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.  

Luke 2:41-52 - The Wisdom of God: Hidden in Plain Sight - December 30, 2018

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. Doesn’t it sound strange to find a twelve-year-old boy and wisdom in the same sentence? 12 year olds grow in many ways: in appetite, in body odor, they grow out of their shoes and jeans – but wisdom? We usually associate wisdom with age, right? Wisdom comes from trial and error, from facing success and failure, with gray hair, with time spent in life’s school of hard knocks. The last thing you would expect from a 12 year old is wisdom, right? And yet, that’s what this morning’s Gospel delivers to us: wisdom wrapped in a 12 year old package; the wisdom of God: hidden in plain sight.

 

That’s how Mary and Joseph lost him. In his OT law, God commanded all Israelite men to come to Jerusalem for three great Feasts, including the Passover (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16) – and faithful Israelites often turned this into a family pilgrimage, with women and children coming too. Up until the age of twelve, boys walked with the women. But at twelve, they could walk with the men or the women. So it was probably one of those cases where, “I thought he was with you,” and “no, I thought he was with you.” Where he was was actually in the temple with the teachers for the equivalent of his “examination” – where he would be tested to see if he had learned enough at home and at the synagogue to become a fully-fledged man in Israelite society. And perhaps that lends some insight into why the Holy Spirit included this story – and only this story – from Jesus’ childhood. It shows us that even before he reached the age where he was required by law to be personally obedient to it, he was already obeying it as our perfect substitute.

 

But, as we learned on Christmas, this was no ordinary twelve year old. This is God in human flesh. The God who set the universe in order, the planets in their orbits, who governs all things in ways we cannot understand but can faintly perceive as the “laws of nature.” There was more wisdom in the tip of that child’s finger than in the gray heads of all the teachers in all of Israel. And yet he humbles himself to sit there to be examined by Israel’s teachers, answering their questions, impressing them with his answers. And…being obedient to his parents as one would expect from any other child. But he is not any child. He is God’s Child, his only-begotten Son chosen and anointed to save the world from sin, death, and hell. Of course, you wouldn’t know that just by looking at him. He looks like any other twelve year old. He blends in with us…because he is one of us: Immanuel, God with us. (Matthew 1:23)

 

That’s the mystery of God with us, isn’t it? It raises more questions than answers. Why? Why is the wisdom of God, the Son of God spending his time in the temple, growing in wisdom and stature, obediently following the will of his earthly parents and his heavenly Father? Spoiler alert: he’s doing it for you and for me. His Father sent him to earth to be born under the law, to redeem those under the law (Galatians 4:4-5) – that was the work his Father had given him and so that’s what he busied himself with. We call this Jesus’ active obedience. His obedience to two commandments stands out here: the third – remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy; and the fourth – honor your father and mother. Have you ever despised preaching and God’s Word or dishonored or angered your parents and others in authority? So have I. So there Jesus is in the Temple, his Father’s house, joyfully hearing and studying God’s Word for all the times we haven’t. There he is as a twelve year-old-boy – obedient to his parents, never talking back, never skipping his chores, never refusing what Mary made for dinner – because we’ve done all those things and more. Jesus’ lived an entirely perfect life – from the womb, to the manger, the home, the workshop, the temple, the cross, the tomb – for us because we haven’t. He lives the perfect life God demanded from us. He lives as a man all the way to the point of death – in order to save all of us from death.

 

But all that is hidden, isn’t it? All of that is cloaked under the flesh and blood of a twelve-year-old boy. God had promised Adam and Eve and their descendants that he would send someone to save them from themselves (Genesis 3:15) and this child is the one to do it. And he doesn’t look like much, does he? Certainly over the course of his life we get small glimpses of what lies beneath the surface – his miracles, his Baptism, his Transfiguration, ultimately his death, resurrection, and ascension. But like the last Christmas gift to be opened, the gift of Jesus is largely hidden, hidden in plain sight, to be revealed only on the Father’s timeline. There is the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight: an apparently normal twelve year old boy growing, learning, obeying – and, at the same time, an anything but normal boy from Galilee stunning the teachers with his answers and maintaining perfect obedience to both his earthly parents and heavenly Father.

 

If this twelve-year-old boy is what God’s plan of salvation looks like – why doesn’t everyone see it? Why didn’t Mary understand that Jesus had to be in his Father’s house? Why did some of these same teachers cry for Jesus’ death only 20 years later? Why are so many people today so slow to see baby Jesus, boy Jesus, fully grown Jesus as the wisdom of God in human flesh? (1 Corinthians 1:24) Often, because we are like your typical foolish children, we want to do it ourselves, we want to attain wisdom on our own, apart from God. Isn’t that what Adam and Eve were after in the Garden of Eden? They wanted to know good and evil, wisdom that God – in his wisdom – didn’t want them to have, because standing over creation and judging between good and evil is not our job, but his. But Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God and handed that arrogance down to us. Just as they disobeyed God’s clear Word and decided to eat the forbidden fruit – so often we imagine that we are judges of the world, of our lives, of God himself – that we get to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong based on our own wisdom. We so easily become our own gods. And, honestly, pretty terrible gods: self-centered, lazy, short-sighted, always lacking information, constantly changing our standards and morals from day to day. With Adam and Eve we’ve traded away the image of God (Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24) to join the animal world, following our own natural instincts and desires rather than the God to which we owe our very existence. Even we – the few, the proud, those who come to church on the Sunday after Christmas – must confess that we have trusted our own wisdom instead of the wisdom of God, our Creator and Redeemer.

 

 

 

And that’s precisely why God became man and cloaked himself in the flesh of a twelve year old boy. The Apostle Paul says that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25) God sent a boy to do a job only God could do. God sent his Son, born of a woman, cradled in a manger, raised in a household, obedient to father and mother – to save this world from the chaos, darkness, and destruction of sin by his perfectly obedient life and sacrificial death which washes away the sin, and foolishness, of the world.

 

Now, it would be easy for us to just smile and maybe chuckle a little bit at this story. To think that this makes for a good Sunday School lesson but isn’t really worth our time if we’ve been confirmed and spent long years in the trenches of Christianity. We might smirk at the temple teachers, thinking themselves so wise and learned, being astonished that this seemingly “average” twelve year old could know the Old Testament better than they do. “If only they knew who they were talking to” – we might scoff. We might shake our heads at Mary and Joseph – “who in the world would lose their child, much less the Son of God?” We might like to think that we are better, smarter, wiser than that. But are we?

 

Aren’t we just as likely to miss God when he’s busy working in his hidden and foolish ways? As parents, we wouldn’t dare miss an appointment for our children’s immunizations and check-ups – but are we as urgent about Baptism, about teaching our children to know the Word of God and pray to their heavenly Father, to make any and every sacrifice necessary to ensure that they are daily growing in the wisdom of God and not just in the wisdom of the world? We can’t help talking about a new diet or exercise plan, a new medicine, a new “hack” that has improved our lives in some way – but are we as eager to talk about how we called upon the Lord in the day of trouble, how he answered and delivered us from sickness or disease or disaster? (Psalm 91:15) We are always searching and planning for our next meal – we complain that we are “starving to death” if we happen to miss lunch, but do we experience the same pangs of hunger and thirst for forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life when we miss the Lord’s Supper – the only food that can cleanse us from our sins and fill us with the assurance of salvation? Aren’t we often tempted to view the Church as just another human organization – a charity, even – instead of the one place on earth that God comes to bless his people with his gifts and his grace in Word and Sacrament?

 

We shouldn’t shake our heads at the temple teachers or Mary and Joseph and their apparent foolishness. Because when God confronts us with his wisdom, hidden in plain sight, hidden in humble and unlikely places – we are often just as blind to it. Did you notice that Jesus’ response to Mary’s anxiety is really a lesson we all need to learn? They thought they had to search high and low for their son, God’s Son – when he was in the only logical place for him to be: his Father’s house, where the Word and Sacrament are. This is where we find Jesus because the opposite is actually true: this is where he finds us. The truth is that he was never lost – we were – and so he cloaks his wisdom in humility and foolishness to find us.

 

That’s the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight – wisdom that the world considers pure foolishness. The wisdom of God is swaddled in a manger, “lost” at the temple, growing in wisdom and stature as a twelve-year-old boy. The wisdom of God is later despised and hated by the same teachers who were once so amazed at his understanding, whipped and beaten and condemned by the authorities of the world, crucified by the very people he came to save, risen from the empty tomb, ascended to his Father’s right hand in glory. The wisdom of God is hidden in plain sight today in the pages of Scripture and hidden “in, with, and under” bread and wine and water. Don’t miss the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight – because the wisdom of faith that clings to Jesus as true man and true God, as both Mary’s Son and the Son of God, as a twelve year old boy and the God of the universe, as the God-man who suffered and died and rose to redeem us from our sins – that is the only wisdom which is able to make you wise for salvation. (2 Timothy 3:15) May God grant us the humility to perceive his wisdom hidden in human flesh. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.   

John 1:14 - The Word Became Flesh - December 25, 2018

Ever since the very first Christmas, people have been trying to capture the essence of Christmas. They try to capture it in a photo, a song, a movie, in decorations and traditions. Maybe the clearest example of this attempt to capture Christmas is the snow-globe – Christmas with snow and everything! But try as they might, all their attempts fail. One cannot capture Christmas in a mismatched sweater picture, a grainy movie, or a child’s toy filled with artificial snow. Only the words before us this morning, the inspired Words of Scripture have truly captured the essence of Christmas. When you get past the lights and the gifts, the family and the food, even the angels and shepherds, the stable and the manger; when you scrape away the sentimental music and the short-lived traditions and the less than ideal circumstances, this is what remains: the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

 

This baby lying in a manger is the same Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. (John 1:1) This baby is the wisdom of God that designed and engineered the universe – from the largest galaxies to the smallest atoms. This is the Word who called forth day and night, sun, moon and stars, land and sea, plants and trees, fish and animals – out of nothing. This is the Word that breathed life into a lump of clay and shared with mankind his image – his immortality, his holiness, his love. This Word has always been, ever is, and ever will be. That Word, when the time had fully come (Galatians 4:4), was conceived in the womb of a virgin and born to dwell among us. When you capture this, hold on to this, then you have captured the full and real and unchanging essence of Christmas.

 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. But what does this mean? We could spend every second of every day exploring and expanding on what this means and still not reach the end. The shepherds – who were there – could only repeat the things they had heard and seen. (Luke 2:17) Mary herself could only ponder things so far above her understanding that her heart must have nearly burst. (Luke 2:19) On that first Christmas, it took angels – those might messengers of God – to explain the meaning of all of this. And you and I? We can barely scratch the surface of this divine mystery.

 

No other religion in the history of the world has ever conceived anything even close to this Mystery. Sure, Greece and Rome had their myths of gods and goddesses occasionally “appearing” on earth. Sure, there is the false hope that someday humans will become immortal, all-powerful gods in Mormonism and secularism. All religions have prayers, miracles, commandments, creeds, codes of conduct, and worship. But only Christianity stakes the claim that God became man. You could not make such a religion up and get away with it, not even 2000 years ago. But it stands because it happened. In Bethlehem of Judea. At the time when Augustus was Caesar, Herod was King, and Quirinius was governor. It happened at a specific time in a specific place, with witnesses and consequences – just like any other piece of history. The Word became flesh.

 

Why? The Word became flesh because that’s what we are. Flesh. While we try to avoid and deny our flesh and all its limitations and implications and pretend to be “enlightened,” and “wise,” and “good,” and “true,” with our lofty ideals and supersized egos, but the Word willingly took on our humanity. We strive to be more than human, “supermen and superwomen” – to control not only our lives but the lives of those around us, but the God of the universe is content to become a baby; content to play in his mother’s lap and look into the eyes of shepherds. We are human, sinful humans – to be specific, fallen sons and daughters of Adam. The only-begotten Son of God became what we are (without the sin, of course) – because, left to ourselves, we are lost.

 

He came to be with us under the Law (Galatians 4:5), the holy Law of God that condemns us, that shuts our mouths, that fills our hearts with terror at the consequences of our sin, that keeps us awake at night and makes even Christmas anything but a wonderful time of year. But he came full of grace and truth. He came not to judge us but to save us; not to take us captive but to set us free; not to bring more rules for us to follow but to fulfill all the rules we haven’t. He came to save sinners – of which I am the worst…and so are you. (1 Timothy 1:15) He came to be your Shepherd and your friend, to lay down his life for you. (John 10:11; John 15:12) The Word became flesh to save you, all of you, your body and your soul by suffering the consequences of your sins and giving you eternal life as his free gift. (Romans 6:23)

 

John says: we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John was not there in Bethlehem. He came to know and follow Jesus much later. He was an eyewitness to His transfiguration – that moment where Jesus revealed his full glory as God to sinful human eyes. (Matthew 17:1-8) With his own ears he heard the voice from heaven declare him to be the Son of God. He was there to see him die in the darkness of Good Friday. (John 19:26-27) And he was among the first to see him absent from the empty tomb. (John 20:3) He stood gaping as the Word made flesh ascended into the clouds to his Father’s right hand. (Acts 1:1-11) John witnessed Jesus’ glory, glory covered in humility, glory wrapped in our humanity.

 

In Jesus, the Word became flesh to reverse the spiral of history – to reverse what the first man had done. The image of God, so disfigured and tainted by Adam, is now restored. We are fully what God intended us to be from the beginning because he is fully us. At the hand of John the Baptist he was baptized into our place and when we were baptized, we were baptized into him. So as we follow the course of Jesus’ life through the Christian church year – from manger to tomb – we are actually tracing our life’s story. His birth, his obedience, his suffering, his dying, his rising – is our birth, our obedience, our suffering, our dying, our rising. Your sin became his. His glory becomes yours.

 

 

 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We may wish we could have been there. We may wonder what it was like that first Christmas. But there is no need for us to go to Bethlehem – unless you want to go as a tourist. You will not find the flesh and bones and blood of Christ there. But don’t worry – the Word no longer invites us to meet him in a stable; he invites us to meet him

in the Word we can read and understand, in, with, and under the bread and wine we can taste, in water we can see and touch. That’s where the Word made flesh encounters our flesh, where our sins are forgiven, where we die and rise to new life. Because the Word became flesh we don’t have to go groping about blindly for God on earth (as so many do) or in heaven (as if we could, anyway!) because he comes down to us to dwell with us still today. He dwells among us in Word and Sacrament to serve us. He dwells among us to save us. He doesn’t make his dwelling with the rich and the famous, the proud and the happy, the good and the righteous – in Fortune 500 boardrooms or White House situation rooms. He makes his dwelling with us: the weak and the lonely, the sad and the tired and the distressed and the dying. He comes here to serve us – and then he equips us with beautiful feet to bring the good news that the salvation of our God has come to others. (Matthew 20:28; Isaiah 52:10)

 

Long after the gifts are opened and forgotten, after the decorations are packed away, after the holiday joy gives way to a new work week – this is what endures. God is with us in this baby born of Mary. He dwells among us so that we too may see his glory, hidden then in human flesh and blood, hidden now in Word and Sacrament, soon to be revealed in power and glory. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Whatever else you do today, hold on to this. Because this is Christmas. Amen.

Revelation 12:1-6 - A Wondrous Sign of Wondrous Love - December 23, 2018

The nativity of our Lord, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, is usually depicted as an idyllic, peaceful, almost beautiful scene, isn’t it? Proud new parents, cute lambs and goats, a nice clean barn, glorious angels and respectable shepherds. The reality was probably far from beautiful. Mary and Joseph were probably more than a little upset that no one would spare room for a woman in labor. A stable where farm animals live is hardly a sanitary place to rest, much less give birth. Initially those angels, those messengers of God, inspired fear, not joy (Luke 2:9) and shepherds – who lived and slept outside with their flocks – were hardly the first people you would invite to see your newborn child. And yet, as bad as the physical realities of Jesus’ birth was, there is an even more horrifying spiritual reality playing out behind the scenes. In Revelation 12 we get to see Christmas from God the Father’s perspective. It’s still a story of a woman giving birth to a son, but it’s the stuff of nightmares. A baby-eating monster is there, just waiting for dinner to be served. Before we hear the beauty of the Christmas story from the lips of children, let’s spend a few moments considering the reality behind our Savior’s birth. Because when we do, we will see how Jesus’ birth is a wondrous sign of God’s wondrous love.

 

Whether you know the book of Revelation like the back of your hand or you’ve never read it before, you must understand that it is what we call ‘apocalyptic literature.’ Apocalyptic literature, like impressionistic art – is not intended to convey how things literally were – there was not a literal dragon standing there in front of Mary – but rather it uses vivid imagery and symbolic language to describe a hidden reality.

 

So what does the imagery and symbolism mean? Given that the child being born is Jesus, we might conclude that the pregnant woman is Mary. However, the fact that she is wearing a crown of twelve stars (related to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles) and that she has the moon as a footstool (symbolizing authority) – this woman is not Mary, but the Church – all believers of all time. Genealogically, Jesus was the child of Israel, the descendant of Adam, Abraham, and Isaac – who is still received by all believers. (Luke 3:23-37; Romans 9:5) Later in this chapter we are told that the enormous red dragon is that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray (Revelation 12:9) – and the fact that he wants to replace God in human hearts is symbolized by the seven heads and seven crowns he wears. (The Greek word for crown – diadem – refers to that which was worn by pagan leaders who wanted to be worshiped as gods.) Satan is real and he is really powerful and he wants to rule us in God’s place, and the truth is that if Christmas is the only time you hear the Word of God – you are under Satan’s power, whether you realize it or not! (Matthew 12:26-30)

 

Satan knew from the beginning that Jesus would come to destroy his power to rule mankind (Genesis 3:15), and so he wanted to strike as soon as possible – he wanted to devour Jesus the moment [he] was born. And Scripture tells us how Satan repeatedly tried to have Jesus murdered. He led Herod to slaughter all the baby boys in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:16-17) He tempted Jesus to commit suicide in the wilderness. (Matthew 4:1-11) He so consumed the heart of Judas that he betrayed his Savior. (Luke 22:3) But through it all, God kept his child safe – in the end, snatched [him] up to God and to his throne in his ascension (Acts 1:1-11) where Jesus is not only safe from the devil’s power, but rule[s] all the nations with an iron scepter. (Ephesians 1:19-23) Finally, the woman and the 1,260 days. The woman is, as we’ve said, the Christian Church – and the 1,260 days represent the NT era – the time in which the Church wanders here on earth, but is fed and preserved by God in Word and Sacrament – before God takes her home on the Last Day.

 

So what’s the point of all this? How is the reality that Satan was licking his chops at Jesus’ birth a sign of God’s love for us? Well, would you ever intentionally place your child in such a dangerous situation? Today we keep our kids in car seats almost until they can drive themselves and on our health insurance until they’re 26. We do all we can to protect our children. But God the Father intentionally sent his Son to face this unspeakable danger. Why? God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) God sent his Son into the devil’s backyard to save us. God loves you so much that he sent his Son into a situation none of us would ever put our children in. Is that how you measure God’s love for you? Or does your estimate of God’s love fluctuate with your bank account, your health, the number of gifts under the tree or size of the problems in your life? If you don’t belong to a Christian church, do you notice that Christians don’t necessarily seem any happier, healthier, or wealthier than the rest of the population – and then think “where is the evidence that God loves those people?” Those are inaccurate and – actually – Satanic measures of God’s love. It’s wrong and sinful to measure God’s love by our earthly circumstances. Whenever you hear the Christmas story, don’t just see the barn and the animals – see the devil standing there, ready to devour God’s Son – that is how much God loves you!

