John 10:11-18 - Understand Your Relationship With Jesus: It's Not You, It's Him - April 22, 2018

How would you describe or define your relationship with Jesus? We might say: he’s my Savior, my Lord, my God – which are all true and accurate. But those things say more about Jesus than our relationship to him, don’t they? He’s Savior, Lord, and God whether I hate him or love him. You may or may not know that having a personal, intimate relationship with God and with Jesus is a hot (and convoluted) topic in Christian circles today. Some say that the average person can’t possibly have a personal relationship with God – he’s a mysterious, distant being – and so you must go to a spiritual guru, a modern day “prophet,” a pope or a saint who can mediate on your behalf. Some say that having a relationship with Jesus is an indefinable, mystical thing – and you know it when you feel it in your gut and tickling your spine. Some modern Christian music describes our relationship with Jesus in almost romantic terms; as if Jesus wants to snuggle up with you on the couch to watch a movie with a big bowl of popcorn. There’s a lot of confusion about how we can actually define our relationship to him. In a way that’s not surprising, given that today we can’t see him, touch him, or talk to him face to face. But it doesn’t have to be a mystery, because Jesus himself has defined our relationship in terms even a child can understand: a shepherd and his sheep. It might not be a good thing to hear in the context of any other relationship, but it is good news when Jesus tells us “trust me: it’s not you, it’s me.” We are his possession, which he purchased with his own life, and we are led by his voice.

 

In the context of John’s Gospel, this “Good Shepherd” section appears on the heels of a confrontation between our Lord and the Pharisees. Jesus had healed a man who had been blind from birth. The Pharisees investigated this miracle. They were jealous and angry that Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath Day and demanded that he expose Jesus as a sinner. He is an honest witness. He says the only thing he can: One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see! (John 9:25) They insulted him and excommunicated him. Jesus responds by clarifying the distinction between faithful spiritual leaders and their unfaithful counterparts.

 

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd – a statement by which he equates himself with the LORD of Psalm 23. He is saying that we should think of our relationship to him in terms of a shepherd and sheep. As our shepherd, Jesus lives with us; he is with us round the clock; he is, for all intents and purposes, one of us. The sheep know him and he knows each of his sheep by name. Unlike the cowboys you see on old Westerns, who drive their cattle from behind with fear and terror, Jesus goes in front of us, leading us, facing any danger or any enemy for us. Like sheep, we follow him because we trust that he cares more about us than he cares about himself. We trust that he won’t lead us anywhere that would lead to eternal death and destruction. This means that we will even follow him down paths that are unpopular with the world, that make us emotionally or rationally uncomfortable, that may be painful – because we trust that he knows best. Is there any more comforting image of Jesus and us than this? This image is comforting to toddlers at bedtime, to young people who feel like they are lost or simply wandering through life, to those who are sick or suffering and those who know they are standing on the brink of death. Jesus says that this relationship is as intimate as that between him and his Father: I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. When you’re hurting, sick, scared, alone, and even when you intentionally stray into sin – Jesus knows. He knows and he loves you anyway. He loves you even when you’re unlovable, even when all you want to do is run away from him. Because you belong to him, you are his possession. It’s no surprise that this picture Jesus paints is one of the most prominent and popular among Christians.

 

But it does force us to acknowledge something our sinful nature doesn’t want to admit: we are sheep. Jesus calls us sheep, and being called a sheep is never a flattering thing. Sheep are stubborn, self-centered, high maintenance creatures who require 24/7 care or they will die. Sheep are defenseless. They aren’t fast enough to run away from danger, they don’t have sharp teeth or claws, their white wool provides no camouflage, and (if you’ve ever been around sheep) they sound like a bad imitation of a sheep. Having grown up in South Dakota, I learned that many farmers and ranchers despise sheep, because left to themselves they will mindlessly mow down every blade of grass in a field – not only destroying the field but starving themselves. Sheep are foolish and stupid.  

 

Like it or not, that’s what Jesus calls us. He calls us sheep. He’s saying that left alone, we would destroy ourselves and others. We foolishly stray into dangerous places and situations. We eat (read, watch, and listen to) things that poison our faith. We bicker and argue with one another and we stubbornly insist on having things our way. We even claim that we don’t need a shepherd, that we are just fine on our own – ignorant of the fact that the lone sheep is the devil’s ideal target, that on our own we are as good as dead. (Would any one of us say that he’s wrong?) And in order to have a relationship with Jesus, we must own this fact. And, practically speaking, we do own this fact when we confess our sins, when we admit that we are as good as dead without Jesus.

 

Because taking care of stupid, defenseless sheep like us is dirty, thankless, tiresome work, many false shepherds appear who are not faithful caretakers. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. The hired hand doesn’t really know the sheep and doesn’t really care for them. He’s just in it for the power, the prestige or the money. When danger comes he abandons the flock. In the context of John’s Gospel, Jesus was calling the Pharisees “hired hands.” Instead of guiding, leading and feeding God’s flock, they pointed people to their own obedience to the law, their own good works for comfort. They assaulted the flock with manmade rules and regulations – effectively teaching them that they needed to save themselves. And then they fleeced the flock, living the good life while the flock starved.

 

You don’t have to look too far to see “hired hands” today. They can tell people how they should live and give advice for self-improvement and they write NY Times top ten best sellers and are happy to take your money so that they can drive (or fly) around in luxury – but don’t bother calling if you get sick or lose your job or have a falling out with your spouse – they are far too important and busy to worry about the problems of little lambs like you. Hired hands today will seek out the path of least resistance in their preaching, teaching and practice. Instead of preaching the truth no matter how controversial it may be; instead of pointing out and defending the flock against the deathtraps of sin and false doctrine, they modify their doctrine and practice to accommodate the world’s ever-changing appetite, to scratch itching ears. (2 Timothy 4:3) The hired hand’s highest priority is being popular and well-liked. Instead of faithfully using the only tools that God has given him – the Law and the Gospel – the hired hand uses his own wisdom and manmade philosophies and strategies to increase the size of the flock – (because they believe the flock belongs to them, not to Christ). The hired hand won’t personally instruct the young or comfort the sick and dying – and when his members stray through neglect of the Word or ungodly living, he won’t admonish or discipline. His only interest is in attracting fat, fluffy sheep that can benefit him personally. He will simply let the lost sheep wander all the way to hell.

 

But Jesus is different. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus doesn’t demand your life and livelihood from you, he gives his life for you. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep…the reason the Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. Our relationship to Jesus is not based on who we are, how worthy we are, how well we behave or how firmly we believe. The basis of our relationship to the Good Shepherd is not about us, it’s about him. He laid down his life for us – the stupid, disobedient, self-centered, high maintenance flock. In a world that is filled with hundreds of different religious philosophies and teachers – this is what sets Jesus apart. Jesus’ primary mission and message is not about telling us what to do or how to live. Jesus’ mission and message was to suffer, die and rise again for sheep were not following him, for those who hated him, for those who were by nature his bitter enemies.

 

And that was the plan all along. Jesus says this command I received from my Father. God’s will was that his one and only Son would take human flesh (become a sheep), live in perfect obedience to the Law, suffer and die for the sins of the world, and then, three days later, take his life up again – rise from the dead. You will never find another shepherd like him. This is one relationship that doesn’t depend on your feelings or efforts. The basis for your relationship to him is not your faith, your confession, your good works or your commitment. You are Jesus’ little lamb because he died for you. The relationship is not built on you, it’s built on Christ’s life, death and resurrection – and that’s good news, because that foundation will never change.  

 

So the nature of our relationship to Jesus, in his own words, is one of sheep to a shepherd – we are his possession, the basis is the fact that he laid down his life for us and took it up again in accordance with his Father’s plan and command – but we all know that there are many people in this world who do not see Jesus as their shepherd, people for whom he died and yet who reject his sacrifice as foolish or unnecessary. So, the final question is: how is this relationship created, nurtured and sustained? Jesus clarifies this as well: I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen (a reference to non-Jews; Gentiles). I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

 

A healthy, vibrant, living relationship with Jesus begins and ends with his voice: the living and enduring Word of God. (John 6:63; 1 Peter 1:23-25) The Word is the rod and staff with which he guides and chastens and comforts us. This means that if you are not hearing the Savior’s voice, if you or anyone you know is not hearing, reading, and meditating on the Word of God – your relationship with Jesus will die. Naturally, this is offensive to sheep who think that they know best and who want to take the credit for building their relationship with Jesus. We all know people who claim to have a relationship with Jesus because they call themselves Christian or because they belong to a Christian church or because they speak to Jesus in prayer. But that’s not the way it works – with sheep or with Christians. Sheep don’t choose their shepherd, the shepherd chooses his sheep. (John 15:16) Sheep who ignore or neglect or reject the voice of the shepherd cannot have a relationship with him. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is leading the way to heaven with his voice in Word and Sacrament – but when he turns around on Judgment Day only those who listened to and followed his voice will be able to enter the gate.

 

The Good News is that he has already bought every single human soul with his precious blood and he is still inviting one and all to come to him for rest. He is still proclaiming that a relationship with him is not based on our decision, desire, or effort (because that would make it uncertain) – but on his perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. He is still sending out faithful under-shepherds to proclaim this good news to all people, who will seek out the strays to bring them back, who will point out and condemn false teaching, and who will preach and teach the truth regardless of how many people it angers or offends. He is still leading us through the dark valley of this world to the green pastures of heaven. He is still risen and is still the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us and we are still his weak, foolish, defenseless – and yes, oftentimes stupid – sheep. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Amen.

Luke 24:36-49 - See the Power of the Word - April 15, 2018

It’s only been 2 weeks since we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord – the historical and theological foundation of the Christian faith – and yet, for many the joy and enthusiasm and conviction have already faded. For some, even some who worshipped right here, the attitude is one of apathy: Christ is risen – so what? For others it’s: Christ is risen – now what? It’s completely understandable if these weeks feel like something of a letdown after the buildup of Lent, the drama of Holy Week, and the joy of Easter Sunday. Christ is risen and Easter was great but now we’re back to the humdrum of life. Has Easter made any difference at all? If you’ve ever had doubts or fears or sadness or a sense of meaninglessness in life – you’re not alone. On that first Easter evening the disciples were gathered in a locked room – and they’re experiencing their own letdown after the drama of their Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. The fledgling Christian church was gathered in this room and it was leaderless and purposeless, bordering on hopeless – had the Church died along with Christ? What were they supposed to do now? Jesus had promised before he died: I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you (John 14:18) – and he kept that promise then and he keeps it today. Jesus shows us exactly where to look for continued joy, faith and courage – even in these cold, gloomy days after Easter. He tells us to find him in his powerful Word.

 

While the disciples in that room had seen the empty tomb and heard from those who had seen the resurrected Lord, there was still a lot of uncertainty as to what, exactly, had happened. Jesus’ body was not in the tomb, but what did that mean? Was he a spirit? A ghost? Were those who had seen him mistaken? Was he simply living on in their hearts in some mystical way? As a careful historian and physician, Luke took great care to record the evidence – we might even say “scientific” evidence – of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In his Gospel Luke links Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to something that only living, breathing human beings need: food.

 

Just a few verses earlier, Luke records Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize him until he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. (Luke 24:30) Having realized that Jesus was not dead but risen, they rushed back to Jerusalem to give their report to the rest of the disciples. While they were all comparing notes about what they had seen and heard Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” This was a common Jewish greeting in those days (Hebrew shalom) but coming from Jesus, this was more than just a greeting. Jesus distilled the entire Gospel – and spelled out the lasting impact of his suffering, death, and resurrection – in one word. Sin has been paid for once and for all. Guilt is wiped away. God and man have been reconciled. Satan is crushed. Death is defeated. The grave can’t hold us. Our loved ones who died in faith are living in heaven. You will be reunited with them. Nothing in all the world can separate us from God’s love. Add it all up and you get peace.

 

But the disciples weren’t buying it yet. They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. But this was no ghost. Jesus showed them the nail marks in his hands and feet which mark him as the same man who was nailed to the cross on Calvary. John adds we have heard…we have seen…and our hands have touched. (1 John 1:1) He is touchable. He is real. He has bones and flesh and blood. And there’s more. This real, touchable, flesh and blood Jesus also has a stomach. He asks for something to eat. I don’t read a lot of ghost stories – but I’ve never heard one where the ghost eats your dinner. But Jesus did. Not because he needed food in his glorified state but to give indisputable evidence that he had risen from the dead with a real, human body.

 

But then Jesus takes things in a direction we wouldn’t expect. Having proven that he is the real, living, breathing, resurrected Savior, Jesus actually directed the disciples’ attention away from himself, his own physical presence among them: He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Why would Jesus rehearse the prophecies of Scripture and his fulfillment of them at this point? Why does he go back to Scripture written hundreds and thousands of years earlier when he’s standing right in front of them? Because he knows something they don’t: he won’t be physically present with them much longer. In only 40 days he will return to his Father’s side in heaven. And when that happened the disciples would need more than their own fickle memories to rest their faith on. They would need solid, documented, incorruptible evidence. More than that, Jesus knew that millions of people would be born after his Ascension, people who would never see him with their own eyes – like us – and that we would need a solid, unchanging foundation for faith. And so in one breath Jesus establishes two important truths for us: 1) He confirms the validity of the Old Testament as God’s own Word and clarifies that its message from Genesis to Malachi is about him and his work of redemption; and 2) he authorizes these disciples to be his witnesses, to be the authors of the NT books which would form the foundation for the Church until the end of time.

 

But none of this would have mattered if Jesus hadn’t opened their minds to see and believe it. Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples anything they hadn’t heard before. They knew the OT, they had heard Jesus’ preaching, they had seen his suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection with their own eyes. But they still didn’t believe that it all had to happen according to God’s plan of salvation. That tells us something. It tells us that you can know all the facts and still not believe. You can know the Bible by heart and still not trust that it is really good news for you. For believing Christians, this concept may seem strange, but it’s actually our default setting. We were all born spiritually blind by sin and close-minded to the truth. (2 Corinthians 4:4) We are born into this world with the delusion that we are independent, self-sufficient gods. We think our word, our opinions, our feelings carry the day. We imagine that we’re the masters of our own destiny. Worst of all we are wired to believe that we can save ourselves (test it: ask any non-Christian how a person gets to heaven). And we would remain deluded and damned unless God did something about it.

 

Thankfully, he did and he does. In the exact same way that Jesus opened the minds of those first disciples. In the third article of the creed we confess: “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” This is so important: reason and logic and emotional, persuasive arguments – even the miracle of someone rising from the dead (Luke 16:31) – don’t create saving faith. We are so completely dead and blind that God himself must open our minds to believe the things that are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14) The Bible is a closed book without God’s gift of faith, and God himself provides the solution: faith comes from hearing the message. (Romans 10:17) That’s why Jesus didn’t just leave us with a book but sent out apostles to give eyewitness testimony, pastors to preach, teachers to teach, parents and friends to instruct and encourage, and Baptism and a Supper to receive.

 

Now, some say that preaching and teaching Scripture is not enough, that it’s just a story – and you can’t find God in a story. They’re half right. The Bible is the story of God’s efforts to save a broken world – but that’s not all it is. It is the power of God for salvation. (Romans 1:16) It is living and active. (Hebrews 4:12) It carries God’s guarantee to achieve the purpose for which [he] sent it. (Isaiah 55:11) It’s the only thing that can pry open closed minds and bring forgiveness and life to dead, unbelieving hearts. The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is history. That’s true. But his history is our only hope for forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and an eternity in heaven. Can all of those blessings come from something as humble as the Gospel? Think of how you came to faith. Maybe your parents who had you baptized as a baby and gave you the priceless gift of a Christian education. Maybe a coworker, neighbor or friend invited you to a Bible study. Maybe you don’t even know why you woke up one Sunday morning and came to church. But whatever the case, we all have one thing in common – someone told us the simple facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God opened our minds through the power of the Word.

 

And it all started in the most unlikely of circumstances: a locked room full of fearful, doubting, disbelieving disciples. Having opened the disciples’ minds, Jesus also opened their mouths. The rest of the NT records that the disciples did what Jesus commanded, they testified to what they had seen and heard – beginning in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the world. According to tradition John carried the Gospel to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Greece. Thomas preached in India. Philip taught in Armenia. Paul carried the Gospel to Rome and perhaps to Spain. And, by God’s grace, the Gospel has been passed down from them through 2000 years to us.

 

Now it’s our turn. Now we, too, are witnesses of the Risen Lord. I don’t know about you, but – as the result of the church Growth movement of the past several decades – witnessing is often narrowly defined as knocking on the doors of perfect strangers, having an uncomfortable conversation, and trying to persuade someone to believe something they don’t care about. While I am not saying that door-to-door evangelism is wrong, the fact is that we don’t have a single example of that method in the NT. We do see God arranging circumstances so that his witnesses were in the right place at the right time – think of Philip and the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40) or Paul and the man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9). We see disciples witnessing to friends and parents teaching children. When they were put on trial they testified to the facts. When you read about how the Gospel spread in the early days of the Church, you don’t see any carefully crafted marketing strategies or pitches, you see people – flesh and blood humans like us – simply and calmly explaining the facts of Scripture. Most importantly, the job of a witness is not to convince anyone of anything – only God can do that. We are not salesmen, we are witnesses. Our job is simply to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15). And if you can recite the creeds, you know the facts and reasons. Jesus suffered. Jesus died. Jesus rose. He was handed over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25) And you’ve seen him in the Old and New Testaments. You’ve received him in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You’ve heard his message of forgiveness. You have the peace and hope he died to win for you. That’s it. That’s witnessing. And growing in our knowledge and love of that good news and sharing it with others is what Jesus has commanded us to do.

 

So, whenever you think “Christ is risen…now what?” Remember these words of your risen and living Savior. He has not left us without guidance, direction and comfort. He has made us who we are and told what we are to be busy doing. This confused, blind, postmodern world doesn’t need slick marketing schemes, foolish promises of better health or wealth, or one more program to squeeze into already busy schedules. It only needs one thing: it needs Jesus. It needs the One with the wounds and words of salvation. The One who swallowed up death like he swallowed that broiled fish. The One about whom the Scriptures testify. The world needs to hear the Word, repentance and forgiveness of sins, law and gospel. And whenever you doubt that or doubt it’s power, just remember that you are living evidence that it has the power to do exactly what Jesus promised. May God continue to open our minds and our mouths with his powerful Word. Amen.  

1 Corinthians 15:12-26 - The Resurrection of the Dead - April 1, 2018

Even in this age of “fake news”, there is one day above all others that is notorious for being filled with falsehood and deception. A day when even otherwise honest people turn into con artists, liars and deceivers. A day that causes some people to take offense and get angry and others to laugh and rejoice. And no, I’m not talking about April Fool’s Day, I’m talking about Easter – the day on which we celebrate the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This day, perhaps more than any other, divides the world in two. There are those who base their life and faith on the fact that 2000 years ago Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…on the third day he rose again from the dead. There are others who argue that these facts are just an example of fake news. They claim that the resurrection is a myth perpetrated by stupid and gullible people. And they conclude that because Jesus didn’t rise no one else will either. When you die, that’s it. Game over. The question is: which side are you on? Eternity hangs on the answer. Today we will consider the Resurrection of the Dead as a matter of fact and a matter of faith.

 

Let’s start with one fact we would probably rather avoid: the fact of death. Have you noticed that even in our hyper politicized society where no one can agree on anything, we can all still agree on the fact of death? Amidst the recent spree of terror and shootings and bombings – and the resulting shouting matches about what should be done to prevent them – I have yet to hear anyone say “The victims are not dead.” We can argue about cause and effect, about everything before and after it, but death is undeniable. And Paul tells us why, very matter-of-factly: in Adam all die. We are all descendants of Adam. We all inherited his sinful nature. We all act out on this sinful nature: disobeying God, hurting, hating, lying, slandering, lusting and coveting – and so, we have all earned the wages of sin: death. (Romans 3:23) It’s said that death and taxes are the only certainties in life. But taxes can be evaded and tax laws changed. Death alone is unavoidable and absolute. It is the last enemy to be destroyed.

 

Death is the reason we are here today. In fact, the certainty of death is ultimately the only reason to be a Christian. Practically, this means that if someone comes to Christianity seeking a guaranteed solution for anything other than death, they’re in the wrong place. If someone comes to Christianity hoping to become happier and healthier, they would be better off going to see a doctor or therapist. If someone hopes that becoming Christian will help them become wealthy, their time would be better spent with a financial advisor. If people think the Church ought to be enacting laws and writing policies to make our nation a better, safer place, they would have better success lobbying a congressman. Not only because Jesus never promised to make anyone healthy or happy or rich or make this world a better, safer place – but because how healthy, happy, rich, and safe can you possibly be if you’re dead? Death is why we are here – or, more accurately, the death of death, the resurrection of the dead.

 

We are here because of the simple fact that Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross by the command of Pontius Pilate as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world and then rose to life again three days later. This is the fact around which all other facts revolve. Jesus’ resurrection is the fulcrum around which all human history pivots and finds its ultimate meaning. It is a fact of history as much as World War II or 9/11. The tomb of Jesus is empty. The body of Jesus is risen and living. It’s simply a matter of fact.

 

Like all facts, this one has verified evidence and eyewitness testimony. 1) First, not only did God, through his prophets, lay out in stunning detail the final hours of Jesus’ life – down to the very words he spoke from the cross (Psalm 22:1) – but through King David God also promised that Christ would never see decay, because he would rise again. (Psalm 16:10) And God has an unbroken track record of keeping all of his promises. 2) Second, the tomb that had been sealed on Saturday (Matthew 27:66) was empty before the angels rolled the stone away early Sunday morning. (Matthew 28:2) The burial linens were neatly folded, (John 20:7) and the guards had to be bribed to spread the lie that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body – because they knew that the disciples hadn’t been anywhere near the tomb. (Matthew 28:11-15) 3) Jesus was seen in the flesh by Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other Apostles, by a highly skeptical Thomas, by two disciples on the road to Emmaus, by seven disciples who ate a breakfast of fish with him, by over 500 disciples at one time, by James and by Paul himself on the road to Damascus. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

 

There are those who allege that these were delusional idiots who only imagined they saw the risen Lord. But the facts tell a different story. By all accounts, these were sane, sober, rational eyewitnesses. Perhaps the strongest proof is that many of them didn’t believe it until they saw it with their own eyes – even though Jesus had told them repeatedly that this would happen. (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) Additionally, these people, humanly speaking, had nothing to gain from testifying that Jesus had risen from the dead and everything to lose. Not only did they lose their membership in the local synagogue and their status in society, but many of them lost their lives. And people don’t die for something they know to be a lie.

