Exodus 1-2, 15 - Christian Property Management - August 13, 2017

As his ministry drew to an end, only days before he was hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world, Jesus told his disciples the parable of the talents. (Matthew 25:14-30) In it he described a man who was going on a journey and entrusted his property to his servants for safe-keeping. After a long time the master returned from his trip and called his servants to account for how they had managed his property. Because as sinners we have a tendency to think that some things, especially material things, are not really related to our spiritual life, are not really God’s business, Jesus told this parable to clarify a few things for us while we await his return. First, as we sang in Psalm 24 the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it (Psalm 24:1) – so how we spend our money, use our possessions, cultivate our abilities IS God’s business. Second, God has loaned us his property, not to use as we wish, but according to the will of the owner. And third, he will return and will call us to account for how we have managed his possessions. Those are the principles we will keep in mind as we consider the 7th commandment. In which God himself gives us a lesson in finance; teaching us Christian property management – that we are to manage our hearts and our possessions and leave the rest to God.

 

Luther, in his Large Catechism, focuses most of his attention, not on brazen sins like breaking and entering or armed robbery – he commits those sins to the hangman; he focuses on what he calls “open thieves” – those who rob and steal from others in plain sight. That’s in line with Hebrew word for “steal” (ganab) which emphasizes taking things in a secret or deceptive manner. Today, while we could attempt to list all of the ways stealing can and does take place: by filing dishonest or fraudulent tax forms, by putting in less than an honest day’s work for a full day’s paycheck, by calling in sick when we aren’t, neglecting to scan an item at the self-checkout, withholding our offerings from God, laziness, wastefulness etc., our time is better spent addressing the source of it all: the heart.

 

Our Gospel lesson exposed the danger of a greedy heart. Jesus was in the middle of a sermon about the things that decide whether a person will spend eternity in heaven or hell when he is interrupted by a man with something else on his mind: teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. (Luke 12:13) Jesus is talking about salvation and judgment, and all this guy can think about is getting his hands on his relative’s estate. On a side note: pastors see this sort of thing all the time. Many of my day-to-day contacts with non-members – sometimes with members – have to do with material things: rent payments, gas money, medical bills, estates and inheritances, etc. It’s gut-wrenching to see how people get so wrapped up in the temporary, trivial things of this world while they allow the true riches of forgiveness, the Word of God and the Sacraments blow by like pieces of trash.

 

Jesus responded by ignoring the request and exposing the real issue: watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15) Greed, as Jesus defines it (pleonexia), is the constant desire to have more. John D. Rockefeller, one of America’s first millionaires, is often considered the poster-boy for greed. Once asked “how much is enough?” He responded, “A little bit more.” At the same time, greed is not tied to any one tax bracket; it is common to rich and poor and middle class alike. The problem is not having wealth. (Job, Abraham, and David were richly blessed by God and were commended as fine examples of faith.) The problem is always wanting more. So the first issue that this commandment addresses has nothing to do with stuff, it has to do with our hearts. What is our attitude towards wealth and stuff? Do we think that just a little – or maybe a lot – more would make us truly happy? Does our desire for the stuff this world offers ever get in the way of receiving the blessings God wants to offer us? What does our attitude towards wealth teach our children and neighbors? We might believe that we have kept this commandment as long as we haven’t committed armed robbery, but Jesus teaches that greed is stealing in God’s eyes.

 

Living in a free-market capitalistic society, it’s impossible to enumerate all the ways this commandment can be broken, but the famous artist, Norman Rockwell, put his finger on the “open thievery” that takes place every day in our world. (Illustration) Are they thieves? They wouldn’t dare rob a bank or steal a car – and wouldn’t rank a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list – and yet they see nothing wrong with gaining an advantage for themselves at the cost of the other. Watch out: what the world might call “driving a hard bargain” or “smart shopping” is often the sinful result of greed. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Christian property management starts with managing our hearts through daily repentance for our greedy desires and less-than-honest ways.