 

The divine twist in the story of salvation is that while God ensured that the devil could never destroy his Son – the Father himself did. God the Father took our sins against the 10 commandments, our failure to love him above all things and love our neighbor as ourselves, he took our sins of doubting God’s love for us – he took it all and laid it on his Son and hung him on a cross and consumed him in the wrath that we deserved. As wondrous a sign of God’s wondrous love as the manger is, it pales in comparison to the love he showed by sacrificing his only Son in our place on the cross. With evidence like that, evidence written not just in black and white, not just in words coming from some guy in a robe or from little children, not measured in health or wealth or happiness – but written in the blood of God’s Son dripping down a wooden cross – how could we ever doubt that God our heavenly Father loves us dearly?

 

So keep this in mind as you hear the Christmas story from the lips of children. Don’t forget that while the scene might appear peaceful and the songs are sweet – God loved you so much that he not only risked his Son’s life, he took his Son’s life – to spare and save yours. A truly wondrous sign of his wondrous love! Amen.

Zephaniah 3:14-17 - Joy Instead of Judgment - December 16, 2018

The word ‘advent’ means coming and in the season of Advent the Church looks forward to the coming of the Lord. Knowing that an authority figure is coming has the potential to incite one of two reactions: fear or joy. When you’re a child and you hear the garage door going up, you have a very different reaction if mom says “hey, dad’s home,” versus “just you wait, now dad’s home.” If your boss tells you that he wants to see you in his office right before quitting time on Friday your reaction will depend on whether you’re expecting a promotion or the company has begun a round of lay-offs. When you see flashing red and blue lights on the highway, how you react depends on whether you need help slowing down or help getting out of a ditch. The Lord is coming. Is our natural reaction fear or joy? It’s not even close, is it? The Lord knows who we are and what we’ve done, how could we not be afraid?

 

If we could travel back to the time of Zephaniah, we would run into an entire nation who had every reason to fear the Lord’s coming. After God had given Israel the Promised Land, he warned them repeatedly that if they turned away from him he would uproot them from the land and turn them into the laughing stock of the world. (2 Chronicles 7:19-22) Well, Judah failed to listen and failed to obey and had turned from the true God to false gods – idols like Baal and Molech whose worship practices included religious prostitution and child sacrifice. (Zephaniah 1:4-5) They scoffed at the prophets God sent to warn them to change their wicked ways and proudly boasted that God would not do anything to them – either good or bad – and like hardened atheists they made their wealth, real estate and businesses into their gods. (Zephaniah 1:12-13) And so, for 2/3s of his book, the only message Zephaniah has is one of judgment. But in the closing section of this book, the Zephaniah’s message takes a very unexpected turn. To the few faithful believers – those who took the Lord’s warnings seriously and repented of their sins – the Lord offers a message of pure, unadulterated joy. Joy instead of judgment – that is the gist of what Zephaniah has to tell us today.

 

Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! That sounds similar to the holly, jolly music we hear on the radio these days, right? Do you see the problem, though? Those four verbs sing…shout aloud…be glad and rejoice are all commands. Why on earth would God have to command us to rejoice during “the most wonderful time of the year”? Why do morning shows and health professionals have to issue suggestions for dealing with holiday-related stress and depression? [1] Why has it become trendy to skip Christmas altogether and take a vacation instead? There are several reasons. 1) For one, God has written his law on our hearts and put a conscience in our heads that reminds us every time we don’t measure up. We know that we rightly deserve judgment, not joy, from God. (Romans 2:14-15) 2) Second, we often search for joy in all the wrong places. More than any other time of year, hidden idols are exposed: alcohol and excess, decorations and gifts, vacations and family and friends – while these things are gifts of God, they are not God. If we seek happiness and joy from anyone or anything other than God, we are, in fact, worshipping an idol. [2] And, when they take the place of the Giver, they do not bring true joy. If you doubt that, wait for December 26. See the trees lining the curb, the return lines at the stores, the grumpy, hung-over people at work, listen for the complaints about family and friends, notice how many people dig themselves into debt for just a day or two of holiday cheer. If you’ve been looking for joy in the gifts rather than the giver, then the command to rejoice is first a command to repent – to turn your heart away from artificial sources of joy and turn to God. Lastly 3) there’s a little part of each of us that thinks the good news of Christmas is just too good to be true. We are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the lawyer to read the fine print, to find out that there are strings attached – because nothing in this world is free. By nature we simply cannot grasp that forgiveness and peace and joy are free and unconditional gifts of God to us. No matter how many times we’ve heard the angels’ announcement that today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (Luke 2:11) – we still think, “no way, that’s too good to be true.” And do you know what all three reasons have in common? They crush our joy because they place our focus on us and our earthly situation instead where our focus should be at Christmas: on the Lord and what he has done for us!

 

That’s why it’s so important that we make the Lord the center of our Christmas celebration. Because when our joy is in the Lord, then it won’t matter if our home looks like something out of a Hallmark movie, if we can afford the best and shiniest gifts, if there’s an empty place at the table or in our hearts, if failing health or financial stress or a family conflict cast a shadow over the celebration – we will be filled with joy regardless of the outward circumstances. Why? Because the Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. Let’s be blunt: the best the world can offer is a brief reprieve from reality, a momentary illusion that life isn’t short and hard and painful. But the Lord confronts reality head-on and sweeps the ugliness away forever – starting with the reality of the punishment we deserve. Make no mistake – we have earned God’s judgment. (Romans 2:12-13, 16) But the Lord has taken it away. Not arbitrarily, not like the police officer who says “well, it’s Christmastime, I’ll let you go with a warning today.” No, God redirected our punishment to his Son. 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) So that now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) God will never punish you for your sins because he punished Jesus in your place. If that’s not a reason to rejoice – then there’s no reason to ever rejoice.

 

And the gifts just keep on coming: he has turned back your enemy. By suffering God’s wrath in our place, Jesus has crushed death and the devil. They are defanged, powerless. They are like a cat that has had its teeth removed – they can gnaw at you, but they cannot hurt you. And now, because the Lord, the King of Israel is with [us] we are never alone, he is always with us, guiding and guarding our lives so that we no longer need to fear evil – whether it’s the evil of sickness or poverty or hardship or pain or loneliness or death – none of them can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39) Even as the days grow shorter and the shadow of death looms larger – we find our joy in the Lord, for instead of the judgment we deserve, he has given us the joy of salvation.

And while our joy centers on what God has done for us – listen to where the Lord finds his joy: On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” Our joy is in what the Lord has done for us, but the Lord’s joy is in us! Isn’t that amazing?

 

Again, Zephaniah speaks to a sinful tendency we have: our tendency to be afraid to come into God’s presence, whether on the day of his return in glory – or even here, in worship. We know that God is present, we even begin worship by invoking his name. But don’t we often feel like Isaiah: woe to me…I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty. (Isaiah 6:5) And that fear is paralyzing – not only does it rob us of joy, not only does it hinder our energy and enthusiasm in carrying out the work God has given us, but sometimes it keeps us from worshipping, praying, studying Scripture altogether. Certainly when the Lord comes in judgment he will burn up [unbelievers] with [the] unquenchable fire of hell. (Luke 3:17) But that’s not why he comes to us now. Just as Jesus did not come on Christmas to bring judgment but salvation, so he comes to us here not to scold us for our sins, but to take them away. When we’re here, we’re not the only ones singing – God is singing over us! [3] The Bible says that there is rejoicing [in heaven] over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10) God rejoices in our repentance because he is not like us – who often only grudgingly give out forgiveness – he take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live. (Ezekiel 33:11) Nowhere is God’s joy more evident than in the Sacraments. In Baptism, he takes a helpless little sinner – and instead of casting him away as he deserves – washes his sins away and makes him his child. In Holy Communion the Lord invites the weary, the downtrodden, the desperate, the despairing – sinners like you and me – to come to his table to receive his body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of salvation. Don’t walk up here filled with shame or guilt, as if God is hovering with his arms crossed with a look that says “You again? You need my forgiveness again? When will you ever learn?” – come up here with joy, because nothing gives the Lord greater joy than forgiving your sins.

 

Let’s close with Zephaniah’s beautiful description of Christmas: he will quiet you with his love. Isn’t that an amazing picture – especially when the stress and expectations and busyness and commercialization of these days threaten to kill your joy? It’s amazing because it’s so relatable. When a baby wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, what does a parent do? Scream back? “Shut up, I’m trying to sleep here.” Issue a threat? “If you don’t stop crying right now, I’ll give you something to really cry about!” No. The parent takes that baby in his arms and gently rocks her, sings to her, speaks to her, assuring her of his love. That’s what God does for us on Christmas. He comes as a tiny baby – to take away our fear, to quiet our anxious hearts, to assure us of his tender love. God’s attitude toward us is like a grandparent at Christmas – you love your children and grandchildren dearly – in spite of what they’ve done, in spite of their failings and the times they have forgotten all about you – you still want to heal their wounds and dry their tears and calm their fears, you want to give them joy and peace – the very best you can offer. And even though you may not always be able to – God in Christ always does! Nothing gives him greater joy that seeing his children joyfully receiving the gifts he freely offers.

 

Just like the gifts of hope and the peace Jesus brings us this Advent season, his gift of joy is unexpected. When we hear that he is coming we tend to be fearful because we know we deserve judgment. Today, through Zephaniah the Lord has taken away our fear with the promise that he comes to us to give us joy instead of judgment – this isn’t like the artificial, worldly joy that’s long gone by December 26th…the joy we have in the Lord – and the joy he has in us, lasts into all eternity. If that doesn’t bring you joy this Christmas, than, truly, nothing will. Amen.

 


[1] http://www.mhawisconsin.org/holidaystress.aspx

[2] Martin Luther writes “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.” LC 1:2

[3] (Did you know God sings? Probably not, because this is one of only three verses in the Bible (that I could find: Psalm 68:6; Mark 14:26) that describes God singing.)

Malachi 3:1-4 - Peace Requires Preparation - December 9, 2018

Imagine you went to bed tonight and when you woke up, it was suddenly Christmas Day. Would you be ready? Are the gifts bought and wrapped, the cookies baked, the decorations perfectly arranged, the house cleaned, the bags packed, the car gassed and ready? If Christmas was tomorrow would you continue to sit there calm and quiet – at peace – or would you break out in a cold sweat and start tapping your foot anxiously, praying for this sermon to end? I doubt if any of us are completely ready for Christmas just yet. We need time to prepare, and we hope that if we are well-prepared, we will have a measure of peace when that day comes. The fact that Jesus came 2000 years ago in humility is proof that he will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. This morning, Malachi asks a chilling question: who can endure the day of his coming? The answer, of course, is: only the one who is prepared. For the one who is prepared, even if it is tomorrow, it will be a day of peace. The question we must ask, then, is how do we prepare?

 

Malachi lived and worked about 100 years after God had brought his people back from exile in Babylon. Upon their return there was something of a spiritual revival. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord. They enthusiastically celebrated the feasts and festivals and joyfully brought their offerings and sacrifices. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm was short-lived. Soon enough spiritual apathy and indifference returned. They brought blind and lame animals to be sacrificed instead of the flawless specimens God demanded. (Malachi 1) They began to intermarry with the godless nations around them and thought nothing of using divorce and violence, lies and fraud to settle their personal issues. (Malachi 2 & 3) To make matters worse, instead of exposing and rebuking this wickedness, the priests encouraged and supported it. To top it off, when the people observed their culture spiraling toward destruction, they pointed the finger of blame at their Lord: where is the God of justice? (Malachi 2:17) Malachi’s response is, essentially: “Oh, don’t you worry, he’s coming and you will meet him, face to face. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

 

And Jesus did come. He came in a manger to bring salvation. And he’s coming again, this time to bring judgment. Are we ready? Are we at peace? The reality is that spiritual apathy and indifference is just as prevalent in 2018 as it was in 400 BC. We see evidence of spiritual apathy when we prioritize Christmas decorations and gifts over preparing our hearts with Word and Sacrament, when we present our offerings to God as if it is a chore and a burden rather than a joy and a privilege, when we use and abuse our spouses rather than cherish and treasure them as gifts from heaven. Apathy can be heard when we gripe about the obvious lovelessness and immorality in the world around us, and pretend as if those same sins don’t show up in our hearts and lives, and in the fact that even though God chose us in Baptism, guides us in his Word strengthens us with his Sacrament and gives us eternal life – we demand more, tangible, material evidence of his love – we demand he give us this earth too. We teach spiritual apathy to our children when we drop them off for Sunday school and then leave – as if learning the truths of Scripture is only for children.

 

Jesus is coming, the fire of his judgment will expose any and all apathy and indifference in your heart and mine: who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? Who of us could say we’re ready? What would you expect his response to be? “Tough, you knew I was coming, you know that I demand perfection not just your best effort, you had plenty of time to prepare – if you’re not ready, then get out of my sight and join the weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell.” That would only be fair. Thank the Lord that he is not fair. Instead of judgment, he promises to send a messenger – actually two – to prepare us: see, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.

 

The first is a clear reference to John the Baptist. (see Matthew 11:7-15; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 7:24-28) God sent him to prepare the hearts of Israel by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) John’s work and message are representative of the work of every single prophet, apostle, pastor and teacher God has ever sent. John preached undiluted law and unconditional Gospel. He called on everyone – from corrupt tax collectors and soldiers to outwardly pious religious leaders (Luke 3:7-15) – to repent – because he understood that it didn’t matter whether a person was wearing prison orange, their Sunday best, or a pastor’s gown – in God’s eyes we are filthy and unclean. (Isaiah 64:6) And then, he baptized all those who repented, announcing that their sins had been forgiven, fully and freely for the sake of Christ – no matter who they were or what they had done. John’s work then is every pastor’s work today: to proclaim Law and Gospel, repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all people.

 

The second stage cannot be carried out by any man, but only by one who is both God and man, the Lord you are seeking, Jesus Christ himself. He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. I don’t think we mind throwing a load of clothes into the washer, but imagine being the clothing! That’s the picture: Jesus is the launderer – we are the clothing; he is the refiner – we are the silver. You don’t have to work in a laundromat or refinery to see that this stage of preparation is much more comprehensive, much more personal, and much more painful than a simple confession and absolution in church. Whether it’s self-righteousness, pride, an unhealthy attachment to this world, our trust in ourselves, our strength, our good works, despair or doubt or unbelief or apathy or indifference – it all needs to be removed if we are going to be ready to receive Jesus with peace rather than terror when he returns. Since this involves the death of the sinful nature that lives within all of us, this purifying is a painful, lifelong process. Jesus may use the soap of disappointment or disease or job loss to remind us just how weak and helpless we really are – and how much we need to rely on him. He may use the fire of tragedy or disaster or death to burn out of our lives things and people we love – but which stand in the way of faith. Over the course of a lifetime he may use the general misery of life in this world to convince us that this world is not going to get any better so that we long for our perfect home in heaven.

 

 

This may not seem like good news, it may not seem like a message of peace, but it is. It is proof of his love for us. Think of how a loving parent disciplines their child – bringing them short term pain for their long-term gain. Your Lord loves you too much to let you face Judgment unprepared. So he sends messengers like John to preach Law and Gospel, and he works behind the scenes in your life to refine and purify you to receive him as your Savior now so that you can have peace when he comes as Judge.

 

Of course, there is no true peace to be found merely in the fact that we sit and listen to a preacher shout Law and Gospel in our direction or that we groan under the pain of the Lord’s refining and purifying work in our lives. Because no matter how effective the preacher and the pain are, they cannot provide perfect cleansing; they cannot give us perfect peace. Sin is stitched so deeply into the fabric of our being that it cannot be removed by a million confessions or a lifetime of pain. As God drilled into the Israelites through his requirement of thousands of animal sacrifices, the process of removing sin calls for blood, it requires death. In his mercy, God spared us this part of the process and laid it on his own Son. True peace doesn’t come through what Jesus does to us, but what he has done for us. To see the fire it took to remove the impurity of your sin from your record, look at the cross, where Jesus hung, bleeding from head and hands and feet, enduring the blazing fire of God’s wrath for your sins and the sins of the world. To understand what it took to cleanse the stain of sin from your soul, see that soldier plunge his spear into the side of God’s lifeless Son, unleashing the blood (John 19:34) which purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7) However humiliating it is to confess your sins, however much it hurts when Jesus cuts your ties to this dying world – know that you are not and never will suffer the punishment for your sins – Jesus already did that. Repentance and pain are how the Lord leads you to trust in him, purifies your faith in him!

 

And this process reaps real results here and now. Just as you don’t wash clothes simply for the sake of making them clean or refine ore simply for the sake of having a lump of pure gold or silver – you do it so that they become useful again – so God hasn’t saved us from destruction so that we could just sit around and wait for Jesus to arrive. Malachi concludes: Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. The Hebrew word for offering (mincah) doesn’t refer to a sin offering but rather a thank offering. Imagine that: God promises to humble us with repentance and make our lives painful and he expects us to thank him for it! Really? What else could we do? Even with our imperfect earthly parents, we (hopefully) eventually thank them for disciplining us, for causing us temporary pain to bring about long-term gain. How much more shouldn’t we thank God for the pain that leads to eternal life? How do we thank him for the gift of salvation? Through our offerings, our hymns of praise, our confession of faith, our attendance in worship and the time we set aside for daily devotion and prayer - yes. But it’s so much more than that. Having been purified by Jesus’ blood, our whole lives are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) which are acceptable to the LORD. Your diligence at school and work, your love for your family and friends, your preparations for Christmas, whatever you will do when you leave here and when you wake up tomorrow – it’s all acceptable to the LORD because it comes from you: purified, prepared believers. You, dear friends in Christ, are the real results of the Lord’s purifying process.

 

Peace requires preparation. That’s how it works in this world – before any big day, party or gathering. That’s how it works when it comes preparing to receive Christ when he comes. We often make the mistake of viewing this life (or some part of it) as the “main event.” It’s not. Every moment of this life is preparation for the party to come. But even now, in the middle of this troubled life, we have peace – the peace God’s angels sang about on Christmas Eve. We know that in spite of the stains and impurities that are inherent in us, God has declared peace with us through Christ. We know that when Jesus returns or calls us home the trouble will be over once and for all – and we will experience perfect, permanent peace. And until then, we know that the Lord uses pain in our lives for our good, to lead us to believe him as our Savior today so that we can have peace when he comes as Judge. Thanks be to Jesus for this gift of peace. Amen.