 

4) The civil and religious authorities of the time, Pontius Pilate and the chief priests, were very invested in making sure that Jesus stayed dead three days after they had killed him. They all wanted to protect their status and power by wiping out Christianity in its fledgling stage. They had the means, the time, and the authority to produce the corpse of Jesus and parade it through the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday night or Monday morning. But they didn’t. Why not? There was no corpse. Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he said. (Matthew 28:6)

 

But, playing devil’s advocate, what if this is all just a fake news story? Some sick April Fool’s joke? A delusion, a fantasy, a myth? Does it matter? Sadly, some supposedly “Christian” teachers – including those who were opposing Paul in Corinth – say that it doesn’t matter if Jesus actually rose from the dead or not. They say that he is still an inspirational figure, that his teachings are still relevant and help us lead meaningful lives. Some will even say that Jesus can give you your best life now even if he was a miserable failure at accomplishing the one thing he had come to do: defeat death. Most insidious of all is the idea that it doesn’t matter if Jesus actually rose or not, it only matters if you believe he did – kind of like the Easter bunny or Santa Claus. So does it matter?

The Apostle Paul seems to think so. Paul says that if Jesus hasn’t been raised, Jesus’ life is not an inspiring story and his teachings are not worth the paper they’re written on and it’s not only futile but blasphemous to place your trust in him. There’s an alternative set of facts if Christ isn’t risen: if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

 

If Christ has not been raised: 1) you shouldn’t waste your time reading or believing the Bible – because it’s not true. 2) If Christ isn’t raised, then God lied through his prophets, Jesus was raving lunatic, the apostles were liars, and every Christian preacher for the last two thousand years – including the one standing in front of you – are liars who have blasphemed God and deserve to be ignored, if not run out of town. 3) If Christ hasn’t been raised, your faith is futile and you are delusional. You are wasting your time being here this morning and every other Sunday morning, your prayers are not heard or answered by anyone, and you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re right with God because Jesus’ death paid for nothing and you’re still guilty for all the evil you’ve thought, said, and done. 4) If Christ hasn’t been raised, then we are all back to square one when it comes to God. We need to find some other way to reach him. And we need to start paying for our own sins because there is no mercy, no forgiveness, no grace if Christ is not raised from the dead. 5) If Christ hasn’t been raised, then the people you loved who have died believing in him are lost forever. Hold on to your memories of them because that’s all you’re ever going to have. (You might also reconsider spending large sums of money on funerals – because there’s no closure or peace to be found in them.) If Christ hasn’t been raised then we have no reason to believe that there is anything resembling physical life beyond death. Without Christ’s empty tomb – it’s just as valid to believe that all dogs go to heaven or we will be reincarnated as monarchs. If Christ hasn’t been raised, Paul himself suggests that we should leave here right now, eat, drink and be merry – because one day, we will all die. (1 Corinthians 15:32)

 

But (the most beautiful three letter word in the English language) the historical, verifiable, undeniable, glorious fact is that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. And this fact is the foundation of our faith. 1) Because Christ is risen we believe that every single word and promise in the Bible is true, from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus testified to the truthfulness of Scripture (John 17:17) and it would be foolish to do anything other than believe the words of one who has defeated death.

 

2) Because Christ is risen we believe that we have been justified – that is, declared not guilty, completely innocent and acceptable before God. [Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25) and because [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2) we know beyond all doubt that every last one of our sins has been paid for in full by the precious blood of God.

 

3) Because Christ is raised from the dead, we believe that we too will rise from death. Jesus is the firstfruits – he’s the down payment, the proof that all who fall asleep in faith in him will rise just like him. One empty grave on Easter morning is the proof that God will empty every grave on the Last Day – including yours and mine.

 

4) Because Christ is risen, we believe that there is real, bodily, physical life after death. We don’t just go on as spirits or memories or energy. We rise with bodies to live with God and all the other saints forever. Because of sin, these bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God, they are not suited for eternal life. They wear out, get sick, break down. But, Paul says that these bodies are like seeds; they are planted dead only to rise from the ground to new and vibrant life: the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

 

5) Because Christ is risen, we believe that those who have died in faith are living with Christ now in paradise. We do not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) because we believe that in heaven there will be a grand reunion of all believers – from Adam to Abraham to Paul to our own loved ones God has called home. This truth alone can give us peace and joy and a smile even through the tears of grief at the loss of a loved one.

 

6) Because Christ is raised from the dead, we know exactly where we and this world are headed. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. We are born to die, this is true. But in Christ, we die to live. This is true too, because Christ is risen. As for this world: The end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. When Jesus returns, Satan and his work will be destroyed. One and all will bow before the throne of our Lord Jesus Christ. And death, our last and greatest enemy, will be swallowed up in victory once and for all!

 

We believe this, and we are sure of this, and we come here week after week to profess and confess this, and we are willing to stake our hearts and souls and lives and our eternities on this – because of one simple, glorious, undeniable fact: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

 

John 12:1-19 - How Will We Receive Him? - March 25, 2018

Everyone loves a good homecoming, right? From football games welcoming alumni back to campus to family and friends welcoming their warrior home from a tour of duty – we love to throw a party when distant friends or family come home. Recently, McFarland had a unique homecoming of its own: welcoming back Olympic curling champion Matt Hamilton. This is merely anecdotal on my part, but I understand that when Matt returned to town he was greeted at not one but two different local restaurants. And – this is merely a guess – but I’m guessing that Matt didn’t have to buy his own food and drinks that night. It’s an unwritten rule, right? You welcome home loved ones and heroes by giving them food and drink and gifts.

 

Almost 2000 years ago, our Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the final time. And the rule held true for him – people gathered to welcome the Son of David (Matthew 1:1) to the city of David (2 Samuel 5:9-10) with a food and gifts, praise and palms. While we don’t expect Jesus to ride through those doors on a donkey today, he is here with us as certainly as he was in Jerusalem long ago. We have his Word on it: where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) Jesus still comes to us – not only on festivals like Palm Sunday, but daily and weekly through Word and Sacrament. How will we receive him?

 

The first people to welcome Jesus as he came home to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world were his friends in Bethany – a little town only a few miles from Jerusalem. Mark tells us that this meal was hosted by Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3) – presumably one of the many who was cured by Jesus’ healing power. Also present were Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. This was a pleasant, friendly Sabbath day gathering – not so much different from what you and I might experience next Sunday afternoon.

 

The first observation we should make is so obvious that we might miss it: Jesus was welcome in his disciples’ home. We want the same to be said of our homes, too, right? Maybe we have a plaque or doormat with the verse from Joshua as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD (Joshua 24:15) or the common table prayer come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. It’s easy to hang those signs and speak those words, but is Jesus always welcome in our homes and hearts? Are mealtime prayers and devotions a regular routine or are we too busy to thank Jesus for providing food and drink day after day? Would Jesus be proud to join in our dinner table conversations because they are sprinkled with love and grace, or would he ask to be excused from hearing gossip and slander? If Jesus were to make an unexpected visit, would he be proud to find a well-used copy of the Bible – his Word – or would he have to search for it on a dusty shelf somewhere, unused? When Jesus invites us to leave our homes and come to his to receive his gifts of forgiveness, guidance, and his Sacrament – do we eagerly accept or drag our feet, searching for any excuse to decline? This week, his invitation is loud and clear: Jesus will offer his body and blood to you for the forgiveness of your sins on Thursday and give his life for yours on Friday. Will you be there to receive him?

 

While everyone in Bethany honored Jesus’ presence, one in particular recognized Jesus’ real purpose in coming to Jerusalem with a precious gift. Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” At first glance, we might be tempted to agree with Judas. The money could have done significant good for those in need. Was this a waste of money? Jesus made it clear that in his eyes, it was not. It was a visible expression of Mary’s invisible faith. She had sat at Jesus’ feet, listened to his teaching, and firmly believed that he was entering Jerusalem to die for her sins; and she confessed that faith by anointing him with perfume (which amounted to beginning the burial process). No gift, no good work – in her mind – could be too expensive to show her gratitude for what Jesus would do for her. So, while Judas’ objection might seem sensible, it was actually just cover for a wicked heart. He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. The love of money had taken possession of Judas; it had replaced Jesus as his master. (It was immediately after this meal that Judas sought out Jesus’ enemies and agreed to betray him for thirty silver coins. (Mark 14:10-11))

 

After we have given Jesus and his Word priority in our homes and hearts, it is only natural that we would want to thank and praise him with our gifts – as a visible sign of invisible faith. No, it doesn’t reveal our faith to Jesus – he can read our hearts. (John 2:25) No, it doesn’t reveal our faith to other members or the pastor – they don’t know what we give. Your offerings, instead, tell you something about the state of your faith. Do my offerings show that I recognize that everything I have belongs to God, that I believe that Jesus gave up the riches of heaven and became poor to make me rich (2 Corinthians 8:9), and that I trust that the God who did not spare his own Son (Romans 8:32) will graciously give me everything I need for body and life? What does the offering you will place in the plate this morning tell you about the place Jesus has in your heart?

 

Mary and Judas represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Besides being a thief, Judas represents the attitude that says offerings are basically a necessary evil. If something needs to be done or purchased, if the budget needs to be met, then I guess I’ll put in my portion to get it done. (Kind of like how we feel about taxes – I’ll pay what I owe and not a penny more!) Doesn’t that attitude betray a greedy, misguided heart – that I’m going to hold on to every penny (acting like it’s mine, not God’s) until it’s ripped out of by hands by necessity? The truth is that our motivation to give is not keeping the lights on and the bills paid but to thank and praise the one who gave everything for us and to us. Like Mary, we give not because Jesus needs us to – he’s the king of the universe, we can’t give him anything he doesn’t already own. We give because we need to. If we aren’t giving cheerfully, generously, and regularly – the problem is not with our offerings, the problem is with our hearts, our faith and our priorities. Jesus, our King, gave up the riches of heaven, and came to Jerusalem to suffer and die for your sins. Today, he still comes to us personally through his Word and Sacrament to present us with the gifts of forgiveness and salvation he paid for with his blood. How will we receive him?

I don’t know about you, but until recently I didn’t know there were so many avid fans of curling. But last month, they came out of the woodwork, didn’t they? I’d never seen USA Curling apparel – and then it was everywhere: gas stations, grocery stores – even right here at church. Whether every one of them is truly a fan of curling – and can tell you what a skip or the hog line are [1] – is impossible to say. But when Matt and company brought home the gold, they weren’t afraid to make their fan hood known proudly and publicly.

 

That close knit group in Bethany weren’t the only ones to honor Jesus’ arrival on the doorstep of Jerusalem, the crowds of pilgrims who had gathered for the Passover celebration (according to Josephus around 2 million [2]) threw a homecoming parade for him as he entered Jerusalem to die. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” The words which the Savior’s welcoming party sang were words they knew very well. These were refrains from Psalm 118 which they recited as they traveled to Jerusalem and then again as they ate the Passover. The words fit the occasion perfectly. Hosanna means “save us!” And with the refrains of blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and blessed is the King of Israel the crowd was testifying that Jesus was the chosen one of God, the Christ, their King – who had come to do just that.

 

But if you look a little bit closer, you will see three different reactions. There were the Pharisees, who shook their heads in hatred and envy for the warm welcome Jesus was receiving. There were those who were perhaps swept up the moment and shouted along with everyone else: hosanna…blessed is the King of Israel – but really didn’t believe it, as evidenced by the fact that only a few days later they were shouting for Jesus’ crucifixion. (John 19:6) And there were those who truly believed that Jesus had come as their king to suffer and die to save them from their sins.

 

Wherever and whenever Jesus comes – even right here – he always receives a mixed reception. (He guarantees it: see Matthew 10:34.) By God’s grace, there are those who warmly welcome him into their hearts as the Son of God who had come to bleed and die to save them. But right next to them there are hypocrites. They get swept up in singing and rejoicing – but don’t really believe any of it, as proven by the fact that they walk out those doors just to crucify Jesus all over again by their faithless, godless living. And then there are always those who simply shake their heads in hatred and unbelief. They have no use for Jesus or the forgiveness he comes to bring. At first, these differences are invisible. But eventually, the heart reveals itself; faith or unbelief makes always makes itself evident in a clear, public way. (Luke 6:43-45)

 

For we who believe that Jesus comes to bless and save us, to wash away our sins and open the gates of eternal life – the faith that is hidden in our hearts will always reveal itself in a public confession – in fact, God’s Word demands it. (Romans 10:9) I’m not suggesting that we go and march down Main Street waving palm branches and chanting Bible verses to impress our neighbors. There was a time and a place for that – 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. Today we make our public confession about Jesus when we gather here regularly around his Word and Sacraments. When good things happen to us we don’t chalk it up to good luck or hard work – we recognize that all good things come from Christ. When times of trial and tragedy come our first reaction is not to turn to friends, family or government – we turn to God in prayer. (Psalm 50:15) When guilt or stress or worry overwhelm us we don’t numb it with substances or dull it with distractions – we lay our burdens at the feet of our King. One important way we make our confession in these days when people are terrified by school shootings and package bombs, is to confess calmly and confidently: no matter what happens, King Jesus is in control, he has brought us peace by purchasing eternal life for us and promises that his legions of angels are protecting us. (Psalm 91:11) King Jesus has come, he came to die for you, to rise for you, to live to guide and protect you. How will you receive him?

 

Whether you watched and cheered and bought a USA curling T-shirt or not - does not, in the end, matter. But, how we receive King Jesus now will impact us, not only now but eternally. One day, every knee will bow before him. (Philippians 2:9-11) Only those who bow and believe and confess his glory as a humble King who came to die for us now will share in his glory when he comes with his angelic armies to judge the world. (Matthew 10:32-33) King Jesus is coming. He’s come to lay down his life for your sins and take it up to open the gate to heaven. Welcome him with your praise, your devotion, your offerings, your confession – but most of all receive him with a heart overflowing with faith. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.curling.ca/about-the-sport-of-curling/getting-started-in-curling/glossary-of-curling-terms/

[2] Stott, John The Message of John p. 180

Mark 10:32-45 - Greatness in God's Kingdom - March 18, 2018

Our Lord Jesus lived on this earth for 33 years. For 33 years Jesus walked and talked, lived and learned, kept his Father’s will perfectly in and through many of the difficult situations we face on a daily basis. And yet, we don’t know anything about most of Jesus’ life. In fact, one third of all the chapters in the four Gospels – 29 of 89 – focus on just one week in Jesus’ life, the last one. That tells us something, doesn’t it? It’s like the Holy Spirit has sent up a flare to tell us that these things are important, learn, study, meditate on these things! That’s what Lent is all about – a close examination of Jesus’ last days, last words and works on earth. Without doubt, the most important lesson we can learn in Lent is that Jesus has truly paid for all of our sin, the death we earned, the hell we deserved by his suffering and death on the cross. But there are other things we need to learn too, and one very important lesson – which we need to learn over and over again – is the one taught in the verses before us: the way to true greatness in God’s kingdom is through service.

 

Just before our text, Jesus had promised his disciples that everyone who sacrifices for his sake will receive a hundred times what they lost in this life and in the life to come. (Mark 10:28-31) In no uncertain terms, Jesus promised tremendous glory and greatness to every last one of his disciples. Here’s his plan to get there: We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise. Betrayal and condemnation, mockery and spit, flogging and death. Does that sound like a roadmap to greatness? Is that what guidance counselors have in mind when they tell high school students to follow their dreams? Will people pound on the door to get a job with that description? Are those the types of things you read in an obituary? Not. A. Chance.

 

That’s not what the apostles’ had in mind when they thought about the road the success and glory, either. James and John – two of Jesus’ inner circle – had a request for Jesus before he entered Jerusalem: let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory. Assuming that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to begin his glorious reign on earth, they wanted to reserve their places in his cabinet. They wanted positions of power and authority – including authority over their fellow apostles. Now that sounds more like it, right? No matter what area of life we might consider – business, politics, athletics, even in the church and home – true greatness means having power over other people, being able to bend them to our will, make them serve us. (cf. walkouts, protests, hashtags, etc.) Jesus recognized how the world works: You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.

 

But then he throws a curveball: Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. According to Jesus, if you want to become great – you must become small. If you want to become a person of power and authority – then you must become a slave, a servant. This is another Christian paradox: a seemingly nonsensical statement. It only makes sense in the light of the Christ and his cross.

 

When Jesus predicted his imminent suffering and death, he referred to himself as the Son of Man. This was an Old Testament title for the Messiah – the Christ, the one anointed by God to save the world. The prophet Daniel gives us a glimpse of the Son of Man: in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all people, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14) Jesus’ own life is a lesson in contrasts. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is absolutely sovereign. His kingdom will never end. Everything and everyone in the universe is under him. And yet he humbled himself, he became a servant. He washed his disciples’ feet, he endured betrayal and denial and suffering and death.

 

The world doesn’t see any greatness there; the world sees only disgrace and embarrassment. But if we are to have any hope at all of heaven, we must see the greatness in Jesus’ humility. In yet another paradox, Jesus was great because he became nothing, because he became a servant. Think about how we praise Jesus in our creeds and hymns. We praise him for leaving heaven, being born of a virgin, living in poverty; for being criminally convicted, cruelly mocked, beaten and crucified, dying and being buried. That’s kind of strange, isn’t it? Our world doesn’t normally celebrate failure. Convicted criminals aren’t typically made into celebrities – although there are exceptions. History won’t remember the 63 NCAA teams that end their seasons with a loss. Until recently, children didn’t get ribbons just for participating. And yet Jesus’ greatness lies in what the world considers failure. We don’t praise him for crushing his enemies but for allowing himself to be arrested and crucified by them. We can’t praise him for ascending the throne of heaven until we thank him for being raised up on a cross. Our joy and our peace with God weren’t purchased with the crown on his head but by the holes in his hands and feet and side. Humanly speaking, we praise for being a loser; a failure, a servant, a victim, a criminal, for being condemned and damned to hell. Why? Why did he fail at life? Because we were losers. We had failed God in every conceivable way. We had gone our own way like stupid sheep. We had earned God’s death sentence. And the only way for Jesus to redeem unredeemable sinners like us was to become our servant – to take our sins, our shame, our guilt, our death and hell and make it his own. Jesus achieved greatness for us, not by ruling in power and glory but by giving himself up as our sacrificial servant. And, that was the plan all along: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

 

Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath we had earned and was baptized with the hell we deserved – to redeem us from sin, death and hell. He served us so that we might live with him in heaven’s glory forever. But now he invites us to share in his cup and his baptism, to follow his path to greatness – a path of humility, sacrifice, and service to others. He calls us together and says “you know how the world out there does things and what it values and how it defines greatness? That’s not the way it going to be with you.” Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. Just as our Savior’s true greatness was hidden – so if we really want to be great in God’s kingdom, we must accept the fact that it will be hidden in humility, it won’t – generally speaking – get you accolades and honors, it won’t make you famous or popular, it won’t, quite often, look or feel great. Just as it was for Christ, so it is for us: greatness in God’s kingdom doesn’t come through being served but through service to others.

 

So what does this greatness look like, practically speaking? It means, quite simply, turning the world upside down. Let’s start right here: in the church. Greatness in the church doesn’t come from simply holding some office or position, from getting your name in the bulletin or receiving the gratitude of others. For council and choir members, for the organist and pastor, for Sunday school teachers and volunteers, for anyone and every one of us – greatness isn’t found in being recognized and honored. It’s found in serving others, often in ways that are hidden from view, hidden in humility. Greatness consists of attending meetings and planning budgets, changing lightbulbs and cutting grass, teaching children and counting offerings and setting up tables and serving snacks and cleaning toilets. God sees greatness in Christians who do what needs to be done to support the gospel ministry without being asked. On a deeper level, greatness in God’s kingdom means carrying out the humble – but all important – tasks of holding each other accountable, carrying each other’s burdens, and praying for one another.

 

But God’s Kingdom extends far beyond those doors. In God’s eyes, greatness in the workplace doesn’t consist of getting awards and promotions and prime parking spots and a round of applause when you retire. No, God sees greatness in fixing other people’s mistakes and in tackling the jobs no one else wants and making others look good in the boss’s eyes. While the world sees retirement as the day you’re done following someone else’s orders, Christians see it as the time they are free to serve in ways they never could before.

 

In our homes. It’s easy to feel great on your wedding day – when others are praising you and bringing you gifts and working hard to make the day perfect for you. Mothers and fathers, it’s pretty great when you’re in the hospital room being waited on hand and foot by nurses with an endless stream of family and friends congratulating you on your new bundle of joy. But that’s not where God sees greatness. No, God sees greatness in changing diapers and washing dishes, in meal-time devotions and prayers before bed, in patient instruction and firm discipline. God sees greatness in parents and grandparents who model Christian values and Christian priorities in an ungodly world, in husbands and wives who may bicker and argue but who always forgive and ask for forgiveness, in parents who figure out a way (even though it may cramp your style or schedule or career path or wallet) to give God’s children a full-time Christian education – because no other gift you can give them will pay eternal dividends. And let’s be honest: none of those things will get you any awards or public recognition. These things don’t fit the world’s idea of dreaming big and achieving fame and fortune. In fact, some people you know will scoff and laugh and tell you that you’re doing life wrong. But you won’t care – because you know that your heavenly Father sees and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4); that greatness in God’s kingdom doesn’t come from being served, but from serving; not from living life your way but following in Christ’s footsteps; not from being praised and recognized but in giving all praise and glory to God.

 

Because just as our Savior achieved greatness for us by serving us with his suffering and death, so our path to greatness in God’s kingdom lies in our willingness serve instead of being served. For us, as for Christ, picking up and carrying the cross of humility and service is the only route that leads to the crown of glory in heaven. God help us all to seek and find true, lasting greatness in God’s kingdom. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.     

Numbers 21:4-9 - God Gives Us What We Need, When We Need It - March 11, 2018

We live in a free-market, capitalistic society where we are free to expect and demand what we want when we want it (and complain if we don’t get it). Want a hamburger? Go to Burger King and you can “have it your way.” With just a couple clicks Amazon can get you anything from a year’s supply of toilet paper to an 80 inch TV and have it delivered to your doorstep in two days or less. No more driving to Blockbuster for a movie – you can watch what you want, when you want On Demand. And, if you happen to really want some big ticket item that you really can’t afford – no problem, they’ve got a credit card they would love to get your name on. Why do businesses bend over backwards like this? Because business is beholden to consumers and that’s what consumers want.

