John 13:31-35 - Apart From Jesus, We Don't Really Know Love - May 19, 2019

Do you consider yourself a loving person? How would you define or describe it? What does love look like, sound like, act like? I doubt any of us necessarily wants to think of ourselves as unloving. Allow me to make a bold statement that will sound offensive: you don’t know what love is. Neither do I. Neither does anyone in this world. A statement like that demands proof, doesn’t it? Ok. Here’s some. In the prayer of the day we begged God to “make us love what you command” – why would we need to pray that if we are love experts? Here’s further proof: I’m almost 100% sure that when I asked if you were a loving person you immediately thought about your 1) feelings; 2) your family and friends – I know because that was my first thought, too. But feelings of affection for family is not the kind of love Jesus is describing. As one final proof I offer the reality that many of the sickest, depraved things are done in the name of love: murder of the unborn, gay marriage, refusal to carry out Christian discipline, the tolerance and support of false doctrines and idolatrous religions. No, we do not know what love is – and we’d better figure it out real quick because our confessions say “the fact that a person does not love is a sure sign that he is not justified” (FC SD III:27). Or, as John puts it: anyone who does not love remains in death. (1 John 3:14) We don’t know how to love. We must learn. And for that, we must look to Jesus.

 

The first stop in our quest to figure out love is the foot of the cross. John spends a full third of his Gospel detailing the final seven days of Jesus’ life and John 13:1 serves as a sort of theme of Jesus’ entire Passion: Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. (John 13:1) And what did the full extent of Jesus’ love earn him? Betrayal. When he was gone refers to Judas. Jesus had forced Judas’ hand, forced him to choose between light and darkness. Judas chose darkness and at Jesus’ command (John 13:27) he left the upper room to finish his wicked work. Imagine that! Jesus himself initiated the series of events that would lead directly to his condemnation by the church and crucifixion by the state. And yet, what does he say about it? He says it is his glory! Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. How is Jesus, how is God, glorified by the Son of God suffering and dying on a cross? You’ve got to understand God’s rather strange idea of glory. His glory is doing the undoable, saving the unsaveable, redeeming the irredeemable. Right there you understand why many people don’t understand love, right? According to human reason and false religions a glorious, loving God ought to save the saveable, love the loveable, help those who help themselves and show mercy to those who earn it. But the true God’s glory and love are clear in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) And what greater gift could he give than his Son? What could bring him greater glory than saving people like us who don’t deserve it?

 

That’s why, if you want to know what love looks like, you’ve got to go to the cross. See how God has lifted the burden of sin and guilt off of your shoulders and placed them on the shoulders of his Son. Hear Jesus, knowing what was about to happen, telling you that saving your wretched soul by being nailed to a tree and suffering the hell you deserve is his greatest glory. See him do it, not grudgingly but willingly. See him not only shoulder your sins but your fears, your failures, your worries and your cares, too. There can be no conversation about love unless we begin right here, at the foot of the cross, with Jesus suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying on a cross to bring glory to his Father and salvation to sinners.

 

But love that starts at the cross never stops there. Jesus moves directly from the good news of justification by grace to the love-filled life of sanctification: A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. The obvious question is: what is new about this command? Didn’t Moses say love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18) over 1500 years earlier? Did you notice the differences? There are two. First, the standard. Moses’ standard was yourself – love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Jesus raises the bar. He commands us to love others as much as he loved us. This means that Jesus commands us to love others even more than we love ourselves. Again, Jesus’ himself set the standard: not only did he lay down his life for us – the greatest act of love possible (John 15:13) – but he did it while we were still his enemies! (Romans 5:8) Jesus isn’t commanding us to have mushy feelings for one another, he’s commanding us to sacrifice for one another – even if we don’t like them, even when they don’t deserve it. That’s the first difference, the second is the scope. Moses’ command was to love your neighbor – which is anyone and everyone you happen to be next to – illustrated so beautifully by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37) And that’s still true. But in his new command, Jesus explicitly tells his disciples to love one another. It’s a very sad commentary of the state of Christianity when churches stumble over themselves boasting about how much they do for and in their communities – and even across the world, digging wells and building schools and hospitals – but when it comes to loving one another, they don’t even know each other’s names – much less fulfilling the debt of love they owe one another (Romans 13:8) by forgiving and disciplining and praying for and encouraging one another. Please do not take my words out of context: Yes, Jesus does want us to love our neighbors out there in the world, but in this text, he is telling us to do something that just might be even harder: love the people right here.

 

So back to our question: are we loving people? Remember, Jesus is not talking about fuzzy feelings, empty words or good intentions – he’s laying out his personal example of total self-sacrifice, of putting other’s needs before our own, of doing the hard and thankless tasks that need to be done even if they don’t benefit us our or families – he’s saying follow me, love others like I have loved you! Paul spells out in detail the kind of love Jesus is talking about: love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) Those words might seem natural when they are spoken over two people who are madly in love with each other at a wedding, but they sound a little different when the one whose hands and feet were nailed to a cross, who literally experienced hell for you is standing before you asking: “Look to your right and your left; have you loved these people like this, have you loved them like I loved you?”

 

 

Clearly, Jesus has set a standard of love that none of us will ever come close to matching. He even says where I am going, you cannot come. Accomplishing redemption by the sacrifice of his life was a task only Jesus could perform. But perfect love is nonetheless what he demands of us. No excuses. No massaging or twisting what Jesus said. No redefining of love or suggesting that Jesus just wants our best effort. Yes, those words that are frequently printed in some fun, cutesy font are some of the hardest law in the Bible. And this law of love does two things to us: like a mirror it convicts us of our sins and like a guide it shows us how God wants us to live. (Romans 3:20; Psalm 119:105) Permit me to cherry pick one of Paul’s standards and apply it to us, the members of Risen Savior. [Love] is not easily angered. It’s important that we understand that one of the devil’s greatest deceptions is to make God’s greatest blessings seem like the worst curses. After his gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation, what is the greatest blessing we have here at Risen Savior? You. All of you. You are the people for whom Jesus died. Yes, even the ones you’re holding in your arms, running around your feet, squawking and crying and distracting and throwing toys and making a mess. The devil would like nothing more than to turn the blessing of children in church (a rare thing in 21st century America) into a curse and a source of easy anger. And he’s had success, hasn’t he? Angry glares. Shaking heads. Resentful parents and bitter children. Thinking or saying “Something has to be done!” I agree. What needs to be done is we all need to love each other more than ourselves. So as uncomfortable as this might be – here’s the law of love applied as a mirror and guide to us. Children, Jesus loved you so much that he died for you. He has loved you enough to give you faithful Christian parents who bring you to sit at his feet. Listen to them and obey them as if you were listening to and obeying Jesus himself – because you are! (Ephesians 6:1) Parents, while everyone here understands that no child is perfect and they will have their moments – yes, even in church – Jesus commands you to love the people around you more than your own convenience or pride or laziness to take the tantrum out of church behind the glass wall built for that very purpose. Love your child enough to discipline them. Love them enough to forgive them – and actually say it. Love them enough to teach them the way the One who died for them wants them to behave. And everyone else…imagine if Jesus was sitting here, observing not only your outward behavior but judging the very thoughts of your heart. Do you imagine him sitting there glaring at you, shaking his head, nudging his Father, pointing at you and saying something about “sinners these days.” Nope, he’s here to meet you – sins and all – and he’s here with open arms to welcome you, forgive you, help you, encourage you and support you. He had every right to lose his temper with you. What did he do instead? He lost his life for you. Instead of mumbling about “parents these days” – ask yourself – “how can I help parents these days?” And let me be blunt: if a screaming two-year-old can make you lose your temper in God’s house – the problem is not the child, the problem is you. You need to repent – and a proper fruit of that repentance would be to personally apologize for your selfish and loveless behavior.

 

I’ll ask again, are we loving people? Can any of us say “yes” with a straight face? Even though we will never love perfectly, perfect love is our goal – a goal we want to strive for only one reason: Jesus. We don’t love children because they’re well-behaved or fellow members because they’re so compassionate or our pastor because he’s so charming – because more often than not, those things aren’t true! The one and only reason we love is because God loved us first. (1 John 4:19) He loved us when we were unloveable. He loved us when we were his enemies. He loved us enough to let our sins cause his perfect Son to be spit on and mocked, slapped and whipped, crucified and murdered. Our world likes to think of love in pretty pastel colors and fuzzy feelings and Hallmark cards. God’s love is written in the metallic gray of nails in his hands and feet and his crimson blood dripping down a cross. It’s written in the blackest depths of hell where God damned his own Son in our place. God’s love is not just words or feelings; it was and is active. His love brought us kicking and screaming to Baptism to be washed clean and made new. His love announces forgiveness for even the worst of sins and sinners – which, in my estimation, has to be me! (1 Timothy 1:15) His love hands you his Son’s flesh and blood to assure you that he didn’t just love the world, he loved you – you, just as you are. And when you turn around after receiving communion this morning and look at all the faces out there, remember that Jesus loved and died for them too. That, finally, is the reason we want to love one another.

 

The unbelieving world doesn’t know how to love. Neither will we if we ever take our eyes off of Jesus. He is both the perfect example of love and the only reason we can love one another even more than ourselves. One last time: are you a loving person? What can we say but: “no, not as Jesus demands.” But may God also lead us to trust that while I am not perfectly loving, I am perfectly loved by him – and so are you. When we have that conviction, then our love for one another will take care of itself. Amen.

Revelation 7:9-17 - The Lamb Is Our Shepherd - May 12, 2019

That hymn we just sang didn’t make any sense, did it? How can someone be both a prince and slave, a peacemaker and sword-bringer, crucified criminal and God of glory at the same time? What on earth is an “everlasting instant”? While that hymn may appear to be pure nonsense, it actually is a beautiful description of the many of the paradoxes of the Christian faith – with special focus on the greatest paradox of all: Jesus himself. Today we focus on one of the most comforting and familiar paradoxes in Scripture – that Jesus, the Lamb of God, is our Good Shepherd. On its face it doesn’t make any sense – a helpless little lamb would normally make for a pretty pathetic shepherd – and yet, our salvation hangs on this paradox. And when God leads us to believe this paradox, then we will better understand some of the more troubling paradoxes in our own lives as well.

 

The author of Revelation, the apostle John, knew firsthand how puzzling and paradoxical life could be for a Christian. He had personally recorded Jesus’ promise: my sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:27) And yet, as he wrote the words of Revelation, roughly 60 years after Jesus had been crucified and raised to life, you couldn’t blame him if he had some doubts. John had lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD. He had seen his fellow Christians persecuted and forced to flee their homes and country. He had outlived every one of his fellow apostles – because they had been for preaching the Gospel. He was writing these words from exile on the island of Patmos, alone and far from his fellow believers. I can’t really imagine John humming “I am Jesus’ Little Lamb” as he’s sitting in isolation on a deserted island while the Roman Empire is systematically persecuting the Church.

 

And John isn’t alone, is he? When I look out there, I don’t see sleek, strong, self-sufficient sheep – I see little lambs who are harassed and weary. I see how the harsh realities of life have taken their toll. I see Christians who sometimes struggle to see Jesus as their Good Shepherd. And the devil is very good at fanning struggle into full-blown doubt. “If I’m really Jesus’ little lamb, why can’t I get ahead financially, why does it seem like every time I take one step forward something happens to put me two steps back? If I’m Jesus’ little lamb, why does he let me hurt so bad, why doesn’t he do something about it? If Jesus is a Good Shepherd, why does he let so many of his sheep wander out of the fold and fall prey to the wolves of the world? I’ve followed Jesus’ voice my whole life, why do I struggle while my unbelieving neighbor thrives?” Maybe we finally get to the point that we pray “Lord, why don’t you just take me home?”

 

While I cannot answer those questions, I can tell you this: the book of Revelation was written for you. The Lord gave John this series of visions specifically to sustain and strengthen his faith in the face of suffering and doubt and hardship. It is a bird’s eye view of what’s really going on in the world; it reveals the epic behind the scenes battle for souls between Christ and the devil. While much of Revelation uses vivid picture language to describe the horrors of the End Times battlefield, the words before us are an interlude in which the Lord gives John a brief but glorious view of the Church triumphant, the Church in heaven.

 

And what does it look like? Well, against all odds, it looks a lot like God said it would, doesn’t it? Remember how unlikely it was when God promised Abraham – who had no children – that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. (Genesis 22:17) And here John sees a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language. It looks like a victory celebration: the Church that seemed so small and so helpless is clothed in white robes and waving palm branches – and instead of mourning, they are singing: salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. It looks like a family reunion: all believers of all time are there along with the angels and four living creatures (probably cherubim).

 

Why does Jesus give John this vision of heaven? Just to tease him and rub his misery in his face? No. Jesus is teaching an important lesson about suffering. Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes – who are they and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” John wisely appealed to a high authority: “You’ll have to answer that for me.” And he said, “These are they who have come out (Bad translation. Literally “are coming out”) of the great tribulation.” The picture here is not the one held by so many Christians – of a seven-year tribulation and secret rapture of believers. The picture is simply that of believers dying, one after another, and being delivered out of this fallen world to the glory of heaven.

 

In contrast to the widely-held but nonetheless false belief that true Christians shouldn’t suffer in this life, the elder is helping us to see that all true Christians suffer in this life. Not a single saint in heaven avoided it. Suffering is not only a universal result of sin’s curse (Genesis 3:13-24), but a specific result of following Christ. Jesus promised his disciples: in this world you will have trouble. (John 16:33) Paul and Peter warned that we must go through many hardships (Acts 14:22) and suffering (1 Peter 3:14) before inheriting eternal life. The path Jesus blazed is the one all Christians must follow: first the cross, then the crown. The good news is not that being Jesus’ little lamb will mean a peaceful and trouble-free life now, it is that one day Jesus will remove us from this troubled life forever.

 

Do we believe that? Is that the lens through which we see life? Do we patiently endure tribulation now trusting that it can’t compare to the glory that will be revealed? (Romans 8:18) By God’s grace, as Lutherans, I don’t think we have a knowledge problem, I don’t think we expect this life to be trouble-free, because we know better. But it’s one thing to talk about suffering, it’s another to handle it in a God-pleasing way. The Greek word for tribulation is thlipsis. The picture is of being pressed or crushed from all sides – from within and without. Our generation is infamous for its inability to handle pressure and stress – for going to extremes to avoid or minimize pain and discomfort of any kind. What about us? An opioid epidemic is sweeping our nation – people seeking relief through the misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers; has its toxic tide rolled into any of our lives? Marriage – the lifelong union of two sinners – can be a daily struggle. The world says “it’s not worth the struggle, find relief through divorce” – has that thought ever crossed our minds? Raising – and especially disciplining – children is hard – to the extent that the world says that killing them before they are born is a viable option – and even if we would never go to that extreme, aren’t we tempted to turn our parenting responsibilities over to someone else? There’s great pressure on each of us and the Church at large to conform to the ethics and morals of the godless world – what will we do? Go along with the crowd or stand firm on the Word? When Jesus said if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8:34) he wasn’t speaking hypothetically – he says that the cross is a necessary part of life as a Christian.

 

How can we possibly withstand the pressure? How can we survive the tribulation? How can we ever hope to escape this world and stand with that multitude in heaven? Well, remember what the elder said – how did those saints get there? Just one thing unites them all: They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Starting with the very first Passover, God required his OT people to sacrifice thousands and thousands of animals. These bloody and violent ceremonies made two things very clear: first, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); second, that animal bled and died in their place, as their substitute. This is why the focus of the glorified Church’s joy is not themselves, their faithfulness, their suffering – but the Lamb. Because it was the life and death of the Lamb that took away their sins. Nothing but the blood he shed on the cross could cleanse their filthy robes. All of that pain, that suffering that we have sometimes sinned to avoid – Jesus took it on his shoulders and paid for it with his life. It’s really no mystery at all why we suffer – we are sinners living in a sinful world. No the greatest mystery is why the sinless Lamb of God should suffer the death we deserved. That’s the mystery of grace. That’s why the multitude sings: salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.

 

If only those who have perfectly white robes will stand in glory in heaven, then the most important question for us is: How do we wash our robes in the Lamb’s blood? Many churches have a stained glass window or paraments that show the Lamb with a deep wound in his side standing on a book with seven seals. The Lamb’s blood flows into a chalice. The picture is clear enough, isn’t it? Only by drinking from that chalice we are washed and cleansed in Jesus’ blood. When we confess our sins and when we approach the altar for communion – we are bringing our filthy robes to the cleaners, to have the blood of Jesus wash our sins away forever. More than that, when we confess our sins, we are not merely confessing our violations of God’s Law – confession also includes the weight of sin in a world that presses us from every side. We should look forward to confession, not only to be relieved of our burden of sin but also our burden of stress and distress – that’s what Peter meant when he wrote: cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)

 

On Mother’s Day, maybe we can picture it like a hurt or scared child running and jumping into his mother’s arms – trusting her to calm every fear and fix every problem. Although, if you are a mother, maybe that’s not so comforting. Not when you have a family expecting you to solve every problem every day. Does anyone in the world have more thlipsis, more daily pressure than mothers? You’re expected to heal every wound, find every lost toy, know every answer, dry every tear, get everyone where they need to be, make every meal delicious, put up with us husbands who don’t understand even on the rare occasion they are actually listening – yours is a 24/7 tribulation, how can you handle it all? Jesus is your Good Shepherd too! He invites you to run and jump into his arms and throw your stress on him. When we cast all our cares on you, cast your cares on Jesus. Take some time every day to be alone with your Shepherd in his Word. Then, even as you lead your little lambs by the hand, you will know that your Good Shepherd is leading you, too!

 

He’s leading you, mothers, and all of us, both now and forever. With John, in the midst of great tribulation, surrounded by persecution and stress and suffering, Jesus gives us this vision to help us see beyond the boundaries of this world to the green pastures of heaven. Today he has led us again to the quiet waters of his Word to find peace and comfort for our souls even as we still wander under the shadow of death. Whatever trials you are undergoing, whatever pressures you are feeling, whatever tribulations you are suffering, realize that it is not evidence that your Lord has abandoned you but is rather proof that your Shepherd is leading you in his path, the path of the cross. And never forget where the way of Christ, the way of the cross leads:

 

Therefore “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” May this vision of the heavenly glory that awaits us grant us the rarest and most precious paradox of all: peace and joy in the midst of tribulation. Amen.   

John 6:60-69 - Confirmation Crossroads - May 5, 2019

Life is full of choices. We all make dozens of them every day. Most of them are pretty easy. We decide what we’re going to eat; what we’re going to wear; what TV show to watch; where we’re going to shop. But there are also times when we need to make big, life-changing decisions, decisions that have long-term consequences. What makes these decisions so difficult is that you can’t have it both ways; you must choose one or the other. Where you go to college, who will you marry, what career path will you choose, where will you decide to buy a house and raise a family? All of those situations are a crossroads where you can only choose one path.

 

Today, Martin, you have arrived at a major crossroads in your life. Years of hearing and learning God’s Word culminate today: in your confirmation. Until now, Christianity probably hasn’t felt like much of a choice. In large part you’ve been carried along by your mother, teachers, and church. You were baptized when you were still in diapers. Coming to worship, Sunday school, and confirmation wasn’t really up to you. After today, that changes a bit. After today, in the eyes of God and this congregation, the primary responsibility for your faith will no longer rest with your mom or your Sunday school teachers – but with you. Today you will publicly confess what you – not your mother, not your family, not even this church – believe. I understand that may sound like a lot to ask of an eighth grader – but it is nothing less than practice for Judgment Day – when it won’t matter what your mother or family or church or pastor believes, your eternity will hang on what you believe. So the question for you and for all of us here is: where will you go from here? The answer is found in the Word of God before us.  

 

The day before Jesus spoke these words he had fed more than five thousand people with just a few fish and bread from a boy’s lunch. (John 6:1-15) By this miracle Jesus proved that he was the Son of God, the promised Savior. But most of them missed the point. Instead of receiving him as the Savior of their souls, they wanted to make him an earthly king – they wanted him to make their lives here on earth easier, more pleasant, and richer. But that’s not why Jesus came. He didn’t come to fill bellies or bank accounts but to fill sinners with forgiveness and faith – and he told them that. He forced them to make a decision: continue following Jesus and trust him for salvation or leave him and go back to their old way of life of trusting their own good works for salvation. John tells us what many decided: From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

 

Why? Because Jesus’ desire to give them forgiveness and salvation didn’t match up with what they wanted him to do. Jesus told them that the Father had sent him to earth to preach and teach God’s Word. He told them that on their own they were lost in sin and doomed to die eternally in hell and that there was nothing they could do to save themselves. He told them that their only hope was for him to die for their sins so that they could have eternal life in heaven. He pleaded with them to place their trust in him and not in themselves or their own good works. He taught them not to work for the things of this world that are passing away but to focus on the life to come in heaven. This was a hard teaching. It offended every fiber of their being.

 

What could possibly be offensive about the good news of free salvation through faith in Christ? Two things. One, Jesus had said I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6:53) This means that anyone who rejects Jesus will be doomed to die eternally in hell. We might naturally think of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons – who all reject Jesus’ claim as God and Savior. But what’s even more offensive is that all the good, moral, hardworking, upstanding people, people who may believe in God but don’t think they need Jesus – they are destined for hell, too.

 

Second, it’s offensive to our reason that spiritual, eternal life in heaven is connected to the material, flesh and blood of Jesus. That our salvation lies in the hands of a baby born of a virgin, the step-son of a lowly carpenter, who never became rich or successful, who was sold out by his own friend and murdered in the most horrific way: by being nailed to a cross. Most people won’t blink at talk about God’s plan or God’s blessings or some idea that America is God’s land in a generic way – but the moment you suggest that no one see or reach God apart from Jesus – people will still shake their heads and walk away because it’s offensive to reason to think that God had to become a man and suffer and die to save us from our sins.

 

It’s interesting, isn’t it? Those disciples didn’t walk away from Jesus for the reasons that many people say they leave him. They didn’t leave because the 10 commandments were too restrictive. They weren’t offended by the doctrine of creation: that God created everything in six normal days using nothing but his Word. (Genesis 1) They weren’t offended by the Biblical roles of men and women; that God forbids women to exercise authority over men in the Church. (1 Timothy 2:12) They weren’t angry that God calls homosexuality and adultery and sex outside of marriage sins. (Matthew 19:9) They didn’t stumble over the Law, they stumbled over the Gospel. They simply couldn’t stomach the thought that they were such awful sinners, that their every thought, word and action was so offensive to God’s holiness that the only way they could escape his wrath was for God to sacrifice his own Son on a cross for them. And so they left. They had better things to do. Jesus was offering them something they didn’t think they needed: forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.