 

 

Jeremiah 33:14-16 - Advent Expectations - December 2, 2018

Expectations. We all have them. We have them for other people and they have them for us. Parents have expectations for their children and children for their parents. We have expectations for our spouse, our employer, our government, our church. This time of year, expectations are often raised. We expect decorations to dazzle, packages to arrive on time, dollars to stretch, everyone to be a little bit nicer, every gift given and received to be perfect. Then there are the expectations people have for God. They expect him to be there when they need him – and to leave them alone the rest of the time, to alleviate all pain and suffering, to right every wrong and punish every evil, to send snow only when it’s convenient and make the sun shine the rest of the time. Maybe that’s an exaggeration – or maybe not. The point is that we all have expectations – there’s no denying it. The fact that we are frequently disappointed is proof. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t have expectations. Advent is a season of expectation, of waiting, of hoping. For what? What should we expect to receive from God this Christmas? The prophet Jeremiah shows us.

 

The Israelites were people who had high expectations for God. They knew they were specially selected and protected by God and set apart from all other nations. (Deuteronomy 7:7-9) They possessed a special identity – children of Abraham, a Promised Land, God’s written Law and his Promise of salvation. There has never been and will never be another nation like OT Israel. And they expected to never lose this privileged status. In return, God expected Israel to be loyal and obedient to him. But Israel did not live up to God’s expectations. She was faithless and idolatrous and adulterous – and so she should have expected that God would keep his promise to tear them out of their homes and carry them away from their land as punishment – just as he had already done with the 10 northern tribes. (2 Chronicles 7:19-22) But she didn’t, so God sent Jeremiah to remind them.

 

Jeremiah was God’s spokesman before and after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and took her people into exile. God warned Jeremiah of the coming destruction and he warned the people. But like people who turn the volume down when there’s a severe weather warning, the people ignored him. In fact, they actively tried to silence him. He was depressing. Bad for morale. Unpatriotic. They couldn’t fathom God ever allowing such a thing to happen to his chosen people. They had Jeremiah locked in prison (Jeremiah 37) and tossed into a cistern (Jeremiah 38) to shut him up. Even so, Jeremiah continued to speak God’s Word. He spoke of imminent desolation (25-29), but also of restoration. (30-33) Exile and return. Destruction and construction. Death and life. Jeremiah’s message dashed their short-term expectations but gave them long-term hope. That’s the buildup to today’s reading.

 

‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. One of the many important themes we find throughout the OT is this: God keeps his promises to real people in real history. Even if that’s all we got from reading the OT, it would be well worth our time. ‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. Even in the darkness and hopelessness of exile in Babylon, believers like Daniel and Esther clung to God’s promise to send a descendant of David who would deliver them. Even though the Temple of the Lord lay in ruins and their king was bound in chains, they believed that the day would come when Judah would be delivered and Jerusalem would live in peace and safety. They longed for it. They hoped for it. They expected it.

 

Then finally, after 70 years, came Cyrus’ decree (Ezra 1:1-4) which allowed the exiles to return to Judah, to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple under Ezra and Nehemiah. God kept his promise. They were back. But not really. It wasn’t the same – it was a sad shadow of the glory days under David and Solomon. When the old timers looked at the rebuilt temple they wept and said – as old timers of every generation tend to “It’s not as good as it used to be.” (Ezra 3:12) And it wasn’t. The Ark of the Covenant had been lost or destroyed. (Jeremiah 3:16) The glory of the Lord didn’t fill the temple. They weren’t free. They were occupied by foreign powers: Persia then Greece then Rome. But even then, the faithful in Israel never forgot the words of the prophet Jeremiah – the promise of a righteous King from David’s line. One who would do what is just and right and bring salvation from their oppressors. They remembered this promise and even in the darkest of days they looked forward in hope. They continued to expect something greater.

 

Over the years various Messiah-like figures arose and attempted to bring liberation and restoration to Israel. But they all flamed out. And then, a week before Passover, here comes a most unexpected candidate: Jesus of Nazareth, with his band of rag-tag followers, riding on a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem. But the crowds had seen what Jesus was capable of and hailed him as their King. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David. (Mark 1:10) They were right. Every prophecy he fulfilled and miracle he performed proved that this was the One, the righteous Branch from David’s line.

 

What did those people expect of Jesus? What were they hoping for? What they had always hoped for: a holy war, the restoration of Israel’s political freedom, a descendant of David on the throne, and glory restored to the Temple. And that’s exactly what Jesus brought. But not in the way they expected. He came to do justice to their sin and ours, to be righteous in ways we have not and cannot. He came to carry out a great exchange: our sin for his righteousness. He came to be our substitute – the King Israel really needed, to sprout up in Bethlehem only to be to be chopped down and burned in the fire of God’s wrath against our sin on Calvary. He came to launch a holy war – not against Rome, but against sin and death and the devil – the powers of hell that threatened to destroy us eternally. Jesus came to save Israel – not by ruling on a throne but by dying on a cross. In Jesus, God kept his promise to Israel.

 

Is that what you expect of Jesus, what you are hoping to receive from him? Are you longing for the kind of king who is born in a barn, eats and drinks with prostitutes and criminals, washes his disciples’ feet, rides on a borrowed donkey, carries his own cross to a hill outside Jerusalem to bleed and die for you? Does he meet your expectations? Because this is not the kind of king the world expects and demands (offer free forgiveness and peace with God – nah, I’ll pass…but offer daycare and financial seminars – now that kind of Jesus gets people excited). Unfortunately, those false expectations leak into our lives too. Maybe it’s not so much that we expect a conquering hero type – a manly, Vladimir Putin type to rescue us. But we often expect Jesus to fix our short term problems. We expect Jesus to be a therapist who will heal the rifts in our families in time for Christmas, a UPS man who brings us the material things we want when we want them, a doctor to heal our failing bodies and minds, a baby sitter to raise our kids, a financial adviser who will keep our nest egg safe or a buddy to cheer us up when we’re down. If that’s what you’re expecting, prepare to be disappointed this Christmas. In fact, repent right now for having false expectations. That king isn’t coming because that isn’t the King God promised. On the other hand, if you expect to receive what God promised – a King from David’s line, who will do what is just and right, who will suffer God’s wrath in your place, who still brings amazing gifts to you in humble ways (through Word and water, bread and wine): then prepare to receive more than you ever expected. Because a Savior from sin is God’s Christmas gift to you. He is the King God sends you.

 

And he’s the King we need, not because his coming will change your current circumstances – because he will make the Christmas lights shine a little brighter or the deals a little better – but because he comes to do something even more amazing and necessary: he comes to change you. He comes to save you, to give you a new name and a place in God’s eternal kingdom. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness. In the NT, Jerusalem is the name given to the Christian Church – all believers everywhere. (Revelation 21) The translation is misleading here, it literally reads this is the name by which SHE will be called. She. The Church. The Bride of Christ. (Ephesians 5:25-27) She takes the name of her groom. His name is The LORD Our Righteousness and so is hers. And, more importantly, that is the name God gave you when he washed you in the waters of Baptism.

 

We need this King because we desperately need the gift only he can give: perfect righteousness. This is good news that is better than any Christmas bonus or stocking stuffer; this good news is better than we could ever have any right to expect: righteousness – the perfect life (in thought, word and deed) that God demands from us – is not something we do, it’s something Jesus does. Not something you have to earn, something he freely gives. That’s not what we expect when it comes to God and righteousness and salvation. That’s not what our children expect either, if we fill their minds with demonic ideas of a fat man in a red suit whose gifts are based on whether you are naughty or nice. We expect to have to do it (and so does Santa), but Jesus does it. We expect to have to earn it and prove ourselves worthy of eternal life. He earns it for us and makes us worthy. Jesus is the LORD Our Righteousness and, through faith, his name is our name, his righteousness is our righteousness. Expect Jesus to come to change you, to give you a name you have not and could never earn – and you will not be disappointed this Christmas.

 

Advent is the season of expectations. The expectations of the holiday season, of the coming of Christmas, of family and friends. Both reasonable and unreasonable expectations. Advent is a season of watchful waiting, like Israel in exile, waiting and watching for Savior God promised to appear. Once he came in a manger in Bethlehem and riding on a donkey into Jerusalem to win our righteousness. Now he comes to you in water and Word, bread and wine to give you his righteousness. Soon he will come in power and glory at the end of time to raise you to the eternal righteousness. Expect him. Place your hope in him. He always exceeds expectations. Amen.

Mark 13:24-37 The End of the World As We Know It - November 25, 2018

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1) And everything that has a beginning…also has an ending. Just as God brought about the beginning, so God will bring about the ending. We’ve come to the end of the Christian calendar; the last Sunday in the church year. Next week is Advent; a new beginning. But today we consider the Last Day as described by the only one who knows: Jesus Christ. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

 

If we’re honest, we will admit that it’s impossible for us to imagine everything in the universe coming to an abrupt, sudden end, isn’t it? We tend to think in terms of a slow wasting away, a steady and predictable winding down. In fact, that’s how we like it. We like to know when our cars, our furnaces, our bodies are going to die – because then we think we have some control, some time to prepare, perhaps something we can do to prevent it. Human pride doesn’t want to think about a last day, a day when everything we know simply stops, ends, vanishes in a flash – completely outside of our control. But that is precisely how Jesus describes the end: the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. It doesn’t seem possible; but it is certain, just as certain as the fact that God created everything from nothing in the beginning.

 

How does it feel to know that at any moment everything you’ve ever known could be destroyed? The tendency is to doubt it, dread it, or dismiss it. Either we doubt all this end times talk and think “yeah, I’ll be dead and gone long before then” – or we dread the coming end and live in fear, searching for signs, hoping to somehow wrap our arms around it and bring it under our control. The world simply dismisses it as religious speculation; fake news. So the world just goes on, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage (Matthew 24:38) – oblivious to the fact that one day, it’s all going to come crashing down. But just as Jesus promises that this universe will be shaken, so he shakes up our tendencies. He doesn’t want us to wait for the End of the world with doubt, dread, or dismissal; but rather to trust his Word, be watchful and hopeful.

 

There’s only one reason the end of the world is good news: At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Jesus’ return will be a dramatic reversal of his Ascension into heaven. (Acts 1:1-11) Instead of a cloud hiding him from sight, the clouds will reveal his arrival. Instead of 11 disciples gazing at the sky, the whole world will witness his return. Instead of veiling his divinity under the cloak of humiliation, Jesus will return with great power and glory. But despite the differences, one thing won’t change. The one who returns in judgment will be the same one who was born in a manger, who sought out the sick and the sinner, who brought forgiveness and healing, who suffered, was crucified, died and rose again to pay for our sins. This same Jesus (Acts 1:11) that the disciples had seen and heard and touched – that we have heard and touched and received in Word and Sacrament – will be the one returning in the clouds.

 

He will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. It will be the grand family reunion that the children of God have been waiting for, a day when the Church – that appears so hopelessly scattered and fragmented today – will be visibly and permanently united as one. The contrast is striking: even as everything in this universe is falling apart, the church is put back together.

 

While it will be a day of judgment and destruction for those who rejected him, Jesus doesn’t mention that here. His goal is to fortify the faith and hope of his disciples. For believers, the end of the world isn’t a day of death but a day of life. Just as he called the appearance of false prophets and wars and disasters birth pains (Mark 13:8), so he compares these cosmic signs to a fig tree budding on the cusp of summer. In the midst of terror and destruction, Jesus is bringing life! The destruction of the world as we know isn’t the end for us, it is the beginning – the beginning of life in a new heaven and new earth – just as God intended it! Who would have guessed it? Who could have known it? It’s the exact opposite of what scientists and physicists claim will happen when the sun goes dark. Which is why the only one we can trust to inform us about the end of time is the one who came from heaven. (John 3:13)

 

I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. There are those who claim that the Bible has been revised over the centuries to remove inaccuracies and contradictions. If that were true, I would ask, how did this verse survive? It would seem that it would have been wise for the early Church to just scrub this verse, because it appears that Jesus made a big mistake: the world didn’t end in his generation, nor has it ended 50 generations later. [1] But this verse still stands there in black and white – and it forces us to think more deeply about what Jesus means. [2]

 

In the most important sense – these things did happen. The sun was darkened, the earth shook, the dead rose, the laws of nature bent before their Maker, when Jesus died on the cross. That was, in a very real sense, the end of the world as we know it. Jesus shouldered the entire curse of sin that permeates this world – all the guilt, shame, pain, sorrow, decay – and carried it to the cross where the fury of God’s wrath destroyed it and him. That was the true Judgment Day for believers – because 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) And when we were baptized, this world died to us and we died to this world. (Galatians 6:14)

 

But these things (the signs of the end) also happened (began happening) forty years later – when the Roman army overran Jerusalem and tore down the temple until not one stone was left upon another. At the time believers viewed this as the beginning of the end – they expected Jesus to return at any moment. In fact, in every generation of believers have lived as though the world would end any day. Paul did. (1 Corinthians 7:29) The early church fathers did. Luther did. Because they saw the signs all around them and believed Jesus’ words. And even though their lives ended before the world did, they weren’t wrong.

 

Because living today as if it will all end tomorrow – that’s what it means to be Christian. Which is why Satan works so hard to confuse and distort the Biblical message of the end times. He uses his same old lie: did God really say? (Genesis 3:1) with great effect. He leads us to focus all our effort and attention – not on God’s Word, but on the things and opportunities of this world. He even leads us to believe that mankind has some role in either bringing about or delaying the end of the world. Don’t fall for his lies. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus swears. Everything you see, taste, touch, smell – everything you bought on Black Friday – it will all be destroyed. But the words of the Lord will never pass away – will never have to be revised or corrected. When? When will the end come? When do I need to start getting serious about this Christianity stuff? No one knows but the Father.

 

So don’t worry about when, that’s above our pay-grade, that’s God’s business. Instead, Jesus says, today: be on guard! Be alert! Jesus says we are to be like watchmen waiting for the owner to return. He could come at any time of day or night – and whenever he does, he expects us to be ready, focused, awake. That doesn’t mean that you don’t go to sleep at night. It doesn’t mean you go and sell all your possessions. It doesn’t mean you don’t plan for the future. It doesn’t mean that you quit your job and stand around looking at the skies waiting for Jesus to appear. (The angels told the disciples not to do that! Acts 1:11) It means that you go about the work God has given you to do – whatever it is – with the understanding that he could return at any moment, and he wants to find you doing his will.

 

It should be obvious (but, sadly, it’s not) it means that there is never any good, appropriate time to go wandering away from the Lord’s presence and power in Word and Sacrament. The idea that there are some times in life – the decade after you’re confirmed, when work or family demand your Sunday mornings, when the spirit is willing but the body is weak (Matthew 26:41), when it’s inconvenient – that God understands that sometimes some things are more important than worshipping him. That is a damned lie. Jesus never said that. This is what Jesus says: What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’

 

Jude lays out a simple preparedness plan: build yourselves up in your most holy faith. (Jude 20-21) Build yourself up in your faith, the faith you were baptized and confirmed into, the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3), faith that confesses Jesus as your personal Savior and Lord who redeemed you and made you his own by shedding his own blood. Repent, daily. Study the Christian faith. Learn the Christian faith. Know what you believe and why you believe it – don’t put it off, and don’t think that it’s just for kids, because one day, it will be too late.

 

Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. This is amazing: the world as we know it will be destroyed, but Jesus will come bringing mercy, not wrath. Mercy is kindness to those who don’t deserve it. Mercy is what God gives us here and now when he announces that we have been justified in his sight – declared “not-guilty”, that our names have been written in the book of life in Baptism, that in Communion we receive a foretaste, a down-payment of what’s to come. To keep in God’s love means nothing more and nothing less than to take every opportunity to receive God’s forgiving love in Christ. That’s why we worship, every week, all year long. Here is where God distributes the grace and the guidance we need to be ready and watchful and prepared for the day he brings this world to a screeching halt. It’s not about doing something for God, it’s about receiving a preview of eternity, sampling the Lamb’s wedding feast, it’s about gathering with fellow believers, encouraging each other to remain watchful as the day approaches. (Hebrews 10:25)

 

If any of it depended on us, we’d be doomed. If it depended on our vigilance, our faith and our godly living – we wouldn’t survive the end of the world. But, thank God, he doesn’t leave it up to us – he placed that burden on Jesus. The blood Jesus shed on the cross will not only shield us from the destruction that is coming, but is also the garment of righteousness that we will wear to the grand reunion of believers in glory. One day this world as we know it will end. And that’s good news, because then we will experience life in the world Jesus is preparing for us, life free from sin and sorrow, from pain and death. That is a day worth preparing for. Amen.


[1] Assuming that 40 years = a generation

[2] Another possible interpretation is that generation refers to all who reject Jesus as God and Lord – thus, unbelief won’t pass away until all these things happen. See also Matthew 16:4.

Mark 13:1-13 - End Times Birth Pains - November 18, 2018

One of the saddest consequences of sin is that one of God’s greatest blessings is accompanied by some of the greatest pain a person can endure: childbirth. Nine months of waiting and anticipating, nausea and discomfort, culminating in indescribable hours of labor and delivery. And yet, that final pain is the part that expecting mothers look forward to the most. Why? Because it means the months of discomfort are almost over, and a precious new life will have arrived. As we turn our attention to the end times, Jesus warns us that believers aren’t going to experience perfect joy and peace in this world, but are going to experience all kinds of suffering, birth pains – and he wants us to understand that these birth pains mean that our suffering is almost over and salvation is almost here.

 

As Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple on Tuesday of Holy Week, one of the disciples was struck by a sudden bout of tourism. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Herod’s temple renovation project (a project 46 years in making[1]) was in full swing. With some of the stones weighing over 100 tons and glazed in gold, it would certainly have been a sight to see. [2] Jesus, however, is unimpressed. “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” For the disciples, this was unsettling news. The Temple was the center of their religion, the place God came to them and they came to God. This prediction was so crazy that the disciples didn’t bring it up again until they had crossed the Kidron Valley to the Mt. of Olives – and then, only four had the guts to ask Jesus what he meant.

 

“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” That’s what everyone wants to know, right? There’s a whole cottage industry built to profit from end times speculation. Left Behind. The Late Great Planet Earth. Y2K. The Mayan calendar. Blood moons. Every year some new book or movie comes along speculating about specific times and dates and signs. And, like lemmings, many people (sadly, often Christians) scurry to see the movie, buy the book, and enroll in the seminar. Everyone wants to know when the end will come. But Jesus doesn’t give times or dates, he gives us what we need more: signs to watch for, warnings and encouragements to keep us on the narrow road of faith.

 

There will be signs in the Church. False christs, false religions and false gospels which aren’t good news at all. We have them today – cults that enslave millions, prophets promising salvation apart from Christ, religious superstars offering access to God apart from his Word. And people will (and do) believe them – especially if they can cook up some great signs and wonders – because people who are not grounded on the rock of Scripture will believe anything. There will be signs in the political world. Wars and rumors of wars…nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear the rumbling of war in some corner of the world. There will be signs in nature, signs of creation groaning against the burden of sin (Romans 8:22): earthquakes in various places, and famines, not to mention floods, hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, droughts; signs that are all around us.