 

In the world of business, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. That’s capitalism. The problem appears when the principles of free-market capitalism are applied to Christianity, to our relationship with God. The temptation is there – and is fed by much of American Christianity – to believe that God is beholden to us and our wants, to think of God as a divine butler – a heavenly Amazon.com – who better give us what we want, when we want it – or we can just take our business elsewhere. But God loves us too much to give us what we want, when we want it. He promises something even better: he gives us what we need, when we need it.

 

We meet up with the Israelites near the end of their wandering in the wilderness. They were about to step into the land God had promised to their fathers 40 years earlier after he had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. They were so close they could almost taste it. Once they had passed through the nation of Edom, they would be home – in a land flowing with milk and honey. There was only one problem: Edom refused to let them pass. And so the Israelites had to turn around, go back where they came from and take an over 200 mile detour to the Promised Land. We can understand their impatience, we get frustrated when we have to take a 10 mile detour in a car. But the Israelites were on foot, in a barren desert, numbering around 2 million people of all ages in all conditions of life, carrying everything they owned on their backs, after having already spent 4 decades wandering the wilderness. 

 

This was not what the Israelites wanted when they wanted it. So they filed a complaint “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” God and Moses must have felt like parents on a family vacation. It never takes long for the griping to begin, does it? “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” Then it’s, “These sandwiches you packed are gross, why can’t we stop at McDonalds.” Tensions rise when “Are we there yet?” becomes “If we don’t get there soon, I’m going to die.” And then the last straw, that final act of rebellion – kicking the back of your seat! Spoiled brats, that’s what the Israelites were behaving like.

 

You detest this miserable food? You mean this food that God rains down from heaven day after day, food that you don’t have to work or pay for, food that you simply have to pick up and eat? That food you don’t deserve to eat, that’s the food you detest? Is there anything else you would like to complain about? How about your clothing – maybe it’s time for a fashion update? (Nehemiah tells us that even after 40 years of walking the clothing and shoes of the Israelites did not wear out.) (Nehemiah 9:21) You dare complain about being rescued from Egypt? Do you remember what went on there? Your parents were driven to death producing bricks and their baby boys were put to death. Would you really prefer that to the freedom and security of walking with God to a land of your own?

 

Who would grumble and complain about such undeserved gifts and blessings? It would be like a person today whining that their house is not big enough, their car not new enough, their clothes not fashionable enough, their food not delectable enough, the government not effective enough, their children not obedient enough, the weather not warm enough, or their bodies not healthy enough. Certainly we would never complain like the Israelites, would we? Unfortunately, we too are often more proficient at itemizing our grievances than counting our blessings. “But it’s my right to complain.” No. It’s not. Not if we actually believe the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We confess with Luther in his explanation to the first article that clothing and shoes, food and drink, property and home, spouse and children…and all [we] own, and all [we] need to keep our bodies and lives are not things we are entitled to but gifts from our gracious God. Which means that every time we complain about any of those things we are no better than the Israelites, no better than kids kicking the back of the car seat, in fact, no better than unbelievers.

 

Wait, what? Yes, griping and complaining are not the hallmarks of faith but unbelief – because it is a denial and rejection of God’s promise to provide everything we need. (James 1:17) Complaining about what God has or hasn’t given us is a serious sin because it alleges that God doesn’t know what is best for us, or, even, that his goal is not to bless and save us but harm us. Make no mistake: it is a nothing less than rebellion to think that we know better than God. This is the sin that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden (Genesis 3:24), got Jonah swallowed by a fish (Jonah 1:17), that led to the Israelites’ 40 year wandering in the first place (Numbers 14), the kind of sin that if left unchecked, leads to eternal death in hell. God is good and gracious and gives us every gift we need for our bodies and lives – but if we grow so fixated on the gifts that we forget the giver, then we need something else; namely, discipline.

 

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. Like the parent who turns around in their seat and says “Quit your crying or I will…give you something to cry about” God turned to the Israelites – in love – and told them with snakes “I’m going to give you something to cry about because you need a wakeup call. You need to remember who’s in charge here. You need to remember that your real problem is not lack of variety in your diet but your depraved hearts.” These lethal snakes forced the Israelites to reflect on themselves and their behavior. They realized how faithless and ungrateful they have been. And, when they realized that the only thing they truly deserved was a painful death, they were quick to change their tune: the people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” God’s discipline administered through venomous snakes accomplished his purpose: it brought about a change of heart, a confession of sin, true, heartfelt repentance.

“So, pastor, you’re saying that when some struggle, some sorrow, some pain or problem comes into my life – I should see it as God’s way of leading me to examine myself, of disciplining me in order to lead me to repentance and cry out to him for help?” Yes. When we cry into our 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets about how unfair life is, God might well respond by giving us something to really cry about. If we complain about conditions at work, he might give us a pink slip. If we grumble about not having enough money, he might let the car break down. If we gripe about our good-for nothing relatives, he may take them away. If we gripe about aches and pains, he might send us to the ER. Now, this is not to say that every hardship we face is directly tied to a specific complaint. (Read the book of Job.) But, when we fall into the unbelief of complaining about God’s gifts to us, he loves us enough to give us something to really cry about with a healthy dose of discipline. Why? Because sometimes pain is the only sermon that gets our attention. C.S. Lewis wrote: “We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [1] Through his loving discipline God helps see that our biggest problem is our lost and depraved condition as sinners; and how we must join the Israelites in the simple, excuse free, confession that we [have] sinned against the LORD. And if God uses painful, unpleasant discipline to bring about that goal, we shouldn’t get angry, we should endure hardship as discipline recognizing that God is treating [us] like sons trusting that [He] disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. (Hebrews 12:1, 10)

 

And the good news is that when God drives us to repentance, he always answers our cries for mercy – and always in the way that is best for us: The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Did you notice that even here, God didn’t give the Israelites what they wanted? They wanted the snakes taken away. Instead, God gave them another snake, a bronze snake on a pole. This had to seem like utter foolishness to the Israelites. How could looking at a bronze snake save them? It couldn’t. That was the point. It was not the bronze snake that saved them, it was the promise God attached to it. And so, it took faith in God’s Word for those who were writhing in pain to look at that snake on the pole, but if they believed and looked, God saved their lives. A renewed and strengthened faith in God’s promises is what the Israelites needed most and through his gifts, his discipline, and his salvation – God gave them exactly what they needed, right when they needed it.

 

So where’s the snake on a pole we should look at when God’s discipline has brought us to our knees? It’s right here. It’s the water of Baptism. The bread and wine of Holy Communion. The absolution spoken and the Gospel read and the Word of God applied. But still today, many doubt and say: “How can tap water save?” “How can bread and wine grant forgiveness of sins?” “How can words written and read guarantee eternal life?” The simple answer is: they don’t. Neither the snake, nor the water, nor the bread and wine, nor the word on the page has any power to save on their own. But, administered by Christ’s command and connected to God’s Word – these become the powerful and effective (and only) means of salvation.

 

That’s how it has to be because - when you see the water of Baptism, receive the bread and wine of Communion, hear the Word of God read and preached, and when those Israelites looked at that snake in the desert – God really wants you to see something greater with eyes of faith. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15) We can’t help but see ourselves and our Savior in this story, can we? 1) Just like the Israelites, we are all infected with the deadly poison of sin injected by the devil – a poison that without treatment, will result in eternal death. 2) In both cases there is only one cure: faith in God’s promise. 3) Just as there was no poison in that bronze snake, so there was no sin in Jesus, and yet he sucked the poison of sin out of our souls, bled and died for it on the cross 4) And, in both cases, the cure is immediate and complete. The moment the Israelites looked to the bronze snake with faith in God’s promise – they were healed. The moment anyone comes to faith in Jesus – they are saved, period. Today, this applies to Briar. Today, God saved Briar from the eternal death his sins deserve. Briar needed salvation and God gave him exactly what he needed most. And in the end, that is what we – and all people – need most.

 

What you want, when you want it might be the way of our capitalistic system, it might even be our own desire – but God loves us too much to give us what we want – so he gives us what we need. He gives us the good gifts we need to sustain our bodies and lives on earth. When we forget that, when we grumble and complain, he disciplines us with the goal of leading us to repentance. And, when we call out to him for help, he never fails to give us what we need most: forgiveness, life and salvation through Christ crucified. Look to him and live. Amen.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 90-91.

Hebrews 10:28-31 - Why Teach the Doctrine of Hell? - March 4, 2018

Looking at today’s sermon theme, you might be thinking that you walked into the wrong church – or maybe the wrong century – this morning. Eternal damnation in hell is a doctrine that has all but disappeared from Christian preaching in 21st century America. (I would be willing to bet that some of us have never heard a sermon focused on the reality and severity of hell.) Why? There are three main reasons. First, this is not the kind of thing that would seem to appeal to unchurched people. We’re told that unchurched people don’t want to hear about a God who punishes sin and unbelief with eternal death in hell. Our response is: of course not! No unbeliever is going to want to hear about hell because, by definition, no unbeliever thinks that he or she deserves to go there. That conviction is only worked by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Law – which includes the threat of eternal punishment in hell.

 

Secondly, the subject of hell is one which even we – believers – don’t really like to think about or talk about. Even if we know that in Christ we are absolutely certain that we will escape the punishment of hell, we do not like to think about it too much or too long because we have friends and relatives who have rejected Jesus and we cannot bear the thought that if they remain faithless will go to hell. And the result is that we tend to downplay or ignore or, sometimes, outright deny the reality of hell.

 

The last obstacle may come as a surprise to you: hell is not a topic that Christian pastors relish discussing and applying. Think about the oncologist who must tell a patient that they have stage four cancer and only has days or weeks to live. Compare that to telling a person who has rejected Christ and the salvation he offers – that the only future he or she has to look forward to is punishment that never ends. And yet, in spite of these obstacles, it is important that we hear what God’s Word has to say about hell. Why? Because so many deny it, because it is Biblical fact, and because it reveals, better than anything else, our need for a Savior.

 

It is especially important for us to teach about hell in our time because so many people deny it. This wouldn’t be so troubling if it were only godless unbelievers denying the existence of hell. When we learn, for example, that Thomas Jefferson said that a God who would condemn people to hell would be a monster and not a God, that hardly surprises us, because Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. When Unitarians say that hell is what we experience when we are suffering from depression or loneliness or lovelessness on earth, that doesn’t shock us because Unitarians are not Christians. [1] When Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that those who die in unbelief will face an unending eternity of pain and torment and instead say that unbelievers will simply be annihilated [2] this does not surprise us either because Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Christians.

 

But what ought to shock and disturb us is that the doctrine of hell is under attack by people who claim to be Christian and insist that they believe the Bible. For the better part of 2000 years all Christians – whether Lutheran or Protestant or Catholic – were in agreement all who die in unbelief go to hell, that hell is forever, and that hell is unending torment. But, in recent years, this has changed. A 2015 Pew Research Council survey showed that while 85% of Christians in America believe in the existence of heaven, only 70% believe in the existence of hell. [3] How is this possible? Well, like most heresies, it starts with those who should know better, the leaders of the church. One example is Clark Pinnock, a prominent Evangelical theologian who wrote “Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die.” [4] This was not some cult leader making this assertion. This was a respected and influential Bible teacher in Evangelical circles. Chances are you may even know some people who agree with him.

 

How do they come to this conclusion? Many so-called Christians find it difficult to believe in hell because they say that God is love (1 John 4:8), and a loving God – according to them – would never punish anyone forever in hell (except maybe Hitler). So they use their own reason and emotions to fabricate their own theories of what will happen to unbelievers when they die. Some say that there is a hell, but that the suffering in hell will finally come to an end and eventually everyone will wind up in heaven. Others say that hell is non-existent and that all those people who do not go to heaven will simply be annihilated – that is, they will simply pass out of existence. But the worst heresy of all is the doctrine of universalism – that hell is just an empty threat and that all people, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe about Jesus, will immediately go to heaven when they die.

 

The only problem with their theories is that the Bible, the only source and standard for Christian doctrine and life, states unequivocally that hell is real and that it is a place where there is horrible, unending punishment. In this section of Hebrews the author is warning his wavering readers to not be deceived: anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

 

The author is arguing from the lesser to the greater. If God demanded that those who rejected his Word and will in the Old Testament be executed without appeal and without mercy on the basis of two or three witnesses – what do you think God will do to those who grind his Son under their feet like a bug, who blaspheme the blood he shed for forgiveness, who despise the Word and Sacrament – the only instruments the Holy Spirit uses to create and sustain faith? Every parent understands this. You may get used to the fact that your children will disobey your rules – but when they reject and despise your gifts? That’s something else entirely. Do not be deceived; if God mercilessly punished lawbreakers with death in the Old Testament, you can be sure that the punishment will be far worse for those who reject his grace.

 

And Scripture reveals exactly what this worse punishment is. Already in the OT, Isaiah wrote those who rebelled against me…will be loathsome to all mankind…their worm will not die, nor their fire be quenched. (Isaiah 66:24) Jesus told his disciples: do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28) In his description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus tells unbelievers depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), and the book of Revelation says that the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. (Revelation 14:11) Hell is real no matter what percentage of people believe it. It is a permanent separation from God’s goodness and love, it is unimaginable torment, and the worst part is that it will never end. We must teach the reality of hell, then, not just because so many deny it, but because the Bible clearly, repeatedly, and forcefully teaches it.

 

And there’s one final reason to clearly teach and preach the doctrine of hell: because it reveals our need for a Savior. One of the most powerful and dangerous human impulses is the impulse to minimize, rationalize, and downplay the severity of sin. That’s why we come up with phrases like “little white lies” and “I know it’s a sin but it’s not hurting anyone.” In relation to hell, the impulse to justify ourselves leads many to underestimate the punishment sin earns. It’s the idea that I can pay for my own sin – whether that means making amends or giving to charity or paying the fine or suffering whatever temporary consequence is required. It’s the satanic lie that no sin is so bad that I can’t pay for it sooner or later. (You see this attitude regularly in public figures who are exposed for their evil deeds. Their gut reaction is to try to pay off their victim or give thousands of dollars to some non-profit or spend some time paying the price in a rehab center.)

 

If that’s true, if sin is something that can be wiped off the books by a few years of disgrace or by donations to charity or by spending a few years in prison, then God is a liar because sin is not as bad as he says it is – not to mention: Jesus didn’t have to suffer and die and we are just wasting our time here. But if, as the Bible says, sin is something that earns God’s righteous wrath, if it brings suffering that does not end, then it is obviously something that we cannot afford to treat it lightly – either in our own lives or in the lives of other people, especially people we love. God is just, he will punish sin. If we refuse to confess our sins and lay them on Jesus and trust that he suffered hell so that we never would – then we are telling God that we demand to suffer the full punishment our sins deserve. And it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

 

It is important for us to teach this doctrine of hell and the severity of sin, especially during this Lenten season, because it helps us understand what an amazing, precious, priceless gift of God it is to know that we have a Savior from sin. The author mentioned the blood of Jesus by which we are sanctified – that is, made holy. If the first part of faith is the confession that we deserve nothing from God but eternal death in hell – then the other half is trusting that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2) Jesus by his holy life kept God’s will perfectly for you. Jesus, by his death, paid the wages of sin for you. And Jesus, by being forsaken on the cross by God, suffered the punishment of hell – so that you never will.

 

So why do we, who believe that, need to hear a sermon about hell? Because some of us have heard that good news thousands of times. We may have heard it so often that we take it for granted, that it doesn’t really have any impact on us anymore, that we think nothing of skipping an opportunity to hear God’s absolution and receive the body and blood Jesus shed to spare us from hell’s punishment. But if we would always remember what a dreadful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God, if we would never forget that the sins we commit every day earn us God’s eternal punishment, we would never grow tired of hearing the good news that God his Son into this world to die for us so that we might have eternal life instead of eternal punishment in hell. The doctrine of hell is a terrifying truth. But only when we realize that hell is what we deserve will we understand the stakes of Christianity. This is not just about making friends or having a good time or having a positive impact on the community. The stakes in everything we do – from evangelism to education to discipline – are eternal life and eternal death.

 

That’s why, even though it might make us squirm and may seem like a doctrine that was left behind with the fire and brimstone preaching of past eras, it is still important to teach this doctrine faithfully, not only to defend God’s people from being led astray by those who deny it; not only because the Bible clearly teaches it; not only because it reveals our desperate need for a Savior from sin; but especially because it will help us appreciate so much more during this Lenten season what God’s Son did for us and saved us from by his suffering and death on the cross. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.unitarian.org.uk/pages/frequently-asked-questions-faq

[2] https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/what-is-hell/

[3] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/10/most-americans-believe-in-heaven-and-hell/

[4] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/160513-theology-hell-history-christianity/    

Romans 5:1-11 - The Paradox of Lent: Joy in Suffering - February 25, 2018

Lent is perhaps the most challenging and rewarding season in the Christian church year. Not just because it focuses our attention on Christ and him crucified, but because it forces us to confront some of Christianity’s most difficult paradoxes. What’s a paradox? A paradox is statement that seems contradictory but is nonetheless true. Jesus presented a paradox when he declared whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:35) You must lose your life to save it? This would be nonsense coming from anyone but Christ – who lost his life only to take it up again 3 days later! Authentic Christianity – as defined by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount – is filled with paradoxes: the poor will inherit the riches of heaven, only those who mourn will be comforted, and it is a blessing to be persecuted. (Matthew 5:3-4, 11) But perhaps the most difficult paradox Lent presents is the one before us this morning: finding joy in suffering. It seems to be foolish and nonsensical. But in the season of Lent, nothing could be truer for Christ and for Christians. Christ’s suffering produced peace and our suffering produces hope.

 

In the years following the conclusion of WWI, many people thought – and said – that they had witnessed the war to end all wars. They imagined that future generations would learn from the death, depravity and violence and never repeat the same mistakes. They believed that the Treaty of Versailles would establish a peace that would last. Time has a way of dashing fickle human hope, doesn’t it? Two decades later, the world was once again at war. Today armed conflicts and violent revolutions carry on all around the world. Terrorism – both foreign and domestic – are a constant concern. Right here in Madison the lack of peace is demonstrated every day in the news. Shootings and robberies and road rage. Even more sobering, we often don’t even have to look outside of our own homes to find the absence of peace. This universal lack of peace, as bad as it is, is only symptomatic of a deeper problem: the lack of peace between God and man. Sin separates us from God. It earns us his wrath. It makes us hostile to God and God hostile to us. And we were helpless to do anything about it. But Paul says that God did something about it: therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

With the word “justified” Paul takes us into a courtroom. God’s courtroom. A courtroom where we are the defendants – whether we like it or not. The charges against us fall into 10 categories: failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things; failure to pray, praise and give thanks; failure to gladly hear and learn the Word of God; failure to honor and obey those in authority; failure to help and befriend those in need; failure to lead a pure and decent life; failure to take words and actions in the kindest possible way; failure to be content. We know – and God knows – that we are guilty as charged. But then something shocking happens. The judge slams down his gavel and declares that we are innocent of all charges, that our records have been expunged, that we are free to go. If such a thing were to happen today, there would be outrage and cries of injustice and marches in the streets. How is this possible?

 

Paul’s “therefore” points back to chapter 4 which tells us how this is possible: [Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25) Here’s that paradox thing again. Because Jesus endured the exact opposite of peace: a cruel and bitter death on a cross – we now have peace with God. It may seem contradictory, but it was the only way. And Paul tells us why a few verses later: you see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

 

What does this mean? Have you heard the name Aaron Feis? I bet most of you know the name Nikolas Cruz. Cruz was the young man who shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida a week and a half ago. Aaron Feis was an assistant football coach and security guard at the same school and when Cruz came rampaging down the hall, Feis threw himself in front of a group of students, saving them from death but dying in the process. Feis made the ultimate sacrifice – he gave up his own life to save others. That kind of heroic, selfless sacrifice is rare in our world. But as heroic and selfless as Aaron Feis was, he didn’t do what Christ did. Feis sacrificed himself for innocent students. Christ sacrificed himself for powerless, ungodly, sinners. Christ did the equivalent of taking a bullet – not for innocent students, but for Nikolas Cruz. Christ didn’t die for his friends, but his enemies.

 

And the result is that through faith in him, we have peace with God. This is not the peace that our world dreams about. This is not the end of school shootings, it’s not the end of sexual abuse by powerful men; it’s not a peace that can be achieved by getting rid of guns or urging love and tolerance. Standing justified before God does not mean that we will always feel “at peace” or have peace in our hearts and homes. This peace is far better. This an objective peace – a peace that exists outside of us. It means that – regardless of what is happening in our lives – our relationship with God has been changed: instead of being his enemies, we are now his friends, his children.  

 

And the devil simply cannot tolerate this. He works tirelessly to make us doubt God’s gift; to make us believe we are somehow responsible for our justification. One of his more sinister methods is to make us wonder and worry about dying in sin – that is, dying or having Jesus return in judgment at the very moment where you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing. What happens if we don’t have time to repent and be forgiven? Will you go to hell? That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? The reality is that we will be sinning when Jesus returns or we die. Sinful desires pass through our minds at the speed of thought. Sinful words, actions and attitudes are perpetual part of our lives. But Paul grants us comfort and the assurance that peace with God isn’t something we have and lose as often as we sin and repent. He says: we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. The wonderful reality is that peace with God is not something that we get today and lose tomorrow. The peace Christ died to win for us has changed our status before God forever. Wait, aren’t we still sinners? Yes. This is another paradox of Christianity. Luther summarized this paradox with the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator – a Christian is “simultaneously righteous and a sinner.” [1] Yes, we are always sinning, but through faith Christ’s righteousness always covers us. Where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (Romans 5:20) So that, while Lent is certainly a time for serious self-examination and repentance, it is also a time to rejoice. Rejoice in Christ’s suffering because through it he produced peace with God. Peace for sinners. Peace for you. Peace forever.

 

That’s all good news, but if we stopped there we might leave with a skewed view of the Christian life. A view that, unfortunately, many Christians actually hold. It’s the view and the expectation that because Christ has established peace with God that we will experience peace in our lives here and now. That’s not true. That’s a distortion and cheapening of the Gospel. The second – and perhaps more difficult – paradox Paul presents is the paradox of finding joy in the reality of our suffering.

