Do You Not Care?

And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:37-38)

Jesus-sleeping-in-boat-at-peace-in-storm-500x348Do you not care? You can hear the desperation and accusation in the words of the disciples. Don’t you care about us, Lord? You can heal the sick and lame and cast out demons for others. Don’t you care that we, your disciples, are dying?

It’s the same question that Job is asking throughout the book of Job. Don’t you care about me, God? Why is this happening to me?

Job lost his property, his children, his health and wealth. All of it was gone. His friends were no help. They insisted that Job must have done something wrong that God was punishing him for. But Job cried out, “The arrows of the Almighty are in me…the terrors of God are arrayed against me…make me understand how I have gone astray.” Later he says to God, “Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me. Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands?”

In other words, do you not care, God, what is happening to me? Where are you? Like the disciples, Job feels that God is absent, that he is sleeping on the job. He, too, was drowning in a sea of despair and grief and pain. Do you not care, God?job 3 friends

It’s the same question that you and I often ask in the midst of our pain and struggles. Do you not care about me?

Do you not care that I am drowning in debt with no conceivable way out? Do you not care that my spouse and I are unable to have children even though that is one of our greatest desires? Do you not care that my loved one is dying? Do you not care that I have lost everything that is most important to me? Do you not care that my addiction is controlling and ruining my life? Do you not care that my children have strayed far away from you and from the way that they were brought up?

And if we lift up our eyes from our own situations and struggles and turn them toward the world around us, the questions would go on. Don’t you care, Lord, about those poor people in Nepal who have been devastated by earthquakes? Do you not care about the lives and homes ruined by the rising waters and floods across this country? Do you not care about your own people, who were gathered together in your church, praying to you, who were gunned down by a madman in South Carolina?

The list could go on and on. But the question remains the same. Where are you, God? My life is falling apart, and I can’t seem to make you wake up and take notice.person crying

And unlike the disciples, it’s not like Jesus is physically sleeping right next to us, and all we have to do is shout at him to wake up and take notice of what’s going on. Oh, you can shout alright, but is anybody going to hear you? How do you know? We just want a sign, Lord, that you care about what is going on in this messed up, broken world, that you care about the storms and struggles of my life. We want God to break the silence like he did for Job. We want Jesus to stand up in our midst and command the storms in our lives to stop. “Peace! Be still!” Those are the words we want to hear.

Does God give us such a sign of his presence and love?

This last March, at the Ohio District Jr. High Youth Gathering, one of the special speakers was a man named Joe Boway. Joe Boway is a native Liberian. Liberia is a small country on the west side of Africa. Joe moved to Ft. Wayne in the 90’s before his home country was plunged into a terrible and brutal civil war. The Liberian Civil War took place from 1999-2003 when rebels went on the attack against the Liberian government, highlighted by an assault on the capitol city of Monrovia.liberia in africa

What made the Liberian Civil War especially sickening was the fact that no other conflict in the last 100 years made more use of child soldiers. Young children were ripped away from their families. Guns were thrust into their hands, and they were sent to the front line to fight a battle started by power-hungry adults. If that weren’t bad enough, the Liberian Civil War also featured leaders on both sides who employed human sacrifice and ritualistic killing in the belief that their gods would bless them in their fight.

One could easily point to the civil war in Liberia and ask God, “Do you not care what is going on over there?” Who knows how many native Liberians who lost family members and friends, how many mothers who lost children, cried out over and over again in grief, “Do you not care? Does anybody care?”

After peace was declared in 2003, the people of Liberia had to pick up the pieces of their war-torn country. In some cases, they literally had to pick up the pieces. Millions upon millions of bullets littered the ground in Liberia. In the military camps, soldiers were encouraged to fire their guns aimlessly in the air. Why? Because the enemy camp was just a few miles away, and they could hear those bullets being fired. This was an attempt at intimidation. If the enemy could hear them firing bullets recklessly, they would realize that they had plenty of ammunition to waste, and plenty more to use on them the next time they fought.

That brings me back to Joe Boway. After the war, he returned to his native country to help pick up the pieces. What he has accomplished is simply amazing. With the help of many churches in the United States, Joe has established a Lutheran school system in Liberia that educates hundreds of children. (Liberian Children’s Ministry) But the main goal of these schools, which Joe emphasized over and over again, was to tell these Liberian children about the love of Jesus.

How can you convince these Liberians who have suffered so greatly that there is a God who loves them and cares for them? How do you provide peace in their storm-tossed lives?

Joe had an idea. He started collecting those bullets that were scattered across the country. He took those symbols of war and bloodshed and conflict and suffering, and he turned them into the ultimate symbol of love and peace and forgiveness. He turned those bullets into crosses. bullet crosses

Joe brought a number of those bullet crosses to the youth gathering so everyone could have one, and I want you to see them as well.

These crosses are a sign and a reminder that God does care even when it seems that he is sleeping on the job. They are a reminder that Jesus Himself took an instrument of torture and suffering and death and turned it into a symbol of peace and hope and love.