 

Isn’t that the exact opposite of what so many in our world hope for and expect? Aren’t most people expecting peace and prosperity and harmony in the future? That’s why Jesus says watch out that no one deceives you. Don’t be deceived by those who come in Jesus’ name and yet don’t point to Jesus’ words and works, his death and resurrection, his body and blood, Baptism and the forgiveness of sins in his name for salvation – these are false prophets. When you hear of wars – don’t listen to those who promise peace; nor to the alarms that the world will end in a nuclear holocaust – because Jesus has said: these things must happen, but the end is still to come. Don’t be deceived by those who claim that poverty and hunger can be stamped out if we just put our minds to it – nor those who say that we can end natural disasters by giving up fossil fuels, because Jesus has promised there will always be famines and earthquakes. So don’t be deceived, but also, don’t forget Jesus’ encouragement: these are the beginning of birth pains. While these pains are certainly tangible calls for repentance (Luke 13:2-5), for we who have been washed in the water of Baptism, they are signs that Jesus keeps his Word: things will go from bad to worse, the pains will grow more frequent and intense, but these signs mean that our suffering is almost over.  

 

While all the world will experience some end times birth pains, some is reserved only for Jesus’ disciples. They will be handed over to religious councils, beaten in the synagogues, put on trial before the civil authorities. But even this serves God’s good purpose. Through the persecution of God’s people, the Gospel of Jesus would be preached to all nations. Just as Jesus was the target of both religious and state persecution – and the Church was born out of his suffering and death – so God’s evangelism plan for his Church continues to include persecution. The book of Acts bears this out. Time and again, in city after city, the apostles are hauled before religious authorities, they’re told to stop preaching the name of Jesus, they’re beaten and imprisoned and threatened with death. (Acts 4-5) And what happened as a result? The word of God spread. (Acts 6:7)

 

That’s not exactly what we would expect or hope for, is it? We tend to think that the Church will thrive in times of peace. We tend to think that civil authorities should support and defend Christianity because Christianity supports and defends freedom, morality, family, justice, and obedience to the authorities. We tend to think that all the world should see Christianity as the only truly inclusive religion that preaches hate towards no one and God’s love for all. And yet, the fact remains that the gospel of Christ crucified is the most offensive thing the world has ever heard, because the gospel says that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Just as powerful religious leaders teamed up with the civil authorities to get rid of Christ, so antichristian forces will continue to use the power of government to suppress and punish those who preach salvation through Christ alone. (Revelation 13) So be on your guard. But at the same time do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. This is not an excuse to grow lazy in Bible study – but it is a promise; a promise that if you are unexpectedly put on the spot to defend the faith – the Holy Spirit himself will give you the very words to speak.

 

But Jesus saves perhaps the most difficult birth pain for last: brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. I know that many of you have experienced shades of this firsthand. Family members – brothers, sisters, parents, children – who skip holidays, who screen your phone calls, who “unfriend” you on Facebook, who (to all appearances) would rather you were dead than be around you. No, it’s not because you burned the turkey one year or voted for the “wrong” candidate – but because of Christ. Because the darkness of unbelief hates the light of faith. (John 3:20) As hard as this might be, don’t be surprised, don’t despair – because Jesus has told you this will happen. And it won’t just be family members – all men will hate you because of me. No matter how nice we are. No matter what humanitarian efforts we undertake to help alleviate the misery of sin in this world – Christianity will never be popular. If you follow Christ, you will be hated – sometimes by those closest to you. Plan on it.

 

And…take heart. In the midst of this dying world there is life. In the darkest of days we cling to this hope: He who stands firm to the end will be saved. There is salvation at the end of this road. The birth pains, the sufferings of this present time, whatever form they take, are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed. (Romans 8:18) Some of the disciples who first heard these words lived to see the Roman army sweep through Jerusalem and topple every stone of the temple in 70 AD. History records that many Jews believed the end of the world had come, they ran for the hills and lost all hope – they thought God was dead. But Jesus’ disciples knew better, they knew this wasn’t the end because Jesus had warned them, and they boldly spread the gospel throughout the world – knowing that it is through the gospel of Jesus, not through the temple, that God brings salvation to sinners.

 

Jesus’ disciples never have to fear or despair over the birth pains of the end times. Why not? Because that Gospel has been proclaimed to us too. Because we know that as far as we are concerned the world has already ended. It ended on a Friday. On a hill outside Jerusalem. On a cross. As the religious and civil leaders raged against God and his holy one (Psalm 2:2); as the earth shook and the sky grew dark and the curtain in the Temple tore in two and the dead came out of their graves. (Matthew 27:51-53) In the midst of it all, Jesus cried out it is finished. (John 19:30) That was the consummation of all the birth pains the world has felt since Adam and Eve brought the curse of sin into this world. For all the times we clung to false hopes and false teachers, for all the times we let the pain of the times drown our hope and give in to despair, for all the times we have failed to be watchful and ready, for all the times we have chosen our family over our Savior; Jesus stood firm. He stood firm to the end. He stood firm on his Father’s promise that he wouldn’t abandon him to the grave. (Psalm 16:10) And, in the end, he ushered in salvation for every believer. And when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death and resurrection. (Romans 6:3) The world can’t do anything to you – because you’re already dead to it (Galatians 6:14), and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3) That faith, that confidence in chaotic times – that’s why the world will hate you. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s Jesus. And the pain you feel, well, that’s just another sign that your salvation is almost here.  

 

Birth pains are never pleasant. They mean prolonged hardship and discomfort. And yet, from the hand of God they are blessed signs for believers. Signs that the suffering is almost over, signs that salvation is almost here. Don’t be deceived. It will get worse before it gets better; but rejoice: he who stands firm in Christ to the end will be saved. Amen.


[1] See John 2:20

[2] According to Josephus, Antiquities, 15.11.3

Mark 12:28-34 - The Whole Duty of Man - November 11, 2018

It’s Veteran’s Day, and on Veteran’s Day we remember and express our gratitude for those who have served their Lord, their nation and all of us in the armed forces. Service members understand, probably better than anyone else, the importance of doing one’s duty: of upholding the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and following the orders of commanding officers whether you agree with them, like them, or understand them or not. As Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade: soldiers understand that “theirs [is] not to make reply, theirs [is] not to reason why, theirs [is] but to do and die.” [1] Echoing the conclusion of King Solomon, Jesus teaches us this morning that fearing God and keeping his commandments is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13) Jesus defines this duty to us; Jesus provides this duty for us.

 

We have jumped ahead in Mark’s gospel to Tuesday of Holy Week. All day Jesus had held court before the crowds who had gathered for the Passover festival, both those who adored him and those who hated him. He had patiently responded to his enemies who peppered him with ‘gotcha’ questions (Mark 12:13) regarding his authority (Mark 11:27-33), paying taxes (Mark 12:13-27), and marriage in the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27). By consistently destroying his enemies’ arguments with the sword of the Spirit…the word of God (Ephesians 6:17) he not only left his opponents speechless, but revealed himself to be the wisdom of God incarnate (1 Corinthians 1:24), the teacher greater than Solomon Israel had been waiting for. (Matthew 12:42)

 

But Jesus’ opponents had one last hope to discredit him and his ministry before the people. They sent a teacher of the law armed with the godfather of Jewish questions: of all the commandments, which is the most important? This was a loaded question; for at least two reasons. First, the rabbis had shifted the focus from the moral will of God (the 10 commandments) to the numerous civil and ceremonial laws God had given his people [2] which led to endless bickering over which was the most important. [3] (Which was why they probably figured that no matter how Jesus answered, he would tick someone off.) And, second, because Jesus was standing in the temple, surrounded by rituals, sacrifices and washings certainly, one would think that in keeping with his surroundings, he would say that the greatest commandment was something like making sure to bring the full tithe or making sure that the sacrificial animals were without defect, right? Something outward. Something formal. Something a person could do and be done with – that was, and is, the way many people think religion works.

 

But Jesus doesn’t debate the relative importance of ceremonial washings or sacrifices, nor does he give them his opinion, he gives them more Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4, which isn’t a command but a statement. Hear, O Israel – listen up!; the LORD – “Yahweh”, the great “I AM”, the one who created the universe in six days, the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who rescued your fathers from Egypt and promised salvation to all people - this LORD is not just a God; he is our God – who chose us, for no reason other than he wanted to, who has promised to redeem us, who has adopted us as his children. We belong to him and he belongs to us; [This] LORD is one – there is no one like him. He is the only true God. He is the only Creator, Savior, and Judge. This may seem obvious, but, unfortunately, for many people it’s not: our duty as humans doesn’t begin with what we do, it begins with recognizing who our God (your commanding officer) is! Before Jesus commands anything, he reminds us that God loved us first! (1 John 4:19)

 

If we recognize the LORD – the God who created, saved, and adopted us – as our God, then the greatest commandment makes perfect sense: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. What does the LORD demand from us? Nothing less than perfect, absolute loyalty. He demands that we love him with every fiber of our being; that every thought in our minds, every desire of our hearts, every choice we make and every action we take is perfectly in line with his holy will. The LORD is not the God many people think he is, who is on his knees begging for attention, begging us to try our best to fit him into our busy schedules and lives; he is demanding, commanding us to fit our lives and schedules into him and his will. The primary duty we owe to the LORD is to have no other gods – to allow nothing and no one to take his place as the “commanding officer” of our hearts, minds and lives. And – why would you want to? There is no other God and no other Savior!

 

That’s the first, the second is this: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. This is really not a second commandment, but an extension of the first. Because [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, (Acts 17:25) – while our hearts are to serve God alone, our hands are to serve others. Our relationship with others is a reflection of our relationship with God, as St. John writes: if anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)

 

Two questions automatically come to mind: who and how? The world has made a mess of these questions, but the biblical answers are clear, if not easy. Your neighbor is the person you are “next to” (πλησίον). Your neighbor is the person next to you in bed, at home, at the office, in the checkout line, at the 4-way stop sign, sitting behind you right now. How are you to love them? We already heard Paul’s definition of love: love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8) If you look through commandments 4-10, you quickly find that warm, fuzzy feelings are not listed anywhere. In the Bible love is not an emotion; it is action. They are commands and prohibitions regarding how you are to act in relation to your neighbor’s authority, life, sexuality, possessions, and reputation. By respecting his or her authority, by protecting and supporting the lives and livelihoods of others, by keeping yourself and others sexually pure, by helping them keep their possessions and by defending their reputation you are loving them as you love yourself. That’s it. That’s the whole duty of man in one word: love; love God above all things, love your neighbor as yourself. Even the teacher of the law had to agree that these commandments are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.

 

And yet, while this confession put him on the road to salvation, Jesus makes it clear that he wasn’t yet saved. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Why? Why can the law bring us near God’s kingdom but not into it? Because the law is perfect (Psalm 19:7) but we are not; because the law can tell us what we must do, but it can’t help us do it; because the law can point out where we have failed, but it cannot take away our failures; because we can make a pretty good show of loving others – but God sees our hearts and sees when we do “good” things grudgingly or resentfully. (1 Samuel 16:7) And, as a result, God has already announced his verdict on the world, on everyone sitting in this room, on each of us individually: there is no one who does good, not even one. (Romans 3:12) And the sooner we recognize and confess that about ourselves, the sooner we will understand that something more than our best effort is needed to be accepted into God’s kingdom, his salvation, his heaven.

 

Which shows the absolute necessity of the second part of our duty to God. Jesus describes part two in John’s Gospel: the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. (John 6:29) This part involves work, too – but not our work. It is God’s work of creating faith in us to see and believe that the one giving these commands to us has come to fulfill these commands for us. The whole reason Jesus was there on Tuesday of Holy Week, holding court before people who hated him and were planning his death was that he knew that even if we understood God’s Greatest Commandment perfectly, there was no chance that we could ever do it. He knew that we would never love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. He knew that we are too self-centered and self-interested to love others as much as we love ourselves. He knew that left to our own powers and abilities and desires we would be found guilty of failing to perform our duty and doomed to an eternity in hell’s prison.

 

Jesus came to earth to provide the perfectly dutiful life God demands from us, for us. He provided it by becoming one of us – by voluntarily placing himself under his Father’s authority and placing himself next to the same frustrating, exasperating people you and I call our neighbors. He provided it by loving God with every fiber of his being and loving others infinitely more than he loved himself. And he proved the full extent of his love (John 13:1) by smothering the grenade of God’s wrath for us on the cross – sparing us, saving us, redeeming us from the punishment we deserved. And unlike any soldier, any man, woman, or child to ever live – he could say that he completed his duty perfectly, he did say it (which includes everything God demands of you) is finished. (John 19:30) The whole duty that God demands from you is provided for you in Christ – so that through faith in Jesus we can be absolutely sure that when we stand before God for our performance review on the Last Day, we will hear: well done, good and faithful servant…come and share your master’s happiness. (Matthew 25:23) On Veteran’s Day, because of Jesus, we can be confident that when this tour of duty is over we will be honorably discharged into God’s presence in heaven.

 

Until then, we still need to know the greatest commandment; we still need to know our duty to the LORD who loved us first. “Ours is not to make reply, ours is not to reason why” – and because of Jesus, our end is not to die. Our duty to our LORD is to know and obey his commands perfectly; and because we can’t, to turn in faith to Jesus – who has! On Veteran’s Day and Judgment Day and every day in between – this is the whole duty of man. Amen.


[1] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/charge-light-brigade

[2] 248 positive laws – as many as the members of the body; and 365 negative ones – as many as the days in the year; a total of 613 – as many as the letters in the Decalogue. (Wenzel)

[3] For example: if anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath…if anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ …you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:16-22)

Mark 10:46-52 - We Are All Beggars - November 4, 2018

While few men have written more or had more written about them than Martin Luther; there is surprisingly little written about the last days of his life. One of the only noteworthy items from his last days comes from a scrap of paper his friends found in his coat pocket. In this note Luther had written two short phrases, the first in Latin, the second in German: “Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Bettler.” “This is true. We are all beggars.” [1] What had this man – whom God had chosen as his special instrument to reform the Church; this German monk – through whom God had brought the mighty church of Rome to its knees; this pastor – to whom God had granted extraordinary gifts to translate, interpret, communicate and rightly divide the Word of truth – what had he concluded after a lifetime full of accomplishment? That he – and we all – are nothing more than beggars before a holy and gracious God; who can do nothing but cry to Jesus, who must do nothing but receive his gifts, who joyfully follow him.

 

It was just days before Holy Week; just days before Jesus would march into Jerusalem to shouts of “hosanna” and march out to cries of “crucify him!” Mark picks up his account as Jesus was passing through Jericho – a city about 15 miles from Jerusalem. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. Partially due to poor hygiene and unsanitary conditions, partly due to a superstitious rejection of sound medical advice [2], blindness was a terribly common thing in Jesus’ day. Blindness is a horrible affliction in any age, but it was especially so in 1st century Israel. There were no guide dogs, no talking traffic lights, no braille, no specialized schools or homes or services. Because no one would hire them for work – they were almost inevitably left to beg for their daily bread. To add insult to injury, the blind also lived under the social stigma that their blindness was God’s punishment for some sin that either they or their ancestors had committed. (John 9:1-2) These were the conditions under which Bartimaeus lived. He may have been blind, but he was under no illusion: he knew he was completely dependent on the mercy of others for his very existence.

 

But as blind as Bartimaeus was, there was one thing that, by God’s grace, he could see more clearly than many who had 20/20 vision. He was unable to work, unable to get to the temple by himself to present any sacrifices – but his ears worked just fine and he used them. And what he had heard was people talking about a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had traveled throughout Israel preaching a message of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness for sinners (a message that the Jewish teachers had all but lost) and performing miracles of healing that had never been seen before. And while many people saw nothing more than a man, the son of Joseph and Mary – Bartimaeus saw the promised Messiah, the Son God had promised to King David 1000 years earlier, who would establish God’s kingdom on earth and rescue his people from the misery of sin. (2 Samuel 7:11-16) Because Bartimaeus believed that this was the one man in the universe who could help him, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 

One can learn a lot from a blind beggar. First, while our world is convinced that seeing is believing, Bartimaeus turns this on its head: believing is seeing! Just think – at least some of those in that crowd in Jericho probably saw Jesus’ miracles with their own eyes – and we know for certain that many of the Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus did – but they still did not believe that he was the Son of God, the promised Savior. Faith does not come from seeing, faith comes from hearing the message (Romans 10:17) – still today. In the absolution, I cannot show you your rap sheet that has been cleansed of all sin by Jesus’ precious blood– you can only hear and trust Jesus’ promise in John 20: if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23) In Baptism, to our eyes nothing more dramatic happens than someone gets wet. But Peter declares that the impossible happens in that washing: baptism now saves you. (1 Peter 3:21) The bread and wine you will receive look like normal bread and wine but don’t believe your eyes, believe Jesus’ words: this is my body…this is my blood…which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26, 28) Many are waiting and demanding to see proof before they believe in Jesus, and they will be waiting all the way until Judgment Day – and the only thing they will see is Jesus’ wrath at their unbelief. Let us learn from Bartimaeus: hearing is believing and believing is seeing.

 

Second, whether we care to admit it or not, we are all like Bartimaeus, we are all beggars before God. As we have been studying in Bible class, Scripture is crystal clear in teaching that we are all completely helpless to save ourselves. (Romans 3:28; Galatians 3:10) We are conceived and born without true fear or faith in God; dead in sin, blind to the Gospel, enemies of God. Left to ourselves we cannot even obey the least of God’s commands, much less obey all of them to the perfect standard God demands. We are miserable beggars before God who can do nothing but cry for mercy. Which is why it’s no coincidence that one of the first things we do each week is sing or say the words of the Kyrie: “Lord have mercy.” [3] These words not only remind us that we are beggars; they remind us who is serving who in the “worship service” – we don’t come here to serve, but to be served by Jesus!

 

Bartimaeus believed he needed Jesus to serve him, and so he ignored the crowd’s attempts to silence him and shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” You would think Jesus would have better things to do, people to see, preparations to make as he walked the lonely road to the cross than be bothered with a miserable, blind beggar, wouldn’t you? In times of suffering and times of weakness we often think that Jesus has better things to do than concern himself with us and our problems. We might think that we shouldn’t bother him – that he must be too busy taking care of the great, big, important problems and people in the world. And we would be wrong. There is no problem too big and no believer too small for Jesus – because he came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10) Jesus came to hear and help beggars – beggars like Bartimaeus…beggars like you and me.

Bartimaeus didn’t waste any time. Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. That cloak was quite possibly Bartimaeus’ only earthly possession. It was the roof over his head and the mattress under his back, it was his shade tree and his pantry. And yet, at Jesus’ invitation, he threw it all aside to run to Jesus who he believed could give him everything he needed and more. He would let nothing keep him from Jesus. Is there anything hindering you? We, too, have a standing invitation from Jesus: come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:30) Is pride getting in the way? “I can handle this myself.” Is it embarrassment? “I shouldn’t have to beg for help.” Is an unhealthy trust in worldly distractions or remedies keeping you from Jesus? Is it doubt or unbelief? “Jesus couldn’t possibly help me in this situation.” Or maybe, is it guilt or shame? “Jesus knows what I’ve said, done, thought, why in the world would he help a miserable sinner like me?” Whatever it is, remember this: coming to Jesus for help is not about you, your worthiness or unworthiness; it’s all about him – his mercy, his power, his promises, his love. Remember: we are all beggars with nothing to offer, and everything to ask – and Jesus welcomes beggars.