 

And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Rejoicing in Christ’s suffering is one thing – his suffering is over, he is now reigning in heaven’s glory – but rejoicing in my suffering? That’s something else entirely, right? In fact, isn’t it when we are suffering that we are most tempted to doubt God’s love, to believe that Christ’s suffering was all for nothing – most tempted to give up our hope in God and hope for heaven? How can suffering possibly lead to joy and hope?

 

The first question is: what kind of suffering is Paul talking about? Simply any and all suffering that come as a result of being believers living in a sinful world controlled by Satan. This includes the persecution, ridicule, and animosity we face at work, from friends, from the world because we are Christians. This includes the challenges, sacrifices, and effort we choose to make only because we are Christians. (For example: choosing to pass on a job promotion that would mean working Sunday mornings or as parents, adopting a more humble lifestyle (maybe living on one instead of two incomes) in order to be able to give our children a full-time Christian education.) Suffering includes the problems that are part of the normal human condition: sadness, loneliness, weakness, sickness and death. And, as Jacob showed in our first lesson (Genesis 28:10-17), it even includes the suffering we bring on ourselves by our own disobedience and lack of faith. We suffer all of these things because, while Christ has already won our salvation – we are not in heaven yet. And yet, even in suffering, Paul says that we rejoice.

 

Why? Because we know where the road of suffering starts and where it ends. It starts with hope – the hope of the glory of God. In the life of a Christian, suffering leads to perseverance. Perseverance is the quality of bearing up under adversity. Perseverance leads to character. The picture behind character comes from the testing of metals by refining them with fire. Character is formed only through testing, trials, pressure. And, when we have been put through the wringer and come out the other side, what is the result? Paul comes full circle: an even greater hope for heaven. The PyeongChang Olympics have wrapped up – but Paul likens the life of the Christian to the life of an Olympic athlete. For four years those athletes trained, dieted, and sacrificed. They disciplined their bodies and their minds. Why? The hope of Olympic gold. Hope is where their training began and where it ended. The Christian life begins with justification, the gift of God in Christ that guarantees our “not-guilty” status in his courtroom. And then, as we pass through the trials and troubles of life God strengthens us in that hope by showing us, in sometimes painful ways, that this world is not all it’s cracked up to be; by creating in us a longing for something better; by increasing our hope for the glory of heaven.

 

And, unlike the hope of the majority of Olympic athletes, this hope does not disappoint. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Jesus has already done the hardest thing – he has reconciled us – God’s enemies – to God. In Paul’s eyes, then, nothing could be easier than bringing those who already stand before God not guilty through this life and through the Last Judgment to the glory of heaven. That hope is why we can do the unthinkable: rejoice even in our sufferings.

 

Is it hard to understand? Is it hard to believe when our suffering seems especially bitter and meaningless? Yes. That’s why we need Lent this year and every year. That’s why we need to see and understand that we are following in the footsteps of our Savior – footsteps that lead through suffering and death to a resurrection to glory. The cross was necessary for him because only his suffering could purchase our forgiveness and produce peace with God. The cross is necessary for us because only suffering trains and refines our hope – not for a better life now – but for the full and permanent glory of heaven. First the cross, then the crown for Christ and for us. Yes, this is one of Lent’s most difficult paradoxes. But this is the paradox that guarantees and sustains your hope of heaven. Amen.  

 

[1] LW 25:336 (On Romans 7) “Now notice what I said above, that the saints at the same time as they are righteous are also sinners; righteous because they believe in Christ, whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them, but sinners because they do not fulfill the Law, are not without concupiscence, and are like sick men under the care of a physician; they are sick in fact but healthy in hope and in the fact that they are beginning to be healthy, that is, they are “being healed.” They are people for whom the worst possible thing is the presumption that they are healthy, because they suffer a worse relapse.”

Genesis 22:1-18 - What Did You Give Up for Lent? - February 18, 2018

This past week, while the world was busy celebrating Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day, the Christian church commemorated the beginning of Lent by gathering for worship on Ash Wednesday. Each year around this time the question is often asked: where did this annual tradition of Lent come from? Two places. First and foremost, Lent is an annual commemoration of our Savior’s 40 days of starvation and temptation in the wilderness – a brief illustration of the immense suffering he endured to save us from our sins. Second, in the early Christian Church (according to the Council of Nicea - 325 AD) it was tradition for new converts to make their confession of faith and be baptized on Easter Sunday – and so the 40 days before Easter served as a time of concentrated instruction; a time for repentance and faith.

 

The tradition of giving something up for Lent likely stems from these traditions. Although, odd as it may seem, giving something up is intentionally not an emphasis in the Lutheran church. We are very careful not to urge or demand that anyone do anything that might suggest that we are trying to earn forgiveness or merit a reward from God by our words or actions. We steadfastly maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) At the same time, we recognize with Luther that fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose (Small Catechism, Sacrament of Holy Communion, Part 4) as long as they focus our attention on Jesus and his work of redemption.

 

In many ways, “giving something up” for Lent has become a meaningless tradition. Not only because so many people treat the day before Lent as a day to indulge all of their ugliest, most carnal desires; not only because fewer and fewer people (even Christians) attend midweek Lenten services; but also because many of the things people “give up” for Lent fail to focus attention where it should be. Every year the website openbible.info surveys Twitter users to see what they are giving up for Lent. 2018’s top ten list: 10) fast food; 9) coffee; 8) soda; 7) sweets; 6) meat; 5) swearing; 4) chocolate; 3) alcohol; 2) twitter; 1) social networking. [1] We’re really willing to sacrifice for our Lord, aren’t we? 40 days without twitter and swearing; how could anyone survive? “Aren’t those good things to give up?” That’s not the question. The question is: “does doing this help me focus my attention on Jesus?” I think you’ll see that Genesis 22 does a much better job of focusing our attention on Jesus than Twitter does. We will consider what Abraham and God gave up.

 

We meet Abraham after God had kept his promise to give him a son – even though both he and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. Isaac was the child of promise. Through him God would give Abraham descendants as countless as the stars in the sky; one of whom would be the Savior of the world. (Genesis 12:2-3) Abraham and Sarah undoubtedly loved their son as much as any parents can love a child. God decided to use that love to help them better understand his love for them. God told Abraham take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about. Human reason argues that a good and gracious God would never issue a command like this. Many say “I could never believe in a God who would demand that.” And they seem to have a point: for Abraham, this command appeared to not only violate his duty to love his son but also destroy his hope for salvation – because without Isaac, there could be no Savior.

 

And yet, as we follow Abraham through this test, we will see that while Abraham was asked to give something up – he was actually the one who ended up gaining something. Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddles his donkey and set out for the place God had told him about. Could he not sleep because his conscience was tortured by the thought of sacrificing his son? Did he wake up early in order to avoid having to explain to Sarah what he was about to do to their son? We don’t know. What we do know is that Abraham listened to God and obeyed. But the test was just getting started. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. Imagine that. For three days Abraham walked with his son. For three days he had to dwell on God’s command. For three days he planned to do something that no parent would ever dream of doing. For three days Abraham had to weigh his seemingly contradictory responsibilities to his son and to his God. And yet, Abraham pressed on. In Abraham, we see not only the readiness of faith to do whatever God commands but the determination of faith to carry out the command – no matter the cost.

 

And then, before Abraham and Isaac ascend that dread mountain, we get to hear his faith: he said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you. We will come back? How could possibly come to that conclusion? Human logic couldn’t. This was the logic of faith. The writer to the Hebrews reveals: Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead. (Hebrews 11:19a) More than his own reason, more than his own aching heart, more than anything else in all creation – Abraham trusted God’s promises.

 

And so Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Can you imagine stacking the wood for a burnt offering on your child’s back? What parent wouldn’t choke up at the innocent and reasonable question: “where is the lamb?” Who of us would have the faith to say: God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son. This is what Abraham was willing to give up: he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

 

None of us has ever been asked to make such a sacrifice. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking about all of the things we believe we’ve sacrificed for God, does it? We think about all the Sundays (and now Wednesdays) we left our warm homes and traveled treacherous roads to sit at Jesus’ feet. We calculate all the money we’ve placed in the offering plate. We can vividly recall the temptations we’ve avoided. (Those we gave into? Not so much.) Those are real sacrifices we’ve made for God, right? How is it that we’ve been able to convince ourselves that these things are real sacrifices for God? Worship is not about us doing something for God, it’s about God opening the storehouse of heaven and pouring out his grace on us. God has placed us in the wealthiest nation in the world, he has given us a stable economy, a home, cars, clothes, food, and countless other luxuries. And then he invites us to give some of it back to him. How is this a sacrifice on our part? It’s simply giving back to God what is already his. This world is full of dangerous things; things that can hurt and harm us and others, things that can destroy our families and our lives. And God is considerate enough to point out these dangers in his 10 commandments so that we don’t hurt ourselves and the people we love. And – on the rare occasions we actually listen to him – we have the gall to turn around and say “Look Lord! See how much I have given up for you?”

 

We may imagine that we have made sacrifices for God; for Abraham there was no imagining. He was holding a knife over the throat of his son, his only son, the son he loved. But at just the right moment, God stopped him in his tracks. The angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Hands shaking, tears streaming, heart breaking…God stops Abraham cold. Abraham’s faith was justified…God kept his Word! And he went one step further. Abraham look up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. Not only did God spare Isaac from Abraham’s hand, he also provided a substitute to take Isaac’s place. Instead of losing that which was most precious to him, Abraham gained something far more precious – a firmer faith in God’s promises.

 

But Abraham isn’t the only one who has gained faith from this account, is he? Can you possibly read this account without seeing Jesus in every sentence? Just as Abraham loved his one and only son so God loved his only Son and testified to this love at both his Baptism and Transfiguration: this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17; 17:5) Abraham led Isaac up a mountain in the region of Moriah like a lamb to be slaughtered and so did God. He led Jesus. Like a lamb. Up that same mountain. To be slaughtered. For the sins of the world. Just as Isaac carried the wood for his own execution up that mountain, so Jesus carried his own cross to Calvary. In Isaac’s innocent question about the lamb, we hear an echo of Jesus’ agonized plea: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. (Luke 22:42) But that’s where the similarities between Isaac and Jesus end. The angel of the Lord (Genesis 22:15) – stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son. But no one stopped God from sacrificing his son, his only son, the son he loved on that cross on Calvary. No ram caught in the bushes would take Jesus’ place – because, Jesus was that ram. Jesus was the substitute. For what? For whom? For you and for me. God actually gave his Son up to death because he refused to give up on us, refused to give us over to the death and hell we deserved. Certainly Abraham is not the only one who was given a greater faith in God’s promises through this account.

 

So, in light of these things, what did you give up for Lent? If you’re hoping for a Lutheran top-ten list, you’re going to leave here disappointed. But there are two sacrifices that are not optional for Lent; in fact, are not optional for a Christian any time of year. First, God invites you to “give up” your sins. No, not to stop sinning (if we could do that, we wouldn’t need Lent) – but to bring your sins, ever last one of them and lay them on Jesus like Abraham stacked that wood on Isaac. Leave them here, let Jesus’ blood wash them from your heart and bury them in his grave forever. A broken and contrite heart – that is a sacrifice pleasing to God. (Psalm 51:7) Next, “give up” any idea of saving yourself – give all your faith, all your trust, all your hope for heave to Jesus: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Repentance and faith – those are the truly necessary sacrifices of Lent.

 

Anything else you or I might choose to give up for Lent pales in comparison to what Abraham was asked to give up and what God has already given up. But if giving something else up, causing yourself some minor inconvenience, sacrificing some favorite food or activity – if doing those things helps you better focus your heart and life on Jesus – then by all means set aside the candy bar and deactivate your social media account for a few weeks. But might I suggest that if you do, you fill that empty time and those empty hands with the Bible and spend even more time learning about the God who did not spare his one and only Son but gave him up for us all. Because that, finally, is what Lent is all about. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.openbible.info/labs/lent-tracker/2018

Mark 1:29-39 - This Is Why He Came - February 4, 2018

The more you read and grow familiar with the Gospels, the more you begin to notice the distinctive styles and emphases of the individual authors. For example, Matthew, with dozens of quotations from the OT, emphasizes that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed Savior God had promised throughout the Old Testament. Luke, with his extended biography of Jesus’ early life and his genealogy, focuses on Jesus’ humanity – that he is one with us and is our perfect substitute. John emphasizes the timeless, eternal nature of Jesus – both his work and his Word. So what makes Mark special? As we’ve discovered over the past several weeks, Mark is especially interested in the deeds of Jesus’ ministry. His is a breathless accounting of Jesus’ activity during his three year public ministry. And today’s account doesn’t disappoint. From a service at the synagogue to healing Peter’s mother-in-law; to healing the masses, driving out demons, praying in solitude and then quickly moving on from Capernaum – Mark proceeds at a feverish pace. But what’s the point of it all? This is why Jesus came: the miracles are important; the message is better.

 

If your house has been one of the many struck with sickness in recent weeks – you might be thinking that it would be nice to have Doctor Jesus on call today. Instead of driving to urgent care, waiting for hours next to someone who probably has some infectious disease, haggling with the insurance company, and trying to keep track of all the different prescriptions, wouldn’t it be better to have Jesus take your hand, lift you out of bed – suddenly, completely healed – so that you can go about your life? Sometimes, isn’t that what we expect? In the back of our minds or at the front of our prayers, don’t we suggest just this kind of miracle to God? “Lord, just make me, we, them better!” It would make life a lot easier, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that our faith in Jesus would be firmer and we would be more eager to serve Jesus – just like Peter’s mother-in-law. And who knows, more people would probably come to church if they heard that Jesus miraculously heals those who come here.

 

Before you sign a petition to change our name from Risen Savior to Healing Savior, listen to the rest of the story: that evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was. The whole town was there trudging up the driveway and trampling down the flowers. People were carrying their friends and family members on mats or over their shoulders. Demon possessed people were spitting and swearing and foaming at the mouth. There were even people there with horrible, disfiguring, infectious diseases. It looked like a trauma center. It looked like hell. And Jesus healed them. He cured their bronchitis and influenza and leprosy. He silenced their demons – because he wasn’t about to have them testify to his identity or cast doubt on his message – and drove them out. He worked late into the night.

 

And when morning came, he did something just as important as healing: he went off by himself to pray. There’s a lesson here for us. When life gets crazy: find a quiet place and pray. Unfortunately, the disciples didn’t get it. Everyone is looking for you. Translation: you don’t have time for prayer, there are too many sick people who need your help. And how did Jesus respond? Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come. Doctor Jesus, the compassionate and caring Son of God just left all those sick people…sick. Why? Why didn’t he finish the job? Why did he leave them to suffer? Why didn’t he just wave his hand over the village and grant everyone full health? Because, healing, exorcising, miracle-working was not, finally, why Jesus came. He came to preach.

 

With an attitude like that, Jesus would probably have a hard time finding a job as pastor today. Why? That’s not what people want. That’s not what they think they need. They need healing. They need their problems solved, their bills paid, programs to keep their kids out of trouble and recovery groups and financial advice. They want God to fix their bodies, fill their bank accounts, make them happy and healthy and wise. They want clear answers to life’s questions and easy solutions to their most stubborn problems.

 

Answers. Miracles. Healings. Church consultants say that those are the necessary ingredients for success and growth today. And many churches have bought into it. They offer programs for every age-group, solutions for every problem, and promise help for every issue. There’s just one problem. They can’t follow through. Sick people stay sick; the poor stay poor; and worst of all, guilty sinners remain guilty. And the result is the religious scene we have in America: people don’t get the answers or healing they are looking for at one place, so they wander from church to church, religion to religion, god to god searching for answers. And in the chaos, what does Jesus do? He just keeps on preaching. And not only did he preach, he sent his apostles to preach, he sends pastors to preach (2 Timothy 4:2), he commands his whole Church to preach the good news to all creation (Matthew 28:19-20).  

 

Well, if that’s what he came for, then why did he do any miracles at all? They were signs. They served as proof that he was the Christ and his message was true. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would take up our infirmities and carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) – and so Jesus lifted up the infirm and carried the sorrows of the sick. And the Holy Spirit caused three of the Gospel writers to record this healing as a sign for us, too. A sign of what? That Jesus is the source of all healing in this world. No matter what your illness is, no matter who you consulted about it, no matter what treatment you took, your healing is the work of Jesus. These miracles are important. They show us that he was who he claimed to be. They confirm his preaching. They remind us that all sickness comes from sin and Satan and that all healing comes only from Jesus. They tell us ought to look to him in our time of need and thank him whenever and wherever he grants us healing.

 

But the question remains, doesn’t it? Why am I or someone I love still sick? Why doesn’t he always grant healing? Why didn’t he heal all of the sick in Capernaum? Because that’s not the real reason he came. Temporary fixes are not how Jesus came to deal with our sicknesses, diseases, demons and the root cause of them all – our sin. Jesus came to deal with those problems permanently; by dragging all of our sins and diseases and sicknesses into the grave with him. He heals us, not with Band-Aids and surgeries, but by his death and resurrection. To proclaim that message of forgiveness and to carry out that mission of salvation – that’s why Jesus came. Jesus’ message and his mission are the foundation of our faith. It has to be that way. Faith trusts the Word, not the miracles. Faith in miracles is no faith at all. Just ask the Jews who witnessed Jesus’ miracles – and still had him crucified; just ask the thousands of people today who have stopped going to church because they didn’t realize the healing they were promised. Without the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the miracles were worthless.

 

Job learned that lesson the hard way. Our reading from Job was a depressing and desperate description of how life often seems short and pointless and full of suffering. Chapter 7 is part of Job’s prayer to God after he had lost his property, his family, and his health. Job’s wife had suggested that he curse God and die. (Job 2:9) His friends counseled that God was punishing him for some sin and that if Job just got his act together, God would heal him. Throughout the book, Job is protesting his situation and demanding that God explain why he is suffering. God never does. But we, the readers, know the real reason Job is suffering. It’s because Job is already righteous, justified and right with God – through faith in the Savior. God knew that. The devil knew that. But the devil wanted to test his theory that Job only believed because God had so richly blessed him – and God allowed the devil to carry out his test.

 

The book of Job is God’s great protest against man-made religion. Man-made religion – no matter what form it takes – believes that if we live and believe and pray right, God will bless us; and if we don’t, God will punish us. The book of Job destroys that thinking. The book makes it clear that Job didn’t commit some grave sin to earn God’s wrath. (Job 1:22) God didn’t answer Job’s questions or complaints. He didn’t miraculously relieve his suffering. And when God did appear to Job (Job 38:1) he didn’t explain why he allowed Job to suffer. He simply said “I’m the Creator. You’re my creature. How dare you question my ways!” Job’s disease runs its course. He gets better. He repents for ever questioning God’s wisdom and ways. And God, out of pure grace, gave Job twice as much as he had before; seven more sons and daughters, and a good, long life. (Job 42:12-17) And then, Job dies, and that’s how the book ends. But there were no miracles. No answers. No explanations. Just the simple, vivid encouragement to trust God’s Word in spite of the circumstances.

 

The same lesson played out in Jesus’ ministry as well. Jesus didn’t attend the bedside of every sick person. He didn’t cast out every demon and heal every disease. Sometimes he avoided the crowds and went and prayed or simply pressed on to the next town. And he never explained why. And that tells us something about how Jesus handles our sicknesses and diseases and our prayers for healing today. He always, always hears and answers the prayers of his children – you have his Word on it. (Matthew 7:7-8) At the same time, learn to recognize his answer. Sometimes he does grant miraculous, immediate healing – like he did with Peter’s mother-in-law. Sometimes he lets the sickness run its course and leaves us in bed. Other times he lets the disease linger for months, years, or decades. Finally, all of us will die from one disease or another. But that’s not the worst thing that could happen. In fact, it’s the best thing.

 

Why? Because Jesus died…but then he rose again. And he took us with him. He not only carried our sins to the cross, he carried our sicknesses, our frailties, our diseases. He crushed the head of the devil and all the demons that torment us. He even defeated death itself. And his victory stands, even if we are still tormented by demons and diseases. That’s why Paul can say that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39) – not the devil and his demons, not a freak accident, not cancer or dementia or the flu.

 

That’s the point of this story. That’s what the Holy Spirit wants us to know and believe. That’s the truth that Job learned, Peter’s mother-in-law learned, Peter and Andrew and James and John all learned. And do you know how they learned it? They got sick – and Jesus was there. They suffered – and Jesus was there. They died – and Jesus was there to carry them home to heaven.

 

Whether you’ve gotten the flu yet or not, chances are that sickness will strike you sooner or later – but Jesus will be there. You will suffer pain and loss – and Jesus will still be there. And, one day, all of us – yes, even Mackenzie – will die – but even then Jesus’ work and Jesus’ word will stand – just as it has for 2000 years. He will reach down to you, like he did with Peter’s mother-in-law. He will take you by the hand and raise you up out of your grave. And that’s when all of those prayers for healing will be answered. Finally, the only solution for all the problems we face in this life involves dying and rising again to a new life in heaven. The very good news is that that is precisely why Jesus came. The miracles are important – they confirm Jesus’ identity and his power over sin and sickness and Satan; but the good news of his redemptive death and resurrection is even better. You know that. Believe that even when sickness or disease threaten to distract you from the real reason Jesus came. In his name. Amen.

 

Mark 1:21-28 - An (Un)common Service with Jesus - January 28, 2018

It was just your standard, ordinary, common service at the synagogue in Capernaum. At least, it started out that way. Your standard synagogue service would have been pretty familiar to us. They would hear lessons read from the Scriptures. They would sing Psalms. A teacher would provide a commentary – a sermon. They would pray. They would leave with God’s blessing. As liturgical Lutherans, we would have felt right at home – if we understood Hebrew. This account helps us realize that even though we may think of our worship service as ordinary and common – there’s nothing common about worshipping with Jesus, because we, like those 1st century Jews hear an authoritative Word and witness an amazing result.

 

First of all, why did Jesus go to church? Wasn’t he the all-knowing Son of God? As the author of Scripture, didn’t he have a pretty good handle on what it contained? Why did Jesus have to go to church? For you and for me. By faithfully attending worship, Jesus was stepping into our shoes, taking our place, doing what we haven’t always done. He was obeying the third commandment by keeping the Sabbath Day holy – that is, set apart for God and his Word. (Exodus 20:8) He had to do this for all the times our parents had to drag us kicking and screaming out of bed for church; for all of the times what happened on Saturday night took priority over what was happening on Sunday morning; for all of the times that we have come to worship grudgingly instead of cheerfully; for all of the pathetic excuses we’ve made to stay away. Because we have broken the third commandment by our reluctance, apathy – and downright disobedience, Jesus kept it so that his perfect record could be credited to our account.   