 

It still happens today. If and when people come to Jesus, come to church, they want to hear about a Jesus who will give them material blessings, or at least a Jesus who will appeal to their pride by showing them how to save themselves – and if they don’t, well, they will either find a different church or just abandon Jesus altogether. By their actions they prove that they don’t think God’s Word, forgiveness, and eternity are very important. They prove that all they care about is the stuff of this life: food, money, sex, popularity, happiness, health etc. Jesus gets in the way of what they want and so they reject him and stop hearing his Word. The sad reality is that those who reject Jesus now will get what they want for all eternity – they will be separated from him forever in hell. (Mark 16:16)

 

And it would be very easy for you, Martin, to go along with them. Today you join the ranks of Christians who will face the daily decision to follow the world to death or follow Jesus to life. Today, Jesus isn’t speaking to a crowd of disciples by the Sea of Galilee, he’s talking to us and especially to you, Martin. You know what Jesus says about you and about himself. Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe. Jesus makes the choice clear, doesn’t he? There is no middle ground. You can’t have it both ways. Will you choose your own flesh, your own reason and emotions and desires and the ways of the world – which count for nothing before God now and won’t count for anything at all on Judgment Day? Or, will you choose the way of the Spirit, the way of faith in Jesus and his Word, the one and only way that leads to life?

 

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. No one, on their own, can choose Jesus. [Jesus] went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” Jesus isn’t surprised when billions of people for whom he died stream away from him because we are natural born unbelievers, Jesus and his teaching are offensive to all of us. No one, not the apostles, not me, not one person here is capable of choosing to accept and believe in Jesus. (John 15:16) Only God himself can create and sustain faith. Which is why hearing the Word and receiving the sacrament are so important – those are the only tools God has promised to use to create and strengthen faith. There are some people here this morning, Martin, who are thinking about people they know and love who have stood right where you will and made those promises but now no longer attend worship, hear the Word, or receive the Sacrament. And they would like to know: how can we prevent young people from leaving the church once they’re confirmed? Here is the answer. We can’t. Certainly we can and will pray for you. But, the truth is that there is nothing any of us can do to keep you or others like you from turning your back on Jesus. God alone created faith in your heart and God alone can keep faith in your heart. Which naturally begs the question: How do you know if you have faith? Is it a feeling? Is it based on what you know and do or how often you pray? If you someday forget the six chief parts of the Catechism, does that mean you’re doomed? Many are mystified by that question – but not Lutherans. The only way to know that you have faith is to make faithful use of the means through which God creates and maintains faith: the means of grace. When you daily swim in the water of Baptism through repentance, when you hear and read the Word of God – which is spirit and life, when you regularly receive the body and blood of Jesus in Communion – you can be sure that your faith is alive and strengthened because God has attached his promise to those means of grace.

 

Today isn’t really about what you have done, Martin – it’s about what God has done for you. He has led you to confess the faith he has given you and swear that you will give up everything, your friends, job, home, family, even life rather than walk away from Jesus. That confession makes you the devil’s target and puts you at a crossroads. I can’t force you to come to worship, receive communion or continue your learning in Bible class. You’ve completed confirmation class so I can’t make you read your Bible or Catechism anymore. And soon enough, you mother won’t be able to either. As you get older, you will see many of your friends, your teachers, your coworkers, maybe, someday, a girl – all walking away from Jesus. You will see them walking away and part of you will want to join them. This day is meant to prepare you for that day. On those days, see your Savior standing before you with the nail marks in his hands and feet and side, saying: you do not want to leave too, do you? Remember what you have learned about your Savior, remember what he has done for you, remember the peace and forgiveness he died to give you and the home he has prepared for you in heaven. And remember Peter’s perfect answer: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. For the rest of your life people will be offering you words: words of wisdom, words of affection, words of guidance, words they say will lead to wealth and health and happiness. The devil and the people of this world will promise you the world – but it’s a promise they can’t keep. Only Jesus has the words of eternal life.

 

When you stand at a crossroads in life – when you’re forced to make the decision to leave or follow Jesus – don’t think of me, don’t think of church or confirmation class, don’t think of your family – think of him. Where else will you find someone like him? Where else can you find someone who lived a perfect life and gives you credit for it? Where else can you find a friend suffered hell and died for you? Who else in the world would ever love you that much? What can the world offer you that is better than eternal life? When you are tempted to leave your Savior for something else, may the God who brought you to this point give you (and the rest of us) the faith and conviction to confess today and every day: “Lord, there’s nowhere else to go…only you have the words of eternal life.” Amen.

John 21:1-14 - A Practical Savior - April 28, 2019

The Apostle John records three appearances of our risen Lord: one on Easter evening, one seven days later, and this one on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The detail John provides is remarkable: the names of 5 of the 7 disciples present, the approximate distance they were from shore, the precise number of fish they caught, the specific breakfast menu. And yet, just as remarkable as the details John records is the absence of details we tend to expect: Jesus doesn’t offer dramatic proofs of his resurrected body, he doesn’t speak a word of forgiveness, he doesn’t commission the disciples to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The great, momentous act Jesus does this morning is…make breakfast. Here we see Jesus, the practical Savior.

 

When Jesus sent his disciples out the first time, he had prohibited them from taking any of the provisions you would normally take on a journey. (Matthew 10:9-10) On Maundy Thursday, he reminded them of this, asking them when I sent you without purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything? “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:35-36) Those were the last directions Jesus gave his disciples regarding their daily needs. And now that Jesus isn’t with them 24/7 anymore, it’s easy to picture them thinking: “Is this how it’s going to be from now on? Are we going to have to provide for ourselves? Are we now like members of a youth group who have to beg friends and family for money to go on a mission trip? Is the practical message of Easter that Jesus has done his part as far as our spiritual needs are concerned but we are on our own for our physical needs?”

 

That’s why Peter suddenly said I’m going out to fish and the others said we’ll go with you. “Jesus is no longer here to miraculously provide bread, fish, wine for his disciples or his Church, so I will.” He doesn’t go fishing for fun but for food, to keep himself and his family alive. Jesus makes this clear with his question, which literally reads: “hey boys, you don’t have anything to eat, do you?” (προσφάγιον)

 

If that’s what the disciples thought, if they thought they were on their own now to provide for themselves and the ongoing mission of the Church, then they had forgotten the Sermon on the Mount. There he said that only unbelievers waste their lives worrying about what they would eat and drink and wear. (Matthew 6:25-34) There he assured them your heavenly Father knows [what] you need and commanded them to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:32-33) These words assure us that the incarnate Lord who spent three years healing, curing, feeding, and providing hasn’t suddenly stopped now that he’s risen. He doesn’t take care of our spiritual needs and leave us on our own to care for our physical needs.

 

But right there is the hang up, isn’t it? We, like the disciples, know Jesus’ promises, but applying them to our hearts and minds and lives right now, that’s not so easy. Maybe we believe that Jesus has taken care of all of our spiritual needs by his death and resurrection, but think that everything else is up to us. And when we believe our senses and feelings more than the Lord’s promises, we act like it, and our priorities get all screwed up. We compartmentalize our faith, separate it from the rest of life – sure, Jesus is here, but out there, well, it’s every man for himself. We test God by setting Scripture against Scripture: we justify working long overtime hours and weekends because God has commanded us to provide for our families – which is true – but not at the expense of providing their souls with the nourishment of hands-on Christian parenting, family devotions, daily prayers and worship. We begin to view our earthly blessings as a barometer of Jesus’ presence – the more we have, the closer he is – and vice versa. Or, maybe we use our lack of faith to justify outright sinning. We rationalize our stingy offerings, cheating on taxes, doing whatever it takes to get a raise or promotion – because if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? How often don’t we act like Jesus has abandoned us, in spite of his promise to never leave us or forsake us? (Hebrews 13:5)

 

Did you notice the climax, the turning point of our lesson? After the disciples had fished all night and caught nothing, Jesus was there, asking them about their catch. Two facts stick out: they were empty-handed BUT Jesus was there! They’re about to throw their hands up in futility and despair, Jesus finds them in their moment of need. “You don’t have anything to eat, do you?” No was their terse response. (You try fishing all night for survival, catching nothing, and see how you react to someone who asks you what you caught implying that he knows you got skunked.) Despite the response, Jesus provides: he provides a great catch of fish AND keeps the nets from breaking AND the strength for Peter to haul the nets in by himself. But that’s not all. Jesus provides fire (no small accomplishment before the invention of Zippos) and breakfast.

 

The lesson is clear, right? If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) The Lord had promised his disciples on Maundy Thursday I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you. (John 14:18) Jesus is not the problem. The problem is making the connection between Jesus’ promises and our day to day lives; seeing his loving care and provision in our lives even when all the evidence says that he has abandoned us to our own strength and ability.

 

Which is why the Risen Savior’s most practical gift isn’t his provision of food, but his revelation of himself. John admits that Jesus was standing on the shore right away in the morning, but that the disciples did not realize that it was [him]. Some speculate that this was because there was fog rising from the Sea. But in all of the details John mentions, he doesn’t mention any fog. Instead, he tells us that they were only about 100 yards from Jesus. They were close enough to hear him, presumably close enough to recognize him, but simply didn’t. Why not? Because Jesus now had a resurrected, glorified body – one that could only be spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14) They couldn’t know without being told. It had to be revealed to them.

 

 

That’s comforting, in an odd way, isn’t it? If even the disciples who spent three years walking with Jesus can imagine that he’s abandoned them then we certainly aren’t alone in feeling alone and abandoned, in feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life and imagining that Jesus has left us to our own resources. This common experience of believers of all ages is what we call the theology of the cross – or, as Paul put it: We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22) The primary hardship is not the physical pain of age or disease, not the stress of realizing that so much of our labor is futile and unproductive, it’s not even the hatred of the world or the sting of death. It’s the feeling that your Savior has indeed left you alone to fend for yourself and the awful realization that you…can’t…do it. That’s when the doubt creeps in: where is Jesus, where is the Lord who alleged from the cross that he has defeated your sin, your death and the power of the devil? Where is the Jesus who promised to be with you always, to the very end of the age? (Matthew 28:20) Ironically, that’s when you’re best prepared to see Jesus. It’s when you’re about to give in to despair that Jesus comes and asks that piercing, penetrating question: “you tried it your way, but you haven’t really accomplished anything, have you?” And you must confess, “no, I haven’t.”

 

Often, Jesus doesn’t reveal himself until we’ve exhausted every option trying to do it ourselves. And even then, he only reveals himself in the places he promised. Reason and logic and observation will never find Jesus – the disciples fished all night, the logical time to catch fish, but failed. Neither personal experience nor powerful emotions can uncover Jesus – the experience and emotions of Holy Week were still fresh in their minds – but that didn’t help them now. No, he must come to you; he must reveal himself to you just as he did with those disciples at the Sea of Galilee. And when he did, what did they realize? More fish, more productivity, more love than they ever imagined.

 

That’s the miracle and mystery of revelation; it’s why we cling so tightly to Scripture alone, because only through the Word can we see life with eyes of faith rather than reason or emotion. The Christian filters his sight, reason, experience, and feelings through the Word of God and sees the world in a whole new way: we look at death and see life, at sickness and see health, at suffering and see glory, at poverty and see wealth, at a hostile world and see exactly what Jesus told us we would see (John 15:18-25) – just as John finally realized that that mysterious (and rude) figure on the shore was the Lord.

 

And, by the time they were sitting down to eat, they didn’t dare ask Jesus who are you? It would have been a stupid question; they knew without having to be told. How? They recognized him in his Word: his command and promise: the command to throw their nets on the right side of the boat and the promise that you will find some. Here, then, is the handbook for what to do when the cross is heavy and your Savior seems far away. When plans blow up in your face and everything seems to be going wrong, when it feels like you’re all alone – listen for his command and his promise, his law and Gospel. These are the buoys that mark the channel of God’s grace, that reveal Jesus’ presence to you. Don’t give in to the temptation to dig deeper and try harder, don’t look for Jesus in your gut feelings or your turbulent dreams. When you feel that Jesus has left you to fend for yourself, when all the evidence points in that direction, run back to the basics. Run to your baptism where Jesus commanded water and Word to be applied to you and promised that through it you are connected to him forever. When you need tangible, visible evidence of your Savior’s love, run to the altar, because he says do this (Luke 22:19) and promises to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith. When Jesus seems far away, don’t turn to self-help books or self-medication, turn to the Word, where the Word made flesh himself speaks to you. In a very practical way, when you simply seem adrift in life without any anchor or direction, consider the specific calling God has given you. (If you need help with this, consider the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism.)

 

And when Jesus has revealed himself in his Word, then you will see his presence in the more mundane areas of life, too – like breakfast. He took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish – just as he had on Maundy Thursday and on the road with the Emmaus disciples. We make this same connection when we pray “come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.” Every meal we eat, even when it’s bought with our own money and prepared by our own hands, is from him. We are really his guests. No matter what or where, whether it’s the chef’s special or Chef Boyardee, every meal is proof that our Risen Savior is still with us.

 

Remember this, especially in those dark times, especially when you wonder what, if any, impact Easter has had on your life, especially when the cross gets heavy don’t think that your Lord has abandoned you, don’t think that he’s done his part and now it’s up to you, find him in the places he has promised to be: Word and Sacrament. How can we be sure? Well, John adds one more tiny detail: this was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead. You can be sure that your practical Savior will provide for you and reveal himself to you in his own time and way because he’s already done the greatest work of all for you: he died for your sins. Easter proves that the one who bled and died for you isn’t about to abandon you now, because he is risen, he is risen, indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

2 Timothy 2:8, 11 - Remember Jesus Christ, Raised from the Dead - April 21, 2019

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! If you plan on coming back here over the course of the next six weeks, you better get used to that refrain, because we will be saying it throughout the Easter season. Have you ever wondered why? Why do we offer each other this verbal challenge and response on Easter and in the weeks following? Is it a secret password to get in the door? Is it a test to see if you are a genuine Lutheran or not? No. It’s a memory device. It’s a tool to help us remember the fact on which our faith is built: Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of the world on Good Friday, but three days later he rose to life. It might be the most joyful phrase a Christian could ever speak. That being said, did you speak those words out of pure, unadulterated joy this morning or was it more a cold indifference? Or maybe, did you hope that mouthing those words would serve the same purpose as your nice clothes and fake smile: to cover up a bitter, or sad, or unbelieving heart? In all honesty, if it’s up to us, there’s no reason to rejoice this morning: tomorrow we go back to work, the bills still need to be paid, our diseases won’t magically go away, our families won’t suddenly become picture perfect, and sooner or later we will die. But today is not about us, it’s about Christ; and Christ is risen! And remembering that fact will fill our lives with real, genuine joy every day. Of course, if we forget, we will have nothing but sadness.

 

Early Easter morning, some women remembered Jesus…they remembered that he had been cruelly beaten, whipped, tortured, and crucified on Good Friday. And they took action. They came to his tomb to finish embalming his dead body. They were fully expecting to find a lifeless corpse in a sealed tomb. But they found the opposite: the tomb was open and empty. Understandably, they were wondering about this. But they shouldn’t have wondered, they should have remembered that Jesus had told them that he must die at the hands of evil men but that he would rise again on the third day. They should have connected the words Jesus had spoken to the reality before their eyes. (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33; Luke 9:21-22) But they didn’t…they forgot. They were acting like Jesus’ words were one thing, a spiritual, otherworldly thing – and reality was something completely different. So Jesus sent heavenly messengers to help them make the connection: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember while he still told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’

 

When Jesus had first spoken these words, he knew that they would be hard to remember and even harder to believe, so he said listen carefully to what I am about to tell you. (Luke 9:44) Clearly they didn’t listen carefully enough, because they all forgot Jesus’ words and because they forgot they were definitely NOT joyful. They were instead fearful, doubting and despairing. When Jesus was arrested, they ran. When he was crucified, they were nowhere to be found. Saturday and Sunday they were hidden behind locked doors out of fear that the same people who murdered Jesus would come after them. (John 20:19) Even after the women reported what they had seen – or more accurately, what they had not seen – they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. And really, who can blame them. It’s not a recent discovery that dead people don’t ordinarily come back to life.

 

The great irony is that while Jesus’ disciples had forgotten Jesus’ words, Jesus’ words had been seared onto the memories of his enemies. They went to Pilate and said sir…we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first. (Matthew 27:63-64) Isn’t that sad? Jesus’ enemies remembered Jesus’ words and tried to lock him in the tomb. His friends, who should have known better, forgot and locked themselves in a coffin of their own out of fear and sadness.

 

What about us? Do we sometimes forget that Jesus is risen and instead live as though he were still rotting away in a tomb? Or, just as bad, do we – who have been united with Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism – live as though we were still dead in sin and unbelief? Because the two go hand in hand – if deep down we think Christ is still dead, then we will live like it. What does that look like? Well, if the only time you hear the Gospel is Christmas and Easter, you are living like Jesus is still dead. If you think you can reject Jesus’ rightful claim as Lord of your life but still expect him to save your soul, Jesus is dead to you. If you live like this world – and what this world can offer – is all there is and death is the end, Jesus is dead to you. (You’re making the same mistake as the disciples – not connecting Jesus’ words to reality!) If you think you can find Jesus apart from his Word and sacraments, Jesus is dead to you. If guilt and shame and sadness and fear of judgment still rule in your heart you are living like Jesus is still dead. If those things ring true for you, it’s no wonder that life seems sad – you really have no reason to be joyful because you have forgotten the one fact that changes everything: Jesus is not dead; he’s risen!

 

Bu let’s pretend, for one awful moment, that Jesus is still dead. If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17) If Jesus is still dead, then you’re wasting your time here this morning, you might as well still be sleeping or hunting for Easter eggs or sipping a mimosa somewhere – because nothing I say matters. If Jesus is still dead, there was no need for you to please your mother by coming to church – because it’s all a lie anyway. But worst of all, if Jesus is still dead, you are still in your sins – every single evil thing you’ve ever thought, said or done – is still on your record and God will still judge you and damn you to hell for them.

 

And Paul goes even further: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:19) If Jesus is still dead, then we would have good reason to be gloomy and miserable. Even beyond the fact that life in this world is sad and challenging and depressing for everyone – it would be especially miserable for Christians because we’ve clung to a false hope of a better future, we’ve sacrificed and carried a cross in the expectation that it would be followed by glory, we’ve given our time and money and energy to support the proclamation of a message that is nothing more than a very elaborate hoax. If Jesus is still dead then we really should be mourning today because there is no forgiveness, no joy, and no hope of heaven.

But did you catch the word in Luke’s Gospel that gives us hope? Seemed…their words seemed like nonsense. The empty tomb seemed like nonsense, but it wasn’t. It’s not a fairy tale, it’s not an elaborate hoax. It is historical, verifiable, proven fact – those women, Peter, even Jesus’ enemies are eye-witnesses of the fact. (Matthew 28:11-15) And this fact relates directly to our reality here in 2019. Paul says Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20) That strange word firstfruits is important. It means that while Jesus was the first person in history to rise from the dead – and stay alive forever – so there will be more to follow. You know you when you open a Kleenex box that first one can be almost impossible to get out? Well, Jesus’ resurrection was the first, the difficult one, the rest, in comparison will be easy. Everyone who is united to Jesus through faith will follow him out of the grave like tissues out of the box. (And yes, I sincerely hope that you think of the resurrection every time you open a Kleenex box, especially if you doing it to wipe away tears of sadness.)

 

And so, while the women and the disciples were sad when they forgot; when Jesus led them to remember, then they were filled with joy. Jesus reminded the women through the angels and the disciples through the women. And when the disciples connected Jesus’ words to reality, they remembered that Jesus had said, right at the beginning of his ministry: destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. They thought he meant the temple building at the time, but the temple he had spoken of was his body…and after he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. (John 2:19, 21-22) And this profound connection changed their lives. Not only did their sadness turn to joy but it even led them to risk and sacrifice their lives to spread this news throughout the world. (And it’s a well-established fact that people don’t die for something they know to be a lie!)

 

I suppose we might think that it would be a lot easier to connect the Word of God to our personal reality if Jesus appeared to us today – if he was standing right here before our eyes. But don’t forget: Jesus didn’t appear to those women or to his disciples either, at least, not right away. What did he do? He sent angels – messengers – to remind them what he had said. Jesus still sends messengers to help the world remember his words; the clearest and most trustworthy is right here: the Holy Bible. Over 2000 years later it is still preaching the same exact message as those angels. No, it doesn’t give us all the answers we might like to have, it doesn’t clear up every mystery: when Jesus returned to life, how he got out of a sealed tomb, where he was before he appeared to anyone – but our faith and joy are not based on details we don’t know, but on the single glorious fact: he is not here; he has risen!

 

We know that after the disciples saw Jesus’ words become reality before their eyes they wanted to remember everything else he had said, too. (Apparently when someone says he’s going to rise from the dead and then does it, his words gain importance! In fact, that’s why Luke wrote his Gospel. (Luke 1:1-4)) What else does Jesus want us to remember by having it preserved until the end of time in his Word? Well, he wants us to be certain that this miserable life is not all there is: if we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:5) And he wants that certainty to take root in our reality right now: Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2) And there are more…many more things Jesus wants us to remember so that our joy never ends. Too many things to remember today. There are enough things that we could spend every day of our lives until the end of time studying the Bible and not exhaust the things Jesus wants us to remember. In fact, that’s why we gather every Sunday (and, contrary to what many people seem to think, not just on Christmas and Easter!)…to savor this Easter joy year-round.

 

Why does any of this matter? It matters because the joy of Jesus’ resurrection is the only thing that can overcome the gloom and depression of being sinful people in a sinful world that is not and will never get any better. This joy is the only thing that will never change – not if you lose your job, your home, your health, a loved one…not even when you face death yourself. Because you are here today, the devil is going to work overtime to kill your joy by wiping your memory of Jesus’ words and works, by undermining your faith, by trying to convince you that these are just words in a church that have nothing to do with your reality out there. But he can only do that if you go along with him, if you cut yourself off from Jesus by despising his Word and sacraments; if you set your heart on earthly things rather than things above; if you leave here and continue to live as if Jesus were still dead.