 

Here’s the proof: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Think about the guts it took to make that request. Bartimaeus wasn’t asking for a ride, for beer money, for food – he was asking for an impossible miracle. But he was convinced that this was God’s Son standing before him – the Son of David God had promised who would come specifically to open eyes that are blind and…release…those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:7) Jesus’ answered Bartimaeus’ bold and impossible request. “Go…your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight. Jesus gave Bartimaeus an impossible gift: his sight.

 

Why? A more literal translation would be: “your faith has saved you.” Now understand, Jesus is not saying – like “faith-healers” today – that Bartimaeus’ great faith is what caused his healing. If that were true, why didn’t Bartimaeus simply “believe” himself healed sooner, why did he wait for Jesus to walk down the road? (“Faith healing” is a dangerous false teaching that turns faith into a work and grace into something we earn from God!) No, Bartimaeus’ faith healed/saved him because it led him to the only one who could heal him. Bartimaeus’ faith was nothing more (and nothing less) than a beggar’s open hand (organon leptikon – “receiving organ”) that would receive the gift Jesus would graciously give. Bartimaeus’ faith only saved him because, to put it bluntly: he begged the right person. Saving, healing, justifying faith doesn’t “do” anything; saving faith simply receives what Jesus freely gives.

 

And Bartimaeus’ faith didn’t stop there, he followed Jesus along the road. It’s still just days before Holy Week. Jesus’ road is still leading to Jerusalem, to the hornet’s nest of Jesus’ enemies who wanted him dead – which Bartimaeus was certainly aware of. Jesus’ road led directly to the cross. It led to suffering and pain and persecution – not only for Jesus but for all who were bold enough to follow him and confess his name. But Bartimaeus did it – because even though he would no longer have to beg for his daily bread – he still needed Jesus to suffer and die for his sins; he was still a spiritual beggar, he still needed what only Jesus could give him.

 

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that so many people forget. Many people in every age behave like nine of the ten lepers in Luke 17 who, once they get what they want from Jesus, walk away from him and go their own way. Let us never forget that after we have come to Jesus in our time of need, after he has answered our cry for mercy, after he has assured us that our sins are forgiven and heaven is ours – that we are still, and will always be beggars. We never graduate beyond begging Jesus to provide everything from clothing and food to forgiveness and salvation. From the day we were brought to the font as helpless infants to the day we breathe our last – we remain beggars who must rely fully on Jesus’ mercy. The good news is that Jesus’ invitation to receive his gifts still stands! Even though we won’t see him walking by on the street, he does promise to meet us right here, where his Word is proclaimed and his Sacrament is distributed. This is why we come to church: this is where beggars like us come to receive the gifts Jesus freely gives – and receiving those gifts gratefully and faithfully is how we joyfully follow Jesus.

 

Luther was right. “We are all beggars.” Beggars who can do nothing but cry for mercy; must do nothing but receive what he wants to give; and beggars who joyfully want to follow Jesus to eternal life. Thank God that Jesus has time and mercy in abundance for beggars like us. Amen.  


[1] Kittleson, James A. Luther The Reformer Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1986. (296-297) – LW 54:474

[2] “Mothers, in fact, allow [flies] to cling in half-dozens round the eyes of their babies, to ward off the ‘evil eye’…” (Wenzel, 556)

[3] CW p. 15

1 Corinthians 14:8 - The Lutheran Reformation: A Clear Trumpet Blast - October 28, 2018

Martin Luther was neither the first nor the last person to point out the theological and moral errors of the Roman Catholic church. Nor were the Lutherans the only group to break away from Rome after she rejected calls for reform. And yet, while the names of protestant leaders like John Huss, John Calvin, and John Wycliffe are unknown to most people, even the secular world recognized Martin Luther as the 3rd most influential person of the last millennium. [1] What was Luther’s secret? It wasn’t Luther at all; it was the weapon God gave him! Sola scriptura – the principle that Scripture is the only rule and norm for Christian teaching and living. Based on Scripture alone, Luther’s preaching and teaching sounded through the confusion of his day like a clear trumpet blast – that not only defeated the man-made arguments of religious experts but spoke comfort and peace to the lost, the wandering, the suffering and the dying.

 

We are once again living in a morally and theologically confused age. We live in a time when it is legal for a woman to murder the unborn child in her womb but spanking a child is viewed as child abuse; when the gift of marriage God designed for one man and one woman has been redefined to include two women or two men…and only the Lord knows who or what else; when our own local public schools have bought into the lie that you can change your gender as easily as you change your clothes. [2] And even in the Christian church there is an astonishing amount of confusion regarding how a person is saved – with most churches teaching that it’s a cooperative effort between God and man. Because the confusion of our world constantly threatens to drown out the truth, it is all-important that we rededicate ourselves to the clear trumpet blast of sola scriptura – with God’s promise that his Word provides the only solid foundation for both morality and faith.

 

In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is admonishing the Corinthians for their practice of speaking in tongues (foreign languages) in the worship service. Paul doesn’t mince words, he says that if the church’s message is confused or compromised or unintelligible – it’s useless. He concludes: in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:19) In Luther’s day, the church had lost the clear trumpet blast of the moral principles God had engraved in stone on Mt. Sinai. The Roman Catholic church had, instead, invented their own morality – a morality by which they hoped, and even worse, taught others to hope, to please God and earn salvation. For years, Luther himself believed that taking monastic vows were the surest route to heaven; that there was moral value in walking around barefoot – especially in winter; in starving and beating himself; in renouncing marriage and living in poverty. Do these things, he was told, and God will be happy with you. So he did it. He became a model monk who desperately tried to find peace for his heart by torturing his body. He said “I was a good monk, and I kept the rules of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.” [3]  

 

However, when God brought Luther into the light of his grace and opened his eyes to understand Scripture, he began to see the Law clearly. He learned the simple but profound truth that moral living is as simple as doing what God tells you to do in precisely the way God tells you to do it when he tells you to do it. Luther’s revolutionary discovery was that the only sure guide for human behavior is not the manmade laws of the church or society, but the Law of God found in the written Word of God. And Luther didn’t keep his discovery to himself, he passed it on to future generations – to us – in his catechisms.

 

Scripture alone – and nothing and no one else – fixes the moral limits God has established for mankind. And by God’s grace, Luther discovered, embraced, and explained these limits. The question is: does the written, revealed will of God establish the limits of right and wrong for us? Maybe an even more important question is: do we know the written and revealed will of God? When is the last time we cracked open the catechism? Can we all recite the 10 commandments and their meanings? If you don’t know God’s written, revealed, will by heart – how on earth could you ever follow it, and, just as importantly, how could you ever sound the clear trumpet blast of God’s unchanging will to others?

 

The fact is that our society is a moral wasteland. The world teaches a morality that is relative – that right and wrong are constantly shifting based on the situation, the person, the feelings and emotions involved. Relativism is no way to live – it leads only to constant uncertainty, doubt and contradiction – and eventually, hell. And, unfortunately, the world’s relativism has seeped into the church. Instead of asking what does the Scripture say? (Romans 4:3) many churches ask “what does the latest Christian best-seller say?” “what does your heart say?” “what makes sense?” “what is popular and acceptable to the world?” Basing morality on the wrong foundation is how we’ve gotten to the point that the “Lutheran” church down the street has a female pastor [4], that churches are consecrating homosexual marriages, that messages of equality and tolerance and climate change and social justice have taken the place of Law and Gospel in sermons.

 

If the church of Luther’s day needed a reformation, a return to the fixed moral standard established by God himself, the church of our day needs it even more – if in a little different way. By God’s grace Luther set the church free from a system of morality that was subject to the will of one man: the pope. The church today needs to be set free from a system of morality that is subject to the will of anyone and everyone. You’ve probably heard someone say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” What they mean is that they their moral basis is not the objective Word of God but their own subjective feelings. In other words, they base their morality on their own conscience. (Your conscience is that little voice in your head that tells you whether what you are doing is right or wrong.) Now, that sounds good – until you remember that since the Fall into sin, our consciences have been broken. (Jeremiah 17:9) Certainly Jesus promised freedom for our consciences in our lesson from John 8 – not freedom from God’s law but freedom from our sins against God’s law. In fact, Jesus said in Matthew: do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18) We are not free to choose our own moral standards, we are still bound by the moral will of our Creator. For all the faults of the Church in the middle ages, they at least believed in a fixed standard for right and wrong – even if it was the warped standard established by the pope. Today is much more like the time of the Judges in the OT, when everyone did as he saw fit. (Judges 21:25)

 

In the moral bankruptcy and confusion of our time, the church – our church – must once again be the trumpet that gives a bold and clear blast. We must boldly preach and teach that the only certain foundation for morality is God’s law – summarized in the 10 Commandments. A law that is good and perfect (Psalm 19:7), a law in which God himself, tells us what he demands of us, a law by which all people will be judged, a law that demands perfect obedience (not our best effort), a law that declares that the wrath of God and eternal punishment in hell is real for all who break it, even once.

 

Because only when the Law’s threats and curses are proclaimed clearly and faithfully will we see how far short we have fallen, only then will we despair of ever saving ourselves, only then will we fall on our faces and plead for God’s mercy – only then will we ask the most important question anyone could ever ask: How then can I be saved? (Matthew 19:25) Or as Luther put it: how can I find a gracious God? That’s the question that drove Luther – how can he obtain God’s favor? No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find the answer to that question in the man-made rules of the Catholic church or in his own conscience and obedience. But he did find it in the Gospel and he shared his discovery with the entire Church. He became a trumpet giving sinners a clear and certain call – in providing hopeless sinners a firm foundation for their faith. Again, Luther’s brilliance lay in his simplicity. If you want to know how to be saved from your sins, if you want a solid foundation for your faith and a solid anchor for your hope – read the Bible. Sola scriptura is not only the only firm foundation for morality, it is the only firm foundation for faith.

 

In the Middle Ages, the church had lost the Gospel tune. More and more of the so-called theological experts had drifted away from the plain, simple meaning of Scripture because they were offended by its simplicity and thought that something so simple couldn’t possibly be divine. Instead, they tried to find a deeper, more important, more spiritual meaning – a meaning that lay hidden somewhere behind (or apart from) the black and white of Scripture. Your average Christian was told that only an “expert” with a wild imagination could really know and interpret what the Bible had to say. And when it became clear that this practice only led to confusion (and despair), the church invented the doctrine that only the pope could properly interpret and explain Scripture.

 

Here, too, Luther made a discovery that each generation must make their own: the Bible says what it means and means what it says. If you want to know what the Bible means, read the Bible. This does not mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear and understandable with just a quick reading. In fact, apart from the Spirit’s gift of faith it’s all foolishness! (1 Corinthians 1:18) But it does mean that if you can understand the words, you can understand what God wants you to know and believe. Scripture is clear and understandable – it is a clear trumpet blast. (see Psalm 119:105; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 2 Peter 1:16-21) That’s why Luther translated the Bible into German – so that everyone could read it. That’s why next to worship, the second most important thing we can do is study the Bible – both here in Sunday school and Bible class and in our own homes.

 

But, as obvious as that may appear to be, it is again being lost in our time. It is being destroyed by those who tell us that there is a deeper meaning behind the simple words of Scripture; that the Bible contains God’s Word, but it also contains errors; that much of the Bible (especially the miracles) are just myths. But perhaps the single most destructive force is simply that many Christians don’t know Scripture because they don’t read the Bible. The result of all this is that the Bible has again become what it was in the Middle Ages – an unclear and mysterious book that very few people actually read and even fewer people believe. That is why today’s church is in need of a reformation just as much as the Catholic church was in the days of Luther.

 

Why? Why continue to sound the trumpet blast of sola scriptura in a world where everything is subjective and words don’t really have any meaning? Because our salvation depends on it. Because “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!” Nothing is more important than Scripture because Scripture is the only pipeline we have to our Savior, Jesus Christ. We know that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save the world – only because the Bible tells us this. We know that God credits Jesus’ perfect life to our accounts – only because the Bible tells us so. We know that Jesus has paid for all the times we followed our own standards for morality rather than God’s – only because the Bible tells us so. We know that when we die we will go to heaven – only because the Bible tells us so. We know that until then, Jesus is ruling and guiding all things in this world for our eternal good – only because the Bible tells us so. The only clear, certain, unchanging thing that I can pass on to Jude, that any of us can pass on to the next generation is what the Bible says, because even though the grass withers and the flowers fall…the word of the Lord stand forever. (1 Peter 1:25)

 

God grant that we may boldly continue in our Lutheran heritage: to sound the crystal clear trumpet blast of sola Scriptura to a confused and dying world – that we and our neighbors and our children may have a firm foundation for morality, for faith, and for the hope of eternal life. Amen. [5]


[1] https://wmich.edu/mus-gened/mus170/biography100

[2] https://www.mcfarland.k12.wi.us/district/Dist-NonDscrmntn.cfm

[3] https://www.rpmministries.org/2012/01/quotes-of-note-martin-luther-master-pastor-part-9/

[4] http://www.mcfarlandlutheran.org/index.php?com=ics_content&content_id=31

[5] Adapted from Reformation sermon by Siegbert Becker (The Word Goes On, p. 272-276)

Mark 10:17-22 - What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life? - October 14, 2018

The man who fell on his knees at Jesus’ feet seemed to have the perfect recipe for human happiness. Mark tells us he was wealthy. (Mark 10:22) Luke tells us that he was powerful, a ruler. (Luke 18:18) Matthew tells us that he was young. (Matthew 19:20, 22) (Incidentally, the fact that the Holy Spirit had this incident recorded in three of the four Gospels tells us that the lesson taught here is important and worth repeating.) Young, rich, and powerful. That’s what everyone wants because that’s what the world says will make us happy. His wealth and power were likely inherited, because in Jesus’ day you didn’t ordinarily acquire wealth and power at a young age unless you inherited it. And so, the young man’s question makes sense: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

 

This man has everything you could want in life but he still felt an emptiness, a hollowness, he knew he was lacking something. Something money couldn’t buy and power couldn’t grab. Do you know what it is? An answer to his own mortality; a cure for death. A way to make sense of the harsh reality that you may possess everything this world can offer – but you can’t take any of it with you. It’s no coincidence that what nagged at this young man’s heart nags at the heart of every human being. Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) We all have an inkling that there’s something more, something bigger than us, something beyond our five senses. Everyone understands, sooner or later, that even the best this world can offer eventually vanishes, like a breath of vapor on a cold day. And that’s what brought this rich, young ruler to his knees before Jesus.

 

Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees who were constantly trying to trip Jesus up, to trap him in his words – this man was sincere. He really wants to know – needs to know – how to get and be sure of eternal life. He has a notion – the same notion we all naturally have: do good. Do enough good and you will have eternal life. Good teacher he says, recognizing that Jesus himself is someone who seems to have an idea about eternal life and is certainly also a doer of good. Jesus throws his flattery back at him. Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone. Jesus means what he says: no one is good. Not one. (Romans 3:10) We are all born with original sin, which means that even the “good” things we do are tainted by sin. (Isaiah 64:6) Only God is pure, unadulterated good. To call Jesus “good,” you must first call him God.

 

But he’s not looking for God to save him at this point, he’s looking for the one, last, greatest thing he can do to inherit eternal life for himself. Do you see the contradiction? How do you inherit anything? Do you do something? Certainly, you might try to butter up a rich aunt or uncle – you might make sure to call them on their birthday and show up to every family gathering to ensure your place in the will. But in the end, an inheritance requires two things: 1) someone to freely decide to give you their stuff; and 2) that someone to die. No doubt this young man understood this because someone, presumably his father, had died and left him his fortune and position of power.

 

And yet, he’s still convinced that eternal life is something he can earn. What must I do? The question shapes Jesus’ answer. “Doing” is all about the Law. Ask Jesus a law question and you will get a law answer. You can’t make the Law into Gospel, into good news – even though many try. Jesus obliges him: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother. There is enough good in those commandments to keep anyone occupied for a lifetime.

 

Teacher…all these I have kept since I was a boy. Does his answer surprise you? Clearly he hadn’t heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or read Luther’s Small Catechism – because if he had, he would understand that murder, lust, theft, false witness, fraud, and insubordination live in every human heart. We all are guilty of all these things – even if we’ve never been convicted in a courtroom. Ignoring a neighbor in need is murder, and so is hatred and wishing someone dead. Adultery is a lustful look at anyone but your spouse. False witness is not just offered in the courtroom, it’s served up at the dinner table and spread on social media. Fraud is “forgetting” to scan an item at the self-checkout or filing a shady tax return. Honoring father and mother includes all other authorities, too – even if we don’t like them.

 

Jesus’ response is fascinating, isn’t it? Instead of showing this man the spiritual side of the Law, Mark says, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Yes, this is what love looks like. And, for someone who is blind to their sin and boldly speeding down the highway to hell, this is what love sounds like: One thing you lack…go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. Jesus aims right at the heart of this rich, young man. He looks into his heart the way only God can – and he sees a heart that is consumed with greed, enslaved by the idol of wealth. He sees someone who has failed to keep the 1st and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods. (Exodus 20:3)

 

Martin Luther explained the essence of the First Commandment like this: we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. An idol is anything and everything we fear, love or trust more than God. The scary thing is that an idol doesn’t have to be a statue or live in a temple; most idols are invisible, they live in our hearts. Are there any idols living in your heart? A good test for idols is to assess your anxiety level. Someone once said that anxiety is the liturgy, the service, the sacrifice we offer to our idols when they inevitably fail to deliver. We fear the loss of youth, we love our riches, we trust our power to control not only our lives but the lives of others as well. And when they fail, we worry, we get anxious. And, in the sharp reversal that always comes from idolatry, the blame ends up falling on us instead of the idols. We fear death and so we worship the idol that promises the cure named Youth or Health. It involves religious devotion to exercise, to eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones!), to following doctor’s orders without question. But no matter how devoted we are – our bodies always end up breaking down and we all end up getting sick. And who’s to blame: you are! You didn’t serve your idol with the right diet, enough exercise, etc. We love Money because money seems to be able to buy happiness. But then we realize that the more stuff we have the more problems come with it or that we never have enough money to get what we want. And whose fault is it? Money doesn’t take the blame. It’s you. You didn’t buy the right thing, save enough, work hard enough. One of the most prevalent idols in our world is named Power. We strive for power and when we have it we think we can control our lives and the lives of those around us. But then we try it. Especially as parents and grandparents, we try to use our power to convince our families to do the right thing; for example, making worship a priority. But they ignore our pleas. They stubbornly despise the means of grace. And Power says that the problem is that you weren’t persuasive, passionate or convincing enough. It leaves us anxious and filled with worry. It exposes the idol living in our hearts.

 

Jesus loved this young man. He wanted to give him the one thing he lacked. What did he lack? It was not obedience or poverty or humility. What he lacked was faith. What he was missing was Jesus. What got in the way was his wealth and his power. And so Jesus comes up with the only possible cure: give it all away. Live up to the true spirit of the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31) by giving your wealth to those who need it more than you do. And understand, Jesus wasn’t saying that if he did, he would have earned eternal life for himself. No, Jesus used specific law to show this man that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. He was trying to lead this man to repentance – the surgical method that God uses to cut idols out of our hearts – because then he would be ready for the real answer.