 

But on this particular Sabbath, Jesus did more than just show up and sit down. He went into the synagogue and began to teach. What did he teach? We don’t have the sermon. But we can piece together a little bit of the substance of Jesus’ teaching by contrasting it with what it wasn’t. It wasn’t what the people were used to. The people were used to the teachers of the law droning on and on and on about the rules and regulations of pious Jewish living. They would offer careful guidance on how to properly wash your hands for purification purposes, remind you to give ten percent of your garden herbs from your pantry, they would issue strong warnings against doing any work on the Sabbath, and they would hail the virtues of frequent fasting – even though God had only commanded his people to fast one day per year. (Leviticus 16:29-31) Week after week: rules and regulations, the traditions and teachings of men. Worst of all, the people knew full well that their teachers didn’t even practice what they preached. Later in his ministry, Jesus would rebuke this these very teachers for their manmade teaching and their hypocritical living: woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24) In contrast to the teachers of the law, Jesus’ sermon had a shocking effect: the people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

 

One might think that going to church week after week to listen to nothing but rules and regulations is silly and would never fill the pews today – but you’d be wrong. If you were to go home and listen to a televangelist or stop by the largest, flashiest mega-churches in the area – you would have a good chance of hearing a message pretty similar to that preached in the 1st century synagogues. You’d hear about the 5 ways to salvage your broken New Year’s resolutions, 7 tips to being the best you you can be, 3 principles for career and personal success. These days you can again hear about the virtues of fasting – not just as a religious ritual but as a part of a healthy diet and you can find eager, energetic volunteers to help you calculate the 10% of your income you should be bringing to church. Very little has changed in 2000 years. Much of what passes for Christian preaching and teaching today is nothing more than moralism and legalism; rules and regulations; the traditions and teachings of men.

 

So what made Jesus’ teaching different and authoritative? It wasn’t just that he didn’t drone on about the number of steps you could take on the Sabbath or how long the tassels on your robe needed to be – it was that his message penetrated deeper than the hands and lips – right to the heart. We heard a summary of his message last week: the time has come…the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. (Mark 1:15) To those living in the darkness of sin and unbelief, Jesus came proclaiming a message of life and light. To those caught up in living for the moment, Jesus revealed the truth that where you spend eternity is more important than earthly luxury. To those burdened with guilt, Jesus offered relief through free forgiveness. To those doomed to death, Jesus revealed the path to life. To those who feared God’s wrath over their failure to properly wash their hands or that they had walked one too many steps on the Sabbath – or today, those who have failed in marriage or parenting or business – Jesus came with the good news that he had come to quench God’s wrath over sin. It was a simple, “common” service in that synagogue in Capernaum, but Jesus had touched the hearts of every person there with his authoritative Word. It’s no surprise that the people were amazed – literally “overwhelmed” – by what they had heard.

 

Or is it? Does it surprise us that people were actually amazed by what they heard at church? After all, we have our own routine, our own “common” service here too. Show up. Sit down. Stand up. Leave. The Gospel of Christ stands at the center of everything we do. Same old, same old week after week. If worship ever seems boring, irrelevant, or monotonous, whose fault is it? (Hint: it’s not Jesus’ fault!) If we fail to see our need for the absolution is it because we have forgotten the Law’s damning verdict: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God? (Romans 3:23) If we are reluctant to come because we are burdened with guilt or shame, aren’t we forgetting that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners? (Luke 5:32) If worship doesn’t seem relevant for our daily lives aren’t we forgetting that this life is preparation for eternity – which will be spent in only one of two places? If receiving the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins doesn’t amaze us any more, don’t we need to consider how faithful we are in preparing ourselves for it; so that we recognize what we are receiving and why we need it? What word better describes our attitude toward our ordinary, common service: amazed or apathetic? If it’s the latter, we need to repent.

 

There is good reason for us to be just as amazed at what happens here as those people in Capernaum. Because even though Jesus himself isn’t physically teaching and preaching – when his Word is taught and his Sacraments are practiced – amazing things happen here. Things that don’t happen anywhere else. You want proof? Ok. A few minutes ago you confessed that you were altogether sinful and don’t deserve to be called God’s child. And what did God tell you? I have forgiven all your sins and for Jesus’ sake you are my dear child. In our OT lesson we heard words spoken by Moses himself over 3500 years ago. And today, his words are fulfilled as Jesus continues to carry out his prophetic office by continuing to come to us in his Word. After the sermon, we will confess the words of the Apostles’ Creed – a creed written over 1500 years ago – an amazing fact in itself. But what’s even more amazing is that through the power of the Holy Spirit we actually believe the mysteries that confession contains: that God created this world; that Jesus suffered and died to save us; that the Holy Spirit calls and gathers the Holy Christian church through the message of forgiveness. Then we will pray, and our Father in heaven – the one who controls all things – hears and answers our prayers. Is that not amazing? Apathy has no place in Christian worship – not when Jesus is here offering us unimaginable blessings from heaven.

 

The crowd’s amazement was heightened even further when this “common” service took an uncommon turn. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook this man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.”

 

You might think that a worship service is a strange place to find one of Satan’s demons, but, in truth, it’s not. Satan does all he can to disrupt the worship of God’s people. And he has a huge arsenal at his disposal: distractions, doubts, boredom, and false teaching. Christian worship is not immune from Satan’s infiltration – in fact, he works his hardest among God’s people. In Capernaum, Satan threw his efforts into overdrive. A man who had been possessed by a demon disrupted the service and tried to cast doubt on Jesus’ identity and message. What the demon possessed man said was absolutely true – but what would everyone think if it seemed like Jesus was in league with the devil? The credibility of Jesus and his urgent message of salvation would have been tarnished. The devil and his demons know the truth – but their testimony can only hinder the message.

 

Modern, scientific, enlightened critics classify this as an example of primitive, unenlightened behavior. They arrogantly assume that Mark didn’t know the difference between mental illness and demon possession and so allege that this was simply a case of schizophrenia or some other mental disease. Playing devil’s advocate: let’s just say they’re right. Jesus spoke five words in Greek and this poor man was completely, immediately healed. I’d like to see a modern-day psychiatrist cure schizophrenia by speaking one sentence after a 30 second diagnosis. In any case, this wasn’t schizophrenia. Critics – in fact, we all – can believe it or not; but no one can deny that God’s inspired Word identifies this as a case of demon possession.

 

“Well, nothing that amazing or exciting ever happens here. If it did, then we’d really be excited to come to worship; then the people would really start storming through the doors!” That kind of thinking underestimates the devil’s cunning and overlooks his primary goal: to draw attention away from and lead people away from – or at least plant a seed of doubt – in Jesus and his Word. Here’s a question: does the devil need to physically possess someone today to lead people to doubt or mistrust Jesus and his Word? Not if he can possess us to doubt Jesus’ identity or Word through false teaching. Not if he can possess us to place our focus on material things instead of the spiritual riches God wants to give us. Not if he can possess church members to object to clear, Biblical doctrines and practices based on nothing more than their own experience or gut feeling. Not if he can convince us that we’re pretty good people who might need a divine therapist or a gift dispensing genie from time to time – but not a Savior from sin. Satan is happy whenever we doubt Jesus or his Word or turn away from him for any reason at all. It’s actually pretty alarming that Satan has so much success leading people away from Jesus through lesser means than bodily possession.

 

On the whole, this might scare us. “Satan and his demons can really possess us?” Yes. But there is good news: when Satan is at his fiercest, Jesus is still triumphant and his Word is still the cure. Come out of him was all it took in Capernaum. The demon was driven out and the man was freed from his prison. But this little victory in Capernaum was only a taste of what Jesus had come to this earth to accomplish. Knowing full well that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. (1 John 3:8) Short, authoritative sentences describe how Jesus crushed the Satan’s skull once and for all. It is finished (John 19:30) and he is risen. (Matthew 28:6) Because it is finished: our sin is forgiven, our guilt is paid for, our hell has been suffered, God’s wrath is satisfied. Because he is risen: we will live forever with the one who has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. When we hear that good news; when through the Spirit’s power we believe that good news – Satan’s power to harm us is destroyed. Is that not amazing? Is that not reason enough to make regular worship our highest priority?

 

Yes, today’s is a rather “common” service during the relatively “ordinary” time of the church year between the big festivals of Christmas and Easter. But there’s nothing common about worshipping with Jesus. He still comes to us in the Word that is more powerful, relevant, and authoritative than the words and wisdom of any man. He’s still accomplishing amazing results through that Word: cleansing us from sin, strengthening our faith, and increasing our hope of heaven – all of which send Satan scurrying back to hell with his tail between his legs. May we never fail to recognize the truly uncommon blessings Jesus pours out through the “common” means of grace week after week. Amen.

John 1:43-51 - See the Hidden Glory in Christ's Call - January 14, 2018

Humanly speaking, we Christians are a strange bunch. For starters, we submit our faith and our lives to a book that was written thousands of years ago in languages most of us cannot read. Then we find our greatest hope and joy in a man we have never met personally – a man who was tried and executed as a criminal, and we call him Lord and Savior. Then, if asked why we do these things, Lutherans will answer “I can’t really tell you why.” We don’t point to a dramatic epiphany we had or a process we went through or a decision we made. To top it off, most people today think that something is worth doing, worth committing to, worth sacrificing for – only if it leads to real, tangible, immediate benefits. Has following Christ made you happier? Eh, sometimes. Wealthier? Not really. Healthier? Nope. Well, then your family life must be peaceful and conflict-free, you must never be anxious about the future, your life must be easier and more pleasant now, right? No. Well, then, why do it? Why trust the Bible and follow Christ? That’s the heart of the issue, right? That’s the secret of Christianity. We are adamant that we don’t follow Christ because we are forced to or because it brings us temporal benefits – but, at the same time, we can’t really explain it. And that is the hidden, mysterious, inexplicable, glory of Christ’s call. It is both unexpectedly simple and incredibly profound.

 

The simplicity of the call to faith is on center stage at the end of John 1. Jesus is beginning to establish the Christian church. But he’s not standing in the Roman Senate. He’s not shouting from the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem. He’s out in the wilderness near the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing and preaching repentance. As Jesus walked past, John said Look the Lamb of God! and two of his disciples, Andrew and John, heeded his encouragement and started following Jesus. (John 1:35-39) Andrew brought his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus and Jesus called Peter to be his disciple as well. Peter and Andrew were from the town of Bethsaida (“house of fish”) – which led naturally to the next man Jesus would call: Philip.

 

Can you imagine a less dramatic, less interesting, less “made-for-TV” moment than the account of Philip’s call to discipleship? The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Simple might be an understatement. But apparently there was something powerful behind those two little words follow me, because the next thing we know Philip is relating some truly dramatic information to Nathanael: we have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote. This claim was anything but uninteresting and anticlimactic. This was what every believer since Adam and Eve had been waiting for. This was what God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was what all of the sacrifices, all of the rituals, all of the rules and regulations God had imposed on Israel were pointing to. Philip had become convinced that he had found the promised Messiah, the Savior on whom the hopes of Israel and the world hinged.

 

Who was it? A young prince who had been groomed for leadership in Herod’s palace? A savvy young priest in the line of Aaron? A prodigy from a Jewish seminary? No. Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? There were probably two parts to Nathanael’s skepticism. First, Nazareth was located in the part of Israel known as Galilee. Far from being a hotbed of religious thought, Galilee was generally thought of as a religious wasteland. A reputation supplemented by the fact that it housed a garrison of the hated Roman army. The who’s who of Judaism wouldn’t want to travel to Galilee far less live there. Second, Nathanael knew his OT well enough to know that Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament – and, therefore, is correct in questioning how the Messiah, the Savior, the King of Israel could possibly be connected with this Galilean village. A Messiah from Bethlehem or Jerusalem? Sure. But a Messiah from Nazareth in Galilee – that was unexpected.

 

Did you notice the simple genius of Philip’s response? He didn’t argue with Nathanael. He didn’t tell him how it made his heart quiver and his knees knock to be in Jesus’ presence. He didn’t try to lure him in with a promise of some material benefit. He didn’t adjust the truth to fit what Nathanael’s expectations. He simply said come and see. In a time when the church is frantically chasing after the latest and greatest outreach scheme, when simply preaching and teaching and baptizing and administering the sacrament is despised as “small-minded”, when we’re told that people won’t care about the Gospel unless the church first takes care of the things they want and need –we can learn an awful lot from Philip about how the church is really built. Come and see. No carefully scripted strategy, no pandering message, no social justice cause, no slick marketing campaign can compare to the simple invitation to come and see and hear the Word of God – because only the Word is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) Philip shows us how the Christian church grows: one person at a time through the means of grace!

 

So no, there was nothing earth shattering or newsworthy about Jesus’ call to Philip or Philip’s call to Nathanael. And as Isaiah prophesied 700 years earlier, there was nothing especially noteworthy about Jesus either. (Isaiah 53:1-3) He was a carpenter’s kid from a painfully average village in Galilee. But the impact of that simple call was huge. Christ’s call to Philip motivated him to tell others – beginning, where evangelism naturally does, with his close friends and family. Christ’s call to Philip and Nathanael resulted not only in their discipleship but, later, in being appointed as apostles. This simple call would lead them to follow Jesus for three years, to follow him through storms stirred up by nature and stirred up by Satan to a cross on Calvary and eventually (according to tradition) to their own deaths as martyrs. God’s call to faith might seem simple; but there’s nothing ordinary about what happens when the almighty God brings his power to bear on the heart of a sinner.

 

There was nothing earth-shattering about your call to faith, either. For most of us, a pastor said simply “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” splashed some water on our head, and that was that. For others, you first heard Jesus’ call as adults through simple words on a printed page or spoken by another human being. This is not the kind of stuff that makes the headlines or sends the Twitter-verse aflutter.

 

But that’s where the glory of the call lies. It looks so simple, but hidden behind the simplicity is an incredible miracle. For when Jesus called us to faith, he was not just calling hesitant skeptics like Nathanael. He was calling natural born enemies. We hated him with every fiber of our being before we even took our first breath. If you doubt that, first look at Psalm 51 or Ephesians 2 to see God’s analysis of your heart. Or just look back at the past week. Remember the thoughts and words that crossed your mind and lips, recall the actions you’d like to have back – and you will see the proof that your sinful nature is still opposed to God.

 

And how does God overcome our hostility? He simply connects the righteousness of Jesus to the words and water of Baptism and declares us to be his children. He sends his Spirit to work through the words of an ancient book that tells us about a God who became man to suffer and die to bring forgiveness and salvation to sinners. The whole thing is so simple that many try to liven it up by turning Baptism into something we do for God and conversion into an emotional decision we make for Christ. But don’t fall for it; don’t let the simplicity of it fool you – because that’s where the glory lies. The glory is that through even the simplest of means – words and water – Christ has called you out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the light of faith and holiness.

 

So simple…and yet so profound. Humanly speaking, we would give Nathanael a little credit, right? He did more than many people are willing to do: he went and checked out this Jesus fellow for himself. And Nathanael is introduced to the profound nature of Christ’s call before he even meets him face to face. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said to him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In confirmation class we talk about three things that prove Jesus is true God. First, the Bible calls him God. Second, he did miracles only God can do. Third, he has divine attributes: omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience. The call to faith might appear simple, but for Nathanael it came from someone who had the power to read his heart, the power to see what he was doing long before spy satellites and drones. Faced with the divine power of God himself, he couldn’t be skeptical any longer: Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.

 

And that was just the tip of the iceberg: Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus appears to be referring to an incident in Genesis 28 from the life of Jacob. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau – whom he had robbed of his father Isaac’s blessing. Jacob had fled from home and was sleeping outdoors with a stone for his pillow. Scared and alone, God came to Jacob in a dream depicting a staircase from earth to heaven – and angels ascending and descending. God was telling Jacob that even though he seemed to be alone, he wasn’t. God was present with him, even in the middle of nowhere. Here, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man – emphasizing that he is God in human flesh. In other words, Jesus is the staircase that reaches from earth to heaven. Jesus is the one – the only one – through whom we have access to heaven. His life has bridged the gap between God and man because his life satisfied the demands of God’s law that ours never have and never will. His cross has bridged the gap between God and man because his death has removed the barrier of sin that stood between us and God. It doesn’t get more profound than that. As Jesus would later tell Philip anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

 

Jesus’ call brings you blessings that are no less profound. He brings you forgiveness of sins, freedom from having to obey the Law perfectly to earn heaven, certain victory over death, and the assurance of God’s guiding grace and presence no matter where life leads you. Jesus’ call to faith brings us blessings we certainly do not deserve and would never think to expect. But sometimes that’s the problem, isn’t it? We don’t expect such profound blessings or we don’t see forgiveness and salvation as profound – and so we undervalue Christ’s call. We scoff at forgiveness as old news and begin to expect and demand different blessings; earthly, temporal, tangible blessings. Instead of expecting Jesus to keep his promise to open up the floodgates of heaven to pour out the spiritual blessings we really need, we expect him to satisfy our earthly, physical, emotional, momentary wants. The Christian author C.S. Lewis illustrated the foolishness of looking for Jesus to give us what we want rather than what we really need: It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. [1]

 

Don’t shortchange Jesus’ call to faith. Don’t pass on its profound blessings in favor of the trivial things this world prizes. Don’t turn Jesus merely into a life-coach who gives you good advice for day-to-day living or a psychologist who merely helps you cope with life’s challenges. Don’t turn Jesus into a buddy who simply pats your back and makes you feel good when you’re down. Yes, Jesus’ Word does direct our lives, his grace does help us cope, and he offers comfort for hurting souls – but if that’s all you’re looking for you will miss the much more profound and much more necessary blessings he offers. When you see the blessings that Christ’s call to faith has given and is still giving you – the adoption he gives at the font, the forgiveness he offers at the Altar, the promises he gives in his Word – then you have blessings that are so profound that they will last through all eternity.

 

But all of those things are only yours because in his love and mercy Christ has called you to faith and discipleship. No, it probably wasn’t an earth-shattering, mind-blowing spectacle, but it was profound nonetheless. It’s hard to explain it to others. So follow Philip’s example: don’t try to explain it, simply invite them to come and see Jesus for themselves. It’s that simple. It’s that profound. That’s the hidden glory of Christ’s call. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/702-it-would-seem-that-our-lord-finds-our-desires-not

Isaiah 60:1-6 - Rise and Shine - January 7, 2018

“Rise and shine!” If that phrase doesn’t make you cringe; if it doesn’t make you want to reflexively throw something at the door and yell “get out!” – well, I have to break it to you: you’re one of those obnoxiously cheerful morning people that the rest of us resent. “Rise and shine” usually implies a burden; get up and make breakfast, go to school, go to work – or at the very least, put some clothes on. Well, at the risk of being too cheerful this early on a Sunday morning, I – following the lead of the prophet Isaiah – want to encourage you to “rise and shine.”

 

When Isaiah wrote these words – roughly 700 years before Jesus’ birth – they weren’t just annoying, they were shocking and virtually unbelievable. The people of Israel heard these words as they were living under the dark storm clouds of war and the gloomy shadow of exile in Babylon. These people were miserable, they were brooding, they had resigned themselves to live in captivity and then die. And Isaiah has the gall to come along and say “rise and shine!” Why? Why should they look up from the misery of their exile? Why should they rise and shine when everything – their land, their temple, their freedom, their homes – had been taken from them? Because the long-promised Messiah – the Christ, the Savior – will come! He will come in spite of the storms and shadows, the gloom and doom that swirled around them. The people of Israel could rise and shine in spite of their present circumstances because God had promised to send a Savior to rescue them from their circumstances.

 

Clearly we live in a different day and age than the people Isaiah first wrote to. But isn’t it true that storms and shadows, gloom and doom still fill our world and lives in 2018? Short days and bitter cold keep us locked indoors. Trials and troubles still disrupt our lives. Wars and rumors of wars still paint the headlines. Immorality and hostility to the Christian faith are on the rise. Ignorance of Scripture – of even the most basic Biblical truths – is at an epidemic level in our land. It’s very easy to become resigned and depressed. We need Isaiah’s encouragement just as much as the Israelites did to: Rise and Shine; see the Son shining on you; see the darkness all around you; see the nations being drawn to you.

 

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. If Christmas marks the incarnation, the appearance and birth of God on earth; then Epiphany marks the revealing of that baby as the Son of God and Savior of the world. This revelation sent shockwaves to the ends of the earth. The evidence is found in our Gospel lesson, where some Magi, or wise men, from the East, rose up, left their homes and families and traveled hundreds of miles to Israel to worship the one who had been born king of the Jews. (Matthew 2:2)

 

Perhaps because of the influence of the famous carol We Three Kings, people tend to get bogged down in the details – or lack thereof – of the Magi’s visit. How many Magi were there? Tradition says three; Scripture doesn’t say. How old was Jesus when they came to see him in Bethlehem? Herod assumed he was two or younger (Matthew 2:16); but again, the Bible doesn’t tell us. How did the wise men get to Bethlehem? Did they ride camels, horses, or donkeys? What kind of animals should we have in our nativity scenes? Well, apart from the fact that the wise men and their animals shouldn’t be in our nativity scenes (different time & place!) – does it really matter? Or, maybe most mysterious of all: what was the star they saw? Was it a comet, a super nova, a convergence of planets, or something miraculous? People want to know; the Bible doesn’t tell us. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Magi – but we shouldn’t let the unknown overshadow the wonderful things Scripture does tell us.

 

We do know that the sole focus of Magi was on finding the newborn King of the Jews. We do know that they made the very best use of the talents God had given them as astronomers. We do know that they dropped everything to come and worship this king. We do know that they weren’t like those people who make a last minute stop at Walgreens to pick up a last-minute gift, they brought the very best they had: gold, incense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11) (Just as Isaiah had prophesied.) We know that the wise men used everything they had to worship God’s Son: their time, treasures, and talents – but that’s not what made them wise. What made them wise? They were wise because they followed this mysterious star to Jerusalem where they heard, perhaps for the first time, the prophecy from Micah that said the King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem of Judea, they believed the Biblical prophecy, and they went to worship this newborn king. The light of faith had dawned in the hearts of these Magi – making them truly wise.