 

But if you’re tired of dragging your way through life sad and miserable and hopeless, if you want the joy of this day to last, if you want the deep, unshakable certainty that no trial or tragedy of life can destroy, then take advantage of every opportunity God gives to help you remember and never forget this: He is not here; he has risen! Alleluia! Amen.

 

 

Luke 19:28-40 - On Palm Sunday, Don't Mistake the King You Want for the King You Need - April 14, 2019

By all appearances and for all practical purposes, Jesus seems like he’s finally made it today. Palm Sunday is the only day in his entire life when “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” are given to him; the one and only time the crowds come to him – not looking for free food or healthcare (or to kill him), but to hail him as the king who comes in the name of the LORD. Today Jesus looks every bit the King he came to be. The caution for us today is not to mistake the King we want for the King we need.

 

Finally, Jesus is acting like a king should act. Kings send their servants to do their bidding – and Jesus sends two of his disciples to retrieve a colt. Kings don’t ask for permission to use their subject’s property, they demand it – and Jesus tells his disciples to say the Lord needs it. You may think that a donkey doesn’t appear to be a very kingly mode of transportation – Air Force One or at least a white stallion might seem more appropriate – but it’s interesting to note that this is the only time in the Gospels where we hear that Jesus is riding at all; otherwise he got where he was going the old fashioned way: his own two feet. And when you combine this with Zechariah’s prophecy that Jerusalem’s true King would come into the city riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) it’s clear that Jesus is making a statement with this mode of transportation: he was openly claiming to be the King of Jerusalem, the rightful successor of David, who would bring peace to Israel.

 

And the people went crazy. They loved it. This is what they’d been waiting centuries for. Just like cities throw parades for their victorious sports teams today, the people of Jerusalem gave Jesus a welcome fit for a king. They threw their coats down, so that he rode into Jerusalem on a carpet. John says that they took palm branches and went out to meet him. (John 12:13) The palm branch was like the national flag of Israel. As people wave the stars and stripes before the President, so they waved their palms before their king. And this wasn’t blind or undeserved praise. Luke says the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. They had seen him give the blind sight, feed thousands, defeat demons, heal lepers and, last, but certainly not least, they had seen him bring Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days. (John 11)

 

Never before had Jesus received this kind of welcome. Never before had they publicly and boldly proclaimed all that Jesus had done. And, unlike before, Jesus accepts their praise. He doesn’t tell them to keep his miracles to themselves, as he had before. (Luke 5:14) He didn’t turn around and go into hiding as he did after they tried to make him king after he fed the 5000. (John 6:15) He doesn’t tell them my kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) as he would tell Pilate. In fact, Jesus tells his enemies that this praise is so fitting and necessary that if the crowds didn’t do it the very stones would cry out.

 

Today it looks like the baby born in a stable in Bethlehem and raised in the backwoods of Nazareth has finally lived up to the hype, right? Finally he has the glory, the crowds, the praise; finally Jesus isn’t worshipped by just a few lowly peasants in rural Galilee but by a huge crowd in the capital city; finally it seems Jesus has come to do something more important than just preach and teach, he’s come to take power and control; finally Jesus is acting like the king the people want.

 

This is the Jesus you will find proclaimed in a vast number of churches. This is the powerful, life-changing Jesus who rescues people from their slavery to drugs and alcohol. The Jesus who came down from heaven to deliver people from the prisons of sickness and depression. The Jesus who will save your marriage, entertain and educate your children, get you that promotion and vacation, make sure you have more than enough money for retirement and liberate you from life’s greatest burdens: student and credit card debt. This Jesus sounds an awful lot like a political candidate. And doesn’t this Jesus sound great? Who wouldn’t want this kind of Jesus? This Jesus is helpful, useful, practical, and always relevant. Even the unbelieving world can get behind this Jesus.

 

Finally Jesus was acting the way the people wanted him to…and that’s why that crowd grew so big so quickly – they thought that he was getting ready to reestablish David’s throne in Jerusalem. Just a few verses before our text Luke says the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once…because he was near Jerusalem. (Luke 19:11) (That might tell you something about the quick numerical growth of “prosperity gospel” churches.) They were expecting Jesus to be the king they wanted; a king who would throw the Romans out of the Holy Land and restore prosperity and power to Israel. That’s the version of Jesus the world can – and does – gladly accept. No more of this bloody Jesus and his cross. No more of this Jesus who builds his kingdom through foolish things like words and water, bread and wine. The biggest and most successful churches wouldn’t dare mention this kind of Jesus. Why not? Because they know that this Jesus doesn’t sell tickets or fill seats, the world isn’t buying a crucified King.

 

But lest you think this sermon is a diatribe on how wrong the rest of the world is and how right we are, I have a confession to make: the Jesus the world wants…that’s the Jesus I want too. And I suspect the same is true of you. I don’t really want bloody Good Friday Jesus. I want glorious Palm Sunday Jesus. I don’t want a king who is rejected by the world, and says that the world will reject me too if I follow him. (Matthew 10:22) I don’t want a Jesus who picks up his cross and then tells me that if I’m going to follow him I must pick up my own cross, too. (Luke 9:23) I want a Jesus who stops at Luke 19:40. I want a superhero Jesus that I can brag about at parties – not a bloody, beaten, loser Jesus who says that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22) Is that really true? Consider your prayer life. When you pray do you plead with Jesus to save you from God’s wrath or to save you from health issues and financial insecurity? Do we understand that Jesus distributes his greatest blessings right here at church or do we imagine that coming here is kind of like putting our coins into some divine vending machine which ensures that blessings keep rolling into our lives out there? Perhaps the coldest, hardest evidence is that just like that first Palm Sunday the crowd is here shouting praise to King Jesus in his time of glory, but where will this crowd be on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday when King Jesus bleeds and dies? The truth is that if we want Jesus to be a King who comes to make this life and this world better, then we don’t want the true Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible. And this is more than just a mistake, this is sin, this is idolatry. It’s time to repent.

Repent for your own good; repent, change your mind about the King you want, because idol Jesus, the Jesus the world wants, the Jesus we secretly want, won’t save anyone. There is no salvation to be found in a Jesus whose work ends at Luke 19:40. Oh sure, Jesus has done some wonderful miracles and preached some mesmerizing sermons and fulfilled some OT prophecies. But if Jesus had stopped there, the devil would still control our souls, our sins would still condemn us, and we would still have every reason to fear death – because the yawning gates of hell would still be open. The Jesus who “makes” it in the world doesn’t make it as a Savior.  

 

It’s easy to make mistakes about Jesus on Palm Sunday because the appearances can be deceiving. He appears to march in as David’s legitimate heir who has come to be the earthly King the people want. But if you look past the palm branches and adoring crowds, you can see the real reason Jesus came. Jesus specifically sends his disciples to find a colt which no one has ever ridden. Why does that matter? In the OT, whenever there was an unsolved murder, whenever a dead body was found and no one knew who did it, God commanded the citizens of that city to find a red heifer which had never been yoked, never been used, and slaughter it as an atoning sacrifice. (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) That heifer had to die to bear the burden of the people’s guilt.

 

Jesus isn’t riding into Jerusalem on a war horse to establish his kingdom on earth, he’s riding on a colt as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He comes not to slaughter his enemies but to be slaughtered. Even as the crowds shout his praises and prepare to install him as King – he knows what really lies ahead: that he is going to be beaten, tortured and crucified. He knows that the palm branches brushing his face today will be replaced by the Roman whip tearing open his back. He knows that each step on that carpeted path is one step closer to Calvary where his hands and feet will be nailed to a cross.

 

On Palm Sunday, it’s easy to be mistaken. It looks like Jesus comes to be the king the world wants. It looks like Jesus belongs on the throne so much that even the stones have to admit it. And the stones would. But they do not cry out today. No, when do the stones cry out? Good Friday! Only after Jesus is lifted up on the throne of the cross; only after the notice is nailed above his head identifying him as The King of the Jews (Luke 23:38); only after King Jesus has given up his spirit do the stones shake and quake and split and shout out the truth oh, sorrow dread! God’s Son is dead! (Matthew 27:50-51 & CW 137:2)

 

And finally, not the Palm Sunday crowds but the Good Friday stones proclaim the King we need. We don’t need a Jesus who hangs out in a palace, we need a Jesus who hangs on a cross. A Jesus who is popular in the world wouldn’t want anything to do with you or me. We don’t have the power, the money, the looks, the talent, the charisma the world values and praises. A Jesus like that would be out of touch and out of reach – just consider how many Christians think that only their pastor can get to Jesus on their behalf! We need a Jesus who meets us where we are; who knows what it is to grieve and weep; who knows what it means to be weak and helpless; who is despised and hated by the same world we are. When we are suffering, we find comfort in a King who suffers too. When we are burdened by sin and haunted by demons, we run to a King who knows sin’s weight and the devil’s fury. More than we need a King who is popular with this world’s elite, we need a King who isn’t ashamed to associate with sinners; because that’s what we are.

 

The Jesus the world wants comes and demands to be served. He expects people to give him the shirt off their backs. He expects them to sacrifice everything for him. This Jesus fits the paradigm of power and glory in this world. But this is not the Jesus I need. I don’t need a Jesus who demands the shirt off my back; I need a Jesus who offers his back to take the beating I deserve from God and covers my shameful nakedness with the robe of his righteousness. I don’t need a Jesus who will take over the world but a Jesus who willingly loses the world to save me. I need the Jesus of Philippians 2 who lets go of heaven to grab hold of me. Let the rest of the world have health and wealth Jesus; I need the Jesus who gave up his health and wealth to defeat sin, death and the devil and win eternal life for me.

 

This is the Jesus who saves the world. A Jesus who never suffered and died could save no one from death. A Jesus who is everything the world wants in a King would be no King at all – he would just be another imposter. The world turns in disgust from this King and his wounds, his blood, his cross, his death. Nothing in the universe is more offensive to the world than Christ the crucified King. The world might not want a Jesus who comes to Jerusalem on a donkey to die, but I do. Because there is nothing in the world I need more than for Jesus to suffer and die for my sins. May the Lord help us this Holy Week to never mistake the King we want for the King we need. Amen.

Luke 20:9-19 - You Be the Judge - April 7, 2019

Many of today’s most popular TV shows are those that welcome and invite audience participation. From sports, where replay after replay invite the viewer to make their own judgment to the myriad of talent competitions and reality TV shows featuring people of questionable talent doing things of questionable value – but hey, you get to decide who stays and who goes. Apparently people like the feeling of power that comes with judging. This fifth Sunday in Lent has historically been called Judica “Judgment” Sunday. Jesus is just days from his cross now, and in our text he calls on us to judge him – and ourselves – correctly.

 

It’s Tuesday of Holy week. Tuesday of Holy week was kind of like media day before the Super Bowl – Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover and Jesus is in the temple courts accepting interviews and challenges from both friend and foe and teaching the people about the events that would soon be happening. The Jewish leaders question his right to be teaching and preaching and so he tells them this parable. A man planted a vineyard and handed it over to farmers – expecting to get his share of the harvest. He sent a servant to collect what was due him and the tenants beat him and sent him away empty handed. He sent another but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent a third and they wounded him and threw him out. Finally, he sent his son. And they took one look at the son and said ‘this is the heir…let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

 

As with any parable, correct identification of the characters is vital to understanding the meaning. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, because Luke tells us: the teachers of the law and the chief priests…knew he had spoken this parable against them. So, this parable is about Israel, with special focus on Israel’s religious leaders. God is the owner. The people of Israel are the vineyard. The teachers of the law and the chief priests are the farmers. The thing that stands out is God’s grace to these religious leaders. They hadn’t purchased the vineyard with their own resources, nor had they earned their positions as farmers. God simply gave it to them. And, naturally, God – the owner – has every right to share in the profits of his vineyard – but sadly, the farmers refused and preferred to pretend as if the vineyard belonged to them, running God’s servants – the OT prophets – out of town.

 

You be the judge of these religious leaders, Jesus is telling the crowd. See God’s grace to them and see their hate-filled rejection of his grace and his prophets. Even more, see what they are planning to do the Son of the owner of the vineyard. Imagine that. Jesus is speaking to the people and telling them that their leaders are planning to murder him – with the leaders standing right there.

 

How would you judge them? Ah, but you can’t really make that judgment until you first judge the Lord of the vineyard. Namely, what kind of fruit was he expecting the vineyard – the people – to produce under the care of the farmers – the church leaders? I believe this question is the crux of Jesus’ parable. It demonstrates that this parable is not a fairy tale, this is about real live people and their standing with their Savior; this story is about the Church of all time; this parable applies to the pastor and people of Risen Savior. What kind of fruit did the prophets seek? What fruit did Jesus seek? What fruit do faithful pastors seek? Did the prophets seek sacrifices – obedience to rituals? There was no shortage of sacrifices in the OT, but one of God’s prophets, Samuel, said: does the LORD delight in burn offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22) Did Jesus come after people’s money or possessions? Jesus never once gathered an offering. Does God send pastors today to teach behavior modification, to help bad people become good and good people, better. If that were true, if the OT prophets, Jesus, or faithful pastors today were only trying to coerce people into obeying the Law, they would never be persecuted. Check out some of the most popular mega-churches and mega-pastors today (not to mention every other religion in the world): they demand everything but the shirt off their people’s backs, week after week they give people “to-do” lists and people love them for it. No, what got God’s OT prophets persecuted, Jesus crucified and faithful pastors today attacked is seeking people’s sins.

 

Throughout the OT all of the prophets had the same message: repent and believe. They pleaded with the people to give their sins to God. Jesus came to seek out the lost sheep – not seeking to get something from the sheep. (Luke 15) He came to serve, not to be served. Jesus still sends men to preach repentance and forgiveness – and this absolutely infuriates several groups of people. There are those who don’t think it’s the church’s or pastor’s business to point out and rebuke their sins and those who think the church should be busy changing the world not changing hearts. There are self-righteous people in every church – who are active and generous and willing – but who are sadly under the impression that their good works cancel out their sins. And yet, the only people they’re deceiving is themselves. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)

 

So you be the judge. Be the judge of the Lord of the Church and of those he sends to tend to it. He came to the vineyard looking to lift the burden of people’s sins. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28), Jesus invited, but the chief priests preferred to try to work their way into heaven. All Jesus wanted was to be their Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away their sins, but rather than repent of their self-righteousness and build their faith on Jesus, they rejected and killed him. I suppose it might not seem nice to ask you to judge the leaders, but isn’t that exactly what God invites us to do in Isaiah 5: judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? (Isaiah 5:3-4) He gave the vineyard away for free. He wanted the only fruit that sinners can produce…which is: sin. He didn’t just send one prophet or a couple of prophets, but as he says in Jeremiah: from the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. (Jeremiah 7:25) What more could God have done?

 

 

Well, there is one more thing. The greatest thing. God sent his own Son to seek fruit in the vineyard. You be the judge of love like that. Try to wrap your mind around such love. Would you ever send your child to people with a reputation for violence and murder – ever send them to Iran or North Korea – on the chance they will welcome them with joy? Because that’s exactly what God did. He saw his prophets abused and beaten and he said to himself what shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.

 

Don’t we have to judge that the Lord of the vineyard loves us more than we would dare to hope? This is that love unknown that we sing about! It was God’s unknown, unfathomable love that caused him to send his Son into this world not to gather up our good works but to gather up our sins. All of them. Not just the small ones, the “white lies,” or that one time we ran a stop sign or the one time we lost our temper– but the big, black ones, the ones we would never tell anyone about, the ones that keep us up at night. That’s the fruit he’s looking for. That’s what he came to earth to suffer, die, and pay for.

 

Is that how we always judge Christ and his Church or has work-righteousness taken root in our hearts, too? Do you think Jesus invites you to come into his presence so that he can get something from you? Do you think discipleship is defined by doing good things for God? Do you view your giving, serving, praying, worshipping as rent payments – as things you do to stay in God’s good graces? If so, it’s no wonder you resent him; it’s no wonder that you would find better things to do on Wednesdays in Lent and blow off Holy Week – because in your mind church is where God piles burdens on you instead of taking them from you. But faith built on what we do for Jesus is no faith at all. In fact, it is unbelief; a rejection of God’s grace.

 

And what will God do to those who reject his grace? Jesus tells us he will come and kill those [farmers] and give the vineyard to others. Isn’t the people’s reaction shocking? How do they react when Jesus tells them that God is going to destroy the leaders who taught that doing good and working harder is the way into God’s favor? Did they rejoice that the Lord would remove these abusive leaders? No, they foolishly shout may this never be! “No Jesus. We’d rather continue to believe that we can earn our way into heaven than accept it as a free gift from you.”

 

Jesus looked directly at them. The English doesn’t do justice to the emotion contained in these words. This word for look is the one used when Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. (Mark 10:21) It’s the word for that famous look Jesus gave Peter after the rooster had crowed. (Luke 22:61) They were acting like slaves who wanted to remain in slavery rather than accept freedom. And Jesus pitied them.

 

So Jesus tries one more time to help them judge clearly. He quotes Psalm 118 ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ and adds his own interpretation: everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed. There’s a Jewish proverb that states: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot. If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot. Either way, woe to the pot!” Jesus is telling the people one more time that according to Scripture, the one the Jewish leaders reject is actually the key to the whole building. (The picture is of an arch. If you remove the capstone, the whole thing falls down. If you remove Jesus and his atoning death for sinners from religion, that religion is worthless, it falls to pieces.) The point is that with Jesus there is no middle ground; you will either be broken by him now in repentance and faith or you will be crushed by him in judgment. Either way you must die to yourself; to all thoughts of earning heaven on your own.

 

You be the judge: where do you stand? Are you offended that Jesus doesn’t come to give you your best life now or to teach you how to be a better person but to call you to repentance, to expose your sins so that he can take them away from you? If this offends you, then you will be crushed just like those religious leaders, the nation of Israel and all who believe that Christianity is about “doing good” and “trying harder” for God. Or, will Jesus land on you and break you, crushing the pride, the self-sufficiency, the sins right out of you? Will he lead you to confess that you don’t have anything God needs, the only thing you own is your sin, to not say “Lord, look at all the good I’ve done” but instead “Lord, have mercy on me”? Will you fall on Jesus and his merits and build your entire life, your faith, your priorities, your family on him? Will you see that worship is not about you doing anything for Jesus but him serving you with his forgiveness, with his own body and blood? Or will you plug your ears to his calls to repentance, will you gamble that God will be pleased with the filthy rags of your best efforts? Will you risk abusing with God’s grace for so long that he finally takes it from you and gives it to others? This is not reality TV where the worst that could happen is you get kicked off the island; the stakes are eternal life or eternal death. You be the judge. May God grant us all the wisdom to judge correctly. Amen.

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 - A Trip to the Lost and Found - March 31, 2019

A parable is an earthly story with a spiritual meaning. The earthly part is familiar, isn’t it? You’ve maybe lived – or are living it right now. Jesus told this parable to people who were grumbling about the company he kept. He had the audacity to hang out with the society’s outcasts, the riff-raff, the tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers and beggars. They were not good, upstanding, church-going folk; they were sinners…dirty, despicable sinners. They were the last people anyone expected to see in church, much less heaven. But Jesus welcomed them and ate with them. And they hated him for it. So he took them on a trip to the lost and found. It’s actually the third of three related parables. The first two set up the third. In the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for and save one lost sheep, and when he finds it, he calls his neighbors and throws a party. Then a woman loses a coin and turns the whole house upside down looking for it, and when she finds it she calls her neighbors and friends and…throws a party. (Luke 15:8-10) The pattern is set: something is lost, then it’s found, and there is rejoicing and a party.  

 

There was a man who had two sons. The younger son couldn’t wait for his father to die. He said Father, give me my share of the estate. In other words, “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive, and since you seem unlikely to check out any time soon, just sign over the inheritance check now so I can get out from under your eye and get on with living life my way.” And the father did. He signed over the inheritance to the younger, gave the farm to the older, and kicked back into retirement.

 

Not long after that the younger son hit the road to a far-off country…far from home and family – far from all the rules and guidance and accountability – this younger son did what so many people do in the same situation: he squandered his wealth. How? Wild living, Luke says. Was it alcohol, women, gambling? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that his father’s money, his livelihood was now gone.

 

To make matters worse, there was a severe famine in that whole country. That part is familiar too, isn’t it? Problems tend to pile up. You lose your job and your health insurance at the same time you need surgery and the furnace breaks down and the car needs new tires. The young man has no money and no food; he’s homeless and broke. But he’s still not broken. He’s still determined to prove that he doesn’t need his father or his love and especially his rules. So he goes to work in that far-off country feeding pigs. That’s about as shameful as it gets for a Jewish boy. Pigs were unclean, off-limits. (Leviticus 11:7) Things go so desperate that he craved the pods that the pigs were eating. Even that was off-limits. If you’ve ever wondered what rock-bottom looks like, this is it.

 

Hungry, broke, lost in a foreign country and reeking of pigs, Jesus says, [the younger son] came to his senses. His proud, independent, rebellious will is starting to crack. ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! So he makes a plan. I’ll set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men. And off he went.

 

He probably rehearsed his little speech on the road. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…” He probably wondered if his father would acknowledge him or just lock the door in his face, as he deserved. In this earthly story, there were no guarantees that his plan would work. All he knew was that after he had tried his hand at making his way through this world on his terms – and the world had coldly used him up and spit him out – he was all out of options; it was either die with the pigs in a foreign country or go home to his father’s house and beg for mercy.

 

Maybe you’ve been there. You’ve tried living life on your terms. You’ve done things your way with no regard for the will of the one who gave you life, gave you his love and a place in his family, and gave you everything you needed for this life and the promise of even more in the next. You’ve looked for happiness and fulfillment in all the places your Father told you not to go. You tried to find yourself in the world and ended up getting lost. You’re broken and alone and out of options – but to go back to your Father’s house with your tail between your legs.

 

This is a picture of repentance. Repentance is not an act of human will – it is God’s act of breaking the human will. We don’t work repentance. God does. And he does it in a variety of ways. He begins it at the Baptismal font, where he drowns our sinful nature under the waters of his forgiveness. He does it through parents and pastors and teachers and spouses and friends – who lovingly point out our sins to us. He does it regularly through the invitation to repent and the proclamation of the Law in worship. When all else fails he does it through the church’s declaration of excommunication. But quite often God does it through life. When we run away from him he allows us to fail, to suffer, to be humiliated and broken by this cold world. He lets us learn Psalm 32 firsthand: many are the woes of the wicked. (Psalm 32:10) However God does it his message is the same: apart from him we are not only lost, we are as good as dead – now and eternally. And because it is really God’s hand at work in every case, we know that no matter how painful it is, his goal is that we repent and throw ourselves on his grace, his undeserved love.