 

Did you catch the real answer? It’s easy to miss. It’s just two words: follow me. The young man did. All he heard was Jesus’ command to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor – another commandment, more law – this time, law he hadn’t and couldn’t keep. But because his heart was still captive to greed, he missed the answer. I doubt that anyone here doesn’t realize that there is more to life than youth, power and riches. But sometimes we still miss the answer to life’s most important question, don’t we? There are still things that get in the way of hearing and heeding Jesus’ invitation to follow him to eternal life. What is it for you? Your pride? Your stuff? Your sin? Your personal convenience? Your job? What would Jesus say to you? What would he tell you to get rid of? Don’t doubt that Jesus loves you just as much as he loved that young man – what would he see in your heart that prevents you from following him? It could be anything. Our hearts are perfectly capable of turning anything, any good gift from God, into an idol. Whatever it is, don’t wait, repent; because no idol is worth sacrificing eternal life for.

 

Mark ends by telling us that the young man went away sad. Did he hear and believe? Did he go home and do what Jesus said? Did he look at all his stuff and say, “This isn’t worth it” and give it all away? Did he eventually repent and come back to Jesus and follow him all the way to the cross and the tomb to receive the inheritance of eternal life? We don’t know. And that’s a good thing, because it forces us to step into that young man’s sandals and ask “what would I do?”

 

To be clear, the lesson is not that money is evil or that rich people can’t be saved. The point is that no one, not even rich, young, powerful people – can earn eternal life. What that young man hopefully realized what that it wasn’t really his wealth but his determination to earn his way into heaven that was preventing him from getting there. The real good news is that while we can’t earn eternal life – Jesus can and Jesus did – and he wants to give it to us for free. Jesus calls to us, just as he did to that young man, to follow him to the cross, to the tomb, to his resurrection to receive the gift of eternal life he has earned for us. He issued that invitation first to us in his Baptism and he does it daily through his Word. And remember that to follow Jesus does not mean to keep his rules, to follow his example, to ask what would Jesus do – and then do it. To follow Jesus means to trust that he has kept all the rules for you, that he has satisfied his Father’s demand for a perfectly good life, that he has suffered the punishment for your idolatry and greed so that you never will, that he died so that you might have eternal life.

 

In the end, the young man was so close to eternal life. He was right: eternal life is an inheritance. It can’t be earned, it can only be freely given. And an heir is exactly what God made you in baptism. (Romans 8:17) A down payment on your heavenly inheritance – Jesus’ own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins – are exactly what is distributed to you from this altar. (Matthew 26:17-29) The narrow path through this world of idols to eternal life is what is mapped out for you in the Word of God – whenever you hear it, read it and meditate on it. Don’t ask what you can or must do to earn eternal life, instead believe that it is yours by grace (a gift) through faith (not by your doing) for Jesus’ sake. And anything that gets in the way of you receiving it – no matter what it is – simply has to go. Compared to the riches of heaven Jesus died to earn for you no idol is worth serving for even a minute. Don’t take my word for it, just ask that sad young man – or even better, ask Jesus and then follow him to life. Amen.

Mark 10:2-16 - God's Will According to Jesus - October 7, 2018

In the book of James we are told that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. (James 1:17) This refers to all good gifts given to all people. He makes the sun shine, the rain fall, the crops grow (Matthew 5:45), he gives life, talents and skills and homes and jobs and health to all people. One of the greatest evidences that God loves all people is that he blesses indiscriminately – even those who reject him and deny his very existence. But there is a difference; and the difference lies in how people receive these blessings. The believer joyfully receives these gifts from God, uses them according to his will, and thanks him for his goodness. The unbeliever refuses to acknowledge the giver of the gift, treats God’s gifts like he has earned and deserved them, and looks for excuses to misuse and abuse them. This is especially true regarding two of God’s most foundational and precious gifts: Marriage and Children. Today we consider Jesus’ own words regarding God’s will for our families.

 

Mark tells us outright that the Pharisees had come to Jesus with the express purpose of testing him – tricking him into a contradictory or false statement. So we know from the outset that the question is not an honest one. They are hoping that Jesus will either fall on the “liberal” side of the question of divorce – allowing divorce at any time for any reason, or on the “conservative” side – allowing only infidelity as a reason for divorce. They ask: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? This is the kind of question that should always set off alarm bells – “is it lawful”? It’s as if they were saying: “Can I get away with this?” Why are you asking? Have you been looking for an excuse to dump your wife? Are you trying to justify your past behavior? Why would you ever ask such a thing?

 

Jesus sets a perfect example for us by going back to Scripture and answers their question with a question: what did Moses command you? Jesus left them with a lot of material to sift through. Moses wrote what we call the Pentateuch: the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Rather than giving them the answer, he challenges the Pharisees to consult their own Biblical knowledge and come up with the verse themselves. Many passages in the Pentateuch speak about marriage – which would they choose? Not surprisingly, they choose the loophole, the exception, the one verse that seemed to accommodate their hard, disobedient hearts. Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.

 

The Pharisees did what the devil leads many people to do: rip a passage out of context, twist its meaning, and misuse it to justify their own sinful desires. If you read Deuteronomy 24 closely, you see that Moses’ civil law did not legalize divorce – it prevented frivolous divorces and protected the rights of the innocent party (in those days, usually those of the wife). (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) Because if a man sent his wife away – society would automatically assume that she had committed adultery – Moses demanded that the husband provide a certificate stating the real reason – thereby offering her, if she was innocent, protection from being stigmatized and allowing her to freely remarry. Even this was not God’s will, Jesus says, it was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.

 

Jesus goes back to Genesis to explain God’s real intention and guidelines for his gift of marriage: at the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. Before the Fall; before there was sin; before Adam and Eve and their children had become self-absorbed, self-seeking, self-justifying rebels; before the concept of divorce even existed – God established these guidelines for his gift of marriage: one man, one woman, for life. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. Back to the original question. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No!!! They are one flesh joined by God himself and what God has done cannot be undone. Certainly, because of sin on the part of one or both spouses, divorce happens; because of neglect or abuse or infidelity; it may become a tragic and inevitable necessity; sin may shatter a marriage so completely that not even two baptized Christians can glue it back together – but it is never, ever, lawful. It is never, ever God’s will.  

 

That is how the Law of God always works. It never lets you off the hook. Even when it may appear to be accommodating, when it appears to offer a loophole for sinful desires – it loops right back around and strangles you. God’s law is perfect; there are no mistakes, no errors, no room for improvement. It will never provide excuses for ignoring his will, never provide comfort for those who break it, never provide justification for sinful behavior. It always kills. Always accuses. Always condemns.

 

The disciples were bothered by this, possibly feeling guilty themselves, and so they ask Jesus about this behind closed doors. But Jesus doesn’t back off. Instead, he presses even harder. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. Jesus, God’s only, holy, righteous Son, sews the last loophole shut. Getting a divorce with the intention of marrying someone else is nothing but adultery. A legal document doesn’t make it lawful in God’s eyes. Because his will in the Garden of Eden is still his will for people today: what God has joined together, let man not separate. We even make that part of our vows, right? “As long as we both shall live.” Not “as long as we both shall love,” “as long as we both are happy.” Death, not divorce, is the way God ends the union of husband and wife. Anything else is sinful.

 

Now some of us might think we’ve dodged a bullet in this sermon. “I’ve never been divorced,” “I’ve never remarried,” “I’ve never had an affair – in fact, right now at least, I’m pretty content in my marriage.” Before you imagine that the 6th commandment doesn’t apply to you, remember that Jesus also said I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28) Paul said wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. (Ephesians 5:22, 25) God also commanded, right at the very beginning of time, that according to his will a man will leave his father and mother – that is, a couple will make their commitment public and will fulfill any requirements of the government BEFORE they begin to live together as one flesh. (Genesis 2:24) No one here has obeyed the 6th commandment perfectly. Maybe now it’s beginning to sink in how terrifying God’s Law really is. Standing in front of God’s Law is like standing in a room where all the walls are closing in. God’s law is a hammer that crushes even the hardest of sinful hearts. (Jeremiah 23:29) It leaves no room for loopholes, excuses, or self-justification. By it, no one will be declared righteous…rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20) And so a secondary lesson is that we should not go around asking questions like is it lawful, because if you have to ask, you already know the answer, and the Law is not going to help you.

 

Is there any good news today? Yes! In Ephesians chapter 5, Paul quotes God’s institution of marriage from Genesis and applies it in a remarkable way: this is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32) This whole discussion about marriage is not, in the end, about us working to make our marriages perfect – it’s about the only perfect marriage: between Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ is the one who left his Father and mother at the cross – he was forsaken by his Father and gave his mother to John (Matthew 27:46; John 19:26-27) – to be united to us – through the blood and water that flowed from his head and hands and feet and side. (Ephesians 5:25-27) We could spend weeks studying marriage and tips and tricks for a successful marriage – but we won’t, because, in our hands, marriage cannot, ever, save us. But there is a marriage that does save. There is one union that cannot be broken – not by sin or death or divorce (Romans 8:39). It’s the marriage of Christ and his Church. Christ proposed to you in Baptism, when he sealed you with his name and his blood. In his holy supper he comes to you again and again and again to tell you how much he loves you – to the point of dying for you to forgive your sins. All of Scripture is his love song to you – assuring you that you are precious to him and that he is preparing a home for you in heaven. So if you fear God’s wrath over how you’ve handled marriage in the past, don’t look to the Law for justification – look to Christ. Bring all of your sins and abuses, all of your lust and hardness of heart – bring it here, lay it at Jesus’ feet and trust that he has taken it all away – leaving you without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:27)

 

Our Gospel ends with little children. That’s fitting since children always, always, always wind up getting hurt the most by the sin of divorce. Parents were bringing their children to Jesus so that he could bless them. But the disciples rebuked them – the parents – for bothering Jesus and for the noise, distraction, and (possibly) the mess their children were making. From the disciples’ perspective, what value did children have for Jesus and his kingdom? How could they support or advance his mission of achieving earthly power and glory? Still today some resent the presence of children in God’s house – seeing them as nothing more than a distraction, a nuisance, a drain on resources who need more time and effort than they are worth.

 

That’s not how Jesus sees them. He was indignant. He lashed out at his disciples: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Who would Jesus rebuke for keeping his children away from him today? Do we parents understand that they aren’t really our children, they belong to God – who has commanded us – especially us fathers – to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord? (Ephesians 6:4) More importantly, do we understand why Jesus commands us to bring his children to him? He loves them, he wants to feed them with his Word, forgive their sins, bless them and save them. Why would anyone want to prevent Jesus from doing so? Only someone whose heart is filled with unbelief that would look for loopholes, excuses and justification to keep children from Jesus.

 

And there’s a big, important lesson for us in those little, insignificant children. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. In this whole section, the only ones who Jesus doesn’t reprimand and scold, the only ones who he freely welcomes, the only ones who come to Jesus having nothing to offer – are the little children. Not the Pharisees. Not the disciples. The babies. They are the perfect picture of what it means to believe and receive the kingdom of God. Not because they’re sinless or “innocent” (they’re not, they’re born guilty – Psalm 51:5). It’s that they realize their helplessness, don’t presume to do or give anything to Jesus, and are content to receive everything as good gifts from him. Only when we give up all our attempts to please God by our own works – and stop searching for ways to justify ourselves – and instead, receive Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation like little children will God welcome us into his kingdom.

 

May we all be like little children. May we always recognize that God is the giver of every good thing, joyfully accept the gifts he gives us and use them according to his will. Especially his gifts of marriage and children. Amen.

Revelation 12:7-12 - The War Behind All Other Wars - September 30, 2018

Shortly before Jesus was betrayed, arrested and crucified, he described what the world would be like after he left and before he returns – the world we live in today. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Among other horrors, he predicted that wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6) will be omnipresent until he returns. And so, for all of the treaties and diplomacy and peace marches – the only world we know is a world at war. World War I claimed the lives of some 37 million people – and it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Only twenty years later, over 50 million people were killed in World War II. Since then the world has witnessed the horrors of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam, Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a war on terror that rages on all around us – from airports and grade schools to the internet. Jesus was right, ours is a world at war.

 

And that’s not even the worst of it. Some of the most bitter wars are those that rage in our homes and offices and families. Jesus warned us about those wars too! He said that the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). Have you felt the chill? Husbands and wives carry on civil wars behind closed doors. Children lead rebellions against their parents. Coworkers undermine each other until cubical walls begin to feel like the Berlin wall. And even here, in the church, the Shepherd’s sheep tear and claw at one another. And then there’s the battlefield that no one else can see. We try our best to hide it. We dress in our Sunday best and plaster a big smile on our faces and when someone asks “How are you?” We all answer “good” or “great.” But underneath the smiles, within the confines of our hearts, secret wars are raging. Secret wars with addiction, depression, doubt, anxiety, worry, sin and guilt and shame and fear – and sometimes even unbelief. These private, personal, hidden wars are perhaps the most painful, because they can drag on for a lifetime and we may think that no one knows, no one cares, and no one can help.

 

The fact is that behind every one of these wars stands a far greater war; the war that causes and incites all other wars. It is the war of heaven. The war between God and Satan which finds its battleground in our world, our homes and our hearts. We will not be able to understand or comprehend all those other wars unless we understand this one, the war behind all wars: the enemies, the allies, and the outcome.

 

The Apostle John serves as the battlefield reporter: And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back…the great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him…for the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down…but woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. Who is enemy number one today? Hassan Rouhani – the president of Iran? Vladimir Putin? Militant Islam? Crime or poverty or inequality or global warming? Republicans or Democrats? Who is our worst enemy? The Bible is clear: our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil. (Ephesians 6:12) Enemy number one is the devil.  

 

Is that always how we think of him? I know that no one reads newspapers anymore, but when we did, we could see the devil depicted quite regularly on the comic page. What did he look like? A creepy looking guy with horns wearing red pajamas and carrying a pitchfork, right? No someone you would take seriously – and that’s just what the devil wants. But don’t fall for it. Instead, listen to the Bible’s damning profile of this murderer, terrorist, and liar: the great dragon…that ancient serpent…the devil (which means “accuser”) Satan (which means “adversary”) who leads the whole world astray…and accuses [us] before God day and night. (If you’ve heard the slanderous accusations made against a certain Supreme Court nominee this past week, you have an idea of the nature of the devil’s work.) The devil is not some comical character, he is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) He wants you. He wants your soul. He is dead-set on destroying your marriage, your family, your faith. He knows he’s beaten, but is so blinded by rage that he wants to drag as many people to hell with him as he can.

 

This is the real war behind all other wars. He’s behind the war on the unborn that has been raging since 1973; he cackles with glee that over 60 million babies have never had the chance to hear the Gospel or be baptized. [1] (And make no mistake, anyone who thinks that the decision to murder is a woman’s choice has blood on their hands, too!) He’s behind every grade school, high school, and university teacher who sees our children – who believe in the Bible’s account of creation – as easy targets for mockery and humiliation. (And yet, we continue to send them out into public schools, like lambs to be slaughtered.) He’s behind every false doctrine that compromises God’s truth to be more compatible with modern culture. He’s behind every argument at home, hoping to plant a landmine that will blow up another marriage. Behind every pang of guilt and shame stands the devil pointing a long finger right at us: “See God! Look at him, look at her – look at what they’ve thought, said and done; they deserve hell, just like me!” Forget the red pajamas and the pitch fork. The devil and his demons are enemy number one – awful enemies, and awfully good at what they do.

 

The Good News is that God is even better at what he does. While nothing is more terrifying than considering the power and work of our enemies, there is nothing more comforting than hearing about our allies. And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven…Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them night and day has been hurled down.”

 

Our ally is no less than God himself. The Son of God went head to head with the devil and won, bringing salvation, power and authority to all who believe. As good as the devil is at tempting us to sin and then turning around and making us feel guilty for the very thing he led us to do – Jesus is even better at forgiving our sin and soothing our aching hearts with the good news that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) That’s salvation. If it seems like the devil has taken control the minds and hearts of Hollywood, Washington D.C., and American culture – rest assured that Christ is even better at ruling heaven and earth for the good of his people, for the good of the Church. (Ephesians 1:22-23) That’s almighty power. If the devil is good at leading unwitting and unwilling people to carry out his dirty work of spreading death and destruction, Jesus is even better at equipping and sending out his people with his Good News to accomplish his saving work. He says in Matthew: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-20) And we witnessed Christ bring all of his power and authority to bear as he brought another soul – the soul of Joseph Rudolph – out of the devil’s dominion and into his Kingdom through Holy Baptism.

 

I know it doesn’t seem like much…a few words and a handful of water. They certainly don’t seem like the preferred tools of war. But behind those words and that water stands the work of Christ – the special agent God sent to destroy the devil’s work. He won by appearing to suffer defeat. He lowered himself below the angels (Hebrews 2:7-9) to be born, disguised as in human flesh, in a barn in Bethlehem. He faced off against the devil in the wilderness where he suffered brutal temptations to doubt God’s goodness, to test God’s promises, to circumvent God’s plan – but remained perfect, undefeated. (Matthew 4:1-11) The devil summoned all the powers of hell, sending powerful politicians, faithless friends, and a traitorous disciple against God’s Son – but nothing could deter him from achieving his goal: paying for our sins by suffering and dying on the cross. To all the world it seemed as if the devil had won on Calvary: Jesus’ message had been rejected and his own people crucified him! But three days later Jesus turned the tables when he emerged from the grave alive! Through the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – our sins have been taken away; our death has been defeated; the devil’s power over us has been destroyed. He has been hurled from heaven along with all of his accusations against us.

 

And now that Christ has won the war, he sends his soldiers to help us wage our own battles with the enemy. They are the angelic armies of heaven led by the archangel Michael. Again, pop-culture has created the false image of angels as pudgy little kids wearing halos and carrying little bows and arrows with nothing better to do than lead people to fall in love. But don’t be fooled by the world’s spin. There’s good reason every time angels appear to people the very first thing they say is don’t be afraid. (Luke 1:30) The angels are holy, sinless creatures of God who shout his praises in heaven’s throne room. They served as God’s messengers at key points in salvation history (Christmas, Easter, Ascension). Angels are God’s Special Forces who protect his defenseless people – especially defenseless children like Joseph – from the devil’s physical and spiritual attacks. Specifically this morning we hear that when Jesus crushed the devil’s skull on the cross, Michael and his army hurled the devil and his demons out of heaven.

 

Which means that the outcome is sure. The devil is defeated. Listen again to heaven’s song of victory: They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. The blood of the Lamb has taken away our sin and broken the power of the devil. This is not to say that the devil hasn’t won some battles in our lives, that we each haven’t given surrendered to his temptations, that we all have plenty of skeletons in our closets. And to be perfectly honest, if the war was up to us, we would have lost our souls to hell a long time ago. But that’s exactly what cannot happen to us because of Christ. In him we have total forgiveness, full forgiveness, free forgiveness. Poured out on each one of us – like that handful of water on Joseph – through the blood of the Lamb. Let the devil do his worst, let him tempt and accuse us – because we have John’s words: my dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

 

As Jesus said in our Gospel (Luke 10:17-20), every time this good news is proclaimed, the devil’s power is broken and his pitiful little kingdom takes a pounding. Right here and right now the devil is being defeated yet again. Really? Yes! They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. That testimony is the Gospel. It is the good news of free forgiveness in Christ. There is no more powerful weapon in the universe – because faith comes from hearing this message, and where there is faith the devil is powerless. Faith is bulletproof body armor against every last one of the devil’s attacks. Every time a sinner is baptized – the devil loses a subject. Every time the Word is preached and taught – the devil’s lies are exposed. Every time you pray, read a devotion, forgive and receive forgiveness at home, the devil must flee with his tail between his legs. (James 4:7) Every prayer that we lay before God’s almighty throne and every hymn we sing of Jesus’ victory slams the gate of hell in the devil’s face.