 

Isaiah still calls to us today: arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. Unlike an annoyingly cheerful wake-up call, Isaiah isn’t calling us to do something. He’s calling us to receive something. To receive, with the Magi, the gift of God’s Son, the world’s Savior. Just consider: Why was Jesus born into this world? He was born for you – to be your substitute under the strict demands of God’s Law. (Galatians 4:5) Why did Mary and Joseph name him Jesus? He came to save his people – you – from your sins. (Matthew 1:21) Jesus didn’t come to demand something from you; he came to shine light into your darkness – whether that’s the darkness of an emotional low after the high of Christmas; the darkness of sickness or disease; or the gloom of the meaninglessness that seems to fill so many of our days. The special good news of Epiphany is that Jesus didn’t come only to give joy and life and light to the people of Israel; he came for Easterners like the Magi, Roman citizens like the Ephesians; and 21st century Americans like us. Christmas was only 13 days ago, but as you look around, it’s easy to wonder if it made any difference at all. The trees are already on the brush pile, the gifts are returned, the joy is packed away for another year. Epiphany helps us get the most out of Christmas; it reveals that this baby came to save you! Rise and shine and see it: see the Son of God shining on you – and he has brought you the best gift of all: salvation!

 

But this good news has the greatest impact when we clearly see the reality in which we live. Isaiah goes on: see, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples. Isaiah isn’t talking about short days and long, cold nights; he’s talking about sin. He’s saying that the world is blanketed with sin. He uses the same word Moses used in Exodus 10 to describe how the plague of locusts “covered” the land of Egypt prior to the Exodus. (Exodus 10:15) Just like those locusts invaded every corner of the land, disrupted people’s lives and destroyed their crops – so sin invades every corner of our world and disrupts and destroys every aspect of our lives. Sin covers. Sin consumes. Sin destroys. This suffocating blanket of sin threatens to block out the light of Christ, to leave us standing in the fog of unbelief, to land us in the eternal darkness of hell.

 

The insidious nature of sin is that it can even cover up and infect those whose faith ought to be burning most brightly. Did you notice in our Gospel lesson that the chief priests and teachers of the law could quote Micah 5:2 at the drop of a hat, but – in their unbelief – had no interest in seeing if it had actually been fulfilled? They knew that the promised Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem – but, while the Magi had put their lives on hold and traveled hundreds of miles to see this Savior, they weren’t willing to travel 6 or 7 miles to see him – let alone worship him. These were smart men. They knew their Old Testaments better than we ever will. They had the temple rituals memorized. But they were spiritually lazy and apathetic. They went through the motions, but it never struck their hearts. They were so convinced of their inherent goodness that they had no interest in a Savior from sin.

 

Do you know anyone like those high priests and teachers of the law – lazy and indifferent concerning Christ? See it for what it is: it’s the darkness of sin. It’s not something to play around with. It’s not something to excuse or condone. It’s nothing less than unbelief. And it manifests in several ways – even here, even among those whose faith should be burning most brightly. We see it when there are faces in church on Christmas Eve that won’t be here until next Christmas. We see it when those who have been baptized, instructed, and confirmed in the faith fall away before the ink on their confirmation certificate is dry. We see it when work or family or recreation takes priority over worship and Bible study. We see it when the slightest excuse will keep us from worshipping our Christmas King – a sniffle, a late night, a couple inches of snow, a warm, cozy bed – but the same excuses would never keep us from going to work or gathering with family or catching the game. Beware of the creeping darkness of religious indifference and spiritual laziness and complacency. The truth is: It’s not always convenient to take the time for Bible study and prayer; it’s not always easy to rise and shine to sit at Jesus’ feet and worship. So what? It wasn’t particularly convenient for Jesus to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, to flee for his life to Egypt, to live and work and grow in this hostile world, to be nailed to a cross on Calvary and suffer the bitter torment on hell – but he did it anyway, for you! Rise and shine! Let the light of our Savior’s Epiphany expose and abolish the darkness all around you – and, perhaps, even lurking within you.

 

Rise and shine and celebrate this Epiphany. See Epiphany as your personal visit to your Savior’s cradle – because, Isaiah says, that’s what it is: lift up your eyes and look about you; all assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Isaiah is pointing his first readers ahead to something they could never have imagined…to what? To us! We are the real, living, walking, talking fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. We are part of the nations that have come from afar to become members of God’s holy people – the Holy Christian Church. We are from different nationalities: Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, French, Polish, Hispanic, Asian – the list could go on. But we have Christ in common. We have different occupations: mothers and engineers, financial advisors and painters, business managers and delivery drivers. But we have Christ in common. We are from different generations: the silent, the boomers, the Xers, the millennials. But we all have Christ in common. We are wise men and women because God has shined the light of faith into our hearts. We confess one Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God and Father who is over all and in all. We trust one Savior from sin. We are one in mission. We look forward to one eternity. (Ephesians 4:6)

 

And now it is our privilege – a privilege that ought to make our hearts throb and swell with joy – to reflect the light of Christ to new nations, new nationalities, new generations. Just lift up your eyes to see it! Scan the Forward in Christ and listen to the monthly WELS Connection detail how the Gospel is being carried to the ends of the earth on your behalf and as the result of your prayers and offerings. Hear the crying babies right here at Risen Savior and see Isaiah’s prophecy being carried out right in our midst. Look around you at the people work with and live with – which of them could use a little Gospel light to brighten their gloom? See how generously God has blessed us that we are not only well over half-way to our goal for Building Our Great Heritage but were also able to bring our best to lay at the manger in the Christmas Gift for Jesus. I know we’re tempted to think that these words from Isaiah are hyperbole or describe some ancient, foreign scene or are reserved only for those churches that have huge buildings and superstar pastors and thousands of members and dozens of programs going on. But Isaiah begs you to lift your eyes to see that his words are being fulfilled right here, in us and through us. I hope you can see – as I get to every week – that when we keep the main thing the main thing – when we preach and teach God’s Word in its truth and purity and practice the sacraments in accordance with Christ’s command, God’s promise is not an empty platitude: [my Word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11) God is keeping his promise, right here, right now. Rise and shine this Epiphany. Lift your eyes to see how your Savior’s light is drawing the nations – along with their children and the wealth of the world – to you!

 

Epiphany – the day that Christ is revealed as the light, not just of Israel, but of the world – is a call for us to rise and shine. To first see God’s Son shining upon us with forgiveness and salvation; to see – and beware – of the darkness that is all around us; to see the nations the light of Christ is drawing to us. Rise and shine; receive and believe – a Savior has been born to you he is Christ the LORD! Amen.

1 Samuel 28:3-25 - Don't Face the Future Without God - December 31, 2017

Every year at this time the headlines and airwaves are filled with predictions for the upcoming year. There are political predictions and economic predictions and estimates for how the recently passed tax law will affect your life. (By the way, you didn’t try to prepay your Wisconsin property tax bill for 2018 did you? Apparently it’s against the law.) The very fact that these predictions are made and received and discussed every single year demonstrates that people are extremely curious as to what the future holds. And that’s not only true about the world out there. I’m sure many of us wonder whether 2018 will be happy or sad for us and those we love, whether it will hold sickness or health, poverty or prosperity, new life or the end of life. In the Word of God before us, we have the story of a man who was deeply concerned about the future, a man who feared what the not only the next year but the next day held for him. In King Saul, we see the danger of facing the future without God.

 

First, let’s address the issue that many find to be the most fascinating question about this account: who or what appeared to Saul that night in Endor? Much ink has been spilled and many opinions given in answer to this question. Some say that this witch only pretended to see Samuel, and that in some way she tricked Saul into thinking her voice was that of the dead prophet. Others believe that this apparition was either a demonic spirit or Satan himself. Still others suggest that this really was Samuel who appeared at God’s command. The Bible doesn’t directly answer that question – therefore, we may consider this a truly “open” [1] question, and we can have different opinions. Having studied it, I fall on the side that this was really Samuel who appeared to Saul by the will, power, and command of God. For three reasons. 1) The medium herself was stunned and shocked when she saw Samuel appear even before she had begun her séance – perhaps proving that she had never before successfully communicated with the dead (1 Samuel 28:12); 2) the message was nearly identical to Samuel’s final words to Saul (1 Samuel 15:22-33); and, perhaps most convincingly, 3) the details of the prophecy actually came true – which is the litmus test God has given us to determine whether any given prophecy is from God or from the devil. If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. (Deuteronomy 18:22) In any case, the Bible is clear that attempting to communicate with the dead is a sin against the 2nd commandment; it is something that should never be done. Nevertheless, this text can teach us about how we should deal with the uncertainty of the upcoming year. Through the sad example of Saul, the Holy Spirit teaches us that the future apart from God ends in despair; while the future with God leads to peace.

 

It often happens that, at least from a human perspective, people who have no interest in God or his Word have pleasant, easy, and prosperous lives. Saul was one of those people. As king of Israel, Saul imagined that he could do just about anything he wanted, that he could even shape the future according to his own desires. It wasn’t always that way for Saul, of course. When God chose Saul he was a nobody from the smallest tribe in Israel, Benjamin. (1 Samuel 10:1) And when Samuel anointed Saul as king, he reminded Saul that this honor and authority was nothing less than a gift of God’s grace. (1 Samuel 10:7) But absolute power began to corrupt Saul from the inside out. Instead of following God’s commands, he began doing things his way. The result was that God rejected him as king over Israel, would rip the kingdom out of his hands and give it to David. Instead of repenting, Saul tried to prevent this by having David murdered. And when the priests of Nob helped David escape his clutches, he tried – by ordering the whole city to be destroyed and all its inhabitants killed – to make sure that no one would ever help David again. (1 Samuel 22:6-23)

 

In Saul we see a man who tried everything make sure that the future would be what he wanted it to be. He exemplified the spirit of so many in every age that says “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my destiny.” And if that sentiment was actually true of anyone, it seemed to be Saul. He was the king of Israel – chosen and anointed by God himself. He didn’t have to worry about elections or impeachment or Congress – his word was law. If he wanted food, he simply snapped his fingers and a servant would bring it to him. If he wanted entertainment, he could have a musician or one of his many concubines brought to him. If his subjects did not do what he wanted them to do, he could have them killed – as he did with the priests of Nob – or he could send his special forces to pursue them like he did with David. A man like Saul seemed to have his life and his future well in hand. He lived as if he didn’t need God.

 

But when a person decides to face the uncertainty of the future without God, eventually a day of reckoning comes. Saul finally came face to face with a situation he couldn’t control. The Philistines had invaded Israel, this time with a larger force than ever before. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. There at a place called Gilboa, Saul learned a hard lesson. He learned that there are some things that even kings with absolute power cannot control – just as people today must sometimes learn the hard way that there are some things that can’t be planned for, that can’t be solved with any amount of money, that can’t be healed or fixed even if you have the best doctors or lawyers or insurance policies.

 

Having come to his personal day of reckoning, Saul inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. God refused to speak to Saul using the regular means of communication he had established for his OT people. (Numbers 12:6; 27:21) Why did God refuse to speak to his chosen king? Saul had rejected God for so long that now God had rejected him. For Saul, disregarding God’s clear, reliable Word had become the rule rather than the exception. But now he was in trouble – and he didn’t have anywhere else to turn. When Saul realized that the LORD was not on speaking terms at the moment, he should have been struck with the terror of his sin, he should have confessed, he should have repented of his wickedness, he should have begged the LORD for forgiveness. But…he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he told his servants find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.

 

Rather than coming clean and putting his future back into the hands of the powerful and merciful true God, Saul piled one sin on top of another. The Lord had clearly and repeatedly forbidden his chosen people to participate in or even tolerate the sort of thing this witch practiced at Endor. Through Moses he commanded: Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) Saul knew perfectly well that this act was a sin. In fact, in the early years of his reign, while he was still a believer, he had ordered that those who practiced the dark arts be driven out of Israel. (1 Samuel 28:3) But now he turned to those same practices himself.

 

He went to the witch and she “brought up” Samuel – or something that looked and talked like Samuel. Which begs the question: why did Saul ask for Samuel? Well, when he was still alive, Samuel was Saul’s pastor. The irony is that when Samuel was actually alive, Saul refused to listen to him. It still happens today. “No, pastor, I don’t want to hear what God’s Word says, I will just follow my heart or listen to my feelings.” “Don’t worry, pastor, I may not be worshipping or receiving the Lord’s Supper, but I read my Bible and pray all the time.” “Pastor, just leave me alone and let me live the way I want to.” And after a while, they get what they want. No pastor wants that to happen, but it does. It happens when people reject God’s Word and decide that they are going to navigate through this world without God.

 

But it rarely lasts. When the day of reckoning comes, guess who those people call? Surprisingly, it’s not their drinking buddies, their live-in boyfriend, their financial advisor or doctor. No, when people come face to face with a day of reckoning, who do they call? Their pastor. And for good reason. Just as God has instituted the government to protect our lives and property and parents to care for our livelihoods, so he has given pastors to guard and guide our souls. In the book of Hebrews he spells out our responsibility to his called leaders: obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

 

Saul’s disobedience and rejection certainly didn’t result in any advantage for him. He learned that the only destiny for the person who faces the future without God is despair. When he called for Samuel, this is what he heard: Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy? The LORD has done what he predicted through me. The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors – to David. Because you did not obey the LORD or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this to you today. The LORD will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines. Saul’s last, desperate hope was shattered. He and his sons would die and Israel would be defeated by the Philistines. In his last act on earth, Saul committed suicide – the final act of despair for an unbeliever. (1 Samuel 31:4)

 

So it will always be with those who do not listen to the word of the Lord and seek their certainty elsewhere. They may find what they think is comfort, but in the end, and for all eternity, they will find only despair. Far from being something that only happened long ago in less civilized societies, the influence of the occult is growing in our nation almost at the same rate as membership in the Christian church is declining. The warning for us and for those we love is that there is no neutral territory in this world. Jesus meant it when he said he who is not with me is against me. (Matthew 12:30) The only way God has promised to speak to us, to lead us, to comfort and console us is through his Word and Sacraments. All other sources of supposed insight and wisdom are tools that Satan can use to manipulate our minds and destroy our faith. Sadly, what happened to Saul is not at all a rare occurrence. Sadly, many forfeit the peace of God for the illusion of freedom and independence now. May that never happen to us.  

 

May this portrait of Saul keep us off of the path of despair and on the path that leads to peace now and life eternally. May we make the resolution that in 2018 we will seek our help and our comfort only in the words and promises of God, who assures us that he won’t turn away any who come to him. (John 6:37) And we can be absolutely certain of this because of Christmas. It’s important that we keep Christmas with us throughout 2018 because on Christmas God proved his commitment to us. Because one night 2000 years ago the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14) we don’t have to worry about the future – because we actually do know what it holds. We who follow in the footsteps of our Savior Jesus know that the future will hold trials and troubles – that we will each have our own cross to bear in 2018. We know that sin will still afflict our hearts and homes and that because we sin we will eventually die. But because Jesus has paid for all of our sins of 2018 and every last one we will commit in 2019, we also know that our destiny will not end in the despair of the grave. We know that because Jesus lives, we also will live with him. Don’t face the future without God. Neglecting the Word and Sacrament only and always leads to desperation and despair. But trust that when God takes you by the hand and leads you through his Word, through his Son’s body and blood, through each and every stage of life – 2018 will be a year of peace for you – because even though we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. God bless your new year! Amen.    

 

[1] “Correctly defined, open questions are such questions as inevitably arise in our study of the Scripture doctrines but are not answered by Scripture at all or at least not clearly. And Scripture enjoins us to let them remain open questions.” (F. Pieper Christian Dogmatics I (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1950) p. 93

Luke 1:26-28 - Nothing Is Impossible with God - December 24, 2017

In the fallen world in which we live, we know that there is no such thing as an unconditional, lifetime warranty, an unbreakable promise, a no strings attached guarantee. Anything and everything invented and constructed by man is bound to falter and fail. That’s why we go to great extremes to cover ourselves lest the “impossible” should happen. For example, I’m guessing you spent a fair amount of money on the making sure that your car is safe and reliable, but that doesn’t stop you from keeping a spare in the trunk, from paying for AAA and car insurance just in case your 80,000 mile tires go flat in 20,000 or the computer tells you that you have enough fuel to go another 100 miles as you sputter to a stop on the side of the road. As we are in the midst of marking items off of our Christmas list, one of the hazards we face, especially with buying clothes, is what size to buy? And, especially for men, you might just want to grab the whole rack of sizes, given the possibility that you might be wrong. In day to day life, we plan ahead, we save up, we put redundant safe-guards in place just in case an impossible or unlikely event should happen.

 

On the other hand, when it comes to entertainment, we seek out the impossible, we amuse ourselves with things that defy reality, that seem too extreme, too amazing, too incredible to be true. Hollywood capitalizes on this desire with superheroes and computer generated graphics and death defying stunts. We watch sporting events hoping to see an impossible one handed catches, impossible comeback victories, and remarkable individual efforts. In real life, we avoid the impossible by planning for every possibility. In entertainment, we seek out the impossible, seeing it as an escape from the hum-drum of everyday life.

 

And then we come here to church, we hear the Word of God and sing our hymns and confess our creeds and we are confronted with truly impossible things presented as historical fact; the other-worldly taking place in this world; the unimaginable becoming reality. Just to name a few examples: God spoke – and the universe came to be. (Genesis 1) Abraham and Sarah had a son even when they were both old and infertile. (Genesis 21) Moses reached out his staff – and a highway appeared in the middle of a sea. (Exodus 14) Joshua prayed – and the sun stood still. (Joshua 10) But as impossible as those things may seem, they pale in comparison to the three impossibilities Luke presents in our text this morning.

 

Let’s begin by first of all admitting the sad reality: many people (even many claiming to be Christian teachers and preachers) do not believe that the events of this text are true – or at best, that it’s open to personal preference. The critics and skeptics will pick out any detail, any seeming inconsistency to try to prove that this is nothing more than a fairytale. The first place Jesus’ own contemporaries looked was the setting of the entire scene: Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Nazareth was not a Madison, a McFarland, or even a Stoughton. Nazareth was more like one of those unincorporated towns on a two lane highway where if you blink, you’ve missed it. Nazareth was so insignificant that one of Jesus’ own disciples said can anything good come from Nazareth? (John 1:46) An event that would change the world forever would take place in backwoods Nazareth? No, they thought, that’s impossible.

 

It gets stranger. In this quiet little country village stood a house, and in that house was a young girl (13-14 years old), a virgin, and in this house to this teenage girl an angel – an angel!! – appeared and said: greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. If you’re picturing a rather odd, even uncomfortable situation, you’re probably not too far off. Mary herself was pretty disturbed by this strange being standing in her bedroom and was having a hard time coming to terms with it.

 

And that was before Gabriel even got to the point of his visit. When he did, he dropped this bombshell: Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. So, reviewing the details: 1) Nazareth, no palace, no post-office, no professional sports team – site of most important event in human history; highly unlikely; 2) An angelic being appears and speaks; doubtful; 3) He claims that Mary, a teenage virgin, will give birth, 2000 years before in-vitro fertilization – now that’s where most people draw the line. Mary herself found some great difficulty with this last point. She might have been young, but even she knew that virgins don’t have babies. Maybe the skeptics and scoffers have a point; maybe this is just a nice story, a legend or myth; because this all sounds too impossible to be true.

 

That might be the case if this was your teenage daughter telling you this story a month after spending a long weekend with her boyfriend, but this is not the report of a teenage daughter. This is God’s Word, penned by Luke, who not only did his homework in researching his book by interviewing eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4), but was inspired by the infallible Holy Spirit. Is this impossible? Absolutely. That’s why it’s called a miracle. This is something that does not, cannot happen according to the laws of nature. But for the author of the laws of nature, for God, nothing is impossible – not even a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son.

 

The impossibilities continue: This baby boy, named Jesus, He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end…the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 2nd to unconditional justification by grace through faith, do you know the single doctrine that sets Christianity apart from it’s false, man-made counterparts? It’s this. The incarnation: God becoming a man. It is the almighty Creator of the heavens and the earth, the one who keeps the planets in their orbits and who keeps your heart beating – it is the only true God taking on human flesh and being born of a teenage virgin. No man could have ever dreamed up such a story, such an improbable setting, such an impossible event.

 

And that is exactly the point. Unbelievers scoff. Atheists laugh. Critics and scientists and historians point out that this event has never happened again in the history of the world, there is no physical evidence to prove it, no camera crews were there to record it – and therefore it must be a myth, it must be a fairytale. But isn’t that one of the biggest reasons to believe it? Isn’t that exactly why our consciences are bound by this book, why we believe that our sins are forgiven and why we have the hope that we will live forever in heaven? After all, what kind of deity would God be if he was confined to the laws of nature, if he was bound to operate the exact same way as his creatures? Why would we worship a God with whom miracles are impossible? We shouldn’t and we don’t, we worship the God who sent Gabriel to Nazareth, the God who enabled a virgin to conceive and give birth, the God who left his home in heaven to become a man on this earth to suffer, die and rise again. We worship a God who can do the inconceivable, the irrational, the supernatural. We worship a God with whom nothing is impossible.

 

But that doesn’t stop Satan from planting doubts in our minds, does it? That doesn’t stop us from letting our eyes and thoughts linger on documentaries and books that come from a perspective that the virgin birth of Christ is a myth. That doesn’t stop us from thinking – well, yeah, my church teaches the virgin birth, but my church teaches a lot of things I don’t agree with. That doesn’t stop us from treating the miracle of the incarnation (God becoming man), which is a fundamental doctrine of Christian faith, as a cute story that is best left here at church where we are safely surrounded by other lunatics who week after week confess in the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.

 

We can try to rationalize our doubt: Mary herself didn’t believe it right away; Peter and John and Thomas – those very men who walked and talked with Jesus – didn’t always believe that he was God’s Son in human flesh. We can claim that if an angel appeared to us, then we would accept it. We can say that the virgin birth is a good Christmas story for children. But what we can’t do is ignore the truth as God sees it: to doubt the conception of Jesus Christ in the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit is doubting the character, power, and truthfulness of God, and thus is nothing other than unbelief.