Our God never stops caring about His broken creation and the storms that are caused by our sin. God cares about the suffering and brokenness experienced by humans so much that he sent His one and only Son to this world as a human being to suffer and to be broken for us and to provide us with peace and hope.

Want to know if God cares about your pain and suffering? Look at him bleeding and dying on the cross, experiencing hell for you. Want to know where God is? He comes to you through his Word of promise. Jesus comes to you through the bread and wine of Holy Communion, visible and edible reminders that Jesus’ body was broken and his blood shed for you. Is God sleeping on the job? The only time God could be found sleeping was in his 3 day rest in the tomb after which he rose from the sleep of death and defeated your enemies of sin, death, and the devil. God has answered our cries of desperation once and for all through his death on the cross and resurrection.

Just recently, after the death of their loved one, a family member approached me and asked me, in essence, where God was at this time. She said, “I thought that when a loved one died, I was supposed to see a rainbow or some other sign from God that everything is going to be OK.” She was like the disciples in the boat or Job sitting in dust and ashes. She wanted to know that everything was going to be just fine and that God truly cared. I replied to her, “God doesn’t promise a temporary sign like that. But the sign that he does give you is the cross and the empty tomb. That’s your eternal sign that God cares about you and that everything is going to be OK in the end.”

When Job cried out to God, “Do you not care?” God answered Him in power and might and reminded Job that He is God and Job is not and that everything was under his control. When the disciples cried out, “Do you not care?” Jesus chastised them for their lack of faith, but calmed the storm anyway by the power of His Word. In the midst of your struggle and fear and doubt, when you cry out, “Do you not care?” Jesus speaks to you as he did when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. He stands before you with his nail scarred feet and hands and pierced side and says “Peace be with you.” This is the peace which surpasses all human understanding. May that peace guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until he comes again to rescue you from all your troubles and grants you eternal peace and rest with him. Yes, God does care for you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

jesus calming storm 2“Be Still, My Soul” verse 2

Be still, my soul; your God will undertake

To guide the future as He has the past.

Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;

All now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know

His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Church Growth

This was my sermon for this Sunday- slightly edited for readability. This is a little bit of a cop-out just to put something up this week, but I hope it is meaningful for you.

There’s an old English nursery rhyme that goes like this: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row.” Now I don’t know how they do things in England, but I’m pretty sure our farmers no longer use silver bells or cockle shells or pretty maids. So farmers and gardeners, how do your gardens grow? Note that I did not ask “How is your garden growing right now?” Your reply to that might be “Not very well.” But hey, at least we got a little bit of rain this week, right?

How do plants grow? Of course, all plants have to start with a seed- a tiny, unimpressive looking seed. We might be tempted to look at a seed and dismiss it. Nothing could ever come from that, certainly not a tomato plant or a corn stalk or an oak tree. But we know that a tiny seed can produce large plants and delicious fruits and vegetables. And so, even though a seed is small and unimpressive, farmers and gardeners plant them in the ground so that they will grow and produce fruit.

But before you can harvest your plants, you have to wait. Plants do not grow overnight unless you stumble upon some magic beans or you buy a Chia pet. Growing takes time. It takes care. It takes patience and trust on the part of the farmer. After all, the farmer cannot cause the growth. He can feed and fertilize. He can water. He can pull out the weeds or spray for them. He can sing to the plants. That works, right farmers?  But ultimately, growth is out of their hands.

And that can be frustrating, I’m sure. Any farmer who has spent time planting and taking care of a garden can do all the right things and can still not have a good harvest. Unforeseen problems can arise. Not enough rain. Too much rain. Bugs or critters. Not the right soil. And at the end of the day, the seed does its own work. It cannot be manipulated or forced to grow faster. Because of this, being a farmer takes a lot of patience and a lot of trust. A farmer plants and cares for and protects his fields, but ultimately God provides the growth. Sometimes it’s hard to see God’s plan and trust his process and wait on his timing.

In Mark 4, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a farmer who plants seed. The seed sprouts and grows while the farmer takes care of his daily business, and the farmer does not know how his garden grows. Today, in our more technologically advanced society with powerful microscopes and chemical engineers, we still don’t know what causes the growth. We know what is needed to allow the growth, but then so did 1st century farmers. We can describe the life force, we can release it, but we can’t create it. We can explain how the process works down to the tiniest particles, but we are still like the farmer in the parable- we don’t actually know what causes it.

In spite of our complex ignorance, the Bible has simple answers. In the parable, Jesus teaches that if the right elements are in place, the crop grows by itself. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:6-7, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” You see, as it is in the field and garden, so it is in the church. People plant and water the seed which is the Word of God, but God provides the growth. As it is with a farmer waiting to see how the harvest will turn out, church growth also takes a good measure of patience and trust.

And as it is with farmers and gardeners, we in the church aren’t always good at either one. We aren’t always patient with God, and we don’t always trust in Him.

One look at the American cultural landscape today is enough to make us throw up our hands and wonder where the growth is. In the last 50 years, all we have heard is that the church is shrinking. Fewer and fewer people consider themselves Christians. Fewer and fewer people who consider themselves Christians actually go to church regularly. Church attendance is going down. Immorality is going up.