 

Undeserved love is what we see in the parable. When the younger son was still far off, still little more than a speck on the horizon, his father saw him. Clearly, he’d been watching, waiting, hoping his son would finally see the error of his ways and come home. And when he finally saw him, he didn’t wait, he took off sprinting towards his son (something no self-respecting adult male would do), wrapping him up in his arms, kissing him – this boy that smelled like pig manure. The boy can only get half of his speech out before his father smothers him and orders the servants to bring out the finest robe and family ring and shoes for his blistered feet. And then, following the pattern, he says “let’s throw a party.” For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

 

 

Here’s the other side of repentance…when God has broken us, when he’s led us to see our lost condition, he won’t have us come to him trying to work out a deal. “Father, if you forgive me now I will turn my life over to you. Give me a chance to earn my way back into your family.” Repentance is not a negotiation. Repentance doesn’t earn forgiveness.  In fact, true repentance understands that God’s grace is so deep that we are forgiven before we utter a word. We don’t ever earn our way home, we are received purely by unearned, undeserved grace.

 

And then there’s the older brother. He’s still out in the field working. He hears the music, the dancing, the singing. He comes near to the house and asks a servant, “Hey, what’s going on?” Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound. And he’s absolutely furious. He refuses to join the party. He wants nothing to do with it. Even when his father comes out and pleads with him, he won’t go. He says Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! In other words, “I’ll be damned before I celebrate your love along with that undeserving son of yours.” And right there you see the problem, right? This son thought he had earned his father’s love.

 

But the father won’t let him off so easily: my son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours (!) was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And there the story ends. At the end of the parable, which son is lost? Who finds himself outside of the party? Not the one you’d expect. The good, responsible, upstanding one. The one who did all the right things for all the wrong reasons. And in the end, what keeps him out of the party? Not his brother’s wild living or his Father’s reckless love. Nothing but his own stubborn self-righteousness. In the end, self-righteousness is the reason so many people will find themselves lost in hell forever. They don’t think they need God’s undeserved love because they imagine they’ve earned it. To imagine yourself too good for God’s grace is to be truly lost.

 

What is this parable about? First, it’s about the third son, the one telling the story. The Son who left his royal throne, the home of his Father, emptied himself of all the perks of being the only Son of God, took on our human flesh and humbled himself to be born of a virgin. But there are two big, glaring differences. He didn’t squander his Father’s inheritance, we did. We stole God’s blessings of life and health and wealth and used them to pursue our own selfish, pleasure-seeking purposes. We are why Jesus was born in the pig-pen of this world, surrounded by the slop of sin and death. We are why he was hung between criminals on a cross, mocked and jeered at by the rabble of the streets. We are why he was lost in a way we could never imagine when his Father abandoned him to hell. And unlike the son in the parable, he had to earn his Father’s love. He not only had to live a perfectly obedient life, he had to carry the sins of the world to the cross and hell and die to earn his Father’s favor. And only when he had done it all, perfectly, did God exalt him to his rightful place at the head of heaven’s feast where he rules all things.

 

This parable is about us, too. We were all born as lost sons. Lost in sin. Doomed to die and be lost in hell forever. But God found us. He found us in Baptism, washed away our sins, adopted us into his family, gave us a place in his house, gave us all the rights and privileges of true sons and daughters. And how have we repaid him? How many times have we said, “No, Father, I don’t like your rules or really care about your love. The path you would have me walk is too restrictive and I’d rather run free. I can do without the gifts you offer in Word and Sacrament. Just give me your blessings and go away.” And yet, while God often lets us go our own way – his house is not a prison, he forces no one to stay – he never gives up on us. He never stops working to lead us to repentance – whether through the hammer of the Law or the sheer hopelessness and despair of life in this world apart from him. And the most amazing thing is that no matter how many times we run away he’s always there waiting to welcome us home. Always ready to cover our sinfulness with the robe of Jesus’ perfect righteousness. No matter how far, how long, how badly, how shamefully we have treated our Father – he always, always, always welcomes us back. No questions, no conditions, just full and immediate restoration.

 

Jesus told this parable to those who imagined that they were “in” with God, that they didn’t need to repent, didn’t need to be forgiven and who looked down on those who did. We life-long Christians, who have grown up in the Father’s house, who attend faithfully and give generously and volunteer regularly, run the same risk of finding ourselves on the outside if we ever begin to imagine that the Father’s grace is something we’ve earned rather than something we’ve been freely given.

 

In the end, this parable isn’t really about the lost sons but about the Father’s endless grace. Whether we can more closely identify with the younger son who squandered his Father’s love or the older one who imagined that he had earned his Father’s love – the point of the parable is clear: it’s not about what you think you deserve. Jesus took our place under God’s wrath so that we could take his seat at his Father’s party. The Father sacrificed the Lamb for us. That’s grace. We don’t ever find out if the older son realized his lost condition and went in to celebrate his Father’s boundless love. I think Jesus ends there on purpose. It forces us to ask ourselves: will we? Amen.  

Luke 13:1-9 - Jesus Interprets the News - March 24, 2019

If the season of Lent could be summed up in just one word, that word would be…REPENT. In Hebrew it’s “shuv” – which has the basic idea of turning back or turning around. In Greek it’s “metanoia” – literally “change your mind.” Throughout the Bible repentance refers to a change; a change of heart and mind and a changing of ways…from sin to holiness, from unbelief to faith, from death to life. And today, Jesus weaves this Lenten theme of repentance into current events as he interprets the news for us.

 

Why are we so fascinated by the news? Why do our lives revolve around the morning newspaper, the news feed on our phones? One reason is that it allows us to “play God” – to sit in the safety of our homes and judge the thoughts, words and actions of others. We are invited to join similarly innocent news anchors in assigning blame or shame or criticism or praise as we see fit. It’s an ego boost to see all these “evil” people paraded before our eyes and think: “I may not be perfect…but I’m certainly better than that guy!”

 

One of Israel’s biggest and perennial mistakes was their “entitlement” complex, they felt they had an automatic “in” with God. They knew they were God’s chosen people, his treasured possession. They had the Law, the temple, the prophets, priests and kings chosen by God himself. They had the heritage: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…Moses, Elijah, and David. They had proof that God was on their side: he had rescued them from Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and the wilderness, and planted them in a land that didn’t belong to them. And so they figured: “we’re in no matter what…we’ve got the golden ticket.” And yet, what message did God give Ezekiel for Israel? Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

 

The Christians in Corinth had the same kind of “entitlement” complex. They were strong, they were spiritual, they were filled with knowledge and the Spirit, they enjoyed liberty from the Law through the Gospel. They prophesied and saw visions and spoke in tongues. They were young and hip and growing and…they were the congregation Paul had the most trouble with. They were divided. They abused the gift of the Lord’s Supper and each other. They boasted of their tolerance of sin and failed to carry out proper Christian discipline. They were sexually immoral and doubted the resurrection. Which is why Paul issued one of the sternest warnings in the NT: if you think that you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12) That’s why he reminded them of Israel’s history; that they were baptized into Moses and drank from the spiritual rock that was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:2,4) – that Israel too had all the benefits of God’s grace – and yet God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:5) Remember the lessons of the past, Paul was telling them; don’t take God’s grace for granted. He will eventually reject those who reject him, even if they are his chosen people.

 

We need to hear this warning too because we still have a tendency to have an “entitlement” complex, to take God’s grace to us for granted. Don’t we tend to believe that bad things happen to bad people? Every time there is a disaster, some act of war or violence or abuse of power…a tornado, earthquake, or flood – we are inundated with 24/7 streams of speculation attempting to explain what God is trying to tell us. Why did this happen? And the usual answer is: “Well, that’s what happens when you’re gay, addicted to drugs, pro-choice, Islamic – or whatever.” (To be clear, sometimes that is the case. When a drug addict dies from an overdose or a woman dies as the result of a failed abortion, that tragedy is clearly a result of their sin. But these are exceptions, not the rule.) But the one thing that never changes, no matter what has happened in the news, is the comfort that it has nothing at all to do with me. But Jesus challenges that theory in our text.

 

One day, some people came to Jesus with news about a sacrilegious and barbaric act committed by Pontius Pilate. He had slaughtered some Galileans as they were offering their sacrifices in Jerusalem. It was probably no coincidence that this happened to Galileans. Galilee was the wild west of Israel; a hotbed of insurrection, messianic wannabes, political anarchists and terrorists. Pilate was probably hoping to make an example out of them. Saying in no uncertain terms: “If you even think about plotting against my government, this is what will happen to you, too.” Incidentally, crucifixions were political statements too. They were the worst form of punishment the Romans could think of, intended to intimidate, subjugate, and terrify anyone who might even think about questioning or overthrowing the Roman government.

 

So how were Jesus’ disciples to interpret this? From Jesus’ response, it appears that they were expecting him to agree with their own judgment: that God was punishing these Galileans for their sins. But Jesus gets right to the heart of the issue: do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? And then he does the one thing we never want him to do when we come to him for answers: he turns the question back on the questioners: I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

 

And then to drive the point home even deeper, Jesus adds a headline of his own: a construction accident which didn’t have any political or religious overtones. A tower fell in Siloam killing 18 people. Just a freak accident like those that happen all the time. How was this to be interpreted? Were they more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? Was God paying those people back for some secret sins they had committed? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. And you could substitute any manmade or natural disaster, any tragedy you want; those with political and religious overtones – like 9/11 or the shooting in the mosques in New Zealand, or those without, like the sudden crashes of those Boeing airplanes. How should you interpret that news? Is God punishing these people? Are they getting what they had coming? Jesus says simply: no – meaning that’s the wrong question. When tragedies happen we shouldn’t be asking “why did God allow this to happen?” But “what is God trying to tell me?” Is God trying to tell us something in the daily news? Yes! What ? Repent! No matter what happened to who, every tragedy is a reminder that this entire world is under God’s curse and sooner or later he is going to bring everyone under judgment. So go ahead and watch the news, but remember that the news isn’t about what God is doing to others, it’s about what he’s telling you. And his message to you is clear: repent, otherwise you, too, will perish.

But the simple fact that we are still readers of the news and not reduced to 2 ½ inches in the obituary section of the newspaper is evidence of God’s grace to us. Jesus illustrates this with a parable. A man had a fruitless fig tree that failed to produce for three years. He wanted to cut it down. It was taking up space, wasting land and sunlight. But the gardener intervened. Be patient. Give it one more year. He’ll work on it: aerate its roots, fertilize it. If it bears fruit, great. If not, go ahead: cut it down. This parable was clearly spoken against Israel. She was the fig tree God had planted in the Promised Land and when the Son of God came, looking for fruit, he didn’t find any. For three years Jesus had left his footprints on Israel’s highways and byways. For three years he had worked to seek and save the lost. For three years he had preached and taught and performed miracles. For three years he had searched for repentance and faith in Israel. Israel’s time was running out. But still Jesus was patient, he put up with their unbelief, their hostility, their rejection – because he didn’t want any of them to perish but to return to their God and be saved. (1 Timothy 2:4)

 

And that’s also why God puts up with the world at large today. That’s why he doesn’t seem to be on any big campaign to clean this world up. That’s why he doesn’t give this world what its sin deserves. That’s why in most cases it seems likes he doesn’t interfere or intervene when evil people do evil things and tragedies happen; why he lets planes fall out of the sky and white supremacists shoot up mosques and floods wipe out people’s homes. Each and every disaster is a megaphone through which God is telling the world: Repent. Turn around. Change your mind and your ways. Return to the God who created you. (Which is why it was no coincidence that churches around the country were packed the Sunday after 9/11!)

 

Most importantly, Jesus’ intercession is the only reason that God has put up with us to this day. His pleading with the Father for “one more year” is the only reason we are still alive, still watching the news and not tragic subjects of the news. It’s why we refer to our lifetimes as our “time of grace.” It is the time Jesus has graciously purchased for us to repent, to return to him and be saved from the destruction that is coming. Both parts are important: repenting and returning. Why? Because we are incapable, by ourselves of producing the good fruit God demands from us. Jesus makes this clear in John’s Gospel: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) That Jesus is the one who produces good fruit in our lives is clear even in this parable: ‘sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.’

 

This is the real reason we are still alive, still breathing, still walking and talking in this world – so that Jesus would have one more day to work on our hearts, to dig around our roots with his call to repentance, to fertilize us by pouring his life-giving, fruit-producing power into us through Word and sacrament. To make us the fruitful trees God always intended. What does a fruitful tree look like? Paul says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Are those fruits present in your life? If God is watching the newsreel of your life – and he is – is he pleased with what he sees? If you have to confess with me that many days we’ve been fruitless trees just taking up space in God’s kingdom – then remember this: the call to return to Jesus isn’t primarily a call to come here to be fertilized and energized so that you can go out and prove your fruitfulness, your worthiness to God in your life. If that were true, we’d be better off giving up now. No, the call to return to Jesus – especially in this season of Lent – is to trust that he came to live the life we have not, to bear the fruit we cannot, to be cut down on the cross in our place and to rise to life to justify us, make us worthy and righteous in God’s sight. We need to return to Jesus urgently because every day the one thing we need most is the forgiveness and righteousness only he can offer. Because while full and free forgiveness is no guarantee that we won’t be on a plan that will suddenly malfunction or that some accident will happen that gets us into the daily news cycle – it does guarantee that we will be shielded from God’s wrath on Judgment Day. And in the end, that’s the real tragedy we need to avoid.

 

So…how should we interpret the news – the daily and hourly report of tragic events from all over the world? Jesus says that we can’t, that we shouldn’t try – at least not in the way we’d like to. I hope Jesus has changed the way you consume the news forever. That instead of asking “why did God allow this to happen to those people?” you ask “what is God trying to tell me?” Because now we know the answer to that question: repent! Turn around. Change your mind and your ways. Recognize that every tragedy is a shadow of the far worse tragedy that will befall every impenitent sinner on Judgment Day. And then return. Return to Jesus in faith – the one who shed his blood to shield you from the punishment of eternal death so that you might instead have the gift of eternal life. Amen.

Luke 13:31-35 - Jesus' Desire to Save Confronts and Overcomes - March 17, 2019

Jesus’ long, winding road to the cross was filled with obstacles. Last week, he ran head-on into the prince of darkness in the wilderness. This week, he runs into three more obstacles, all of which would prevent him from carrying out his mission of salvation. We’ll handle the first two together. Religion and politics are always a nasty combination. In the book of Revelation, one part religion and one part politics and a dash of demonic influence is the perfect recipe for the antichrist. (Revelation 13) Whether it’s the emperor cult of 1st century Rome, the medieval papacy, Hitler’s Third Reich, the Islamic caliphate, or any other unholy alliance of religious and political authority, whenever the two get together there is sure to be trouble, persecution and bloodshed.

 

The Pharisees came to Jesus, pretending to be on his side. “Get away from here – Herod has put a bounty on your head. You don’t want to get yourself killed, do you? Get out while you still can.” Of course, the great irony is that the Pharisees had been scheming to do the exact same thing for over a year. (Mark 3:6) They just couldn’t agree on when and how to do it. And Jesus…well he seems blissfully unconcerned. Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ It certainly seems like Jesus has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. That he’s got some inside information. Of course, he did. Jesus knew exactly what was in store for him in Jerusalem. He’d planned it with his Father before creation (1 Peter 1:20) and he’d already predicted several times that in Jerusalem he would suffer, die, and rise again – on the third day. He’s the Lord. No one takes his life from him, he lays it down of his own accord. (John 10:18) He’s already gone head to head with the prince of darkness in the wilderness on an empty stomach and won, he’s got nothing to fear from some two-bit puppet king. No amount of political pressure will keep Jesus from winning salvation for all.

 

Next he takes a jab at religion, represented by the Pharisees. He knows what they’re really thinking, that they’re plotting his death too…that all of their supposed concern for his safety is just smoke and mirrors. In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – and then the real zinger – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Now there’s a shot: if a prophet of God is going to die, it has to be in Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish religion. Jerusalem had earned a reputation when it came to God’s prophets. We already heard how Jerusalem responded to Jeremiah’s message – they called for his death. (Jeremiah 26) According to tradition, Isaiah was sawn in half in Jerusalem and Zechariah was stoned to death right in front of the temple. (2 Chronicles 24:21) God’s NT spokesmen didn’t fare much better in Israel’s capital. Stephen was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:54-60) and James was beheaded there. (Acts 12:2)

 

Politics and religion hated Jesus. Politics nailed him for treason, for claiming that he was a king. Politicians like Jesus when they can twist his words and rip them out of context to support their own agenda, but they have no use for the Jesus of Scripture. What good is a king whose kingdom is not of this world; who rules not by law or sword but through the Gospel; who promises health and wealth and security – not in this world, but in the next? It’s no wonder that those who thirst for power and glory here have nothing but hatred for the one who hides his power and glory in humility. But Jesus has turned the tables on political power. King Herod has fallen on the forgotten scrap heap of history – and Pilate would have too, if the authors of the Creed hadn’t credited him with presiding over Jesus’ crucifixion. But Jesus died and rose and not only made history in Jerusalem but redeemed Jerusalem from her history. Jerusalem had put her trust in politics but politics could not save Jerusalem or her people, only Jesus could. Only Jesus did.

 

Religion charged Jesus with blasphemy, for daring to say that he was the Son of God. Religion had no use for Jesus either – as strange as that might sound – because Jesus had come to destroy the legalistic, self-righteous religion that the Pharisees embodied and that comes naturally to all of us. He ignored the hedge of man-made laws they had erected that obscured the holy will of God. He interpreted and explained the Law without any need for their puffed up rabbinical opinions. He unleashed the law in a way even the most pious Pharisees couldn’t handle: be perfect (Matthew 5:48); keep the unchanging Law of God down to the smallest letter, the least stroke of a pen (Matthew 5:18) – in thought, word and deed (Matthew 22:37); don’t try to bargain with God; do the commandments and you will live. (Luke 10:28) Trying hard is not good enough. Self-improvement won’t cut it. The Pharisees knew, deep down in their hearts, that Jesus was right and that God demands more of people than anyone can give. And you might think that it was this sharpening of the law that caused the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to want him dead.

 

But it was the Gospel that made them thirst for Jesus’ blood. They were offended that this authoritative and popular rabbi from Nazareth would dare to offer God’s unconditional love and mercy to the religious losers, to society’s outcasts, to prostitutes and tax collectors. They couldn’t stand that he ate with sinners, that he said the last would be first and the first would be last. (Matthew 20:16), that he boldly taught that repentant sinners, not self-righteous Pharisees would be found “not guilty” in God’s courtroom. (Luke 18:9-14) They hated him because he preached that the way to avoid God’s judgment and find his salvation is not to try hard and do better but to die to yourself, to see your good deeds as nothing but trash (Philippians 3:8), and place your faith completely in his perfect life and atoning death for salvation. But all their resentment wouldn’t stop Jesus from dying for them.  

 

And while Jesus’ determination drove him forward to Jerusalem, his compassion drove him to tears: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. He mourns over his city. He weeps over what politics and religion had done to her. Mostly, he weeps over the people, the unwillingness of their hearts to come to him for forgiveness and protection and salvation. And he wept over their rejection of the prophets he had sent, their rejection of God’s Word, their rejection of him – the Lamb of God who had come to die for them.

 

Jesus reveals something important here: while the people of Jerusalem thought they were just rejecting and murdering men – they were really rejecting Jesus. How often have I longed to gather your children together he says. The hen from heaven had been clucking away for centuries through prophets and priests, through spoken words and bloody sacrifices, calling to his children, but they were not willing. They would not repent. They would not believe. They would not receive the One who had come to save them. It breaks Jesus’ heart. This is his city, his temple, his throne. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:11) And so the house that was once filled with God’s glory would be left empty and desolate. Begun by the Romans in 70 AD, continued every since in war after war – the Promised Land is now little more than a glorified target range for the world’s superpowers and the hill on which God’s temple once stood now holds a mosque.

 

And all of it is a Lenten warning to each of us. Do not take God’s grace for granted. Do not say to yourself that you will take repentance and Jesus’ invitation to believe seriously later. Now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2) Jesus still weeps when those who should know better reject his invitation in favor of something else. He weeps when his Church becomes distracted from her mission of proclaiming Law and Gospel and spends her time and energy on endeavors that have nothing to do with the salvation of souls. Jesus weeps when those he has made his own through Baptism and taught the deep truths of God in Sunday school and confirmation enter high school or college and imagine that they’ve outgrown their need for their Savior. He weeps when he causes the history of his redemptive work to be heard in special Lenten services and people who presume to call him Lord have more important things to do than hear what it cost him to save them from their sins. He weeps when Christian parents place athletics and academics and convenience and unique needs over and above their children’s spiritual welfare. He weeps when people who probably couldn’t recite the books of the Bible think that they don’t need to study the Bible here or at home. Now you can get angry or roll your eyes and blow me off – but it’s not me you’re blowing off, it’s Jesus. How often have I longed to gather you…but you were not willing! Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter, doesn’t he: the willingness or unwillingness of our hearts? We’re great at hiding the desires of our hearts under a blanket of excuses ranging from work schedules to children’s bedtimes to weather to darkness – but really, it all comes down to your will. If you really want to do something, you will find a way do it. And Jesus hits us right between the eyes with the uncomfortable truth: often we simply don’t want to be in his house, studying his Word, receiving his forgiveness, taking shelter under his wing – because our minds are on earthly things and we’d rather serve our bellies than our Savior. (Philippians 3:19)

 

Jesus’ invitation isn’t irresistible. He uses simple men and simple means like word, water, bread and wine to call, gather, and protect his people – they are very easy to reject – but the reality is that if we reject them, we are really rejecting Jesus. If we reject them, we’re only hurting ourselves – and, even worse, we are bringing Jesus to tears, we are laying a whip across his back, pounding nails into his hands all over again. If we are not willing to receive Jesus in the humble means he has chosen to come to us and we find ourselves on the wrong side of his judgment on the Last Day it won’t be because Jesus didn’t want us, it will be because [we] were not willing.