 

But it doesn’t end there. What we do with the stuff God has loaned to us is known as “stewardship”. A steward is a caretaker or manager. When we hear the word stewardship, we typically think only of money. But God has given us so much more than money. (Which is why, properly speaking, every sermon is a “stewardship” sermon – even if we don’t bring up dollars and cents!) He has given us families to care for and love and bring to Jesus, a certain number of hours, days, and years to spend wisely, a variety of talents and abilities to use to his glory, our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, our faith – which needs regular feeding, and he has given us his Word and Sacraments – treasures more precious than all the gold in all the banks in all the world. As Paul told the Romans, money is not the only offering God expects from us: I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1) Everything we are, everything we have, everyone around us are gifts on loan from God – gifts he expects us to manage to his glory.

 

That being said, the 7th commandment does narrow down our stewardship focus this morning to the possessions God has loaned us. Just as the 6th commandment showed us that the way we use our bodies has everything to do with our relationship with God, so our earthly, economic life cannot be separated from our eternal, spiritual life. We don’t like to hear that, do we? We have a tendency to want to divide up, to compartmentalize our lives: there’s my spiritual life, my time spent in church and devotion, the time I volunteer and the offerings if give; and then there’s everything else – and God, you keep your hands off; mind your own business! Scripture makes it clear that there is no separating the physical from the spiritual. Just ask Esau, who sold his spiritual birthright for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25-27); or the fool in Jesus’ parable who thought he had enough stuff to see him through life – he did; and it cost him his eternity (Luke 12:16-21); or Judas, who sold his Savior to his enemies and his soul to Satan for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 27:1-10). The stuff in our lives – the food, the house, the car, the job, the bank account, the family and friends – all these can either point us to the giver or lead us away from him.

 

Scripture shows us three main areas in which God wants us to manage his property. The first is providing for our families. Paul told Timothy: If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8) “Providing” includes more than putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. Our families need more than nice clothes and good schools and the newest toys; they need our love and attention, our compassion, our time and our guidance, our discipline and instruction in the Word of God. Be aware that Satan is a skilled scam artist. He can lead us to do things in the name of “providing for our families” – be it spending too much time at work or placing too much importance on career advancement; while the whole time we are stealing the time and love and energy our families really need.

 

The 2nd area is spelled out by Paul in Romans: This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect, if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:6-7) Did you know that paying taxes gives glory to God? Sometimes people question the morality of paying taxes to a government who might turn around to use them for ungodly and anti-Christian purposes. Why should we support policies and politicians that are contrary to God’s will and Word? Because God tells us to. When it comes to how tax dollars are used or misused, our responsibility is to submit to the governing authorities – and leave the judgment of government up to God.

 

The third and final area supporting the work of Christ’s church. We sometimes think of our offerings as an obligation; just another bill we have to pay.  It would be better, however, for us not to think of this in terms of obligation, but privilege. It is a privilege to bring our offerings to be put to work in God’s kingdom because before and apart from anything we gave him, he gave us his Son, he forgave our sins and made us members of his kingdom. Sharing and supporting the proclamation of the Gospel is a privilege God gives only to believers (which, incidentally, is why we don’t ask outsiders to fund the work of the church). Paul offers simple guidelines for Christians as they plan their support of God’s kingdom: on the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income. (1 Corinthians 16:2) The four timeless truths for Christian giving are that: 1) it is each individual’s responsibility; 2) which are to be planned; 3) regular; and 4) proportionate to what you have. And if asked “How generous are we to be?” The answer: how generous has God been to you? Providing for our families, paying taxes, and bringing our first-fruits for the advancement of God’s kingdom are the three main areas in which God expects us to be faithful and wise managers of his property.

