.  Blood shed as a reminder of the seriousness of our sin.

But since Christ has sacrificed Himself, once for all people for all sins for all times, we no longer need the dead sacrifices.  Instead we ourselves are living sacrifices, witnesses to the grace of God in all our lives.

And this “living sacrifice” thing means we can’t compartmentalize our worship into an hour at church.  Rather, the time we spend with our spouse, our kids, at work, at play…it’s all worship. 

But what does that mean?  I think above all it means being mindful of God’s presence.  His closeness.  His involvement in all of our lives.  He wants us to talk to Him, to consider His Word in our daily decision-making, to talk about our faith as naturally as the weather or the Packers.

Does this mean that weekend worship at church isn’t important?  Hardly.  It’s so important.  For when we all gather together to receive his Word and Sacrament, we receive the strength and power to live our daily lives of worship.

The world sees life differently.  Which is why Paul wants us to not be conformed to this world.  God help us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds so that by testing we may discern what is the will of God.

Gracious Heavenly Father, you have called us to be living sacrifices, to worship You in all that we do every day.  Too often worship becomes something that we attend once a week.  Forgive us for compartmentalizing our faith, and help us to live out our faith each and every day as we remain close to you in Word and prayer.  For Jesus’ sake, Amen.

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Lessons from the Vine (Part 2)

green grass field during golden hour
 

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  John 15:1-2

I’m no gardener, but as I understand it, gardeners prune off the errant shoots that rob nutrients from a plant’s primary purpose.  Jesus says that his Father will do that for you and me also.  I don’t know if plants feel pain, but cutting off misdirected shoots doesn’t sound pleasant.  There’s some Christian truth in the slogan: No Pain, No Gain.  If partying or shopping or whatever else you’d rather do than what you need to do is taking up too much of your time and attention, God loves you enough that he may take the fun out of it or the funds away from it.  Ouch!  If you tend to forget what’s really important when times are good, a little suffering may be good for you.  Ouch!  If there’s a particular temptation that has your number, God can make that sin so abhorrent, the guilt so distressing, that you don’t ever want to go there again.  Know what I mean?  You’ll never realize the potential God has invested in you when you’re chasing rabbits of temptation and wasting energy on what’s unimportant.

Maybe you’re thinking, why do I have to reach my potential?  What’s wrong with just being a good Christian, whatever that means?  Can’t we be satisfied with being saved and wait for heaven to realize our potential?  That thinking turns spiritual life into a religious obligation and has us looking for minimum requirements.  It takes the love out of our relationship with God and the excitement and energy out of our life in the Gospel.  Does an apple tree ever think that remaining a seedling should be good enough, that apples are optional?  Jesus used an illustration from horticulture because growing up to be what he designed us to be is just the nature of things.  Of course, unlike plants, you and I have a will.  So, while it is in our spiritual nature to grow and bear fruit, we can actually decide not to.  We can leave behind our relationship with Jesus and Christian friends and get caught up in careers and agendas and self-centered lifestyles. Ultimately, that is the decision to become what Jesus called “dead branches.”

So, what’s the key to becoming more of what Jesus has made us?  Listen to verse 5 of John 15: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”  Growing in faith and Christian life is simply staying connected to Jesus, the Vine.  We do that as we hear his Word and – as the Old Testament encourages – seek his face.  In worship and prayer, in devotions and discussions, we confirm our connection to Jesus and grow closer to him.  And as we do that, we become more of what he died to make us – branches to his Vine.

PRAYER: I want to be more like you, Jesus.  So take away the desires and habits that would lead me away from you.  Draw me closer to you through your Word and center my life in your will.  Help me to find joy in my life of faith and make me more focused on what you have designed my life to be.  Amen.


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