 

The good news is that our day of reckoning has not yet arrived. There is still time to repent and believe. Whatever your habits, your priorities, your excuses have been in the past – they can all change today. By suffering and dying, Jesus has both forgiven and freed you from slavery to sinful habits, priorities, and excuses – those sins are gone and buried. Jesus still longs to gather you – no matter how many times you’ve rejected his invitation in the past. He is still stretching out the protective wing of his Word and absolution, his body and blood. Don’t make the same mistake the people of Jerusalem did. They got angry when God’s prophets called them to repent and change their ways. They rejected and killed them for proclaiming God’s Word. They trusted political power to keep them safe and a religion of good works to make them right in God’s eyes. And God paid them back for their unbelief. See the violent, war torn mess that Jerusalem is today, see how the descendants of his chosen nation are hated and hunted around the world, and you are seeing just a sample of the destruction Jesus promises to all who reject his invitation.

 

Politics and religion couldn’t save Jerusalem and they can’t save us, either. Political power cannot protect us from the destruction God will bring on this world – only Jesus can. Religious devotion to rules – even God’s rules – cannot justify us in his courtroom – only Jesus can. Jerusalem wasn’t saved because she rejected her Savior. But Jesus continues to gather the New Jerusalem – the Church – under his protective wing. Jesus desires nothing more than to forgive you, protect you, and carry you through judgment to eternal life; are you willing to let him? You don’t have to do anything to be saved; Jesus has done it all. Now the question is, what do you want to do? What do you want to do after church today: study God’s Word or study a menu? Where do you want to be this Wednesday, next Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – watching basketball or hearing what Jesus endured to save your soul from hell? In the end, only those who shelter in his forgiveness now will rejoice when he appears in judgment and say and sing: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. May our Savior’s desire to save us overcome every obstacle in his path – even and especially our own unwilling hearts. Amen.  

Luke 4:1-13 - Jesus Joins Us in the Desert - March 10, 2019

Today the Christian church year chugs into the season of Lent. Every year we follow the exact same path: Advent; Christmas; Epiphany; Lent; Easter; Pentecost. Do you ever wonder why? Why we continue to cover the same ground year after year when it seems that it would be more exciting to focus on more practical and relevant things like marriage, family, finances and mental health? The reason is simple: sin. Your sin. My sin. The sins of the whole world of sinners. The Christian church – and everything that’s done in it throughout the Church year – exists for only one reason: for God to expose and remove sin. As much as people would like to shape the church to suit their own purposes, that’s the one and only mission of the Church. The reason for Lent, the reason for bringing little babies like Paul to baptism, the reason you are sitting there listening to this sermon, the reason we are breaking ground to expand our facilities is to take away sin. That’s why you’re here – or at least, why you should be here. How better to do that than to follow the life of Jesus throughout the year, the one who came to earth with the express purpose of taking away sin? We all were born into the desert of sin, the opposite of the Eden God created for us; helpless to escape it on our own. And that is why Jesus joins us in the desert this morning.

 

Unfortunately, if the devil succeeds in leading us to think that sin is not as serious as God says it is, that it isn’t the biggest problem we face in life, that it isn’t the true reason that one day we will all die; then we won’t see our need for the Church, and even worse, we won’t see our need for Jesus. What good is a Jew who died for sins that no one has? What good is a Church that openly admits that its mission is not to make life in this world better but to expose and forgive your sins if sin is not really a big deal? If we don’t believe sin is a big deal, then we are living a Satanic delusion and there will be side-effects of living a lie. First, we end up just going through the motions. We may bring our babies to be baptized, our children to Sunday school, we sit in those chairs and get up to receive Communion – but not because we really need to, but just because that’s what Christians do (and it keeps grandma happy!). The second is that you will try to redefine and reorient the church’s mission in a more social and charitable direction – you will want it to be a place where you can come to feel good about yourself by doing good, fun things with and for other people. Because, if we’re not here because we need forgiveness, then we must be the good ones, and it’s the people out there who need help and deliverance from us.

 

But if we ever doubt what we already admitted this morning: that we are by nature sinful, that we have disobeyed God in our thoughts, words, and actions, that we have done what is evil and failed to do what is good, that we deserve God’s punishment both now and in eternity…if we ever forget that the devil is real and only tells lies…if we ever forget that hell is a real, terrible place of total separation from God’s grace where it’s just you and your guilt and terror forever…if we ever forget about the big, stinking pile of sin each of us brought here this morning (although we are careful to keep it hidden behind our charming smiles and nice clothes) – then we have lost the only real reason for the Church’s existence and the only real reason to come to church. God put this church here, in this city, in this very place for you – to expose and remove your sin. That’s really the only reason we are here.

 

So a Christian pastor’s primary job – if he is faithful to his call – is to preach to the choir, to you (the “good” people who have come) and announce the deep, dark truth about you. The truth is that you have failed miserably, you have lost the fight – and it wasn’t even close. The devil has succeeded in tempting you to sin (to disobey God) which has earned you God’s penalty of death. You can try to ignore it, but you can’t escape it. This truth is eating you alive. Sin stains your every thought, word and action. Oh sure, we may follow the way of the world and try to claim that we are mostly “good” deep down. But if we ever start to believe it, then we’re even sicker than we think. Luther said that if you doubt your sinful condition you should pinch yourself to see if you’re still flesh and blood. And if you are, read what the Bible has to say about the sinful flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). (LC V:75)

 

Want more proof? Ever been sick? Ever had a body part not work like it should? Ever had a falling out with a friend or relative? What grudge are you still holding in your heart, even here in God’s house? Have you ever been rejected or depressed or saddened by loss? Ever had your body or car or home break down? These things don’t happen to perfect people in a perfect world. They are inescapable evidence of the sin that permeates everyone and everything in the world.

 

Now, if your life, your marriage, your children, your health, your job are all perfect; if nothing breaks down, nothing disappoints, nothing hurts, if everything in your life is perfectly wonderful – then you can relax. Actually, you can leave because we have nothing to offer you. You are (somehow) untainted by sin. You don’t need Jesus or his Church. You will live forever without him. But if you’re not heading for the door then it’s my responsibility to ensure that you know why. It’s not God’s fault. God doesn’t take pleasure in ruining, torturing, tormenting things or people. God is peace, not chaos. God is love, not hate. God is life, not death. So if chaos and sickness and hatred and death have invaded your life and your family, then you need to know that it’s because of sin. Sin which has corrupted you from head to toe. Sin which condemns you to death and hell. Sin which has ripped you out of the lush Garden of Eden dropped you in the dusty desert of this fallen world. And there is nothing you can do about it.

 

But here’s the good news: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert. The good news is that because you could not escape this barren desert on your own, God sent his Son to you. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this happened immediately after Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit descended on him, filled him. Usually when we think of being “filled with the Spirit” it means that we’re about to do or say wonderful things; you’re doing miracles, you’re healing and cleansing and converting, you’re winning at life, you’re happy and successful and probably rich. If you’re filled with the Spirit, you’re not – we would think – hungry and alone and facing temptation in a desert. And yet, here Jesus is because this is why Jesus came. He didn’t come to show us how awesome life could be if you just do it right. He didn’t come to gather a cult of followers who would imitate his behavior and repeat his words. He didn’t come merely to temporarily fix some of sin’s symptoms for some people by curing what ailed them. He came to do battle with the source of it all. He came into this world to wage war against the devil.

The devil knew it and the devil came at him with all the power he could muster. But the devil is hopelessly unoriginal; all he could muster were the same old tricks he used in the Garden of Eden. God had told Adam and Eve that he loved them, that his plan was best for them, and that he would always protect them. But the devil succeeded in leading them to doubt God’s Word, test his love, and trash his plan – and eat from the tree and earn death for themselves and all of us. Thus the desert of sin we are born into. Jesus came to turn the tables, to be the Son God intended Adam (and us) to be, to crush the devil’s power to tempt and trap us. And so the prince of darkness went head to head with the prince of heaven and nothing less than the eternal fate of our souls hung in the balance. “If you really are the Son of God, you shouldn’t have to suffer such terrible hunger, why don’t you just use some of that power to make yourself some bread” – in other words, be selfish, just this once, the devil said. Man does not live on bread alone, Jesus answered. God alone – not bread alone – gives and sustains life. “God’s plan calls for you to literally go through hell on a cross to achieve all authority in heaven and on earth – I’ll give it to you if you just bend a knee before me” the devil whispered. Worship the Lord your God and serve him only, Jesus responded. Any shortcut from God’s path only leads to hell. “If God’s Word is as reliable as you claim, then you can throw yourself down from this wall and he won’t let you get hurt” the prince of darkness argued. Do not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus answered. God’s protection is a promise to be trusted not tested. Isn’t it incredible how Jesus defeated the devil? He didn’t defeat him as God but as man – as your perfect substitute. He didn’t do it by summoning legions of angels or issuing an almighty command. Jesus defeated the devil by, frankly, becoming a child – by maintaining child-like faith in his Father – thus proving himself to be the perfect, obedient Son of God Adam and we were supposed to be, but are not. Jesus did what we fail to do every time we give in to temptation: he emptied himself, humbled himself, trusted completely in God and his Word, whether it seemed or felt right or not. And that simple, child-like trust in God defeated the devil and sent him scurrying back to hell.

 

So as you walk out those doors to continue wandering through this earthly desert, battling sin, death and the devil, take these assurances with you: you are never, ever alone. Jesus is there with you. He’s been there. He’s been alone, starving, miserable, stalked and hunted by the devil. Jesus is on his way to death too! And he’s not just here to empathize with you, coach you, give you a pep talk – just to say, “Oh man, this world is rough, isn’t it” or “There, I’ve shown you it can be done, now do it.” He didn’t come to teach you how to defeat the devil yourself – you, me, we, can’t. He came to defeat the devil for you. Like a Navy Seal dropping out of heaven, Jesus put two rounds in the devil’s skull, and then turns to rescue you, to take you out of this desert and back to paradise. That’s why the Holy Spirit led him to where you are, the desert of sin. He came to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8) and on Calvary’s cross, where he bled and died for the sins of the world, he accomplished his mission once and for all.

 

And while he won this victory for all people of all time – there’s only one place he dispenses those gifts: his church. What do you need if you happen to find yourself alone and wandering in a desert? Food, water and protection. Only here can you find the water of life, where God himself stoops down out of heaven and says “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Only here can you receive the body and blood of Jesus the only food that can both strengthen you for your daily battles and assures you that the victory has already been won. Only here will you find protection from the devil’s lies and attacks – because here is where the Word is preached and taught in truth and purity, the Word which destroys the devil’s lies and sends him sulking back to hell. The Church truly is the holy ark (as Luther said) in which God carries believers safely through this sin-filled desert to life in heaven. Here there is peace and hope and joy in a world that has none of those things. Here there is free and full forgiveness for every sin and every sinner. Here the promise of eternal life is offered to dying people in a dying world.

 

And that’s, finally, why we walk this same path each and every year. Why we stick to the boring old Word and sacraments that many have cast aside. Why preaching and teaching and baptizing and communing are not incidental, optional things we do as part of a greater mission to make this world a better place – Word and Sacrament are our mission! It’s why we are building. It’s why we refuse to let our church be transformed into just another boys and girls club, another social hotspot, another “do-good” charitable organization. Because the church is here for just one reason: to deal with sin. You are here because of your sin. And Jesus is here too. He’s here to take away your sin. That’s Lent in a nutshell. Welcome to Lent in the Lutheran Church. Amen.

Luke 9:28-36 - Jesus Is Transfigured - March 3, 2019

I’d be willing to bet that everyone here – even the children – would be able to explain what Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are all about. Jesus was born. Jesus died. Jesus rose again. But what about this day: Transfiguration. What is this day all about? Sadly, many Christian churches don’t celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord anymore for reasons we will briefly touch on. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was transfigured. Why? For our benefit now and eternally, today, we will find out.

 

As we have noted throughout the Epiphany season, all of Jesus’ miracles serve one main purpose: to convince us that he is the Son of God, one with and equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. And that’s not my opinion but the clear declaration of Scripture. John writes near the end of his Gospel: Jesus did many other miraculous sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31) All of the miracles Jesus did during his earthly ministry reveal him as the Son of God, and these miracles reach their climax in the Transfiguration, the one and only time Jesus fully revealed his deity on earth.

 

Unfortunately, it has become disturbingly common today to downplay, distort and even deny these miracles. We are told that enlightened and educated 21st century people no longer believe in miracles, so if the Christian Church wants to maintain its influence and relevance in the world it needs to stop insisting that Jesus actually turned water into wine (John 2:1-11), calmed a stormy sea (Luke 8:22-25), fed 5000 with a boy’s lunch (Luke 9:10-17), and instantly healed sick people with a touch or a word (Luke 6:17-19).

 

We need to stop saying that these miracles actually happened because according to today’s scientific and rational standards, they couldn’t have. But if you buy in to that – and still insist on calling yourself a Christian – then you’ve put yourself in something of a bind. If these miracles didn’t actually happen, what do you do with them? You can’t pretend they’re not there – Christians have taught and believed them for 2000 years. You can’t just cut them out – all you’d be left with is the sad story of a poor, illegitimate Jewish boy who spoke eloquently and seemed to have some potential but wound up ticking off the wrong people and getting himself killed. Hardly an inspiring story. Since false teachers can’t get rid of the miracles, they do the next best thing: repurpose and repackage them; often as parables which teach important lessons that are supposedly more relevant to life in the 21st century; lessons that teach us how we can make this world a better place. Ironically, they are trying to do what Peter tried – establish heaven on earth. This is called the social gospel. Thus the feeding of the 5000 is repackaged as a call to support food stamps and welfare programs and a mandate to the church to open its own food pantry. The healing of the sick is repurposed to give support to Medicare for all and validate faith-healings today. Jesus may not have actually calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, but he is saying that we should watch our carbon emissions and do everything we can to stop climate change. Repackaged this way, we are told, makes the church relevant and Jesus’ miracles meaningful (and acceptable) to 21st century Americans.

 

While it is true that most of Jesus’ miracles did relieve the pain and suffering of real people in real ways – this social gospel theory hits a roadblock when it reaches the miracle before us today: Jesus’ transfiguration. There’s no doubt that the transfiguration was a miraculous event: Jesus glowed like the sun from the inside out, Moses and Elijah were there – alive, God spoke from heaven. The transfiguration was a miracle. But this miracle didn’t feed the hungry, cure the sick, or calm any storms. This miracle did nothing for anyone except give three of Jesus’ disciples a glimpse of his true glory as God. It confirmed to their eyes the Word proclaimed by the voice from heaven: this is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him. It’s hard to twist this miracle into some sort of social message – which is why it’s become acceptable in large segments of Christianity to classify “problem” miracles like this one, the six-day creation, the virgin birth, the resurrection, as myths. Things that never really happened, but were instead invented by the early church to pump up Jesus’ reputation so that people would listen to his social and moral message.

 

Such people think that twisting the Word of God like this is brilliant and innovative, but it’s pretty clear that this was happening already in the days of the apostles. Peter confronted this view directly in our second lesson: we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18) Peter is unequivocal in stating that he and the other disciples saw these things with their own eyes and heard them with their own ears. Peter testifies that Jesus is the Son of God – and that his miracles – especially his transfiguration – prove it.

 

And so, as we stand here today with those disciples and see Jesus in glorious splendor – his face shining like the sun and his clothes as bright as a flash of lightning – we too should walk away with the firm conviction that this Jesus is indeed the one, true God. Because if we leave this mountain today with that conviction, then we will be well prepared for Lent. Then when we see Jesus bleed and suffer and die, we will know that this is not just a man, but the Son of God suffering and dying to take away the sins of the world.

 

Because, once we believe who Jesus is, we will be prepared for what he came to do. Luke introduced our text by saying about eight days after Jesus said this… What had Jesus said? The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Luke 9:22) And when Moses and Elijah appeared guess what they were talking about? His departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. In any other circumstance, this would be shocking and disturbing. If you or I were to casually mention that we were preparing for imminent death, it would sound like we were planning to commit suicide, it would be viewed as a cry for help. But in the company of Moses and Elijah it is only proper that Jesus would discuss his impending death. Everything Moses and Elijah preached and wrote pointed ahead to this man and this moment: the promised One of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 5:39); which assures us that the ugly, unjust, brutal events of Jesus’ passion weren’t simply the result of tragic circumstances or the culmination of the plans of some evil men – but that God’s plan from eternity called for Jesus to willingly suffer and die for the sins of the world.

 

In that sense, this preparation was not for Jesus as much as it was for the three disciples. Just like staring at a bright light burns an image on your eyes, so Jesus wanted his glory to be etched on his disciples’ memories. He wanted this view of glory to strengthen their faith in the testing it would undergo when they would later see him fall on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane and pour out his soul to his Father (Luke 22:39-46); when they would deny and abandon him in his moment of greatest need (Luke 22:54-62); when they would see him arrested and hauled off like some violent criminal (Luke 22:47-53); when they would see him mocked and beaten (Luke 22:63-65) and nailed to a cross. When Peter, James, and John finally put all the pieces together after the resurrection, he wanted them to recall this day on the mountain and understand that it had to be this way; that according to God’s plan Jesus had to be betrayed and convicted, whipped and beaten and crucified – because only his blood, the priceless blood of God, could pay the price for the sins of the world.

 

As we prepare to step out of the bright season of Epiphany onto the dark road of Lent, from witnessing the heights of Jesus’ glory to the depths of his humiliation, keeping this image of him in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration in our minds will also help us to understand and believe. To understand that this was God’s plan all along. Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, had to die – not because he was forced to by the treacherous actions of Judas or the murderous intentions of the civil and religious authorities, but because he wanted to die for us; and then, second, to firmly believe that because this man is the Son of God, his bleeding and dying is enough to wipe away all of our sins and give us the hope of eternal life.

 

And before we leave this mountain, we receive a preview of the glory of eternal life. This, in the end, is why we are so adamant, so determined to teach and preach that Jesus’ miracles – from the virgin birth to his resurrection – are true, historical events and not merely myths or parables that can be twisted to be relevant in 2019. We must stand firm on this because there is no real hope to be found otherwise. People today have real needs, real weaknesses, real problems – and they really need help – that much the liberal, social gospel preaching churches have right. But their solutions are all wrong. Real hope for the poor in this world won’t be found in a higher minimum wage or in churches who fill bellies but starve souls. Real hope for the sick in this world won’t be found in creating more effective medicines or providing affordable health insurance for all. The real hope for the future of this world doesn’t lie in curbing carbon emissions or controlling the climate. (Remember: Peter tried to keep heaven on earth – and Jesus didn’t even dignify his foolishness with an answer.) The only real hope that anyone in this world can have is that this Jesus is God’s Son whose death on a cross satisfied God’s wrath and opened the door to eternal life.

 

That’s what Moses and Elijah do – they give us a preview of the glory to come. Do you realize how remarkable it was that Moses and Elijah were there? Moses had been dead for 1400 years (Deuteronomy 34:1-12), and the Lord had taken Elijah out of this world in a whirlwind around 800 years earlier (2 Kings 2) – and yet here they stand before the disciples’ eyes, talking with Jesus about his suffering and death. The lessons they teach can’t be overstated: 1) Heaven is real and all those who have died in faith are living with the Lord there in glory. 2) It teaches us to keep this life in its proper perspective: to remember that this life is preparation for the next; that 70 or 80 years here – whether those years are filled with pain or pleasure – are only a drop in the ocean compared to the glory of the eternal life Jesus has in store for us. So on those hard days – those days of pain and sorrow, those days when you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) – remember this preview of glory on the Mount of Transfiguration; remember and believe that even though this life will never be heaven on earth – the best is yet to come!

 

But you can only have that comfort, conviction and assurance – and that future – if you believe that the Transfiguration of Jesus was a real, historical event now. That’s why we can’t twist God’s Word to fit the social gospel message that we’re told we need to be preaching in the 21st century – no matter how popular or relevant or acceptable it seems. Because the only real hope for every single person in this world is not the social gospel – not creating heaven on earth (Peter tried that and failed miserably). The only hope this world has is Jesus. Jesus, whose transfiguration on that mountain proves his deity, prepares us for his death, and gives us a preview of his glory. May the Holy Spirit grant us the faith to believe that Jesus is our one and only hope now so that one day, when we are standing with him in his glory we too will say: master, it is good for us to be here. Amen.  

 

 

Luke 6:27-38 - Get Even with Love - February 24, 2019

How would you complete these sentences? Revenge is __________. Don’t get mad, _____________. Is there anything sweeter than getting even with someone who’s wronged you? Oh, it feels so good to cut that social media bully down to size with our own slanderous screed; to lay on the horn, shake your head, and flip the bird at that guy who cut you off on the beltline; to spill a couple shovels-full of snow on the sidewalk of the guy who dumped his slushy mess on your driveway. Or maybe it’s the kind of revenge that lives on after we’re gone: writing a spouse or child out of your will for the way they’ve treated you while you were alive – it doesn’t get any sweeter than that, does it? Vengeance is so common in our society that we might think it’s a constitutional right. Someone disrespects you, you disrespect them back – that’s only fair. As usual, Jesus turns our idea of “fairness” on its head, he urges us to get even in a way no human mind ever would have conceived. (1 Corinthians 2:9) Jesus encourages us to get even…with love.

 

Jesus is still speaking to his disciples, disciples who had just heard that those who are poor, hungry, sad, and hated are blessed and those who are rich, well fed, happy, and popular are under God’s judgment of woe. (Luke 6:20-26) Jesus knew that they were living in a society where eye for eye, tooth for tooth (Leviticus 24:20) was the appropriate reaction to personal conflict. But for his disciples Jesus outlines a very different method for dealing with enemies: I tell you who hear me: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

 

It’s clear enough (and perhaps a little alarming) what Jesus is commanding: return love for hate, blessings for curses, prayers for mistreatment; if someone takes your dignity or property, let them have it and more. But we tend to be skeptical, we tend to think that Jesus can’t be serious, that he seems to be advocating lawlessness and chaos – that he’s freeing unbelievers to do whatever they want to Christians without fear of retaliation. So it’s just as important to understand what Jesus is not saying as what he is. 1) He’s not saying that we cannot speak up in our own defense when we are wronged. Jesus himself did this when he stood trial before Annas. When one of the temple officials struck him, he didn’t hit him back, but he did say: if I said something wrong…testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me? (John 18:23) 2) Jesus is not saying that we cannot defend ourselves or our loved ones from harm. The 5th commandment demands that we do so. 3) Jesus is not encouraging lawlessness. He is not denying parents, teachers, police officers or judges the right to exact punishment as God’s representatives. 4) He is not requiring us to support free-loaders by our charity. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 still stands: if a man will not work, he shall not eat. Jesus is telling us that personal vengeance is sinful. He is telling us to love our enemies. Still sounds impossible, doesn’t it? It is. This kind of love is impossible for us…unless it’s been given to us first. Have we received that kind of love?