 

Did we miss anything in our study of this commandment? Our sinful nature thinks so: what about me? What about what I need, want, desire to have? God commands me to manage his property for the good of others, but who’s going to take care of #1? Isn’t that worry what drives our workaholism, our greed, our stinginess, our hoarding and piling up, our fixation on stock markets and nest eggs and economic prosperity? Isn’t that why giving our first and best back to God seems to demand an extreme act of will? At the heart of greed is selfishness and at the heart of selfishness is unbelief – doubt that God will provide. And the only cure for unbelief are the generous Gospel promises God gives us in his Word. We ask “what about the stuff I need?” God answers: do not worry, saying, ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33) We ask “what about my retirement and my children’s future?” God answers: be content with what you have, because God has said, “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) But really, the most important question we should be asking is: “What about the time and energy I have wasted on “stuff” that is here today and gone tomorrow; what about my selfish hands, my grumpy giving, my greedy heart? How will my infinite debt of sin be paid?” God answers that one too: you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9) Jesus gave up the riches of heaven to sign his name next to our debt of sin. When we look at Calvary, we usually think there were only two criminals there. That’s not exactly accurate. We were there – because the law convicts us as thieves whether we taken with our hands or only our hearts. But the gospel reveals that Jesus was the greatest thief of all – he stole our sins, he robbed us of the punishment we deserved, he suffered the bankruptcy of hell in our place – and he replaced it all with his perfect generosity, his cheerful giving, his inheritance in heaven’s glory – and the promise that he will provide everything we need to get there. Who’s going to take care of you? Who’s looking out for #1? God did and God will. That’s a promise you can take to the bank.

 

So manage God’s property wisely during your short time on this earth. Watch out for greed – it’s a faith killer; manage the things God has given you according to his will; and, most importantly, guard your most precious treasure – the Savior who paid for all your sins against the 7th commandment, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood. Look to him and his cross and trust that no matter how much or how little you have now, God has promised and prepared for you an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:4) Amen.

Exodus 20:1-2, 14 - Honor God's Gift of Marriage - August 6, 2017

Let’s be honest: you’re at least a little worried that this is going to be an uncomfortable sermon, aren’t you? Why is that? Is it because we want to protect our children’s tender ears and eyes? The truth is that our kids are going to learn about sex (probably before we know it) – the only question is: will they learn about it at Jesus’ feet or in one of Satan’s many classrooms? Is it because sex is something that shouldn’t be discussed in public? The Apostle Paul clearly wasn’t ashamed to discuss this topic in his letters – which were intended to be read publicly. (1 Thessalonians 5:27) Is it because we want our sexual desires to be off-limits for anyone else to judge, something we want to keep hidden, not just from other people, but from God himself? Getting warmer. Do you know the real reason the 6th commandment makes us uncomfortable? At Creation: the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. Seven verses later we are told then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Genesis 3:7) And, when God appeared, he said, “who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:11) Why does it make us uncomfortable to talk about sex and marriage? Sin. The sinful thoughts that lurk in our minds and the sinful desires that control our bodies; the sin that has twisted our hearts and leads us to misuse God’s good gifts; sin – and the shame that comes with it – is why we try to run away and hide from our holy God. That’s why we need this commandment. That’s why even though it might make us squirm, we need to take an honest look at God’s will for sex and marriage – because like it or not, we are at war, and it’s time to take back territory from Satan and the ungodly world he controls. Today, God leads us to honor his gift of marriage; a gift that protects purity, promotes unity, and points to Christ.

 

The Hebrew word for adultery (naaph) appears 31 times in the Old Testament. It refers narrowly to unfaithfulness within marriage. And yet, while the definition of the word is very narrow, the Bible as a whole has a far broader definition. Paul goes so far as to say that among [Christians] there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality. (Ephesians 5:3) Simply stated, God’s will is that his gift of sex be practiced only within the bond of marriage – defined as one man and one woman who have publicly committed to one another for life. (Genesis 2:24)

 