 

We know John 3:16 by heart, but do we remember what follows in verse 18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. The Christian faith is not a buffet where you can choose what you like and pass by the things that sound ridiculous or unreasonable. (Revelation 22:18-19) It’s all or nothing. It’s faith in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, your Savior, or unbelief. It’s eternal life or eternal death. If Jesus was not conceived by the Holy Spirit, we are just wasting our time. Maybe you are thinking that believing the virgin birth is easy for some of the Christians sitting around you or the guy standing in the pulpit in front of you – it’s not. It goes beyond my reason just like it goes beyond yours. And that’s why even on Christmas we need to fall down before God and plead for forgiveness: Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)

 

And you know what the most amazing part about this impossible story is? It’s the most impossible thing of all to those who reject it. The miracle is that God chose the backwater town of Nazareth, he sent an angelic messenger to a teenage virgin named Mary, he humbled himself to be conceived in her womb, to be born in a barn, to live on this earth as a homeless person, to suffer, die and rise again – all for us. God did all of these impossible things because He knew you and I couldn’t believe in him perfectly. He knew we would doubt and therefore be guilty of unbelief; of breaking the first and most basic commandment: we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. God performed these miracles because his love wouldn’t let us suffer the eternal punishment for our unbelief. So he came to earth to suffer that punishment for us. This story is not a cute 2000 year old fairytale. This story is all about God’s love for you and for me. Is it irrational, inconceivable, impossible? Absolutely! It had to be. We couldn’t save ourselves, so God sent his Son to do it for us. What could be more irrational, impossible, and yet, more beautiful and necessary for sinners like us? And what could be more important this time of year than making sure we are ready to believe that God did the impossible to save us?

 

Now I could try to satisfy some of our curiosity by taking you through the Greek grammar of Luke 1:35. I could tell you that the Greek says that the Holy Spirit came over Mary like a shadow falling on the ground. But grammar does not create or strengthen faith. Only hearing the message creates and strengthens faith. Martin Luther said: Just how this (virgin birth) was done we will not nor can we search out, even if we study over it for a long time, we cannot get the right idea nor comprehend it. And who are we, that we dare to grasp such a high, divine work? We cannot even with our thought comprehend and grasp how a tree or fruit or a blade of grass grows out of the ground. [1]

 

If you still don’t understand how a virgin can conceive and give birth, that’s ok, neither did Mary, all she could manage was: I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said. We couldn’t put it any better ourselves, could we? That’s simple, trusting, childlike faith. Tonight we will hear again the Christmas story. It won’t make any sense, we won’t be able to prove it, we won’t try to explain it – but we will receive it and believe it with child-like faith that doesn’t ask silly questions. More than that, we will rejoice and give thanks for the miracles of Christmas: a virgin can give birth, God can become flesh, and we can believe it and be saved, because nothing is impossible with God. Amen.

 

[1] Wenzel, F.W. The Wenzel Commentary (Bemidji, MN: Arrow Printing 1986) p 20

Luke 2:6 - The Time Came - December 12, 2017

We are entering upon that time of year that many of us – especially the children – probably wish would never end. The lights, the cookies, the gifts under the tree, the time off from school and work, everyone is a little bit nicer and you get to see extended family members – who sometimes come bearing gifts, the anticipation of it all – if only it would never end. And in our attempt to make this time last, we begin the Christmas season earlier and earlier every year. Christmas decorations and Christmas sales have been happening since October. But no matter how early the Christmas season begins, it always ends. Time always moves on.

 

What would life be like without holidays like Christmas to look forward to? Just think of how much the passage of time dominates our thinking and our lives. Winter hasn’t even officially begun yet, and already many are looking forward to spring and summer. Each new day brings a time to wake up, a time to go to work and school, a time to eat, a time to play, a time to go to bed. If you ever feel that life is nothing more than an endless series of hours and days, deadlines and appointments – you’re not alone. Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, wrote about his experience with time: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh…a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,4,6,7,8) Those are the times our lifetimes are made of: happy times, sad times, exciting times, boring times, family times and lonely times, time to look ahead and time to look back.

 

Like it or not, we are bound by time – because that’s the way God created us. And while God created time to be a blessing, it can often feel like a curse. We long for and look forward to good times, prosperous times, vacations and reunions – but they seem to pass by in the blink of an eye. We dread hard times, sad times, stressful, hurtful, desperate times – because they seem to make time stand still. No matter how hard we try to make every moment meaningful, time often feels so meaningless.

 

But the children are telling us a story that makes all time meaningful; for in the Christmas story, the time came. (Luke 2:6) It came as a decree from the emperor requiring everyone to return to his hometown to be counted for tax purposes. For shepherds it was time to keep watch over the flocks at night, shivering in the cold, enduring the hours of darkness until morning’s first light. And for one special couple, Mary and Joseph, it was time to find a place – not just to rest for the night, but to deliver a baby, since there was no room at the inn. What a time that must have been!

 

All of that set the stage for one important time, the most important event in history. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born. (Luke 2:6) Since no one would have ever imagined who this baby was, God had to send his special messenger – an angel – to reveal the identity of this baby. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11) Another of God’s messengers – the Apostle Paul – explains why this baby was born on that special night long ago: when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5) This baby was God’s Son who was born to save us. But that only skims the surface. The Christmas story is so incredible, so powerful, so unparalleled that it’s not possible for us to capture the full meaning of it in one hour. That’s what your lifetime is for – to learn about that time, to know that time, to love that time, to live that time. Because whatever time comes in our lives, this time changes all of them.

 

Now, you might think that the only thing Christmas changes is the balance in your bank account. But when you look at time from God’s point of view, you see that Christmas changes everything. All of the different times we experience fall in the context of the four great events of human history. The first was creation. No one was there to observe it or record it, but God’s Word tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) – everything from the stars in the sky to the orderly seasons to the dirt under our feet – by simply speaking them into existence. And, as each of us were conceived and born, we entered God’s creation and became citizens of his kingdom, subject to his rules, characters in the story he is writing. The second time was the Fall into sin, when Adam and Eve plunged God’s perfect creation into the darkness of sin and unbelief and death by disobeying the only command God had given them. If you ever wonder why our world – and your own heart and home – are so filled with violence and hatred, hostility and enmity – look no further than the fall into sin. The third time began when God’s Son became a baby in Mary’s womb and Mary’s arms. She named him Jesus, which means “Savior”, because he came to live for us, die for us, and rise for us – in other words, begin a new time, a new age that not only left a mark on history but changed the future. We were destined to live short, painful, meaningless lives in this world and spend eternity in hell. But Jesus was born to save us from that inevitable end and carry us safely through this life to his Father’s home in heaven. Which leads to the fourth and final time – not yet here but already on its way. It’s known by many names – Judgment Day, the Second Coming, Armageddon – but, no matter what we call it, it will mark the end of time as we know it. For all who believe in Jesus as their Savior, that day will begin an eternity of peace and joy (a Christmas time that never ends!) in heaven. For those who reject him, it will begin an eternity of desperation, pain, and torment in hell. Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Judgment – those are the chapters in the timeline of God’s story. Believe that Jesus came to put you on the right side of HIStory, and you will realize why every minute, every second of life is meaningful.

 

That’s why, for millions of believers, Christmas is such a special time. It’s not really about the lights and decorations, the gifts and parties. Christmas marks the culmination of thousands of years of waiting and watching and hoping. Christmas means that God has kept the promise he first made in the Garden of Eden – to live for us in time so that we could live with him now – both in good and bad times – and forever.

 

 

And because the time came for God to become man to save us – now is the time for us to praise God. How do we praise the God who not only created and preserves us, but saved us and has prepared an eternity of peace and joy for us? We praise him by remembering that our time is not our own – all of our times are in his hands. (Psalm 31:15) We praise him for rescuing us from the sin that enslaved us – the destruction we do to ourselves and to others – by vowing to leave our sinful ways and instead live for the one who came to live and die for us. We praise him by rejoicing that because Jesus endured our pain and sorrow, our weakness and death – he can give us strength to face them and overcome them. We praise him by remaining watchful for his Second Coming – keeping our faith burning brightly by staying close to him in the places he promises to be present – the Word and Sacraments. We praise him by telling everyone we know and love that there is no time to waste in getting to know this baby who was born on that cold, dark night in Bethlehem. A baby who was born to live for us. A baby born to die for us. A baby born to rise for us. A Savior who will return, not as a helpless baby, but as the King of kings and Lord of lords.

 

Because one night long ago the time came for God to become man to save the world, now is the time for us to join with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and angels, and all believers of all times and places to praise and thank our gracious God. No matter what time it is, there is always time for that. Amen.

Jeremiah 6 / 1 Peter 2 / Mark 16 - Our Great Heritage: Lutheran Worship - December 3, 2017

I.                    The Historic Voice of the Church

 

New and novel. The latest tech and the most innovative ideas. That’s what our culture craves, right? The newest, more sure-fire diet plan. Cars that don’t need you, because they drive themselves. New medicines and medical procedures to enhance and extend life. Is that always true? When diet plans are reviewed by actual doctors, a shocking number are found to be ineffective or unhealthy. How comfortable would you be letting your car merge you onto the Beltline or drive you through the UW campus? How would you feel if your doctor walked into your room and said, “Well, we’ve never tried this before, but we’re pretty sure it’s going to work.”  If we are hesitant to place our health and safety in the hands of unproven technologies – how should we feel about the care of our immortal souls? Would you rather put your eternity in the care of something brand-new, that is constantly evolving or something that has been tested and proven over the course of hundreds of years? If you fall into the latter category, then you just might be a liturgical, confessional, Lutheran.

 

Did you know that Martin Luther never wanted his followers to call themselves Lutheran? He understood that if they did, they would be accused of being rebels rather than reformers and be labeled a faction rather than a continuation of the church founded by Christ and his apostles. He was right. Luther was frequently labeled a radical heretic by his critics – but that doesn’t mean their criticism was true. In 1524, Luther wrote “We teach nothing new. We teach what is old and what the apostles and all godly teachers have taught.” [1] Near the end of his life, Luther said “we can prove that our faith is not new and of unknown origin, but that it is the oldest faith of all, which began and continued from the beginning of the world.” [2] Luther never wanted to revolutionize the church. He wanted to reform it – by getting rid of the corruption and returning to the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)

 

But neither did Luther insist on tradition simply for tradition’s sake. When it came to reforming the worship service, Luther faced a choice: should he innovate or stick with the worship history had handed down? In a similar way, Israel was at a crossroads when God sent them the prophet Jeremiah. On one side stood the Lord and his prophet. The Lord had promised that Jerusalem would fall at the hand of the Babylonians. Jeremiah warned that the only way to spare their lives was to repent before God and surrender to the Babylonians. (Jeremiah 6:1-15) On the other side stood the false prophets. They preached a message of peace, even though God guaranteed there was no peace in their future. (Jeremiah 6:14) They tried to convince Judah’s leaders to ally themselves with other nations against the terrible Babylonians. Jeremiah pleaded with the Israelites to consider the past, to learn from their forefathers that the path to true rest is in heartfelt repentance and faith in God’s love: this is what the LORD says: stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But the ‘new’ innovative way of the false prophets would lead to nothing but death and destruction.

 

How does this apply to the way we worship today? For many years now there has been a ‘worship war’ in the Christian church. Some have asked “why do we insist on using an ancient liturgy, a hymnal, songs and confessions that are hundreds of years old – when the fastest growing churches have cast those aside in favor of something new and innovative?” One important reason is that the historic Christian liturgy has been proven to offer rest for struggling souls over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. When we read the poetry of King David; when we beat our chests with the tax collector, begging God for mercy; when we sing the hymns of angels; when we use the confession taught by the apostles; when we pray the words our Savior taught and listen to his institution of the Lord’s Supper; when we leave with the same blessing God gave the Israelites 3500 years ago – we don’t do it simply for the sake of tradition. We do it first as a way of recognizing that there is only one “holy Christian and apostolic church.” We don’t stand on our own but side by side with and on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us. With the prophets, apostles, and reformers we throw ourselves on God’s grace and place our trust in his unchanging Word. Like Luther, we appreciate that under God’s guiding hand, time has acted like a filter for Christian worship: it has removed the impurities and preserved the pure, life-giving Gospel.

 

And yet, we also acknowledge that the style and format of worship is adiaphora (neither commanded nor forbidden by God). [3] We don’t condemn those who choose to worship in a different way – as long as law and gospel are properly divided and the Sacraments are properly practiced. And when new hymns and new ways of worship are created that proclaim Christ and give God glory – we are open to implementing them. But until something better comes along, we are thankful to stand with the prophets, apostles, and reformers in worshipping our gracious God in a way that is tried and true; which has been tested by countless Christians before us who found rest for their souls in these words and hymns and songs that proclaim God’s grace and love for sinners. May God grant you that peace as we sing a song written by King David: Psalm 24.

 

II.                  The Participation of the Congregation

 

Do you consider coming to church more like going to a movie or going to meet friends for dinner? There’s a difference, right? When you go to a movie, you are a passive spectator. When you meet friends for dinner you are a participant in the meal, the conversation, the fellowship. Which situation better describes going to church? In 16th century Germany, it was more like going to a movie – if that movie was in a foreign language and you were promised that by simply showing up and paying for the ticket your sins would be forgiven. In Luther’s day, worship was conducted in Latin – a language that few average people understood; the songs were sung either by the priest or a choir of monks; and the only active participation expected from the congregation was that they drop their money into the offering plate. This didn’t happen by accident. It was (and is) part of Catholic doctrine that you don’t need to know or believe what you are doing – as long as you are going through the motions – because only the priest can speak for and to God on your behalf. At the very least, medieval worship was very condescending – in essence, people were told “you’re too stupid to understand any of this, so just shut up and listen.” But what really horrified Luther was 1) the elevation of the words of a man (the pope or priest) over the Word of God; 2) the teaching that faith didn’t matter as much as going through the motions; and 3) that only a priest or saint could go to God directly.

 

That horrified Luther because God’s Word says something much different: As you come to him, the living Stone you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. While in the OT God did mandate that the people of Israel could only approach him through a mediator – a priest – when Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world – the curtain of sin that separated us from God was torn in two. Jesus has opened the way to God – not just for priests, but for all believers. Part of our Lutheran heritage is that when you come to worship God in his house – you are an active participant. It’s not a device to keep you awake. It’s not a way to give these vocal chords a break. We don’t sing and speak and pray together because we have to. We do it because we can! Because Jesus’ blood has paved the road directly from you to your God. Luther put it this way: “Every baptized Christian is a priest already, not by appointment or ordination…but because Christ himself has begotten him as a priest and has given birth to him in baptism.” [4]

 

This aspect of congregational participation still separates Lutherans from the majority of Christian churches today. Strangely enough, much of what passes for worship today is very similar to worship in the medieval Catholic church. Only the preacher can possibly understand God’s Word and you need him to tell you what it means – because he has a special connection to God. The band on the stage praises God for you, and while you may be invited to join in, you don’t know the song, can’t see the notes – plus, if you were any good, you would be up on that stage with them! What you do (serving or giving offerings) is still more important than believing the Word of God. That’s not the way Peter or Luther saw it. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. You don’t need any mediator other than Jesus – whose blood has opened God’s throne room to you. No one stands between you and the body and blood your Savior shed for your forgiveness. We all participate in declaring the praise of the one who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. So please stand as we confess the one, true Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.

 

III.               The Predominance of the Gospel

 

What should be the main focus, the central objective of the church? Everyone has their own idea. There are those who think that the church should basically be a community service organization – like the Salvation Army. There are others who think that the church should be a legislative body – writing laws and enforcing morality. Still others want the church to be a divine babysitter – to provide daycare and recreational opportunities and singles mingles – because that’s what people want! The church, like our government, is the object of many “special interest” groups – who want it to do their bidding. Is there a problem with that? Yes. Because the church does not belong to you or me or any special interest group. The church belongs to God and Jesus is its only CEO. And he has given his church a very clear and simple mission.

 

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον “Preach the good news.” God instituted the government to rule and protect and punish. (Romans 13:1-7) God created the family to provide for our physical and emotional needs. (Ephesians 6:1-4; 1 Timothy 5:8) The church’s mission is to preach. Preach what? The good news. Is the good news the secret to a happy marriage or a healthy lifestyle or an early retirement? No. The good news is that God has made the unconditional offer to the world to forgive their sins and give them eternal life in heaven – based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s the good news Christ commissioned his church to proclaim to all creation. You may leave here without a better idea of how to make your life easier or your money grow – but God forbid you ever leave here without being told that Jesus Christ died for your sins. Because without that good news, nothing else matters. That’s why everything in our service – from the hymns, the liturgy, the sermon, to the church architecture (pulpit / altar / font) – centers on what God has done and is doing for us in Christ.

 

The medieval Catholic church – like many churches today – abandoned Christ’s commission by changing the emphasis from what God has done for us for what we must do for God. In other words, they have exchanged the law for the gospel. Luther was taught that he had to fast and pray and do penance and become a monk in order to please God. It drove him to the brink of despair. Many people today are being taught that they have to contribute 10% of their income and make a decision for Christ and change the world in order to please God. And it’s still driving them to the brink of despair. There’s no comfort or peace in do and don’t do. The only comfort we have before a holy God is that because of Jesus everything necessary to please God is DONE! Don’t misunderstand, the law has its role. The law shows us our sins, restrains wickedness, and serves as a moral compass in an obviously morally confused world. But its primary job is to serve the gospel – to make us despair of ever doing anything to earn God’s favor so that we place all of our trust in what Jesus has done for us.

So we pray for the government to wisely rule and govern. We equip and encourage families to provide for physical and emotional needs. And we demand that the church carry out her Lord’s commission: κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, preach the gospel. One of the most important tools to help us do that consistently is our heritage of Lutheran worship. Worship which respects and treasures the experience of the believers who have gone before us – who found rest for their souls in Word and Sacrament. Worship which invites every believer – from the 1 year old to the 100 year old – to participate because we are all priests in God’s eyes whose worship and praise he welcomes for Jesus’ sake. Worship which holds strong against the temptation to change the focus from what God has done for us in Christ (the Gospel) to what we must do for God (the Law). As we continue our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation – give thanks to God for the gift of Lutheran worship – and its focus on Christ crucified – and ask that he would preserve this precious heritage for generations to come. Amen.  

 

[1] Plass, What Luther Says, 861

[2] Plass, What Luther Says, 860

[3] Formula of Concord: Thorough Declaration, Art. 10:9

[4] Plass, What Luther Says, 1139

Matthew 25:1-13 - Are You Ready? - November 26, 2017

With Thanksgiving already in the rearview mirror, it’s the question on everyone’s mind: are you ready? Have you found room on your calendar for all of the work parties, family gatherings, and other social responsibilities? Is your home decorated and your car winterized? According to retail experts, if you haven’t started your Christmas shopping yet, you’re already late. How about this one: is your bank account ready to handle the additional stress you will put on it this season? We all know how embarrassing it is to be caught unprepared – which is why the next few weeks will take on a fevered pace as everyone tries to get everything done in time. But before you leave here to consider your readiness for Christmas, Jesus has an even more important question for you: are you ready for his return? Are you prepared to meet him when he returns to take the bride, his Church, to heaven forever? Just as we are taking stock of our readiness for Christmas, this morning, Jesus urges us to take stock of our readiness for his return. Are you ready? Appearances can be deceiving. Some things cannot be shared. And when Jesus gets here, it will be too late.

 

As we have discovered over the past few weeks, considering the mysteries of Judgment Day and eternity is not the easiest thing for us – because this world is all we know. That’s why Jesus describes it using parables – earthly stories with heavenly meanings – like the one before us, the parable of the ten virgins. It’s a wedding story. A Jewish wedding in Jesus’ day was quite a bit different from what we are used to. Once the couple had made their public promises to one another, they were, to the world and God, married. However, even though they were technically married, the couple wouldn’t begin living together (and wouldn’t consummate the marriage) until the groom had prepared a home for his wife – which could take weeks or months. When everything was ready, the groom would travel to his bride’s home to gather her up and take her back to the home he had prepared for her and they would kick off their marriage with a huge banquet for their family and friends.

 

This Jewish wedding ritual forms the background of Jesus’ parable: At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. In the earthly story, the virgins are the bridal attendants who would accompany the bride and groom to their new home. But who are they spiritually speaking? Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven; that is, not the dwelling place of angels and saints in God’s presence – but God’s rule among people on this earth. In other words, the virgins represent the visible Christian church – the church as we can see it. In the parable, there’s no difference between the wise and foolish. All ten are wearing appropriate attire, they all have their lamps, they are all waiting for the groom. And so it is in the visible church. All members of the visible church confess their faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, all claim to believe what the Bible teaches, all express their hope of heaven – or else, by definition, they wouldn’t be Christians. Jesus’ parable isn’t about Muslims or atheists or the “nones” who have no time for God. He’s talking about those who consider themselves Christians. He’s talking to us.

 

But, just as in many areas of life, appearances can be deceiving. Jesus goes on. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The folly of the five consisted in the fact that they took their lamps – which in those days were probably long poles with cloth wrapped around the end which would be doused with oil and lit – but no extra oil. The wisdom of the wise lay in the fact that they were thinking ahead, they had prepared for any delay in the grooms arrival, the brought extra oil. The moral of the earthly story is basic common sense: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

 

But what about the spiritual meaning, the meaning for us? We know from the context that Jesus is talking about Christians being prepared for his return, so we should ask: everything being equal, what separates wise Christians from their foolish counterparts? It can’t be good works, because on the surface they all looked the same. Since we can’t see this difference with our eyes, we have to ask: on the Last Day what will separate the sheep from the goats; the saved from the damned? Jesus said it himself: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) Faith is what makes the difference. Where does faith come from? Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17) So the oil is the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace – the sin-cleansing power he exerts through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – which ignites the flame of faith in human hearts. (2 Timothy 1:6) If we were to use one word, the oil is God’s grace. The wise, then, are those who not only bear the external marks of Christianity – the baptismal and confirmation certificates, the church membership – but also eagerly and faithfully invite the Holy Spirit to perform his work on their hearts, to fill their hearts and lives with the grace that creates and sustains saving faith. Unlike those who believe that if you are baptized and confirmed you are all set; wise Christians make the effort to grow in grace and faith, to do what Paul described in Philippians: work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13) So are you ready for your Savior to return? Does your Christianity go more than skin deep? Appearances can be deceiving.

 

Especially when there is a delay. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. On a side note, Jesus reveals here that he knows our reality. Jesus knows that all Christians – the foolish and the wise – will sooner or later fall asleep. Practically speaking, this means that instead of daily asking “Lord, will today be the day?” we get wrapped up in day-to-day life. And who of us wouldn’t confess that we haven’t spent every waking moment waiting for the Lord? Jesus is not telling us to quit our jobs and withdraw from society to stare at the sky; his point is that as we go about our daily lives every decision we make, every priority we set, how we spend our time and money will be shaped by the fact that Jesus will return. (One example: parents, if you are planning to make a fat, bearded man in a red suit (with his naughty and nice lists) part of your children’s Christmas – what are you teaching them about grace – or work righteousness?)