 

Paul seems to think so: 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…but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8) If you think there is someone in your life who deserves your vengeance rather than your love, imagine how God must have felt about us. He created us, body and soul, gave us talents and abilities, family and possessions – but we misuse and abuse those gifts, and we are quick to question, doubt, blame him when he doesn’t give us what we want. He reveals himself to us in his Word and invites us to regularly receive his gifts of grace – but we despise his Word, we either don’t read it or we place ourselves in judgment over it, and we invent all kinds of excuses to avoid receiving his gifts. In the 10 Commandments God has laid out his will for our lives in every situation – but we do the opposite, we treat them like suggestions, we live as if we know better than God. In thought, word, and action we’ve treated God as our enemy: we despise his love, curse his name, rob him of his possessions and incessantly ask him for more. And how did God get even with us? He sent his Son to save us. And he did it by allowing humanity to do its very worst to his Son – curse him, slap him, whip him, spit on him, parade him through the streets of Jerusalem, strip him naked, nail him to a tree, and sit back in smug satisfaction as he died in front of their eyes. And how did Jesus respond? Father, forgive them. (Luke 23:34) If you ever wonder how God should have treated us – look to the cross. That’s what we deserved. If you ever wonder how God has treated us – look to the cross. See God’s Son hanging there in your place; suffering for your lovelessness; dying for the times you took vengeance into your own hands. That is how God got even with you.  

 

We know that, we believe and confess that, right? Then why is it so hard for us to love our enemies? Why are we so quick to suggest that Jesus can’t actually mean what he says? The biggest reason is that we’re looking the wrong direction: instead of looking at what our God has done for us, we’re looking at (and judging) whether an individual deserves our love or not. It’s real simple. They don’t – but you don’t either, and the fact that God has given us love we don’t deserve is the only reason we can return love for hate, blessings for curses, prayers for mistreatment, our cheeks to violence, and charity to thieves. So when that question pops up in your mind, “why should I love my enemies?” It’s not because they deserve it, it’s because God loved you.

 

Jesus knows how tempting it is to simply adhere to the world’s behavioral standards: if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. The way of the world is to do good to your friends and evil to your enemies. But Jesus says, “That’s not how it’s going to be with my disciples. If you want to get even with your enemy, you’re going to break all of society’s rules, you’re going to be different, you’re going to love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” This marks you as a child of the Most High God who is kind and merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked.

 

Here’s where Jesus’ ethic of love is truly divine. Put yourself on the other side for a moment. You’re the one who wronged someone else. You’ve dragged someone’s name through the mud on social media, and they respond by complimenting your charming family, your beautiful home, or whatever. You’re the one who dumped snow on your neighbor’s driveway, and one day you wake up and he’s cleared your driveway for you. You cut someone off on the Beltline, then break down, and they stop to help. You’ve shown nothing but ingratitude and spite – all but ignored – a relative while they were still alive, and then they die and leave you a generous inheritance. How do you feel? Paul described it as having burning coals dumped on your head. (Romans 12:20) That’s what we call contrition – sorrow over sins. It would lead you to grieve over your sins; to confession and repentance – which, NOT coincidentally, is exactly what God intends his kindness to us to lead to. (Romans 2:4) If you really want to get even with an enemy, really cut them to the heart, really break them – show them kindness when they don’t deserve it. Treat them the way God has treated you. And maybe, just maybe, your kindness will lead that person to repent of their sins and seek God’s forgiveness (Matthew 5:16) – and then you will be truly even: you will be reconciled to each other and to God by the blood of Christ.

 

Jesus concludes: Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into our lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Imagine a trick or treater showing up at the house of a grumpy old man, expecting at best one or two of those gross black and orange wrapped candies and at worst, a stern warning to get off his porch and never come back. And instead, he brings out a huge bowl full of full-size (not fun-size) candy bars and he doesn’t just give you one, he dumps the whole bowl into your bag and when your bag is full he says “shake it around a little to make more room” and pours even more in. When we look at all that God has given us already, both materially and spiritually, we can’t deny that God has been more than generous to us – if you ever doubt that, when you get home, just stop for a second, look in your fridge, your pantry, your closet, your garage, look at your family; his spiritual blessings far outweigh our sinfulness and lovelessness, his material blessings go above and beyond our daily needs.

 

But the sinful nature keeps kicking up concerns, doesn’t he? “If I love and bless and pray for my enemies; if I turn the other cheek and give away my property, who is going to watch out for me and my well-being? How do I know I will have enough to survive and provide for my family? How can I be sure that evildoers will be punished if I don’t see to it myself? How can I let myself be taken advantage of like that?” You’re not alone if those things concern you. Our sinful natures can invent thousands of reasonable, rational arguments for taking vengeance into our own hands. The answer to those concerns is the same as any concern we have about life in this world: know, believe, and trust God’s promises.

 

What if the love you show an enemy just makes them hate you more? So what? How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3:1) If we give generously to those who can’t or won’t repay us, won’t we risk losing the roof over our heads and the clothing on our backs? Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, they don’t labor or spin or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds and clothes them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Hasn’t he promised to give you everything you need for life? (Matthew 6:25-34) What about justice, fairness? If I don’t retaliate the world is going to walk all over me. Trust Paul’s words: do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19) If vengeance is called for, God will take care of it, if not now through his representatives, then on Judgment Day – and he holds the power to not only kill the body but cast the soul into hell. (Luke 12:5) Whatever your specific concern might be, remember that you cannot lose anything that God didn’t give you in the first place (not even your life!) and, just as importantly, you cannot ever lose the reward Jesus has won and reserved for you in heaven. Let God worry about taking care of you now. God’s love for you is unconditional, and that frees you to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, be generous with what he has given you because you know that your true reward is safe in heaven – purchased and won for you by Jesus Christ, your…and your enemies’ Savior.

 

The morally and ethically rotten world around us is destroying itself over its thirst for vengeance. Everywhere you turn, it seems, someone is trying to get even with someone else for something that was done or said – sometimes over things that happened decades, if not centuries ago – all in the name of justice. That is the way of the world. But that is not the way of Jesus’ disciples. We are to be different because, through faith in Jesus – as dearly loved children of the Most High God whose true reward is safe in heaven – we are different. We get even with our enemies the same way God has gotten even with us: with love. Amen.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-14 - Without Jesus, Everything Is Meaningless - February 17, 2019

He had it all. He reigned during Israel’s golden age – the peak of her economic and political prosperity. Neighboring countries paid her tribute. Peace reigned within her borders. His subjects were physically and financially secure. (1 Kings 4:25) And he didn’t just have it all as the King of Israel, God had given him priceless personal blessings. He was an educated man: a botanist, zoologist, astronomer, philosopher, poet, politician and songwriter. (1 Kings 4:30-34) God called him the wisest man who would ever live. (1 Kings 3:12) And yet, with all of that, this was Solomon’s assessment of life: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” Says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Not exactly a glowing review. But when you think about it, he’s right, isn’t he? What’s the point of saving for retirement, of working day after day for years, of having children, of getting married, of getting a high school diploma or college degree? What’s the point of waking up in the morning and getting out of bed and going to school or work; what’s the point of eating, sleeping, breathing, what’s the point of anything – if, in the end, we die and everything we’ve worked for is gone? Nothing. Without Jesus, everything is meaningless.

 

In the realm of education – of all ages – there’s no point to wasting any time, effort, or money on it at all, apart from Jesus. Why not? Why isn’t it worth learning to spell and add and read and write? Why isn’t it worth it to learn a trade and social skills and the value of personal responsibility and individual achievement? In one of his thousands of proverbs, Solomon wrote: the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10) As Paul told Timothy, only Scripture is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:15) Jesus Christ, the Lord God incarnate, is the beginning, and the middle, and the end of true, lasting wisdom – because he is the only one who can give this life meaning and save us from eternal death. (1 Corinthians 1:24) Apart from him, everything we know or trust or teach or learn is meaningless; apart from him education becomes idolatry.

 

Now, I might be wrong, but I doubt that any of us were thinking of idolatry when we confessed our sins earlier. I doubt that anyone here had to confess to having a little shrine to Buddha at home. I doubt that we think of idolatry as our pet sin or are aware of all the idols in our lives. But ignorance is no excuse. You can diagnose the idols in your life by considering your priorities, the things or people or activities that you simply could not live without. Luther explains “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.” [1] Who or what is the greatest source of good in your life? To whom or to what do you turn first when trouble strikes? Whatever it is, that is your god. Especially for Christians, the devil likes to twist God’s good blessings into idols: family, health, reputation, wealth, home, job, possessions, convenience, leisure, hobbies, pets. And you might want to jump out of your chair right now and scream, “Yes, I value those things, but don’t you dare call them idols.” Really? Do they ever take priority over the one, true God? If God takes them away do you question his power, wisdom, and love? What makes anything an idol is not what it is, but the place we give it in our hearts and lives. I would contend that education has become one of the most prominent idols in America today – in that it is seen by many as the source of all good and the solution for every evil.

 

An example of idolatrous education is found in our Gospel lesson. There was nothing more precious to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than the Law of Moses. They valued their obedience to the Law (as they defined it) above all things. They passionately studied and taught and learned the Law and sincerely tried to obey it. But for all of their passion and sincerity, Jesus said they did not have the word or love of the Father. Why not? Because they did not believe the one [God] sent. (John 5:38) Their educational system had become an idol because they trusted it for salvation; as a ladder by which they could climb into heaven rather than a mirror which showed them their depravity. (John 5:45; Romans 3:20) For all the time they spent studying God’s Law, they remained blind to their sin, their pride, their self-righteousness. And as a result, they were blind to their Savior.

 

It’s scary how easily a blessing can become an idol, isn’t it? What could be greater, better, purer than the laws given by God himself? What could be better than devoting your time and energy to knowing and obeying God’s will? But if you trust it to get you to heaven you might as well be bowing down to Buddha – because no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law. (Romans 3:20) In the same way, education is a blessing, but education apart from Jesus is idolatry. It’s not just the education that takes place in Jewish synagogues or Islamic mosques. Though they would like you to believe otherwise, government-run schools today are religious schools, indoctrinating children in the religion of secular humanism. (Secular humanism teaches that there is no God, that evolution explains the origin of the world, that humans are inherently good, that we are accountable to no one, and there is no such thing as moral absolutes.) And the scariest thing of all is that these idols don’t just lurk out there – they can lurk in our own parenting and teaching, too. If we think our job is to raise children of good “character” then we have taught our children to trust the law for salvation. If by word or example we are teaching them that getting good grades so that you can get into a good college so you can get a good job and good money and good stuff is the source of happiness, then education has become god. If our children can recite the 10 commandments but haven’t a clue about justification, redemption, and forgiveness, then we have raised little Pharisees.

 

Why is it so important to have Jesus at the center of everything for us and our children, especially in the early, formative years of their lives? Because Jesus did what none of us could ever do: he actually obeyed the law, fulfilled it, completed it to God’s satisfaction in our place. To be a Christian doesn’t mean obeying all the rules, making all the right decisions, going to the right school, or having perfect church attendance – it means trusting in Jesus alone for salvation. It means believing that God in his grace has credited his perfect obedience to your account and sacrificed him on a cross as the payment your sins. It means living and dying confident that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because…Christ Jesus [has] set [us] free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2) It means being willing to suffer anything, deny anything, give up anything for ourselves and our children – except for Jesus, because Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6)

That’s exactly what the Pharisees in Jesus’ day refused to believe. They believed they were serving God by their sincere and devoted efforts to keep the law but they were really serving the devil. This is why Jesus condemned their educational efforts, saying: you diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40) He came to them to bring them forgiveness of sins and peace with God – and they rejected him, despised him, assaulted him and crucified him. Apart from Jesus, everything we do is meaningless – because apart from Jesus, every path leads to eternal death.

 

This focus on the Gospel – on what Jesus has done for us instead of what we do for him – is what, more than anything else, sets confessional Lutheran schools apart from any other – even other Christian schools. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide – Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone – every WELS pastor and teacher is sworn to those biblical principles. They are carefully trained to properly divide between Law and Gospel (2 Timothy 2:15): so that children see themselves clearly – as lost and condemned sinners – and understand the Gospel clearly – that Jesus came to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15) Bible history and catechism lessons ground children in historic, biblical Christianity and equip them to see Jesus on every page of the Bible. Through weekly chapels, daily devotions, and the memorization of hymns and Scripture Jesus’ words and works are forever etched on their hearts and minds. God’s absolute, unchanging standard of right and wrong and the mercy God has shown us in Jesus form the basis for discipline and conflict resolution in a Lutheran classroom – not the latest, greatest philosophy of some faceless, godless bureaucrat. History traces God’s efforts to bring the saving gospel to the world, math and science are taught as ways of exploring and understanding the wonderful world God has created. Reading, writing, music and athletics are done to the glory of the God who gave us each diverse and valuable talents and abilities. The difference is not that there is no sin and no sinners in a Lutheran school – just ask anyone who ever taught in or attended one. The difference is that Jesus, his cross, and the forgiveness he won there are at the center in everything in a Lutheran school.

 

Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and he was right: without Jesus, everything, everything we do – and everything we do for our children – is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. If they are not convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit that salvation is theirs by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone – then it doesn’t matter if they will go on to make billions of dollars, if they become tech titans or professional athletes, if they cure cancer, or if they are happy because one day they will die and go to hell. But with Jesus, everything, even the most basic things like learning to read and write are eternally meaningful. (Revelation 14:13) I am not going to tell you that you must send your children to a Lutheran school. It would be legalistic and contrary to the freedom we have in Christ for me to guilt you or command you into sending your children to or supporting Lutheran schools. On the other hand, Sunday school, confirmation class, and Lutheran schools are tools to help parents, not replace them. In the end, God will hold us parents – and especially us fathers – responsible for raising our children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Is Jesus at the center of your life? Consider the message you’re sending if you drop your kids off for Sunday school and leave, forfeiting the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet yourself. It all comes down to priorities. Your priorities tell you what your God is. What are yours? As you consider the best way to keep Jesus at the center of your and your children’s lives; as you consider what can (and maybe should) be sacrificed and what can’t be find your strength and motivation in Jesus’ promise: seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (all the good things you and your children need for life in this world) will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33) Amen.


[1] LC 1:1

Luke 6:17-26 - It's Not What You Think - February 10, 2019

Have you noticed that Epiphany is an action-packed season of the Church Year? There were the mysterious Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem to worship Jesus as their Savior, too. (Matthew 2:1-12) The heavens opened, God spoke, and the Spirit descended at Jesus’ baptism. (Luke 3:15-22) Then he miraculously saved a wedding from disaster in Cana (John 2:1-11), escaped murder by his friends and neighbors in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), and filled Peter’s nets with fish. (Luke 5:1-11) With the Epiphany emphasis on Jesus’ power to perform miracles, to satisfy needs, to heal and provide and fix and solve – we might get the wrong impression; that if you follow Jesus all the problems in your life will suddenly disappear, that every problem will be solved and need satisfied, that your life as a disciple will be one of unbroken happiness and joy. Or, even worse, you might conclude that if those things aren’t true for you that either your faith isn’t strong enough or Jesus isn’t really God and doesn’t really love you. And so today, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus reveals the stark truth about this life and true life; it’s not what you think.

 

Jesus says that in this life it’s better to have poverty than wealth; hunger than satisfaction; weeping than laughter; persecution than popularity. And, let’s be honest, it sounds like absolute nonsense. It’s like Jesus is describing an alternate universe. Then again, you may have noticed that most of what we say and do here is what the world considers “nonsense.” We stand before living, newborn babies and declare that they are dead in sin. (Psalm 51:5) We stand before the caskets and urns of dead old people and declare that they are only sleeping. (Matthew 9:24) We pour regular tap water into a bowl and call it the fountain of life (Titus 3:5-6), we eat and drink bread and wine and confess it to be the very body and blood of Christ. (Matthew 26:26-27) You believe that your sins are forgiven before God in heaven when a pastor says so here on earth. (Matthew 16:19)

 

The point is that it’s not really about what you or I or anyone else thinks. It’s about what God says. God says that newborns are dead and dead believers are alive. God says that water and Word give life and bread and wine forgive sins. God says that confessed sinners are justified and self-righteous hypocrites are damned. What God says: that’s the reality – and not what you and I can think, reason, feel, or see. And who are we to argue? When God said let there be (Genesis 1) the universe and everything in it came into being! When God sent his Son to earth to make the lame walk, the dead come alive, and free those possessed by demons – that’s what happened. When God through his servant says that you are forgiven, justified, saved – right here and right now – you are.

 

Fine, you might say, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about in this Sermon on the Plain. He’s talking about things that hit really close to home: our wealth, our health, our happiness and social status. These things are important to us – not just for one hour on Sunday mornings, but every minute of every day. So just what is Jesus driving at? Consider the context. People had flocked from all over Israel to see Jesus. Why? To hear him and to be healed of their diseases. But Luke makes it clear that not all of these people were disciples, believers. At least some were coming simply to benefit from his divine power, to have their temporary needs satisfied and be sent on their way happy. And Jesus knew that his disciples might get the wrong idea about the Christian life from these miracles. And so he presses pause on the healing and explains how the blessings of this life relate to true life.

 

The Bible is painfully clear that God didn’t send his only Son into the world to make you or me or anyone else rich, well-fed, happy, or popular. He didn’t come to establish a utopia – a paradise – on earth. Make no mistake – it’s not that he couldn’t have, that he tried and failed. The One who created everything with just his Word, who cast out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead – certainly could have spoken and this earth would have become an instant paradise once again. Jesus could have established another Eden, planted the tree of life in it, put you there – and it wouldn’t have required him to die on a cross. You could’ve lived free of disease, crime, poverty, hunger and sadness and eaten from that tree of life and lived forever. Then why didn’t he do that? For the very same reason that God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in the first place.

 

The only way to understand life now is to remember what happened in the Garden in the beginning. God gave Adam one simple command. You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (Genesis 2:17) Adam ate and the death he earned by his disobedience wasn’t just the separation of his body and soul – it was a separation from God. From the moment Adam sunk his teeth into the forbidden fruit he forfeited perfection and lost his perfect relationship with God. And his sin had consequences: the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:22-23) God kicked Adam and Eve out of the perfect bliss of Eden so that they wouldn’t have to endure the curse of sin, of separation from him forever. The thorns and thistles and pain in child birth and enmity between believers and unbelievers and war between the sexes would remind them that the world wasn’t the problem; they were. In other words, God kicked them out of paradise to lead them to repentance – he did it out of love.

 

Why doesn’t Jesus just give us everything we think we might want for happiness in this life? Why doesn’t he just snap his fingers and turn this world into paradise once again? Because even if Jesus recreated the paradise on earth we think we want – we would still be under God’s curse – because we have not continued to do everything written in the Law. (Galatians 3:10) He could cause us to live forever. But it would be an awful existence; because we wouldn’t be forgiven, we wouldn’t be justified, we wouldn’t be saved. Worse than the living dead, we would be the living damned. It would be hell on earth. It would be the very life God wanted to spare us from by driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden. And that is why Jesus says that in this life poverty is better than wealth, hunger than satisfaction, weeping than laughter, and persecution than popularity: because that’s the reality of our standing with God. The broken world around us, the consequences of sin that touch our lives are vivid reminders that the world is not the problem, we are. Weeping, begging, hunger for God’s grace and mercy are the only proper response – because only then will we appreciate the real reason Jesus came to earth.

Jesus didn’t come to get rid of poverty and hunger and sadness – no State of the Union promises or Green New Deals for him – he came to get rid of sin, death, and God’s curse. Jesus came to gather up the pieces of the commandments we have broken and put together a perfect life of obedience. He came to take our sin and rebellion upon himself to the extent that when God looked at earth on Good Friday, the only sinner he saw was Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:21) When he was nailed to a cross and God unleashed all of his wrath over sin, all of his curses meant for sinners on Jesus – then, and only then, was God’s justice satisfied, his wrath quenched, his curse removed. By his perfect life and hellish death, Jesus won true life for you; life in an eternal kingdom, filled with riches beyond imagination, an endless feast hosted by Jesus himself, a place of unbroken joy where God himself calls us his beloved children.

 

And when the Holy Spirit works on your heart to see, understand, and believe that this is true life, then you will see the reality of this life. Luther describes this awakening so beautifully in The Bondage of the Will: “Scripture represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to keep a single one of them in his kingdom, because God would at once pity and help them in their misery and cries for help.” [1]

 

The Devil either wants to fill you so full of wealth, food, happiness, and popularity now that you don’t see or feel the real misery of your sin or he wants you to see Jesus as nothing more than a cosmic genie who came to give you those things. The devil wants you to believe that you are rich in good works, not to confess your spiritual poverty; to be satisfied in your own goodness, not hunger for God’s righteousness; to laugh at your sin, not weep over it; to value what other people say about you more than what God says about you. But the awful reality is that if we believe that because we are rich, well-fed, happy and popular everything is alright between us and God – then the devil has won, then we are already lost.

 

Because it’s all a delusion. Popularity and laughter and happiness are mirages that are gone as soon as you have them. We may eat at the best brunch buffet in Madison this morning – but we’ll have to eat again later tonight. Money can’t buy everything – especially the most important things. And, sooner or later, we die and it’s all gone. Most importantly – and this is Jesus’ main point here: our circumstances of life now are not an accurate measure of our standing with God. Only the cross is. We deserved to hang there – because we are all poor, miserable sinners; but Jesus hung there in our place. That’s the truth the devil doesn’t want you to see or confess.

 

And that’s why Jesus preaches this shocking sermon, wakes us up to the truth and turn the world upside down for us. He lets us in on the secret that what made Eden paradise was not the climate, the food, the happiness, or the fact that men and women got along. What made Eden paradise was the fact that Adam and Eve were perfect and had a perfect relationship with God. That’s what Jesus came to restore. And he has. He kept all the commandments for you – and gives you the credit. He suffered the death your sins deserved – and your record is wiped clean. In Christ, when God looks at you, he’s as pleased with you now as he was when he first created Adam and Eve and called them very good. (Genesis 1:31) Now, if you were all-powerful, if you could give your child anything, would you give them riches, food, happiness, and popularity in a world that is infested with sin and sickness and ends in death? Of course not. If you could give someone you love anything at all – it would be a one-way ticket out of this world to a place where there is no sin, death, or the devil. And that’s exactly what God has given us in Jesus – a one-way ticket out of this life to true life with God. That is, finally, why he came.