These days, people – maybe even people you know – like to try to set Jesus against this commandment. They will say, “Yeah, I know that no one should separate what God has brought together (Matthew 19:6), but the passion is gone; doesn’t Jesus want me to be happy?” “Sure I know that God reserves sex for marriage, but doesn’t Jesus want me to show my love for my girlfriend/boyfriend?” “Yeah, I know that God expects that two people only begin living together after they have made their public vows to one another – but doesn’t Jesus want us to get to know each other before we make a permanent commitment?” Or “Yeah, in the past marriage was between a man and a woman, but come on, Jesus loves everyone, what’s wrong with two committed men or women getting married?” Perhaps more than in any other area of doctrine or life, many want to find some kind of contradiction between Jesus and the rest of Scripture. But listen again to Jesus’ words: You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28) Jesus does not stand against the 6th commandment; he stands behind it. He does not take the edge off of the law; he sharpens it. Many argue that Jesus doesn’t explicitly forbid living together before marriage or hook-ups between two consenting adults or homosexuality. But they miss the fact that Jesus didn’t have to explicitly name every way mankind could come up with to pervert God’s good gifts – because he zeroed in on the source of every sexual sin: the lust-filled heart.

 

Most people today do not consider lust a sin. Young people today are growing up in an oversexualized world, one where texting naked pictures is as common as making a phone call; where sex-ed is taught before driver’s ed; where even animated movies carry sexual overtones. Many parents don’t even question if their teenagers should be having sex, the biggest concern is how to teach them to have safe sex. As much as ever, Christian parents and grandparents need to be responsible for teaching their children about sex and marriage – and God’s guidelines for both – because every other teacher, be it in public schools, TV shows, or friends is not teaching from God’s instruction manual but Satan’s.

 

One of the best tools we have in doing that is Luther’s explanation to the 6th commandment: we should fear and love God that we lead a pure and decent life in words and actions. In other words, in this commandment God protects his gift of purity. This purity is not something we were born with – since we are all stained with sin from birth. (Psalm 51:5) This purity is something God gave us in Baptism. Paul explains do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders will inherit the kingdom of Godand that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) This is why Christians don’t go along with the crowd in their attempt to change the definition of marriage. This is why Christians avoid flirtatious conversations and dirty websites. This is why the most unloving thing you can do when your child tells you he’s moving in with his girlfriend is to say nothing. Jesus didn’t die to save us for the filth of sin, he died to save us from the filth of sin. In 1st Corinthians Paul explains that sexual sins (which the world calls harmless) not only damage our own bodies, they damage our relationship with God: flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:18-20) Young or old, single or married, we will honor God with the way we use our bodies because it’s not my body to do with it whatever I please; Jesus died to buy us back from sin and Satan; we belong to him and this commandment protects the purity he has given us.

 

 

That’s one side of this commandment. Luther also leads us to consider the other side: Husbands and wives, love and honor each other. Here we return to the narrow definition of adultery, unfaithfulness inside of marriage. Scripture allows for divorce in two instances: When the bond of marriage has already been broken by 1) marital unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:9); or 2) malicious desertion (1 Corinthians 7:15). In those instances, the innocent party may seek a divorce. However, to seek a divorce for any other reason is a sin itself. (Matthew 19:1-12) Unwilling to fight against the sick desires of the sinful nature, our world has made a mess of things with its “no-fault” divorces and providing easy access to divorce in spite of the damage it does to families and especially children. But God is the great simplifier. He declares through the prophet Malachi: I hate divorce. (Malachi 2:16) Or, in the words of one Bible commentator: God gave you the ultimate wedding present when you stood before his altar and said “for as long as we both shall live”; he took you at your word. There is no such thing as a “no-fault” divorce in God’s eyes. Every divorce is the result of sin on the part of one or both spouses.