 

Because just as Christmas is most definitely right around the corner; Jesus is definitely coming. At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied,’ there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ As Peter reminded us last week: the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:10) When much of the world is wrapped up in the blanket of false security, when mankind’s preoccupation with satisfying his own sinful desires is at its greatest, when we least expect it – that’s when Jesus will come. And in that moment the distinction between the wise and foolish will become clear. The foolish will scurry around trying to find oil for their lamps while the wise will calmly refuel theirs. While the wise virgins’ refusal to share oil in the parable may seem mean, in the spiritual realm the foolish virgin’s request amounts to an impossibility. Saving faith is a personal possession. It can’t be shared. No, we’re not talking about evangelism – we always can and should share the Gospel message. The point here is that saving faith cannot be transfused from one individual to another. I cannot believe for you; nor you for your children, etc.

 

This hits home in some very emotionally charged occasions. A terrible tragedy occurs in the life of a friend – a lukewarm Christian who believes that since he comes to church on Christmas and Easter he is right with God. Until tragedy strikes – his wife dies suddenly. He cannot find comfort or consolation. He comes to you for help. You remind him of God’s providence and promises and power. He won’t see it, won’t believe it, he blames God. He says, “if only I could have faith like you.” Give me some of your oil. The daughter of one of the most respected families in the congregation is unexpectedly killed in a car accident just as she was beginning her career in a city across the country. According to her family, she still believed in Jesus as her Savior (they even made sure she packed her catechism!!). But in reality – and in spite of the encouragement she had received from her parents, pastor and church – her secular university education had convinced her that the Bible is just a man-made book, she had moved in with her boyfriend, and had not attended worship or received the Sacrament since she was confirmed. The family begs for a Christian funeral. Give her/us some of your oil. Save her from her carelessness and neglect. Grant us the assurance that she is safe with Jesus in heaven. No.

 

Why? That’s sounds horribly loveless! How dare you refuse to give these people the comfort they deserve! Isn’t that how many people react? But what comfort was there for the foolish virgins? What comfort can be given to the family of one who has thrown their faith away? Blaming the church for refusing to give a Christian funeral to an unbeliever is tantamount to blaming the groom – Jesus – for locking the door on the foolish virgins. Jesus is not the problem. He is standing at the door knocking. If anyone finds themselves unprepared to meet death or meet him – with hearts empty of grace and faith – they have no one to blame but themselves. There are some things you cannot share – and saving faith is one of them.

 

Jesus concludes this wedding story: While they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ When death arrives on our doorstep, when Jesus returns – it’s too late to go out and buy oil, too late to scramble for God’s grace, too late for anyone to come and perform spiritual CPR on your dead heart. When Jesus returns he’s not going to check your baptismal or confirmation certificate, he’s not going to ask to see the church directory – he will either know you or he won’t. Jesus knows those who confess their sins to him and beg for mercy. (John 6:37) Jesus knows those who sit at his feet and soak up his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. (Mark 3:31-35) Jesus knows those who accept his invitation to receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of their sins. (1 Corinthians 11:26) Jesus knows those who have invited him into their homes through daily devotion, Bible study and prayer. (John 14:23-24) Does Jesus know you? Now is the time to consider that question, because when he comes to take his bride, the church, to the marriage feast in heaven, it will be too late to go out and buy the oil of his grace.

 

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. It might seem like we are ending the church year on a sour note. There is a sense of urgency, there is a warning against complacency. But don’t forget what we’re waiting for: it’s the wedding feast of the Lamb! We are waiting for the consummation of everything Christ our Savior has promised us – we’re waiting for him to gather us up and take us to the home he has prepared for us in paradise. If we’re thinking: “how dare Jesus peer into my heart and question my readiness” – we’ve missed the point. We should be thinking: “who wouldn’t want to do be eagerly waiting and properly prepared for that day?” What bride wouldn’t want to recall again and again the day her fiancé proposed to her – for Christians that day was Good Friday, when Jesus surrendered himself to death on a cross, declaring once and for all his undying commitment to us? Who wouldn’t want to gaze attentively at the engagement ring he gave each of us – the day called us by name in the Sacrament of Baptism? Who wouldn’t want to sample the fare that will be available at heaven’s eternal banquet by regularly receiving the Lord’s Supper? Who wouldn’t want to daily read and cherish the love letter Jesus himself composed and compiled in the Bible – in which we hear the extremes he went to find us in the gutter of sin, clean us up, give us the proper clothes, and do everything to prepare us for eternal life in his Father’s house? Who wouldn’t want to be ready and waiting when he returns? Only a fool!! Only a fool would reject the unlimited opportunities Jesus gives to fill our hearts full of the oil of his grace.

 

So, are you ready? As you consider that question, don’t think of it as one more thing on your to-do list. It’s not. It’s all about what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for you. He wants to make you ready. He wants to wash your sins away in confession and absolution. He wants to give you a regular taste of heaven – making your heart long for the real thing. He wants you to be certain that he knows you by name and has a place in heaven reserved just for you. Don’t be foolish. Let him do his work. Amen.  

2 Peter 3:3-14 - The Day of the Lord Will Come - November 19, 2017

Agree or disagree: all people – believer and non-believer alike – believe that the world as we know it will eventually come to an end. From the threat of enemies outside our borders to the cultural rot within our nation to movies and TV shows depicting a zombie apocalypse to warnings from economists that the financial markets could come crashing down to the global warming alarmists with their doomsday predictions – it seems that we can all agree that this world will come to an end. But how? When? Why? There is no consensus on these answers – not even among Christians. Which is a sad commentary on the state of American Christianity – because God has answered those questions for us in his Word. Not only does the Bible tell us when, how and why this world will end, it tells us how to prepare for it. Today the Apostle Peter assures us that the Day of the Lord will Come; in the Lord’s time, with destruction for the ungodly, but salvation for the faithful.

 

First of all, (of first importance!) you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” Despite the universal consensus that this world of ours will end; for 2000 years now people have laughed at the idea that the world will end – not because of global warming or world war III – but because Jesus will return in judgment. In Peter’s day, these scoffers reasoned that because people were still dying (roughly 30 years after Jesus’ ascension) just as they had before, nothing had changed. From what they could tell, everything had always gone on the same way – so what was the point of believing in Jesus and looking for his return? Today, people still use their fallen reason to argue against Jesus’ coming in Judgment. And, they think they have found proof in the un-scientific theory of evolution. This world is millions of years old, they argue, and for millions of years things have progressed, evolved according to basic, universal principles. Simple organisms evolve into complex creatures. The weak die and the strong survive according to the law of the jungle. Society and civilization are progressing in an upward, positive direction. And now they claim that with the advances of medicine and technology – given enough time and money – we are on our way to defeating death itself. Things are getting better. Things are going along just as they always have. And so there’s no reason to feel accountable to an invisible God, no reason to fear his judgment, no reason to look for Jesus’ second coming. So live free! Be happy! Do whatever makes you feel good!

 

In a culture that has fallen for this lie hook, line, and sinker – it can feel like a heroic struggle to hold to the truth of the Bible in spite of our unbelieving society. That may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. We hold fast to Scripture not only in spite of these scoffers, but because of them. How can pseudo-science and an ungodly society build our certainty? Because they are doing exactly what Peter predicted they would do! By laughing at the Bible’s prophecies of the end, they are proving them to be true. Whenever Stephen Hawking or Bill Nye or Bill Maher get up on their pedestal to mock your trust in Scripture, thank them, for they are validating the truth of God’s promises.

 

But it’s not that easy, is it? There’s a part of us that is strongly attached to this life and this world and wants to hold onto it as long as we can. Our own fallen reason wants to agree with them because the facts don’t lie. It has been 2000 years since Jesus closed his Revelation to John with the promise yes, I am coming soon. (John 22:20) 2000 years is a long time. Many generations have lived and died without seeing the fulfillment of that promise, and, in many ways, life is going on just as it always has. Are we just clinging to a delusion? A myth? If Jesus was going to return in judgment, wouldn’t it have happened already? Doesn’t the fact that we’re still here prove that Jesus is a liar?

 

Peter has the answer to that argument: do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. God doesn’t perceive time the way we do. That shouldn’t surprise us. We don’t even agree on our perception of time, do we? For children, Christmas seems likes its ages away. For the rest of us, it’s coming up far too quickly. Some of you might think that a 25 minute sermon seems like an eternity; if you are nodding off, it might seem like the blink of an eye. The point is that we should not be concerned that Christ has forgotten his promise. To him, a thousand years is no different than a day. Luther tried to describe this distinction. He said that we look at time like we like at a tall tree, we cannot see both ends at the same time. But God looks at the same tree perpendicularly; he sees all of it, from beginning to end at the same time. To God, Adam and the last person to be born exist in an unchanging present. (LW 30:195) So, while from our human perspective 2000 years seems like a long time, to an eternal God it is no more than a day. No matter what the scoffers say, Peter says, Jesus – who is himself the eternal God – did not lie when he said he would come soon. The day of the Lord will come – in his good time.

 

Whether that day is 1 or 1 thousand years away, there is no question that it will bring terrible, unexpected destruction. Peter writes: the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. The Apostle Paul concurs: now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)

 

Jesus will return and it will mean destruction for this world and all its wickedness – the Bible could not be clearer. So why don’t people believe it? Why do so many live as if this life is all there is? They deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. People don’t believe that Judgment is coming because they don’t believe God’s Word. They don’t want to believe that from beginning to end – not only this world but their lives hang by the thread of God’s Word and God’s command. Here is the great danger of evolution. Not only does it deny God’s creation of this world, it denies God’s judgment and destruction of this world. There can be no reconciling evolution with Christianity. It makes sense that people who believe this world is millions of years old and will continue for millions of years would have no concern about greater, eternal spiritual things. But if we believe this world was created and sustained by the Word of God, then we must believe that one day God will end it – because he has promised it.

 

If you’re ever tempted to doubt that just consider God’s track record. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. Peter is saying that the Flood (Genesis 6-8) is a picture of Judgment Day. Jesus himself explains: as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39) You may think the Flood story is only for children. But we all need to be reminded of it regularly. Why? Because so often we live as though this world is going to go on forever. We get so caught up in day-to-day life that we forget how important it is to be prepared for the end. The strange thing is that we don’t do this when it comes to other potentially dangerous situations. As winter approaches, I’d be willing to bet that we are all getting our shovels and snow blowers back in working order, changing furnace filters, getting our heavier sweaters and jackets out of the closet – in short, preparing for the coming cold weather. When we know something potentially destructive or dangerous is imminent, we try our best to be ready.

 

Do we have the same attitude toward Judgment Day? If we really believe it when we confess every week that [Christ] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead (Nicene Creed) – and that it could be any moment – shouldn’t we be preparing for it? The good news is that Peter says the very reason God is delaying his judgment is so that we can get ready, so that we might be prepared. He says: the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. God never intended that the crown of his creation – mankind – should be destroyed along with the world. But just because God didn’t intend it doesn’t mean that he won’t fulfill his threat. Those who are found by Jesus still covered in sin-tattered clothes with hearts full of unbelief will be destroyed, they will perish forever in hell.

 

But God, in love, has provided a way out: repentance. An encouragement to live in constant readiness by daily repentance – turning from sin and turning to God – is how Peter closes: Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. This is the heart of Christianity, isn’t it? God didn’t give us the Bible to teach us how to live in this world or so that we might have our best life now. The Bible’s main purpose is to prepare us to stand in judgment before a holy God. How can we be found spotless, blameless, and at peace by Jesus when he returns? – is the question the Bible revolves around. Answering this question, providing comfort and certainty regarding this question is why our central focus here is not community service or practical life-advice, but is always on the Gospel in Word and Sacraments. It’s why we make teaching the next generation the eternal truths of God our highest priority; it’s why we are working to expand our facility – to give more and more sinners comfort and certainty regarding Christ’s return; and it’s why work tirelessly to call those who have strayed to repentance. Judgment Day is coming and all who are found dead in their sin and unbelief will be destroyed by fire along with this world.

 

But by God’s grace we know how we can be found spotless, blameless and at peace with our Judge – because God has revealed that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) We know that God himself began our life of repentance when he drowned our sinful nature and raised us to new life in Baptism. We know that Jesus came into this world to take our place, to stand in God’s Judgment, to be convicted and condemned to hell so that we might be acquitted and invited into eternal life. To be driven ever deeper into the good news that our Judge is none other than our Savior is why we gather week after week, year after year – however long it takes for Jesus to return – to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, so that when he does he might find us spotless, blameless, and at peace with him. Today especially, as you receive the body and blood your Savior shed for you on the cross, remember it’s twofold purpose: to point you back for comfort and certainty to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross; and to point you ahead to his second coming in glory and judgment. As Paul wrote: whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26) So while some reject the reality of Jesus’ return in Judgment – and most are too distracted to care – you are ready and waiting for that day, because it is the day of your salvation. It’s the day when Jesus will finally save you from this world of sorrow and take you to heaven where there will be no more death or mourning or pain.

 

So let the scoffers scoff; their mocking is only proof the Day of the Lord will come. Or better yet, let them repent. Because the day of the Lord is coming, in the Lord’s time, with destruction for the ungodly, with salvation for the faithful. Come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.  

Matthew 24:15-28 - When the End Is Near - November 11, 2017

If you’ve done any amount of traveling, you’ve no doubt seen and maybe even stopped at a scenic overlook. Often these overlooks – no matter what they are overlooking, a waterfall, canyon, river, or mountain – contain informational signs or plaques which tell you what you are looking at, its history and detailed descriptions. These plaques are particularly valuable when you are planning a more involved visit to the place you are overlooking. They help you make sense of what you are seeing. And that’s very much what Jesus is doing for us in Matthew 24. He’s preparing us for his second coming. He tells us what to expect; the signs and signals that the end is near. He depicts the destruction of Jerusalem as a call to prepare for the end of time. When the end is near, Our Savior says, flee, pray, and beware.

 

Jesus spoke these words on Tuesday of Holy Week. Matthew tells us that Jesus was walking past the Temple with his disciples and telling them that at the right time, the Temple would be utterly destroyed, to the point that not even one stone will be left standing on another. (Matthew 24:1-2) Curious, the disciples asked when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3) Jesus warns them that false prophets, wars, famines, persecution, growing wickedness, and the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world will be signs that the end is near. In the verses before us, Jesus tells his disciples how they should react when they see the end approaching.

 

So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Earlier we heard Daniel’s prophecy about this abomination that causes desolation. But what is it? An abomination is a ‘detestable thing’ which defiles a holy place and causes it to be abandoned. In spiritual terms, this means the loss of true worship of God. This happened twice in Israel’s history. The first was when the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple, slaughtering pigs in the holy place and turning the temple into a brothel. But the event that better matches Jesus’ description is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD. When the Roman legions, led by General Titus, surrounded Jerusalem, bringing destruction and depravity like that which had never been seen (and never will be seen again). Jerusalem was besieged for 4 years. Titus used starvation as an effective battle tactic. Parents turned into cannibals, eating their own children. The Roman historian Tacitus estimates that half a million Jews died at the hands of the Romans. And when Jerusalem fell, Titus razed it to the ground, leaving not even one stone of the Temple standing. The Temple worship God had instituted for his chosen nation, Israel, was ended forever. (For proof, just see how the Islamic Temple Mount stands on the site of the Temple of God.)

 

What should the disciples do when they see and hear the approach of the Roman army? Run for their lives! Flee to the mountains. The unbelieving Jews, who imagined that a Messiah would arise who would protect the holy city from any and all Gentile invaders, would foolishly ignore Jesus’ advice. They would foolishly stay to face starvation and death based on a lie. But many Christians followed Jesus’ advice. They fled across the Jordan River to a place in the hills called Pella. There they were safe from harm overlooking the smoking ruins of Jerusalem.

 

They had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, ready to leave everything behind. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Understandably, for pregnant women and nursing mothers escape would be difficult if not impossible. Jesus’ heart breaks for these poor women and children. A horrific detail of history is that Roman soldiers showed no pity on pregnant mothers, chasing them down, assaulting and killing them.

 

Therefore, before that happened, they were to pray. Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. Why? Snow and ice are not regular occurrences in most of Israel. But winter rains caused rivers to flood and become impassable. On the Sabbath Day the gates of the city were shut and locked and observant Jews were limited to traveling no more than ¾ of a mile – not nearly enough to escape the swords of the Romans. They were to pray, then, that nothing would hinder their flight to safety.

 

And Jesus closes his guidance to his 1st century disciples with a caution to be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. In trying and troubling times, people – even those who aren’t normally religious – seek out spiritual guidance. (For example, churches were full the Sunday after 9/11.) And, that longing for comfort also makes people especially vulnerable to the deceptions of false prophets. Jesus warns his disciples not to believe these fakes. Even though they may be able to perform great signs and miracles, the disciples were to hold fast to the one, true Christ, who proved himself to be God’s Son and the Savior not only by his great miracles and powerful preaching, not only by fulfilling every last promise of Scripture, but fully and finally by his resurrection from the dead. For the first century disciples, Jesus’ message was clear: the end of Israel, the end of Temple worship, the end of life as you know it is coming. When you see the signs, when the Roman army is approaching, don’t hesitate, flee; pray that nothing, not the season, not the OT Sabbath laws restrict you; and don’t be deceived by the false Christs, they cannot save you. Trust me and my Word and your life will be spared.

 

But what’s the message for us? What does the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD have to do with Christians in America in 2017? How can we even be sure that Jesus is talking about his Second Coming? Jesus tells us so himself in verse 27: for as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is clearly referring to a future event beyond the destruction of Jerusalem. Something no one on earth will be able to escape – his Second Coming in Judgment. The fact that Jesus’ prediction about Jerusalem came true in 70 AD is proof that he will return again – and, that his return is imminent. The signs are all there: wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, famines and earthquakes, increasing wickedness and persecution of believers. But what about the abomination that causes desolation?

 

Listen again to Paul’s description: Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God…The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. Do we see anything today that matches Paul’s description? One who opposes the true God, sets himself up in God’s temple (the church), proclaims himself to be God and is accompanied by counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders? Martin Luther’s confession in the Smalcald Articles of 1537 still stand: This teaching shows forcefully that the pope is the true Endchrist or Antichrist. He has exalted himself above and opposed himself against Christ. For he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power…Even the Turks [Muslims] do not do this. They take bodily tribute and obedience from Christians, but they allow whoever wishes to believe in Christ. The pope, however, bans this faith. He says that to be saved a person must obey him. (SA IV, 10-12) For 500 years the Lutheran Church has identified the Roman Catholic pope as the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ for two reasons. First, he directs sinners to their own works (or the works of saints) for salvation instead of the completed work of Christ. And, secondly, because the pope urges faith in himself, his word, his declarations in place of and instead of the Word of God. While there are certainly other antichrists in this world – those who claim to be Christ or proclaim a false Christ – none is so clearly positioned in God’s church on earth, proclaims himself to be the way to salvation, and displays the work of Satan in counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders. So yes, the abomination that causes desolation is here.

 

Which means that all the signs are here. The end is near. What should we do? Flee! Run and don’t look back. But to where can we flee? What mountain can shelter us from the wrath God will pour out on this wicked world? Psalm 121 tells us: I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2) The only shelter from the awful tide God’s wrath is the fortress of God’s grace. As more and more people merge onto the wide road that leads to hell; as more and more of our friends and neighbors, more and more of our own families, run away from Christ; as we hear about impending wars and church shootings; as our city and nation grow increasingly wicked and godless – run away and run to God. Take shelter in his Word and Sacraments. Run to Jesus. Hide yourself in his wounds – the nail marks in his hands, the spear hole in his side – because they are the proof that he has satisfied God’s wrath for you, in your place. Find your shelter in God’s mercy – today, see his mercy in warning us that things are going to get very bad before Christ’s return. And know that is a warning of love. When the end is near, flee to Jesus, his Word, his Sacrament, his sacrifice. Only he can shelter you on the great and terrible day of the Lord.

 

And pray. Pray that nothing would hinder your flight. Today we aren’t hindered by wintry weather or Sabbath laws, so what might hinder our flight to Christ, his blood and righteousness? Unbelieving family members who reject God’s truth to go their own ways pull us away from our Savior. Materialism, immorality, and earthly distractions draw us away from Christ. Pray that nothing; not your job, your children, your hopes and dreams, your wealth and health and logic keep you from running to God and his Word for shelter. Remember your Savior’s loving warning to keep your priorities straight: what good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26) Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. (Matthew 6:33) God promises to provide everything else you need for life in this world – even if Jesus doesn’t return for another 2000 years. Flee to Jesus and pray that nothing would hinder your flight.

 

And, finally, be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. Before the fall of Jerusalem, many rose up claiming to be the Messiah, who could lead them to victory over their Roman enemies. Perhaps today the danger is not as much people claiming to be Christ but teachers who proclaim a false Christ. Those who proclaim Christ as simply one option among many or merely a good example or a therapist or a wish granting genie or a cuddly teddy bear who isn’t really serious about sin are false prophets. Do not believe [them]. This, Christ’s command, is why we don’t shy away from identifying the pope as the antichrist even though it might be offensive to some. Christ’s command is why we not only proclaim the truth but expose and refute false teaching. They and their lies must be exposed because they are so seductive that even the elect can fall under their spell for a time. Beware of the lies that are out there. The one true Christ is not gay-affirming, does not condone lifestyles that are contrary to his will, does not promise believers health and wealth and happiness, and his objective is not to be your buddy or your life coach. The one true Christ left heaven to come to this earth to spill his blood on a cross to pay for your sins against a holy God. He came to be your Savior. Don’t be deceived. Beware of false teachers and false teachings. How? Compare everything, everything, you read, see, and hear to the written Word of God.

 

Why? Why the urgency? For as lightning that comes from the east is visible in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. No one knows the day or the hour – and when Jesus arrives it will be too late. The signs are all here. Christ will return and it could be today. Should we be afraid? No! Because Christ has warned us and Christ has prepared us. The end is near: flee to his Word and take shelter in his forgiveness, pray that nothing would hinder you, and beware of false teachings and teachers. And when you see the signs, look forward to your Savior’s second coming – because he is bringing the day of your redemption. Amen.