 

Yes, our world is filled with wars – national, political, personal – but never forget that this is the war behind all other wars. As awful as the enemies are, our allies are all-powerful and the outcome is certain. Jesus has crushed the devil and Michael and his angelic armies continue to defend us so that even in this world of war we have nothing to fear – because in Christ we have salvation, victory and peace. Amen.  


[1] https://www.lifenews.com/2018/01/18/60069971-abortions-in-america-since-roe-v-wade-in-1973/

Mark 9:30-37 - Christianity Is Only for Losers - September 23, 2018

He launched the world’s first 24 hour cable news network: CNN. His net worth is over 2 billion dollars. In 1991, he was declared Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of fame, a book that made the New York Times best-sellers list and a World Series champion baseball team. He was fishing buddies with former president Jimmy Carter and dated movie star Jane Fonda. In the minds of many, Ted Turner represents the ideal of the successful, victorious life that many people spend their whole lives trying to achieve. But what is less known about Ted Turner is that as a child he dreamed of being a missionary – that is, until his little sister, Mary Jean, contracted a rare form of lupus at the age of ten which left her with brain damage and screaming in pain until the day she died. Turner directed his grief and anger at God and the Christian faith – which he claimed couldn’t give him satisfactory answers to why his “innocent” [1] sister had to suffer and die at such a young age. All of which led him to later make the comment that “Christianity is a religion for losers.” [2] Now, you might be tempted to bristle and resent Ted Turner’s low assessment of us and our faith. Don’t. Today our Lord teaches us to embrace Turner’s assessment and to go even a step further: to understand that Christianity is only for losers; the one who lost everything for us invites us to lose everything for him.

 

We meet the disciples in a moment when all their visions for glory, victory, and success seem to be coming together. They had just come down from the Mt. of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) where Jesus had given a glimpse of his divine glory to Peter, James, and John. It appears that the disciples saw this display of glory as a shadow of things to come: when Jesus marched into Jerusalem, kicked out the hated Romans, and began his rightful rule as Israel’s Messiah – with his twelve closest friends, of course, getting their share of the glory. But Jesus had a different plan in mind. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.

 

The disciples didn’t get it and they were afraid to even ask him about it. Why? Well, if they asked him to explain and he confirmed that he was going to die, they would have to give up their dreams of power and glory. And it’s hard to blame them, isn’t it? They gave up their livelihoods and their lives to follow Jesus. He seemed like the real deal, the long-promised Messiah – he looked like a winner. He had the teaching and the miracles to back him up. He was so popular that they had to go to the backwoods of Galilee to get away from the crowds. Jesus’ whole campaign seemed to be growing and gaining momentum: the deaf hear, the mute speak, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, demons are cast out, the dead are raised. (Matthew 11:5-6) Jesus seemed to be a walking, talking, miracle-working definition of greatness. But then he goes and starts talking about crazy things: being handed over, killed and rising from the dead. This was not the talk of a winner. This is not what you would expect to hear from the Messiah who ought to be preparing to rule as Israel’s king. It was so unexpected and so irrational that the disciples try their best to ignore it. Besides, they had better things to talk about – things like which of them would be chief of staff in Jesus’ cabinet.

 

Why such blindness and deafness to Jesus’ mission and message? Why, after Jesus had told them a second time that when he went to Jerusalem it wasn’t to be crowned but to be crucified, did they still not believe it? Because that’s how they were wired. In fact, that’s how we are all wired. We are wired from birth to desire and strive for success and power and glory. It doesn’t take children long to understand that school isn’t as much about learning as it is defining who is tallest, fastest and most popular. It’s why there are no high school awards for the least likely to succeed and no trophies for least valuable player. It’s why we give our children the best opportunities, the best education, the best of everything – because we expect that when we do, they will be successful. (Even though experience teaches otherwise.) The entire Christian faith revolves around Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) and yet, more often than not, and especially when trials and troubles come, we don’t want to hear about a Jesus who died for our sins and rose again for our salvation – we want a Jesus of power and glory; who can fix our problems with a word, who can heal us, give us glory – now, make us winners – now. But that’s not the Gospel. That’s what Ted Turner didn’t understand. It’s why the Gospel doesn’t appeal to those who think they deserve to be winners. Who wants to wake up on Sunday morning to come to church only to confess that you’re a poor, miserable, wretched loser in need of forgiveness? (That’s why it’s no surprise that the most popular religions and corrupted forms of Christianity are based on winning, not losing; on a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross.)

 

But the cross, suffering and death are precisely Jesus’ mission and message. Not power but weakness. Not a crown but a cross. Not glory in winning, but glory in losing – losing it all in order to gain it all: losing his life in order to save ours. Jesus certainly could have walked into Jerusalem and – with twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53) – have crushed the Roman occupiers and assumed the throne. He certainly could have caused his enemies to suffer the same fate that they had planned for him – he proved his power in the Garden of Gethsemane. (John 18:5-6) Jesus could have stayed in heaven where he ruled all things at his Father’s right hand – he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being born as the child of a teenage peasant, he didn’t have to suffer the perpetual attacks of Satan and the hostility of the very people he came to save, he didn’t have to be a homeless wanderer on this earth for 33 years, he didn’t have to willingly walk directly from the mountain where he demonstrated his glory to a hill outside Jerusalem where he would be stripped naked, nailed to a cross and killed. Actually, he did. Because we were born losers in God’s eyes. Because God created us to love him and serve others – and what we love most is ourselves and having others serve us. Because heaven is reserved only for those who win in God’s eyes – those who are perfectly obedient, perfectly trusting, perfectly loving – and we were disqualified from birth. Because we were the ones who deserved to lose our souls forever in hell, Jesus took our place, he became a loser for us, he submitted to his Father’s plan that required him to lose everything – in order to save us.

 

And now, the world’s biggest loser invites us to imitate his example. He gathers his proud, glory-seeking disciples around him and says: If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. Notice, Jesus doesn’t crush their ambition to be the greatest in his kingdom – but he does blow up their idea of greatness. Rather than defining greatness as having the most people serve you, Jesus defines the greatest as those who serve the most. To punctuate his point he picks up a child. “You want to be great in my kingdom? Here. Get off your high horses, step down from your imaginary thrones, bend down and serve this child – because when you do, you will not only be receiving me, but the one – my Father – who sent me.”

 

I’m not sure that the full impact of this action resonates in the 21st century. Today, we tend to idolize childhood, we glamorize it, and prolong it. This is a children’s world – and the rest of us are just living in it. Children need to be coddled, listened to, understood, encouraged to make their own decisions, to be spoiled and pampered and shielded from disappointment. If they don’t like supper, we make them something they do like. If their team doesn’t win, they still get a ribbon. If little Stevie decides he wants to be a Suzy – who are we to argue? But it wasn’t always that way – especially not in Jesus’ day. Children had no rights or privileges, they were under the absolute authority of their fathers. They were seen as a drain on the family resources and couldn’t grow up quickly enough to be married off – for a girl; or put to work – for a boy.

 

Which is why it would have been so shocking to the disciples that Jesus not only acknowledged a good-for-nothing little child – but even pick him up and use him as an object lesson. Jesus is saying that if you want to be great in my kingdom – you must bend over and receive me just like you would receive this – for all practical purposes “useless” – little child. The only way to receive me is to receive me not as the world’s greatest winner – who promises nothing but glory and success to his followers; but as God’s Son who was born in a dirty manger, as a man of sorrows and a cross, as a servant who dies to save his enemies. Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? You must humble yourself and believe that the Jesus you need most is not a glorious, empowering, spiritual guru – but a lowly servant who suffered and died for your sins.

 

Do you see the relationship between welcoming Jesus like a little child and serving little children – in other words, the relationship between faith and love? You must first become nothing and throw yourself fully on God’s grace in Christ – forget everything you’ve done, contributed, earned, deserved and instead cry out “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” and fall into his loving arms. Because only when you’ve come to the realization that Jesus lost everything to save a loser like you – can you understand how the last can be first and the greatest in God’s kingdom are the servants.

 

Perhaps a few examples would be helpful. Greatness in God’s eyes in found in those little acts of love that no one notices. Greatness is found in the mother whose work around the house is only noticed when it’s not done. Greatness is found in a father who takes the time to teach his children not only to ride a bike and throw a football, but to thank God for their food, to read the Bible with them, to pray with them. It’s found in parents who lose career advancement and new cars and breathtaking vacations to give their children a full-time Christian education. Greatness is found in grandparents who demonstrate in word and action that greatness is not defined by personal achievement but by humble service. Greatness is found in people quietly contributing – without any expectation of public recognition – to build a place for God’s Word to be taught to people they don’t know and may never meet. Greatness is found in visiting those who are sick and suffering. Greatness is found in acknowledging and befriending the “losers” at work and school. Greatness is found in seeing something that needs to be done – and doing it; instead of running to tell someone else to take care of it. In short, greatness is found in doing the things that the world would say makes you a loser.

 

The concrete evidence that this is greatness in God’s eyes becomes clear when we remember that one day all people will experience the greatest loss of all. The sad fact is that our lives end much the same way they began. We become children again – not really very useful and completely dependent on others. No matter how great we once were, no matter how much wealth we accumulated, how many degrees we earned, how many awards or memorials were given to our honor, no matter how many people we lead or employed – we once again become helpless, relatively useless children. Even the first must become last, eventually. And while most people try their hardest to avoid it, that’s exactly what Christians are aiming for: we are aiming for death, to lose our life, to follow the biggest loser of all – Jesus – through the grave to resurrection to true, eternal, never-ending victory in heaven.

 

And so when you hear someone like Ted Turner call you a loser, don’t get offended, don’t get defensive, don’t get angry. Instead, thank him. Thank him for the reminder that Christianity is only for losers. We trust and follow Jesus Christ who lost everything for us – and who invites us to lose everything for him. Welcome that little child of Bethlehem with child-like faith and seek out the “children” you can serve in this world. That’s winning in God’s eyes. Amen.  


[1] Psalm 51:5 teaches that all people are sinful, not innocent, from conception

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/17/us/ted-turner-profile/index.html

1 Corinthians 3:10-15 - Keep Building - September 16, 2018

Back then, a gallon of gas cost just over a dollar. The average home cost just over $150,000. Titanic won Best Picture and became the first movie to gross $1 billion. The “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty to planting bombs and sowing terror throughout the country. Bill Clinton became just the second President in history to be impeached. And last, but not least, a little company with the funny name of “google” was founded in Menlo Park, California. In the midst of it all, in one little corner of Wisconsin, God was busy working on something that didn’t generate national headlines, that didn’t make the cover of TIME, that went unnoticed by all but a handful of people. On September 13, 1998, God led a small group of Christians – 15 or so – to a grade school gym, to the very first worship service of Risen Savior Lutheran Church. A lot has changed in 20 years, but one thing – the most important thing – has not: God is still working here to lead desperate sinners to saving faith in Christ, he is still building his church – and through the Apostle Paul he encourages us to keep building, on the proper foundation, with the proper materials.

 

Paul is generally considered to be the most prolific and productive of the Apostles. He wrote 13 books of the NT and established over a dozen churches. His letters detail how he suffered beatings, imprisonment, riots (2 Corinthians 6:4-10), how he was whipped, stoned, and shipwrecked; how he endured sleepless nights and starvation for the sake of the Gospel. (2 Corinthians 11:23-29) Humanly speaking, no one deserves more credit for establishing and spreading the church than Paul. And yet, who does Paul give the credit to? By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. Paul recognized that it was only the result of God’s grace that he was privileged to suffer, strive, and sweat to establish the Gospel throughout the ancient world. Paul no doubt remembered that before Jesus knocked him off his feet on the road to Damascus he was no Christian hero, he was a murderer of Christians (Acts 9) – and even worse, his self-righteous spirit was earning him an eternity in hell. But Jesus turned his life around – turning him from someone who trusted his own works to someone who trusted God’s grace; from someone who persecuted the Gospel to the greatest Christian missionary in history. Paul knew full well that it was only God’s grace that gave him a role in building the Church and to suffer and sacrifice for the Gospel.

 

The question is: do we always realize that? On an occasion like this, it’s so tempting to imagine that this congregation is built on our hard work, our offerings, our effort. We each have an ego, and we like to stroke that ego by coming up with a pretty impressive list of all that we’ve done for God and the church. “This church wouldn’t be here if I didn’t leave the comfort of my home church and start worshipping in a gym; the bills wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t frequently and generously open up my wallet; there would be a lot more empty seats if I hadn’t chosen this church out of all the available options; this place wouldn’t still be standing if it wasn’t for the time I’ve spent mowing, shoveling, cleaning, organizing, baking, teaching, preaching, giving, praying, etc.”

 

The truth is, if it wasn’t for the grace of God, not only would we not have the privilege of doing those things, we too would be on the fast track to hell. Because for all of the offerings we have given cheerfully and generously, how often have we given only reluctantly or only the leftovers? For all of the time we have spent here listening to the Gospel, how much more time have we wasted chasing after worldly pleasure? For the many times we have boldly confessed the Christian faith within the safety of these walls, how often have we kept silent when given the opportunity to speak the truth or, even worse, have denied the truth? In spite of all that Paul did and accomplished for the Church, he called himself the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:16) and less than the least of all God’s people (Ephesians 3:8) Can we confess anything less? If even our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) – to say nothing of our sins – what business do we have claiming any credit for establishing, sustaining or growing Risen Savior? For us and for Paul, it is only by God’s grace that we are privileged to participate in the building of the Church. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

 

But if we don’t get the credit for building Risen Savior, who does? For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Long before we were ever born, long before Paul had ever stepped foot in Corinth, Jesus Christ laid the foundation of the Church by his life, death and resurrection. The Church is not built on our blood, sweat and tears, but on the tears Jesus shed as he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4), on the sweat that poured from Jesus’ face as the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6), on the blood that spilled from his side as he gave up his life to pay for our sins. Most of all, the Church is firmly founded on the fact that Jesus rose from the grave – hard evidence that our sins are paid for, that we are right with God. There is only one foundation for the Christian Church – that is, Christ himself.

 

Perhaps that seems obvious. We just sang “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” (CW 538) But the fact that Paul had to write these words proves that this is not obvious to everyone. The danger is not really trying to replace the foundation of Jesus Christ – obviously, if a church stops confessing Christ, it has ceased to be the Church. The real danger trying to establish another, a second foundation alongside Jesus. This happens whenever people fail to trust that the Word will accomplish exactly what God promised it would (Isaiah 55:10-11) and substitute their own wisdom and reason, whenever we think that the Gospel needs some dressing up or modification or some special marketing campaign to make it attractive – as if anything we could offer is better than the free forgiveness of sins.

 

Which is why we aren’t celebrating our 20th anniversary by acknowledging the human effort that went into establishing Risen Savior (even though it was significant), but by thanking God that the church is not built on or by us. We thank him for planning our salvation even before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4); for making and keeping his promise to send a Savior from sin; for using men like Paul to spread this good news throughout the ancient world; for giving us parents and grandparents who brought us to be baptized and fed at Jesus’ feet; for pastors like Dan Sims, Oliver Lindholm and Nathan Fager who faithfully preached nothing more and nothing less than the Word of God; and, most of all, for the Holy Spirit who sanctifies all of our imperfect efforts and to this day attaches the power of salvation to simple things like water, bread, wine and the Word. (Romans 1:16) If this church was built on our own effort or ingenuity, it would have crumbled long ago. It’s a testimony to God’s grace that even as the past two decades have seen our nation, many of our nation’s churches, and even many of our family and friends walk away from Christ – God has kept Risen Savior grounded on the only foundation that can withstand the storms of sin and Satan: Christ crucified.

 

Speaking of storms, I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures and video of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Florence on North and South Carolina. Cars and homes and entire communities were all swept away by the wind and waves. It’s interesting, though, that when the waters finally recede, for the most part, the foundations will still be standing. Why? Because the foundation was built of solid, indestructible concrete while the structure above was built of cheaper and lighter 2x4’s, drywall and plaster. Paul uses a similar image in describing the church: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. Even though Paul doesn’t define these different materials, we immediately notice that they fall into two groups: three that are non-combustible (they don’t burn up in fire), and three that are combustible. People living in the 1st century would have appreciated Paul’s illustration. When a fire swept through an ancient city, the only thing left standing might be a temple or palace built of costly stones, gold and silver. We get the point, right? As we build on the foundation of Christ, we have a choice: build with proper, precious materials that will last or build with the easy, cheap materials that won’t. While there may seem to be no visible difference between churches that build with precious materials and those that build with worthless ones (it might even seem like those that build with worthless materials grow bigger, faster), Paul says that one day it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

 

Paul’s words should be a wake-up call to every church – even ours. Satan is always tempting us to build with materials other than those God has given us. There’s always the temptation to think that if we just provide the services and programs that people in our community want: day care, rent assistance, children’s programs, marriage and financial workshops – that then we can slip the Gospel in without them even noticing and the church will really grow. But not only is that deceptive and manipulative (and therefore incompatible with the Gospel – 2 Corinthians 4:2), but Jesus and the Apostles regularly told people that they would not provide for their bodily needs, but what they could give them was far more important: the forgiveness of sins. (John 6:27; Acts 3:6) We might be tempted to modify the more controversial teachings of the Bible to make them fit contemporary society – the roles of men and women, gender identity and sexuality, closed communion, fellowship – but Revelation 22 warns if anyone takes words away from this book…God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city. (Revelation 22:19) We may be tempted to think that it’s the persuasiveness of the pastor, the friendliness of the people, or the quality of the snacks that converts unbelievers – but Scripture is clear that faith comes from hearing the message. (Romans 10:17)

 

The church is not founded on or by us, nor is it built by our wisdom, methods or strategies. The Church is founded on Christ and still today the only proper materials to build on that foundation are what we call the “means of grace.” To the credit of those who were members back in 2010, they decided to place those building blocks front and center in the very design of the church. The pulpit where the Word is proclaimed, the altar where the body and blood of Christ are distributed, the font where sinners become saints – those are the priceless building materials that Christ uses to build his Church. No, they’re not as flashy or exciting as a superstar pastor or a professional praise band, it takes far more effort and patience to use them than the latest, greatest marketing scheme, and many in our world have absolutely no use for them - but it is only through these means that God shines his truth in this dark world, creates and strengthens faith, and makes new and stronger believers. Let us never take them for granted. Let us never abandon them for any poor imitations that promises quicker results or seems to be more acceptable to the world – because the true test is not whether what we teach and do grows the church now, but whether it will stand up to the fire of God’s judgment on the Last Day. Remember that 20 years ago Risen Savior started in a grade school gym by 15 people with little more than a Bible, some water, some bread and wine and Christ’s promise that where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) – and that when we look around today, we see evidence that by God’s grace the proper building materials – the Word and Sacraments – do work.