We in the church know that God provides the growth in the church, but we start to wonder what is taking God so long. We start to get impatient and discouraged when the seed that we try to plant doesn’t grow right away, especially when it comes to our loved ones, our family and friends. And so we start to give up. We think “What’s the point?!” We stop spreading the Word of God. That’s one response when get impatient with God’s timing for church growth. We simply stop planting.

That’s right. I went there. For those of you who don’t know what this refers to, you’re better off that way.

Another response is to stop trusting that God is in control. We start doubting that the seed that is God’s Word is enough. We stop believing that the seed works on its own, and so we turn to other methods to try to quickly grow the kingdom according to our own timing so that we have something to show of ourselves. Some churches will claim to have discovered the magic beans that will instantly grow a church. They have the program or gimmick that will draw people in, and they’ve got the numbers to back it up. They are attracting people through their doors but not with the Word of God.

We are all tempted to buy into the idea of a magic church growth bean or even a Chia church. We think, “If only we had the right pastor, who is dynamic and engaging, or the most effective program, or the best looking building, or the most quality music, then we can really build our church up. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with great pastors or programs or building or music, but we can start trusting in these things rather than in God and in the method that he has established for growth. We think we can manipulate the growth of God’s kingdom and force it to grow faster, and then we start to take credit for it ourselves. These methods can become our church growth idols, but ultimately, they have no root and are destined to wither and die if they are not connected to God’s word, specifically, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

One of the limitations we have as humans when we consider the growth of God’s kingdom is our short-term view of things. We are not on this earth for very long. We have also been accustomed to instant gratification. We aren’t used to waiting for something to happen. We also don’t like the idea that we are not ultimately in control. All of these factors contribute to the frustrations we sometimes have because we hope for a rapid expansion of God’s kingdom.

At times like these, when we get frustrated and impatient with God’s timing and when we start to doubt God’s control and think church growth is all up to us, it is good to remember Jesus second parable about seeds in Mark 4.“The kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Think about how the church started. It had very humble beginnings. It really started with the 12 disciples. And these were no extraordinary men. They were insignificant, imperfect and uneducated. They were fishermen and tax collectors and zealots. But the Word made flesh dwelt among them and led them and taught them and caused their faith and understanding to grow. Then the Word made flesh died on the cross and rose from the dead and taught these disciples that everything in the Scriptures was about him, his life, death and resurrection. And when the day of Pentecost came, they were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to sow the seeds of the Gospel. They proclaimed nothing but Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead for the salvation of all who believe. They planted and watered, but God provided the growth. And the church grew. Once it was a small and insignificant as a mustard seed. But connected to the Word of Christ, the church grew and it spread across the world.

In the last 2000 years, the church has continued to grow. It has survived violent persecutions, ugly divisions, false prophets and heretics, terrible scandals, anti-Christian cultures and kingdoms and even voters meetings. Throughout all of this, the kingdom of God has survived and added more disciples who rest in the shelter of the church’s large branches and who continue to be sustained and fed by God’s Word.

Millions, perhaps even billions, of people have heard the Word of God planted by people like you through the ages, and they have believed and been grafted to the true vine, Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom grows mysteriously, at its own pace, and through the power of the Word. The Word of God is living and active and powerful. You know personally that it does work because this very Word was planted in your own heart. The Holy Spirit has created a seed of faith in your heart and caused it to grow. How? Not by your own reason or strength, but by God’s grace alone. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” The Word works, and it will continue to work. It has worked in your life. You have become part of the kingdom of God which has grown incredibly large, despite its unassuming beginning.

Yes, it is easy to become discouraged when we sow the seed of God’s Word and don’t see immediate results. The church’s enemies also laugh at how insignificant and unsuccessful and divided the church seems to be. They see our weaknesses and become more bold in their attacks and insults.

But make no mistake. The Word of the Lord never returns empty, and God’s church will stand the test of time. God promises in Isaiah 55 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

In the end, the Kingdom of God alone will stand, and everything else will be overthrown. That’s what Ezekiel alludes to in his parable of the sprig that God will break off and plant on a high mountain. That sprig is his kingdom, his church that he will establish. And it will bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. “Under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.” This reversal of fortune was made complete when Jesus’ death became Satan’s defeat and our victory. Jesus brought death low when He rose from the dead and has promised to raise us from the dead one day as well and give us eternal life.

Trust that God is in control of his church and its growth and be patient with his perfect timing. Keep sowing the seed of God’s Word in faith as God’s servants and disciples on this earth. Resist the temptation to water down God’s Word or make it look more desirable according to this world. Rather, trust that this very Word which has changed your life and created faith in your heart and proclaimed to you the forgiveness of sins in Jesus is able also to produce faith in the hearts of all mankind. Continue to hear the living Word as often as you can for your own growth and so that you might repent of your sins and receive Jesus again and again for your forgiveness. Trust that God is able to do exactly what he says he will. Remember that it is really a great blessing that things ultimately depend on Him and not us, for only God is able to bring home a great harvest for eternal life. And give thanks that God has sheltered you and His people of all nations in the eternal shade of His church which shall last forever.