 

In Luther’s day, when plagues and famine and disease and death were every day realities people would say “In the midst of life we are surrounded by death.” That’s what the devil would like you to think. This is THE life. This is as good as it gets. Eat and drink and be as merry as you can now because tomorrow you die and life will be over. Martin Luther turned that saying around. “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.” [2] This place – where sin, death and the devil stalk us, hurt us, kill us and our loved ones – this is not true life. True life is with God and he gives us signs of true life even in this world of death. He gave you new life in the life-giving water of Baptism. He restores your life day after day with his forgiveness. He gives you the body and blood of his Son which preserves you to life everlasting. It’s not what we think; it’s even better. Amen.


[1] LW 33:130

[2] LW 13:83

Luke 5:1-11 - Jesus Called Peter for You - February 2, 2019

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each report how shortly after Jesus began his public ministry he began to call disciples to follow him, learn from him, and eventually be sent out as full time ministers to preach the Gospel in his name. (cf. Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-51) We hear these accounts several times each year. And often when you read these texts or hear them preached, the emphasis is that just as Jesus called disciples to preach the Word and gather other people into the church then, so he calls us to gather other people into the church now. That that is such a common interpretation is less about the actual words of Scripture, however, and more about our own narcissistic and legalistic tendencies. Narcissistic in the assumption that the Bible is about me (and you) instead of Jesus; legalistic in assuming that the main message of the Bible is the law – what God is telling to do (law) rather than what he has sent Jesus to do for us (gospel). Without belaboring the point, this morning, instead of considering how we are called to be like Peter, we will consider that Jesus called Peter for us, for you.

 

Just last week, Jesus had narrowly survived attempted murder at the hands of his own hometown friends and neighbors. They wanted nothing to do with him or his message of forgiveness and grace. One would think, then, that Jesus might be a little “gun-shy.” That he might stop preaching or only do it in secret or, at the very least, that he would be very careful about when and where and to whom he preached. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t continue his preaching in a corner, in hiding, in secret. Why not? Because he knows Paul’s logic of salvation: if the Gospel isn’t preached, no one can hear; if no one hears, no one can believe; if no one believes, no one will be saved. (Romans 10:13-15) He knows that while he will suffer, die and rise to save the world – no one in the world will receive salvation if they don’t hear this good news. So Jesus not only continues to preach himself – in spite of any hostility or obstacles, but he calls prophets and apostles and in the centuries after them, pastors so that the Gospel of salvation would reach every corner of the world. But first, before he changes Peter the fisherman into Peter the apostle, he’s got to get Peter ready for the job.

 

And so we don’t find Jesus hiding behind locked doors but standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the Word of God. Peter, James and John were there, and they had fished all night with nothing to show for their efforts. Now they were cleaning up their nets so that they could go home and rest and do it all over again that evening. But Jesus spoils their plans. Peter knows Jesus. His brother Andrew had introduced them a year or so earlier. (John 1:41) Peter had witnessed Jesus’ power at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:2) Peter has put his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. (John 2:11) Peter is already a Christian, but he’s not yet an apostle.

 

And now Peter is back in his day job. Maybe Jesus had sent his disciples away for a time; maybe Peter had left in order to go back to work to provide for his family (Luke 4:38) – we don’t know. But what we do know is that this day Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat and asked him to put out a little from shore so he could use his boat as a pulpit. But it’s when Jesus finishes preaching that things get really interesting. He shocks Peter with another request: put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.

 

Peter could have protested. He could have said “Lord, we’ve fished all night and caught nothing, can’t we just go home and rest.” He could have taught this carpenter-turned-rabbi that if you want to actually catch fish you don’t do it in deep water and you don’t do it in the middle of the day. He could have pulled rank on Jesus, saying “Listen, Lord, this is my boat and I’m the professional fisherman. You stick to preaching and leave the fishing to me.” But he didn’t. In spite of the obvious, logical reasons for refusing, Peter obeyed. Even more important is why he obeyed: not because the command was rational or reasonable – but because of who was issuing the command. Did you catch that in Peter’s response? Master we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets. So Peter does. And Luke reports the miracle in such an understated fashion that it’s almost a minor detail – which, in this context, it is. But miracle it is, nonetheless. The one who spoke on the fifth day and filled the earth’s seas and oceans with fish (Genesis 1:21) now summons his finned creatures to Peter’s nets. And not just a few (so that it might’ve just been chalked up to beginner’s luck) but enough to break the nets and nearly sink two boats. (I doubt any of the fishermen here, even on the days when they’ve stretched the truth to its limit, ever claimed that the fish they caught nearly swamped their boat!)

 

But we need to look beyond the nets tearing at the seams with fish to see the more important work Jesus was doing there. Jesus wasn’t there to catch fish, he was there to catch and call Peter to full-time service in his kingdom. This miracle was not intended to make Peter a famous fisherman so that he could get his own TV show, but to end his fishing career completely. Jesus is revealing his glory – his power as the Maker and Lord of creation – to Peter right in his own boat as a none-too-subtle reminder that he is Peter’s Lord, too.

 

And this realization scares the living daylights out of Peter. In the middle of a huge pile of flopping fish, on a sinking boat, this big, tough fisherman falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs him “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” Now, it’d be hard to blame Peter if he was anxious about getting all those fish into shore safely, you couldn’t fault him if he was afraid of sinking, drowning, or dying. But that’s not what Peter was afraid of. He’s afraid of Jesus, afraid of his power and holiness and righteous wrath, afraid that Jesus was in his boat with him, a sinner. And Peter was right to be afraid.

 

Fear is a window into our souls. It is a form of worship. What are you afraid of? The answer to that question is the same as the answer to another question: who/what is your god? The First Commandment teaches us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. But how many other things do we fear more and before God? Are you afraid to hurt, to suffer, to lose something or someone, to be left behind or forgotten? Are you afraid of the past, the present, the future? Are you afraid of what you’ve done or what you might do? Are you afraid to fail, to succeed, are you afraid of being average, everyday, ordinary? Are you afraid of crime, terrorism, climate change, political and economic uncertainty? Are you afraid for your children and grandchildren’s future? Are you afraid of pain, afraid that disease might take your mobility or your mind, afraid of dying, afraid of the devil? Whatever you are afraid of, that is your god. And that fear will result in worship – it will change how you think, behave, and live.

Peter had the right kind of fear that day as he was waist deep in fish in a boat that was sinking from under him. He is afraid of Jesus and he’s afraid because he knows he’s a sinful man – not that he’s made some mistakes in the past, but that he is sinful through and through. The last thing sinners want is to hang around with Jesus because Jesus is holy. For all of the talk today that Jesus just wants to be your buddy, your friend, your life-coach – the more important reality is that he is your Lord and Judge. (John 5:22, 27) No matter what other issues and concerns might be causing us anxiety or fear at any given moment, this one concern should trump them all: At any given moment, Jesus should judge us, condemn us, send us to hell because we are sinful men, women and children (and we prove it every day). For that reason alone, we should all be terribly afraid of Jesus – we should be afraid to come here, into his presence – because he should judge us, convict us, damn us to hell for our sins.

 

But he doesn’t. Instead of judging and damning you for your sins, Jesus takes your sin from you, makes it his own, carries it to the cross. Instead of condemning you, he is condemned. Instead of casting us out of his presence he is cast out of his Father’s presence. Instead of banishing us to hell, he endures hell in our place. Instead of judging us, Jesus suffers for us, dies for us.

 

Jesus conveyed all of this good news to Peter in just three words: don’t be afraid. [1] Don’t be anxious or fearful in my presence. I’m not angry. I didn’t step into your boat this morning to judge you, condemn you, or destroy you. I know you’re a sinful man and I’ve come specifically to take care of that for you. I’ve come so that you can escape the death you deserve and live with me forever in heaven.” Today Jesus says the same to you. Don’t be afraid. Did you hear it earlier when you confessed that you deserve nothing but God’s punishment now and eternally? “God, our heavenly Father, has been merciful to [you] and has given his only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for [y]our sins.” You will hear it again when Jesus invites you to come to his table – the closest we will get to his presence this side of heaven (which should rightly make us think twice and examine ourselves) – to receive his body and blood with the words “the peace of the Lord be with you always.” (John 20:21) Don’t be afraid. Why not when we know we have every reason to be afraid as sinful, guilty men, women and children? Because when the only thing you truly fear is God himself, then there’s nothing left fear. Because then God says to us: “There’s no reason for you to fear me or my wrath. Because I have poured out my wrath on my Son instead, crucified him for you, in your place.”

 

And then he gives more evidence to prove that we have nothing to fear. He says, “I’m not going to speak to you in a voice that thunders from heaven, I’m not going to send my heavenly hosts to shock and awe you. Instead, I’m going to send people like Isaiah and Peter to speak to you. Sinful men – just like you. Don’t be afraid. Look at Peter’s example to see my love for sinners who fall again and again. Open your Bible, read his letters and the books penned by his fellow apostles – those who were first-hand witnesses of my life and death and resurrection for sinners like you. I commissioned them to write to you so that you might know and believe that I lived and died and rose so that you have nothing to fear.” Last he says “Here is your pastor, whom I have sent not primarily to frighten you with the reality of your sinfulness but to bring the good news to you, to absolve your sins in my name, to baptize you, to give you my body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.”

 

Jesus is not content to let the good news of his words and work sit hidden on a shelf or buried in a cave somewhere. He wants it to be preached to you. He wants his Word to be heard by you. He wants you to believe them. He wants his word and promises to echo in your ears and take root in your heart because he loves you. Jesus’ love for you, that’s what you should see in Peter’s call to apostleship. Jesus loves you so much that he not only lived and died and rose for you, but he calls sinners like Peter and the other apostles and pastors today to tell you about his love so that you would know it, believe it, and have eternal life in his name. Peter’s call today is just like everything else Jesus does: it’s not about you, but it is for you – and that’s good news indeed! Amen.

 


[1] Two Greek words: Μὴ φοβοῦ

Luke 4:14-30 - One Word, Two Reactions - January 27, 2019

Our theme this morning is less a theme than it is an assertion, a challenge: when the Word of God is preached, there are only and always two reactions: faith and unbelief. There is no middle ground. There can be no cold, analytical, detached reception of the Word. You either hear the Word and rejoice in God’s mercy to sinners or you reject God’s grace and want to silence it. Whenever the Word of God is preached, it gets results, it always gets a reaction because it is living and active. It is the sharp doubled edged sword of Law and Gospel that never lays there dead, like a cadaver on an exam table. Try to cut into the Word of God and it will cut into you, dividing your soul and spirit, joints and marrow, the thoughts and attitudes of your heart. (Hebrews 4:12) Whenever the Word of God is proclaimed there are always two reactions, both in Israel and in us.

 

Now, you might be thinking: I’ve heard many sermons and opened up my Bible and read it many times – and quite often, I’ve had no reaction; nothing has happened. That is symptomatic of one of the biggest issues in the church today: the church has grown weary of the Word. Complacent. Bored even. Both preachers and hearers take the Word for granted and look for new and greater things. As hearers, our ears have been dulled by the noise of the world. Movies and music and media are engineered to make us sit down, turn our brains off and be passively entertained and amused. But hearing the Word of God demands active listening. It’s not like listening to your spouse recount their day while the TV is on, it’s like listening to the doctor tell you if the test results mean that you will live or die. Then there is “itching ear syndrome.” (2 Timothy 4:3) We want the church to have amazing programs and powerful, moving music and messages that are relevant, that give meaning to our lives, that solve all our problems and answer all our questions, to tell us what we can do to make our lives better – and the Word of God doesn’t scratch the itch. Finally, never-ending breaking news and weather alerts and viral videos have changed our brains; shortened our attention spans, weakened our ability to focus and concentrate and meditate. And so, if something can’t be expressed in a 30 second video or 144 characters, we turn it off and tune it out. The result is that many Christians are more likely to have a shallow faith based on bumper stickers and clever slogans and Facebook memes than a firm understanding of the deep and unchanging Word of God.

 

And then you have preachers who have lost faith in the power of the Word; who trust their own wit and wisdom, their own personality and likeability to do what only the Word can do. They use the Word as a means to an end rather than the means of grace. An instrument – or weapon – to manipulate and mobilize and organize and patronize. Want to start a community social program? There’s a Bible verse for that. Want to raise money? Beat people over the head with Scripture. Want to trumpet your righteous cause and vilify the opposition? Scripture is cited on both sides of almost any social issue. And this misuse and abuse of the Word can infect even our hearts, the hearts of those who stand on the Reformation motto of Scripture alone. Preachers preach and hearers hear the Word expecting it to change the world and the people out there rather than do what God promises it will do: change us. It’s stupid really. It’s stupid to sit here for an hour and expect it to change the world out there – instead of changing us. As stupid as taking a Tylenol and expecting someone else’s headache to go away. And as a result, we become judges and critics of the Word rather than servants and students, measuring it in terms of visible results rather than invisible repentance.

 

Martin Luther warned his generation that the Word of God is like a passing downpour. It falls for a while in one place and the soil soaks it up. But then the soil becomes saturated and the water runs off and the clouds move on. [1] Luther predicted the day when the Gospel would move on from Europe to other nations and continents – which has in large part happened. And some would say that the Gospel downpour is leaving our country as we speak. But for now, God has blessed us with the downpour of his blessings in the Word – and let us never take that for granted or grow bored with it. Because the Word remains the living and active wisdom and power of God. And whenever it goes out from human lips into human ears and minds and hearts, it does things. It kills and makes alive. It knocks us off our thrones and picks us up off of our knees. It fills the starving and sends the rich away empty. (Luke 2:53) There is no neutrality when it comes to the Word of God. There is either faith or unbelief.

 

That was true in Jerusalem at the Water Gate at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 445 BC). The people were assembled as one man (Nehemiah 8:1), packed tightly together, demanding to hear the Word of God. They listened as Ezra read from the books of Moses and the Levites [gave] the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:8) Men, women, and children stood – stood! – and listened for six hours, from early morning till noon, to hear words that hadn’t been heard in Jerusalem in over 70 years. No comfortably padded chairs. No heating or air conditioning. No roof over their heads. They wept when they heard the Word. It cut them right to the heart. They repented. They believed. They recognized how utterly sinful they were and how incredibly gracious God was. When Ezra praised the LORDall the people responded, “Amen! Amen!” They wanted to hear more. The Word was working. It was a holy day.

 

It was also a holy day in Nazareth, when Jesus, the hometown boy turned rock-star, miracle-working rabbi, returned to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath. The place was packed. They all wanted to hear from Jesus. The attendant handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to Jesus and he found Isaiah 61. He read it out loud: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And then he stopped and sat down. The place went silent. You could have heard a pin drop. What was he going to say? Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. People had wondered for centuries who Isaiah was talking about. Was he talking about himself? (Acts 8:34) Was it John? Was it someone else? Who was this Anointed One? And Jesus tells them: it’s me. This prophecy is about me. And they get to hear the good news from his own lips with their own ears. And, at first, they all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.

But then the devil elbowed his way into their minds and made reason their master rather than faith. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. They remembered that Jesus had played in their streets with their kids, traveled with them to Jerusalem – that for 30 years Jesus walked and talked and lived like anyone else. Wait a minute…who does this guy think he is? He leaves home, runs around with that rebel cousin named John, and now he comes back and thinks he’s the Messiah? Well, we’ll see about that. Prove it, Jesus! You’ve performed miracles for other people, perform one for us. Prove yourself here and we’ll believe you, but until you prove it we are going to reject your message.

 

Jesus knew what they were thinking. I tell you the truth…no prophet is accepted in his own hometown. He reminded them that there were lots of widows in Israel but God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath and there were lots of lepers in Israel but Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian. He was sending them both a fact and a warning: if you reject the Word, don’t expect miracles. Faith doesn’t come from seeing miracles but from hearing the Word. (Romans 10:17) If you continue in your unbelief, God will take his Word away from you and give it to people who want to hear it. And with that, Jesus’ hometown congregation had heard enough. They were filled – not with faith, but with rage. Let’s get rid of this guy! We don’t need to sit here and listen to this Jesus call us unbelievers and tell us that we need him to save us from ourselves. They drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. If you actually listen to what the Word says to and about you, you can’t remain neutral. You either hear it with joy or you try to push Jesus out of your life.

 

Of course, Jesus slips away because it wasn’t the time or place for him to die, but this was a bitter foretaste of the rejection to come. He was Anointed by God to save God’s people, but God’s people rejected him. Three years later they would finally succeed in getting rid of Jesus for good – they would arrest and convict, beat and crucify and kill him as a criminal. But only because he allowed them to. Because only by dying could he pay for the world’s sin, death and unbelief. He told them God had sent him to die to save them from their sins – and so they wanted him dead. Do you see how irrational unbelief is?

 

But today isn’t about Ezra and Nehemiah or Jesus’ childhood friends. Today is about you…and me. Are we more like those people in Jerusalem or the people in Nazareth? We are both! We have split personalities when it comes to the Word of God; we are both glad hearers and angry despisers. Our old Adam rises up in rebellion against the Word, rejects its demand to rule our hearts and minds, resents the Law that exposes our sin and the Gospel that says God sent a Savior because we couldn’t save ourselves. It’s our old Adam that just wants to stay in bed on a frigid Sunday morning, that searches for excuses to avoid hearing the Word, that counts the seconds until the “Amen.” The old Adam hates church. He can’t wait to get as far away from the Word as possible because he knows that the Word means his death. He must be coerced, compelled, threatened, forced to hear it. He’s why you and I do not gladly hear the Word of God and obey it.

 

But the New Man in you is different. The New Man is a faithful listener. The New Man would gladly stand in a crowd outside the Water Gate in Jerusalem and listen to the Word of God for six hours – and thinks nothing of driving through a little snow and cold to sit in a padded chair in a climate-controlled sanctuary for an hour. That’s the real you. The you who was born in Baptism. The you that died and rose with Christ. The you who rejoices at every opportunity to hear and study and read God’s Word, who is amazed that God would send his Son to live and die and rise for you, so that he might call you his child.

 

And so, that means that your life is a never-ending struggle between the old man and the new. It is a weekly struggle to get to church. A minute by minute struggle to pay attention. A daily struggle to open up the Bible at home and read it. An ongoing struggle against the devil’s temptations to become bored and complacent with the good news of God’s grace for sinners. It means that we need to repent for allowing the Old Adam to gain the upper hand, for treating God’s grace as old news or fake news, for refusing to receive the gifts Jesus wants to give us, for treating the Word as something optional or secondary in our lives, even for wanting to shut Jesus up and get rid of him. We need to drag the old Adam here kicking and screaming and repent because that is how God puts him to death.

 

But then we rejoice. We rejoice that Jesus is the Anointed One of God who continues to send messengers to preach the good news that he lived and died and rose again – for you! Your sins are forgiven. You stand justified before God. You are his child through baptism. You have a place in his heavenly mansion. That’s the Word of God. It might make you mad or glad, sad or joyful, you may want to hear more or you might just want me to shut up – because the Word always gets both reactions. In the end, our reaction isn’t as important as the fact this Word is God’s truth and God’s people are made holy by that truth. (John 17:17) Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.


[1] LW 45:352

John 2:1-11 - Jesus Reveals His Glory - January 20, 2019

Surveys and experience show that we are living in the most biblically illiterate time in American history. This means that fewer Americans than ever are familiar with the stories, people, and message of the Bible. And yet, many people who don’t know how many books are in the Bible are familiar with this story. Why? Perhaps because this story is referenced at most Christian weddings. Or maybe it’s because of the interesting topics: a wedding, a party, wine, a problem, a miraculous solution and fairy-tale ending. Given the variety of themes, which is most important? In a brief internet search, I found some interesting sermon themes: Mary: Miracle Mother, What Do You Do with 180 Gallons of Wine?, Wine: The Devil’s Cup and maybe my favorite: Transformer. With all those options, which direction should we go this morning?

 

Each of those themes are an example of someone injecting his own personal agenda into Scripture – which is not the way God commanded his Word to be interpreted or preached. (If I were to stand up here and say that today we are going to focus on proper planning for wedding receptions, you should rightly get up and leave.) The only way to read the Bible correctly is to follow where it leads, to let the Holy Spirit’s agenda, his purposes, guide us. In order to discover the Spirit’s agenda in relating this wedding story, we have to start at the end. Not just the end of this story, but near the end of John’s gospel. There he writes: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these (signs) are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31) There you have it. That’s our theme, our goal.

 

So, how do we get there? Having been baptized in the Jordan River, endured 40 days of temptations by Satan in the desert, and begun calling disciples to follow him – Jesus arrived in the town of Cana in north central Galilee, not far from Nazareth, his hometown for a wedding. Apart from the fact that Mary, Jesus and his first disciples were on the guest list, we don’t know many wedding details. Was it a large or small wedding? How was Jesus related? Where were they registered? DJ or band? John doesn’t tell us. But what he does tell us is important: the wine was gone.

 

Big deal, shut it down and send everyone home – that’s not unusual. In those days, when family and friends had to walk miles to attend a wedding, the reception didn’t just last an afternoon or evening. Depending on the resources of the groom, the reception could last up to a week. Since wine was an essential part of meals, running out of it was simply not an option; it was a major embarrassment for the bride and groom. With 2000 years of hindsight, it might appear normal that Mary would come to Jesus with this problem. But remember that Jesus hadn’t performed any miracles yet; wouldn’t it be strange to expect Jesus to break the seal on his divine power for something as insignificant as a wine shortage at a wedding. But Mary knew that there was more than meets the eye with her Son. She had not forgotten that visit from Gabriel 30 years earlier, the strange visits of the shepherds and the wise men, or Jesus’ remarkable behavior as a 12 year old boy. She had treasured all those things in her heart. She may not have expected a miracle, but she did know that if anyone could help – it was Jesus.

 

That’s why his reply sounds somewhat out of place: Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come. It sounds harsh and disrespectful to our ears. But Jesus was not being harsh; he was being polite, but firm. By calling her woman and not mother, Jesus was gently reminding Mary of her proper relationship to him – now that he had begun his public ministry. As far as his ministry and his mission of redemption were concerned, Mary was not his mother but a sinner who needed his salvation as much as anyone else. Gently but firmly, He reminds her that He is God’s son first, hers second. And Jesus was not going to reveal his glory according to Mary’s wishes, but according to his Father’s divinely determined schedule.