 

It’s been 20 years since Risen Savior’s first worship service, and a lot has changed. Hundreds of homes have replaced corn fields. A beautiful, permanent sanctuary has replaced worship in a gym. 15 members has grown to almost 150. We have more children who want to learn about Jesus than we have room to teach them. Only eight years after building a church, an expansion is already in the works. Founding members have died and been transferred to heaven and new ones have become children of God right before our eyes. A lot has changed. But the most important things have not. By God’s grace Risen Savior is still standing on the only foundation laid by God himself: Jesus Christ. Even in our ever-changing world God has preserved here the pure teaching of his Word and the Sacraments – the only building materials that will stand the tests of time and Judgment. In our Risen Savior we have a solid foundation and building materials that will stand the test of time and eternity. May God in his grace lead us to keep building on the proper foundation with the proper materials for the next 20 years. Amen.    

1 Peter 1:3-5 - Eternal Life, Guaranteed - September 9, 2018

If you were to stop in a Christian book store (if any still exist) or browse any number of online book sellers on the topic of the resurrection of the body or the life everlasting – you would find hundreds of books claiming to tell you everything you ever wanted to know. There are books that explain what it feels like to die and to experience the presence and glory of God – from those who have allegedly had near-death experiences. There are books that describe what God, what the angels, and what heaven itself looks like. There are books that talk about if and how you will be able to recognize Abraham and Moses and even great uncle Charlie. When it comes to the Last Day, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting – there is no shortage of books that claim to explain, define, and describe what it’s like down to the smallest detail. The funny thing is, the Bible is NOT one of them. Now certainly, the Bible gives descriptions of heaven: as a royal banquet (Luke 13), a mansion with many rooms (John 14), the saints gathered around the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 14), the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). But on the whole, the Bible makes it clear that God is more concerned with leading us to know and believe that through Christ eternal life is ours than he is about satisfying our thirst for details. Today the Apostle Peter assures us that even if we don’t know exactly what heaven will be like, it is guaranteed to us by God. A proven, permanent and powerful guarantee.

 

Peter originally wrote this letter to people a lot like us – in verse 1 he addressed it to God’s elect, strangers in the world. (1:1) He wrote this letter to Christians living in societies that were at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to Christianity. Much like today, the hostility wasn’t necessarily physical violence (although it did happen) but more along the lines of social harassment. Their faith was openly mocked and made fun of. They were alienated and bullied by their coworkers, friends, and sometimes even their own families. They were living in a world that loved darkness instead of the light (John 3:19), where the love of most had grown cold (Matthew 24:12), where people were not ashamed of their immoral behavior but paraded it about in broad daylight. Peter knew that the temptation was very real for these Christians to question whether holding onto this faith was really worth it; when the unbelieving world seemed happy and successful and believers were losing their jobs, their friends, and even their families. So right away in this letter, Peter reinforces their faith and restores their hope – not by promising them that life in this world would get better, but by assuring them that their eternal future is secure.

 

To be clear, left to ourselves, we would have no eternal future. In fact, when we were born, we were utterly hopeless. We were born into a world that had fallen under the curse of sin and death (Genesis 3); from our first breath we were doomed to die (1 Corinthians 2:22) and destined to spend all eternity separated from God in hell (Romans 2:6-8; Colossians 3:5-6). That’s why, when these Christians were struggling with persecution and trials of faith, Peter doesn’t point them to themselves or their works or their strength – instead, he points them to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

 

What has God done? In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He has given life to the lifeless and hope to the hopeless. He has given us a new birth – in contrast to our natural birth – into a living hope. How did this new birth take place? Peter says later in this chapter: you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23) And later on in the book baptism now saves you...not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. (1 Peter 3:21) Through the Word and through Baptism God gives us a new birth into his family, into the Christian faith, into a living hope for eternal life.

 

But it’s the basis for this living hope that sets Christianity apart. Because, in one way or another, nearly every human – and every religion – cling to some kind of hope for the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, modern-day Jews and Buddhists and Muslims – all teach about life after death. Even the unbelieving world has hope, right? Hope that the right combination of diet and exercise can prevent death; hope for a cure for cancer, a pill that can reverse aging, etc. (Which is not surprising, because Solomon wrote: [God] has set eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)) But without exception, these religions teach that eternal life depends on whether you have earned it or not. Jews believe that circumcision and obedience to the law will earn them a happy eternity; Muslims base it on following the 5 pillars of the Koran; Hindus base it on whether you had good or bad karma during your lifetime. These are not living hopes, they are dead hopes. And on the Day of Judgment these will prove to be false hopes, hopes that lead only to destruction. Because Jesus will judge them according to the standard they demand: those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:29) [1]

 

In contrast, the living hope of Christianity is not based on us at all. It is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Our hope is living because our Savior is living. Our hope is true because it is grounded in the historical, verifiable fact that Jesus died on a cross just outside of Jerusalem and three days later rose again, leaving an empty grave. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, therefore, is the basis, the ground, the assurance and foundation for our living hope of eternal life. Because he lives, we too shall live. (John 14:19; 15:26) Our hope for eternal life is guaranteed; proven in the empty tomb.

 

But what is this eternal life? Peter describes it as an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade away – kept in heaven for you. An inheritance is what is distributed when a person dies. The heirs often place a lot of hope in receiving an inheritance – hope that it will get them out of debt or give them a better life. But what often ends up happening? Disputes between family members break out, lawyers get involved, property and possessions lose value, and a good portion of whatever is left goes to the government in taxes. Even if you have the prospect of receiving a large inheritance from a relative – there’s always the chance that you will never see it, or will only see a portion of it. But the same is not true of our heavenly inheritance. It is already ours by faith in Christ, but we don’t possess it yet because God is keeping it safe in a place where no thieves or moths or decay – not even the IRS – can get at it. And knowing this makes our hope for it all the greater, because if it comes from our heavenly Father, we know it’s good. So good, that the Bible (unlike all those books of Christian fiction) only describes it by telling us what it is not. Unlike earthly wealth, it is not subject to destruction, it will not succumb to the polluting influence of sin, and time won’t decrease its value. John adds that there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. (Revelation 21:4) God has promised us an eternal inheritance that’s so good we can’t even imagine it – but we do know that it is unlike anything in this world: it is permanent, kept safely in heaven for us.

 

The only question that remains is: in a spiritually dangerous world, will we get there to enjoy it? Peter also answers this question: [you] through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. The devil and the world want nothing more than to rob us of our hope of eternal life. The devil whispers: “If God really had good plans for you, he wouldn’t let you suffer like this, he wouldn’t have let you lose your job, he wouldn’t have let cancer kill your husband or wife or child – you can’t trust his Word or promises.” The world is constantly holding out the false promise that we can – with enough time, money, ingenuity – create paradise on earth – so we don’t need the one God offers. No one can take our eternal life from us – but we can certainly forfeit it if we doubt God’s Word and his love or make the mistake of spending all our time, effort, and energy storing up treasures here on earth instead of storing up treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-21)

 

But God has even taken our weakness into account. The One who guards our inheritance for us also guards us for our inheritance. The Greek word for “shielded” pictures a ring of protection. Imagine the secret service surrounding the president or the FBI providing protective custody. How does God shield us from the deceptions and false hopes of the world and the devil? Through faith. How can faith, which so often seems to us to be a fickle and intangible thing be the instrument God uses to shield us until the day of salvation? Because the very nature of faith is that it is not something we do; it is trust in what God has done. Faith is the opposite of works (Romans 3:28), it is trust in the work of Jesus. Paul describes the power of faith in Ephesians 6: take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. (Ephesians 6:16)

 

Let’s be clear: this is not our personal faith. Our personal faith is always weak, always imperfect, always liable to being misinformed and misguided. This is THE Christian faith, the body of doctrine that God has revealed in his Word. This is the Gospel, the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. (Romans 1:16) This is the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3) The sum total of what God has revealed in the Bible is our shield. This is the faith taught by Jesus and the prophets and apostles. This is the faith in which we were baptized, instructed and confirmed. And as such, this provides a fitting end for our series on the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is the shortest and simplest summary of the Christian faith – the shield the Church has developed over the centuries to fend off the lies of the devil and the world. We need this Creed because this Creed simply and faithfully points us away from ourselves and what we have done to God, who he is and what he has done for us. I pray that over the past several months we have met our three objectives in studying this basic Christian creed: 1) That you know even better what you believe and why you believe it; 2) that you may be better prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15); and 3) that you may be equipped to identify, mark, and avoid false teaching and false teachers. Learn this faith, love this faith, cling to this faith, keep running back to this faith because through this faith God has guaranteed to shield you with his almighty power until your salvation is revealed.

 

There are many today who have no use or need for something as basic and ancient as the Apostles’ Creed. They claim that what we need in the 21st century is religion that is relevant and relational and about us. The truth is that if even .01% of our salvation is up to us – we will be lost. That’s why we need the Creed. The Creed is not about us, it’s about the one, true Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is the only sure and trustworthy object of our faith and source of our hope. (1 Peter 1:21) He guarantees that this life is not all there is, that death is not the end. He has proven it by raising Jesus from the dead. He guarantees its permanence: keeping our inheritance in heaven far from all destruction and decay. His power shields us from Satan’s attacks through the one, true, Christian faith. May God’s guarantee give us peace in life and fearless in death. Amen.

 

 

[1] With the understanding, of course, that apart from faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

Psalm 130 - The Forgiveness of Sins - September 2, 2018

Labor Day is the ultimate American holiday, isn’t it? We get Monday off – and who doesn’t hate Mondays? We get a long weekend, and who doesn’t love weekends? And unlike other holidays, we aren’t obligated to give the credit and honor to something or someone else – it’s not a celebration of those who have died in service to our country or a president’s birthday. In fact, that may be what we like best about this holiday. What does it celebrate? The American worker. We get to celebrate our favorite people in the world: us! Surely we have earned and deserved a long weekend and a Monday off of work. But even though it is Labor Day weekend, we are gathered in God’s House today not to celebrate something we have earned and deserve – but something we have not earned and do not deserve, and yet, something we need far more than a day off of work: the forgiveness of sins. Today we will see why we need it, how God grants it, and how we receive it.

 

The author of Psalm 130 was drowning in the depths of despair. He was wallowing in hopelessness and fully recognized that he was helpless to help himself. In contrast to many who seek to strike a bargain with God or ask only for the strength to help themselves out of trouble – all this author could ask was that God hear him: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. Why is he feeling this way? If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? Everyone knows that all is not right in this life – not only in the world out there but right in here: in our own hearts and minds. We may give it all sorts of different labels – despair, shame, discontentment, depression – but what we are really feeling is the guilt that is the result of our sins. Guilt is more than just a feeling. The Hebrew word translated “sins” literally means “deeds which incur guilt.” Guilt is a liability, an obligation. It is a debt that must be paid. And the debt that any and every sin incurs is death. (Romans 6:23) Because there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-23), everyone feels this guilt. Because guilt is universal so are the attempts to find solutions to make the guilt go away. One common solution goes like this: it’s when you break the rules, break the law that you incur a debt and feel guilt – so, if you just get rid of the rules you can get rid of the source of your guilt, right?

 

Let’s use a modern example to test this theory. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws forbidding gay marriage are unconstitutional – giving gay couples throughout the country the civil right to marry. A segment of society had seemingly succeeded in getting God’s will declared unconstitutional. They hoped that by removing a law from the books the guilt would be removed from their hearts. Did it work? Numerous studies have shown [1] that LGBTQ individuals are more likely to report high levels of depression, more likely to have attempted suicide, and are more likely to use illegal drugs than the rest of the population. You might be able to convince the Supreme Court that God’s will is unconstitutional – but you can’t remove the guilt that sins against the 6th commandment incur. That’s just one example of the real, root problem: we know something is wrong but we misidentify the cause – and so we will never find the solution.

 

That’s why we need Psalms like this one to wake us up to the truth. This psalm has a long and prominent history in Christianity. Its nickname is “De Profundis” – a Latin phrase that means “out of the depths” (from verse 1). In contrast to the Oprah’s and Dr. Phil’s of the world – who argue that the problem is out there and the solution is within us; through His Word, God leads us to see that the problem isn’t out there and the solution isn’t in here; the problem is in here and the solution must lie outside of us. What the world needs today more than anything else is an accurate understanding of sin – that’s it’s not something that can be removed by Supreme Court decision or executive order or any number of good works. And it does appear that God is leading the world, as it faces the consequences of its own contradictory and self-destructive delusions, to think more seriously about it. If we really want to serve the world, we need to be ready with answers from God’s Word when the world comes crawling to us wondering why their solutions to guilt don’t work – so that we can then lead them to the one, truly effective cure.

 

But it’s not just the world that needs Psalms like this one. We, the Church, need it too. We need it to lead us to a deeper consciousness of our sin. We need to be jarred out of our easy-going complacency that takes forgiveness for granted, that treats absolution and Communion as something I can take a vacation from in the summer; that figures the Church ought to be doing something more productive than administering Baptism and Communion. We need to see ourselves as God sees us – not in comparison to others, not according to the measure of our nation’s laws – but measured against God’s demand to be perfect. (Matthew 5:48) We need to remember that we are saints in God’s eyes but we still sin daily; so that the guilt that we feel is real. God really is angry at us for our sins. He is serious about his threat to punish sinners in hell forever. Because only when we fully recognize how broken and helpless our condition is will we thirst and hunger for the cure.

 

What is that cure? Human ingenuity is great – and our ability as a race to do and invent all sorts of things to better and extend life is amazing. But all human skill and ingenuity have failed to provide a cure for sin and guilt. Some exert themselves to the breaking point trying to do enough good to make up for the evil they have done – but no amount of good can remove one ounce of bad. Others try to distract themselves from their guilt with busy, active lives or try to drown it in substances – but when the weekend is over, when morning comes, the guilt remains. Luther and his fellow monks starved themselves, beat themselves, slept on cold stone floors and prayed for days on end hoping to atone for their sins – and yet Luther could find no peace for his conscience. [2] The world has prescribed therapy sessions and therapy dogs, diet and exercise, stimulants and depressants and everything in between to remove guilt and make you feel better – but none of it works. Because there is only one cure for sin: forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? There was once a little boy who asked his mother to explain how God can forgive sins. She responded by asking him to bring her his etch-a-sketch that she knew he had been playing with the day before. Finding nothing on it, she asked her son what had happened to the writing. He explained that he had flicked the switch to wipe it clean. “But where is the writing?” she asked. “I don’t know,” replied the boy, “I wiped it out, it is gone.” Perhaps that’s all that can be said – as far as our real understanding goes – concerning forgiveness. [3] We confess to believe it, not understand it. It is a truth to be accepted because God says it, not because we can see it, feel it, or prove it. But of the fact that with [God] there is forgiveness, there can be no doubt. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. (Psalm 103:12) I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34) If you feel the weight and guilt of your sin, don’t turn to yourself, or your works; don’t look to therapy or prescriptions or substances; don’t compare yourself to others or lobby for the Supreme Court to declare God’s will unconstitutional. Look to the only one who has the cure for sin and guilt: our gracious God.   

 

But the fact that God forgives still doesn’t answer the question: how? Unfortunately, many believe and teach today that God is kind of like a lazy old man who doesn’t really mean what he says; that he kind of just winks and nods and “poof” your sins are gone. This is a bloodless, Christless, crossless, false form of Christianity. Where this false gospel is proclaimed the cross is replaced with a movie screen and the altar and baptismal font (where forgiveness is objectively distributed) is replaced with a praise band (to make you feel good). But the Bible is clear, God does not just turn a blind eye to sin; he must punish it. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. (Isaiah 13:11) God’s demand for justice had to be satisfied – or else he would not be God. But because the God of justice is also the God of love (1 John 4:16), he found a way. God sent his only Son, Jesus, to take our place, to be our substitute, to pay our debt, to suffer the punishment we deserved with his own suffering and death. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) Jesus was the atoning sacrifice – the payment price – for our sins. God is a forgiving God, that is true – but he could only forgive us if someone else suffered the punishment we deserved. Therefore, in Christ and his cross, both God’s justice and his love are found. He got the justice we deserved. We get the love he deserved. That is how a holy and just God grants us forgiveness.

 

The final question is: how do we receive forgiveness? God loved the world (John 3:16), Jesus paid for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2), God wants all the world to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and, as Paul said, all have been justified freely by his grace. (Romans 3:24) And yet Scripture is equally clear that not all people will receive the forgiveness Jesus won and therefore not all will be saved. (Mark 16:16) Now, you might expect that now is when we are told what we must do to achieve forgiveness. You would be wrong. The Apostles’ Creed is all about what God does for us – and that’s true even here. In order for us to receive forgiveness, the Holy Spirit must do three things for us and in us.  

 

First, he must show us our need. The person who doesn’t know he is sick will never seek out a cure. We must be convicted by God’s Law so that we know what sin is and that according to it, we are sinners. It doesn’t do us any good to say “All people are sinners.” We must be brought by God to acknowledge “I am a sinner.” Once we are aware of our sin, God both invites and commands us to confess it. (1 John 1:9; James 5:16) As we’ve stated before, this is difficult for proud humans like us. But there’s no other way. King David tried to do it. He tried to swallow and stifle and pen up his sin in his heart – but it only made things worse. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me. (Psalm 32:3-4) Pride sealed David’s lips; but as long as he kept quiet he could find no peace, because there can be no forgiveness apart from confession of sin. [4] But that all changed when David confessed the truth: then I acknowledged my sin to you…I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)

 

We must know our sins and confess them – but that’s only half the story. The Holy Spirit must also lead us to believe that God is truly willing and able to forgive us. Faith, and faith alone, receives forgiveness. With Paul we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) We are justified – we receive the forgiveness Jesus won for us – by faith alone. But faith is not a good work that we do to merit forgiveness, it is merely a hand that grasps the forgiveness God gives. Faith is never a blind leap – faith always clings to something objective and concrete. So where can we find concrete, objective proof that we are forgiven? Not through prayer, mystically, or through our feelings but in Absolution, in Baptism, in Holy Communion. Thank God for giving us such sure and objective assurance that our sins are forgiven. You don’t have to feel it, see it, earn it or sense it – all you can do is hear it, receive it, and believe it. So don’t skip too quickly over this article next time you confess the Apostles’ Creed – instead, understand your desperate need for forgiveness, trust that God is willing to forgive you, and believe that Jesus has purchased your forgiveness with his blood. Amen.  

 

[1] https://cola.unh.edu/sites/cola.unh.edu/files/student-journals/P12_Schaaff.pdf; https://lgbtihealth.org.au/statistics/; https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/2016/lgb-media-data-summary.pdf;

[2] LW 27:13

[3] The Hebrew term for forgiveness in Psalm 130:4, salah, is used in Scripture only of God – never does this word refer to people forgiving each other. The very terminology seems to say that we cannot really understand God’s forgiveness of our sins.

[4] This is still a very common problem: people wanting forgiveness without a confession of sin. People want their lifestyle affirmed, their guilt taken away without admitting that what they are doing is sinful. And liberal churches give them the false assurance that they have it. This is a terrible abuse of the Gospel and offers nothing but a false security to sinners.