 

Can you see yourself in Mary? You love Jesus. You believe he is your Savior. You know that no matter the problem, Jesus can fix it. And so we bring all of our problems, issues, questions, and requests to Jesus, no matter how big or small, knowing that he hears us. “Lord, please take this sickness or disease away. Lord, please save my marriage, my family, my mind. Lord, I’m worried about my children, can you send a sign to straighten them up right now? Lord, this job is frustrating and soul-sucking, should I stick it out or risk finding something else, could you show me the way to go? Lord, your name and your Word are ridiculed by this evil world – show me that you are still in control. Lord, we beg you to do _______ or take away ___________ or give us ____________.” No matter what it is, no matter what you are asking for, have no doubt, Jesus hears you – you have his Word on it. (John 14:13)

 

And that’s an excellent habit – to take everything to Jesus in prayer. That’s exactly what Mary did here, and Jesus didn’t rebuke her for asking for help. He gently rebuked her for expecting him to abide by her schedule. We know what that’s like too, don’t we? To grow impatient. To grow frustrated. To hold Jesus to our schedule instead of submitting ourselves to his. Who exactly do we think we are when we suggest that the Creator doesn’t know what he’s doing in the lives of his creatures? Who are we to demand that Jesus act how we want, when we want? At times like that, Jesus takes us aside too and gently rebukes us: My time has not yet come. “I am the Lord, you are my servant. I am the sinless Son of God, you are a sinful human creature. You took your first breath (and you will take your last) on my schedule, and in between I will act when I decide – and not a moment before. Until then, repent and trust.”

 

When Jesus puts us in our place, Satan tempts us to throw our hands up in despair. He whispers “See…Jesus isn’t really all-powerful; he doesn’t really love you.” But Mary didn’t do that. [She] said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She’s no miracle mother, but she does have one important thing to teach us. If you paid very close attention to Jesus’ words, did he deny her request? No, he said not yet. In faith, Mary clung to those words (one word in the Greek), trusting that her Son would act when the time was right and as evidence of her faith, left the servants in his charge. The lesson? Pay close attention to Jesus’ Word, no matter the situation, Jesus has given you a promise, maybe just a word that you can hang onto in faith.

But we always want more than that, don’t we? We want to know why Jesus doesn’t act, doesn’t reveal his glory as we would like him to. I’ve often struggled with that, too. When you read the Gospels, it can seem that whenever Jesus shows up, people are healed, problems are solved, tragedies are averted, even the dead are raised – immediately. But just remember that a lot of those people were suffering, waiting for a long time before Jesus showed up. One man was a cripple for 38 years (John 5:1-15), a woman had bled for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48), Jesus even allowed his friend Lazarus to lay in the grave for three days before calling him to life. (John 11) Why does Jesus often wait to answer prayers? Because the purpose of his miracles is not merely to solve a temporary problem, but to create and strengthen faith that he is the Son of God who will save us from all our problems once and for all. He often waits so that we that we put our faith in him alone. That was true in Cana. The last drop of wine had been poured. The servants knew there was no more. Perhaps the guests beginning to grumble. Maybe the couple was poor and couldn’t afford any more. But the bottom line was that there was no more wine – and this was a problem only God could solve.

 

As amazing as this miracle is, notice how quietly Jesus carries it out: Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

 

That’s not a very dramatic ending, is it? No spectacular conclusion. No grand unveiling of Jesus as the one who saved the day. No teary-eyed thankyou speech from the bride. Why not? Because this story isn’t primarily about marriage or motherhood or even Jesus’ willingness to help in even the ‘minor’ problems of life. This miracle was about Jesus giving his disciples a snapshot of his glory so that they understood they weren’t just following the latest, greatest rabbi but the long promised Messiah. It was about Jesus providing evidence for us, for the first time but not the last, that he was not merely a man, but the Son of God. And that’s not my interpretation, that’s the Holy Spirit’s: This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

 

Jesus’ timing may not always be our timing, but His timing is always best for us, our faith, and our salvation. God’s people waited thousands of years for God to keep his promise of a Savior, but when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law. (Galatians 4:4-5) Jesus often refused to perform miracles for his critics, but at the right times he revealed his divine glory to his disciples so that they had a firm foundation for their faith. Throughout his ministry Jesus used often that phrase my time has not yet come to refer to his suffering and death. And then, one afternoon on a hill outside Jerusalem, his time did come; for Mary, for his disciples, for you and for me. At the time the Father had appointed from eternity, [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

 

Jesus hid his glory to become a man, to trade places with us before God’s judgment, to accept the condemnation our sin (including our sins of failing to trust Jesus’ timing) deserved, to grant us forgiveness and life through faith. But when the time was exactly right and the payment for sin completed, he took back his glory and rose from the grave to prove to the world that he is the victorious Lord over sin, death, and hell. Still today, when Jesus lets us wait for him to reveal his glory, he is really driving us to the means of grace where his glory is hidden in word and water, bread and wine for the strengthening of our faith. (Romans 1:17) And because that is all true, when Jesus seems to be hiding his glory in your life, hold onto the evidence you find in His Word – trust that his timing is best for you, for your faith, for your eternity.

 

This miracle is not primarily about weddings, moms, alcohol or social blunders. It’s to teach us that Jesus operates on his timetable, not ours; and he reveals it not to satisfy our curiosity or our desires, but to strengthen our faith – all so that when Jesus works the greatest miracle of all: raising the dead to life – we can be certain that we will have a seat at his grand wedding banquet in heaven. Amen.

 

Luke 3:15-22 - Why Was Jesus Baptized? - January 13, 2019

All three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – report that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Clearly, the Holy Spirit – the real author of Scripture – wants us to know that Jesus was baptized. Jesus was baptized. Do you find that strange? If you don’t think that is strange, just remember what John’s baptism was all about. John [preached] a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) Why did the sinless Son of God need this baptism? For what did he need to repent and receive forgiveness? Why did Jesus, the Master, need his servant, John, to baptize him? What impact does Jesus’ baptism have on us and how does it relate to our baptism? All of these questions and more we will summarize under the theme: why was Jesus baptized?

 

Our text begins not with Jesus, but with his baptizer: John. John was a man’s man, a prophet’s prophet. He was a wilderness man who wore camel’s hair and ate locusts (Matthew 3:4-6), who boldly called people from all walks of life to repentance, who challenged the authority and teachings of the religious leaders, and even, as our text relates, fearlessly spoke the truth about sin to powerful King Herod and got himself thrown into jail for it. Just as people have always done with bold, powerful, revolutionary leaders, they were tempted to make him out to be more than he was; they were wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ, the Savior they had been waiting for, longing for, hoping for.

 

But John’s work was not that of the Christ, his work was not to save the world from sin. John’s work was to preach and baptize, to prepare and point. John preached to people to repent of their sins and he baptized them for the forgiveness of their sins. Now this was something new and novel. Before this, throughout the OT, if you wanted forgiveness you had to sacrifice an animal. You were forgiven because that animal bled and died as payment for your sins. (Leviticus 4) John preached something new and different. Not blood but water. Not a sacrificial death but a bath. Not something done at the Temple but in the Jordan River. John’s ministry formed a sort of bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He pointed people away from sacrificial animals to the sacrificial Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world once and for all. (John 1:29)

 

And John makes it clear that his ministry is not about him but about the one more powerful than [him who would come]. Sinners came to John to be baptized to get ready to meet Jesus. And then came that fateful day when Jesus stood before John in the water of the Jordan. Luke doesn’t record it, but Matthew tells us that John initially objected, saying that he needed to be baptized by Jesus – not the other way around. (Matthew 3:14) That’s what we would think too, right? The greater should baptize the lesser; the sinless one should baptize the sinner. But Jesus didn’t come obey our sense of propriety. He came to obey his Father’s will. Over and against John’s objections, Jesus said, let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. (Matthew 3:15)

 

That verse is the key to understanding Jesus’ baptism. It was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. It was necessary for Jesus to get drenched in the water of a sinner’s baptism and be treated like someone who had sins that needed forgiving because he had to become one with us, with all our humanity – including our sin. He took a bath in our dirty bathwater because he didn’t only carry our sins: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

 

At first this may appear to be at odds with what John had said about Jesus. John had taught that Jesus would appear with a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. You can imagine John’s surprise, perhaps even disappointment, when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized alongside the unwashed masses. This was hardly the fork-wielding, fire and brimstone judge that he was expecting – the one who would finally bring judgment on the godless and immoral people of Israel – not to mention the pagan nations around her. Was John wrong? Not at all. That day is coming. But according to God’s plan of salvation, before Jesus could judge the living and the dead he had to be judged; he had to humble himself and become obedient to death on the cross. Before the wheat could be gathered into the barn and the chaff burned, Jesus himself had to endure the unquenchable fire of God’s wrath over sin in our place on the cross.

 

It’s good for us to see Jesus baptism and his crucifixion as two sides of the same coin. (Later he even refers to his death as the “baptism” he must undergo (Mark 10:38)) His work, his public ministry, begins with the Spirit descending, the voice of the Father testifying; it ends with the Spirit departing, the voice of the Father falling silent. His work begins with him standing in solidarity with sinners, shoulder to shoulder with prostitutes, tax collectors, and all manner of society’s rejects; it ends with him hanging between thieves on a criminal’s cross. His work begins with water; it ends with water and blood flowing from his side. At the Jordan, the heavens are opened to him; on Calvary heaven is closed to Jesus but opened to every sinner who believes.

 

And even though Jesus’ baptism by John is not the same as our baptism, it sets the stage and lays the foundation for it. The sinless Son of God walked into that dirty Jordan River and purified it so that you might be purified from all sin. What happened to Jesus in his baptism is also what happened to you. The heavens were opened to Jesus; heaven was opened to you; the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on you – not in the form of a dove – but through the Word of God; as the Father declared his love for Jesus, so he declared over you “you are my son [or daughter], whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

 

In being baptized, Jesus took our place – he took on our sin, our guilt, our punishment, our death. When we were baptized, we took Jesus’ place – we were baptized into his perfect life, his death, his resurrection. (Romans 6:1-7) In our lesson from Titus, Paul spells out exactly what God does for sinners like us through baptism: when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared (there’s the word for epiphany!) he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing (baptism!) of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Because there is so much confusion regarding the purpose and meaning of baptism today, we’re going to take a few minutes to expose some common false teachings and practices. 1) There are many who say that infants and children aren’t sinful, don’t need forgiveness and shouldn’t be baptized until they are old enough to decide for themselves. 2) Closely related is the idea that baptism is something that we do for God – kind of like a spiritual “pledge of allegiance” where people who had just been living for themselves, now dedicate their lives to God. 3) There are also many, perhaps even right here, who view baptism as nothing more than a symbolic ritual, that some words are said and someone gets wet, and that’s about it. 4) Finally, there are an awful lot of parents and grandparents who see baptism as kind of a lifetime lucky charm – that as long as you get your child or grandchild baptized it doesn’t matter how you raise them, whether you ever bring them to worship and Sunday school, whether when they grow up they ever hear the Word or receive the Sacrament – because they’ve been baptized, they’ve got the force field of holy water around them, they will be saved – whether they believe in Jesus or not. Of course, given the powerful meaning and purpose of baptism, given that God works to save sinners from hell in baptism – we can understand why Satan would work so tirelessly to confuse and cloud and pervert the meaning and blessings of this sacrament.

 

But, by God’s grace and led by his Word, we are not going to accept his deceit, we are going to repent if we have ever treated baptism in those ways, we are going to expose his lies under the brilliant light of Scripture. 1) Does God ever deny baptism to or exempt babies and children from baptism? No, David testifies in Psalm 51 that we are all sinners from the moment we were conceived – babies need forgiveness as much as anyone else. (Psalm 51:5) Jesus gave the explicit command to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) And Peter explicitly told the crowd on Pentecost that the promise [of baptism] is for you and your children. (Acts 2:39) 2) Is baptism our “pledge of allegiance” to God? What did Paul write? Paul called it a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5) Were any of us active participants in our first birth? Absolutely not, we were passive – and some of us may have fought against it. The exact same is true of the rebirth of baptism. 3) Is baptism just an ancient, empty ritual which makes for a good excuse to throw a party and makes grandparents happy to see a family tradition continued? In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus didn’t mince any words about the importance and necessity of baptism: I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the spirit gives birth to spirit. (John 3:5-6) 4) Does baptism remain effective even if through the irresponsibility of the parents or the recklessness of the baptized person their faith later flickers out and dies from neglect of the Word and Sacrament? Remember what Jesus said in Mark 16: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) In other words, it is not the lack of baptism which damns, but the lack of faith – which will always be the result if someone cuts themselves off from God’s grace in Word and Sacrament – yes, even if that person had at one point been baptized. (John 15:5)

 

Don’t let the devil’s deceptions regarding baptism cloud your faith or rob you of the rich blessings God has given you in this sacrament! Why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized to take our place. He was baptized to take upon himself our sin, our guilt, the death and the hell we deserved. His baptism was his public anointing, God’s announcement to the world that this man from Nazareth, this baby of Bethlehem, is, in fact, his Son (and thus true God) and the One commissioned by God to be our Savior. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is what gives the power to the water in which we were baptized. We were baptized into Jesus’ place, his perfectly innocent life – the only life that can stand up to the scrutiny of Judgment Day; his death – by which we, too, have died to sin (Romans 6:3-4); his resurrection – so that we will rise just as surely as he rose on that first Easter. In baptism, Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on us, creates faith in our hearts, tears us out of Satan’s power and adopts us into God’s family. In baptism, God the Father looks at us in a totally different way – completely apart from anything we do or say – instead of seeing us as the wretched sinners we are, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his perfect Son – and declares “I love you. I have called you by name. You are mine.” And, furthermore, baptism is not just a onetime event – it’s something we are reminded of every time we worship in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – every time we pray “our Father” – hopefully every time we look in the mirror, so that every second of every day when we can be confident that our identity and our eternity don’t depend on who we are or what we have done, but on whose we are and what Jesus has done! If you have been baptized, you belong to the one true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! And that is true whether life is good or bad, whether you are sick or healthy, whether you have just taken your first breath or are about to take your last. Because of the blessings God has given you through his washing with water and the Word, your baptism is the single most important thing that has ever happened in your life.

 

All because Jesus was baptized to take your place in life and your place on the cross under God’s wrath and you were baptized into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – his place in God’s family. This is no ordinary water. This water is your life and your salvation. God grant that we always cherish this Sacrament for the amazing gift that it is. Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12 - The Other Christmas - January 6, 2019

Today is Epiphany. Also known as the “Christmas of the Gentiles.” Both Christmases essentially consist of God’s work: first God sending a Savior into the world and then revealing him to be the Savior of the world. The first Christmas consisted of baby Jesus swaddled in a manger visited by shepherds who had been called in from the fields by the angelic host sent by God. This second Christmas finds Jesus as a toddler playing at his mother’s feet in a house in Bethlehem visited by magi who were guided from the east by a star God had placed in the sky. The first Christmas was for Israel, for descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The second Christmas was for the world, the nations, the Gentiles, for you and for me – just as Isaiah predicted 700 years earlier: nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:3) And so, this “other” Christmas is really our Christmas.

 

The word “Epiphany” means “appearing,” usually referring to the appearance of a king or a god. The magi had come from the east to Jerusalem because God had caused a star to appear in the sky – which they understood to be a star announcing the birth of a king. Who were they? While we can’t say with certainty, they were probably Persian court astrologers who carefully studied the sun, moon, and stars for changes and movement and signs – especially (before the invention of the calendar) to determine when to plan or harvest or travel. The parallel with the first Christmas is interesting, isn’t it? The people who wound up worshipping Jesus weren’t seekers, they weren’t running around looking for Jesus, determined to welcome him into their lives – rather, in both cases God brought them to their Savior. God shocked the shepherds out of fields where they slept with their flocks with the glory of the angelic host and used the day-job of the magi – studying the stars – to bring them to the feet of their Savior.

 

When they get to Jerusalem, they go right to Herod’s palace. That’s logical, right? Herod was the king of Judea – where else would you go to find the newborn “king of the Jews” but to the current “King of the Jews?” But despite their supposed wise reasoning, they got it all wrong: Jerusalem was the wrong city, the palace was the wrong house, and Herod was the wrong king. Here we see the grand contrast between God’s ways and man’s ways which is woven throughout Scripture. The magi expected to visit “man’s king”; the star pointed to God’s king. Man’s king lives in palaces, in capital cities, in splendor and glory. God’s king lives in a humble house, in a second-class suburb, in poverty and humility. Man’s king strives to become a god. God’s king becomes a man. Man’s king expects his subjects to bleed for him; God’s king bleeds and dies to save his subjects. And so again, just like at the first Christmas in the manger, just like boy Jesus at the temple – we are reminded that God works salvation in the most hidden, mysteryious, humble ways. Not the way of power and might – but the way of poverty and lowliness. God’s hidden ways are seen most clearly in a peasant virgin who becomes the mother of God, in a manger that becomes the cradle of a king, in a cruel cross that becomes his throne, in the fact that a tomb proves his victory not his defeat.

 

And, while the star is what brought the magi to Jerusalem, it was the Word of God which brought them to Bethlehem. To Herod’s shame, he did not know where Scripture said the Savior would be born, he had to ask the religious experts. And even though they clearly lack faith in Scripture, they knew what the prophet Micah said: in Bethlehem in Judea. (Micah 5:2) Bethlehem in Judea. Literally, the “house of bread.” It was a little afterthought of a town 5 miles away from Jerusalem – where the real “power” was. But with the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem lives up to its name. It was the “pantry,” the “breadbox” in which the living bread from heaven (John 6:25-59) was born and raised.

 

So off the Magi go to little Bethlehem, urged on by Herod – whose claim to want to join them in worship veiled a heart that was bent on murdering this little threat to his power. (Matthew 2:16) And, to the great joy of the magi, the star appears again in the sky, like a divine GPS, verifying Micah’s prophecy, guiding them to the very place where the child was. No more manger crib for Jesus; now he’s in a house with his parents. Imagine the look on Mary’s face when she opens the door and sees magi standing there – whether three or more, we don’t know – with their camels (or donkeys or horses – we don’t know that either) stomping in the yard - and they ask to see her son and then bow down and worship him. Imagine her surprise when they present him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. These Magi realize what Herod and all his chief priests and teachers of the law – people who should have known better – missed completely: this child is the true King of the Jews, the God of the universe, the Savior of the world.

 

Some people see symbolism in their gifts, and if you’d like to see the gold as a gift fitting for a king, incense as a fitting offering to God, and myrrh (an ingredient used in embalming) as predictive of the fact that this child would die for the sins of the world – there’s nothing really wrong with that. But in all likelihood, these were simply gifts of great value, gifts fit for a king. Even more, just as God promises all of us, so God provided his Son’s daily bread – in this case, indirectly providing the means that allowed Joseph to follow God’s command to flee to Egypt. (Matthew 2:13) In it all, we see the triumph of faith over sight, of the wisdom of God over the wisdom of man. What the magi saw was a little child, perhaps a year or so old, playing at his mother’s feet. But they didn’t believe their eyes. They believed the sign of the star and the prophetic Word of God – and through eyes of faith they saw God’s Son and their Savior and offered him gifts worthy of his position and power.

 

This is the real, central message of Epiphany: by God’s grace alone, through faith in the Word alone, the outsiders are now the insiders. Those who stood outside of Israel, outside of God’s chosen people and his promises – are now in the presence of Israel’s greatest King, the promised son of David. This is the great “mystery” which Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians; that in Jesus the Gentiles are now fellow heirs with Israel of the promise of salvation in Christ. (Ephesians 3:6) The first Christmas was for the Jews, the chosen, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this Christmas is for the nations, for the Gentiles, for those who at one time were not God’s people – but who now are the people of God. (1 Peter 2:10) And in Jesus, these two distinct groups are united, joined as one body, one people, one Church.

 

Gathered here this morning you are a lot like those magi from the east. No, I didn’t see anyone park their camel outside nor did I notice anyone hauling in bars of gold or baggies of incense; but you, too, have been guided to the Christ child by signs given by God himself; not a star in the sky but Word and Sacrament. Through these means, God has called you in from the darkness, has shined the light of faith into your heart, so that you are no longer outsiders, but insiders – brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, heirs of heaven. You have been led to the house where God’s Son, the King of the world, is present with you and for you under the signs of water, word, bread and wine. Presence just as real and tangible – and hidden – as that little child at Mary’s feet.

 

Just like the magi we confess that it was not by our own thinking or choosing that we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord or came to him. But the Holy Spirit has called us by the gospel, enlightened us with his gifts, sanctified and keeps us in the true faith. The world may laugh at the Word as an ancient artifact of the past, at Communion as hocus pocus, at Baptism as nothing more than a symbolic show. But we are living evidence that these things are the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew then for the Gentile. (Romans 1:16) And one day all the wisdom and knowledge of man will eventually bow, like these magi, with faces on the ground before the one who is the wisdom of God in human flesh. One day every king of this world will bow before the King of kings. (Isaiah 49:7) There is a Day coming when at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

 

Like the magi, you too bring your gifts and leave them here for your King. The gifts of your time, your treasure, your talents, your prayers, your praise, your living and working outside of those doors, even your repentance (Psalm 51:17) – these are your gold and incense and myrrh – the concrete evidence of your heart’s conviction that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, your joyful offering of thanks and praise to the one who came to live, die, and rise for you.

 

The magi were going to return to Herod. But having been warned in a dream not to…they returned to their country by another route. They did return home, not by the way of Herod – the way of human wisdom and power – the way of death; but by the way of Jesus – God’s wisdom and God’s power – which leads to life. You too will leave your Savior’s feet here and go back to your home, your family, your job, your life. You will leave your Savior’s feet here and go out into the world. And you too will have your choice of two ways to go: the way of man’s king or the way of God’s king; the way of this world or the way of the kingdom of God; the way of power and glory and reason or the way of weakness and humility and faith; the way that depends on your wisdom, your reason, your strength, your blood, sweat and tears or the way that depends completely on God’s wisdom, on Jesus’ strength, his life, his blood, sweat and tears shed for you; the way that leads to certain death or the way that leads to eternal life.

 

Jesus, in his grace, has not left that decision up to you. He chose you, claimed you in baptism. He will feed you and strengthen your faith for life’s struggles here at his table with his body and his blood. His Word will continue to be a bright star which will guide you through this dark world to his glorious presence – and your glorious home – in heaven. He has put you on a new road, a new way, the way of forgiveness, the way of resurrection, the way of life. The world is done with Christmas, packed it away for another year. But for us, the celebration goes on – because today is the other Christmas, and this Christmas is just for us. Amen.