 

But even apart from divorce, this commandment calls all of us who are married to examine our own words, our actions, and our hearts. Our world tends to treat marriage more like a business arrangement than a sacred institution. And with the prevalence of prenuptial agreements and secular counselors who advise ending marriages rather than working through problems, it has taken hold even in Christian homes. But God was not forging a business contract when he pulled a rib out of Adam’s side, made Eve, and brought her to him. Adam recognized this in the first love song ever written: this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man. (Genesis 2:23) The spouse God gave you is not a business partner – he or she is a part of you! Jesus affirms they are no longer two, but one. (Matthew 19:6) That’s what God sees when two people come before him and pledge to be faithful to one another as long as they both shall live. What do you see in your own heart and life? Husbands, Paul says, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25) Do we consider the needs and desires of our wives as more important than our own needs and desires? Are we willing to sacrifice our time, our career goals, our hobbies to give her the time and attention she needs? Or do we find ourselves tuning out and shutting down, which leads to coldness and lust, peering across real or virtual fences at greener pastures? Wives, what do you see? Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord…as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22, 24)  Do you find yourself resenting the unique role God has given you? Do you find yourself checking out old boyfriends on Facebook, fantasizing about what could have been? Whenever either of us, husbands or wives, follow the way of the world and demand our own personal happiness at the expense of our spouse – not only are we breaking this commandment, we are really hurting ourselves. The 6th commandment promotes the precious gift of unity that he gives only in marriage – a “one-flesh” unity that leads husbands to imitate Christ in his sacrificial love for the church which, in turn, leads wives to submit to his leadership and authority in everything.

 

And by now, I expect most of us are feeling torn inside. We know what God commands, but we also know how powerfully temptation pulls at us. We know that God instituted marriage to be a blessing, but we’ve also seen how sin has ruined God’s sacred institution. Part of us wants to live the way God intended from the beginning – but it’s perpetually at war with the part that says “It’s your body, if it feels good, go for it!” There’s a line in Luke’s Gospel about the response Jesus’ preaching received: all the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right. (Luke 7:29) That’s the primary aim of the 6th commandment. It’s not to prevent every teenage pregnancy or homosexual desire. It’s not to fix every problem in every marriage or reconcile every divorce. It’s not to bring up past guilt or provide a club for a future argument. The real aim of this commandment is repentance – a change of heart and mind that can be worked only by the One who loves us more than we love ourselves. When we stop arguing with God, when our hearts are softened enough to confess that God is right and we are wrong – then the 6th commandment has done its job. Because, finally, honoring marriage isn’t the end in itself. Honoring marriage is one important way we honor the God who overcame the separation our sins, sexual or otherwise, created to reconcile us to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19) Paul tells us that marriage is no less than a picture of what Jesus did when he came down to earth to live a perfectly pure life in our place and suffer the hell we deserve to reunite us with God. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)

 

From the water of Baptism to the dust of the grave, God has bound himself to you. He will never be unfaithful to you. He will never break his vow to forgive you and love you and take you back. So whatever irreparable mistakes lay in your past, whatever baggage you may carry, whatever struggles you face right now, know that the way of repentance is always open. The blood of Jesus is powerful enough to wash away any sexual sin – and the guilt and shame that come with it, and the Holy Spirit will renew your faith, enabling you to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives. (Titus 2:12) In all things, God’s forgiveness changes the source of the problem: our hearts – so that instead of looking for loopholes in God’s will, we will instead turn our eyes to the cross, where we discover what real love and real faithfulness look like. Joined to Christ as a bride is joined to a groom, we will honor marriage, because we know it as God’s good gift that protects purity, promotes unity, and points sinners everywhere to Christ. Amen.

Exodus 20:1-2, 13 - Love God's Gift of Life - July 30, 2017

We have reached the halfway point in our series on the 10 commandments; a good time to review why we are going through things that most of us learned in Sunday school and confirmation class. Why are we spending so much time on 10 commandments that are roughly 3500 years old? Because our three great spiritual enemies: the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature are hell-bent on warping and twisting and abolishing God’s Word and will. The devil still whispers in our ears did God really say? (Genesis 3:1) to lead us to doubt that God means what he says. The world tells us that the times have changed and therefore moral standards, the meaning of Scripture, the doctrine and practice of the church, and even the definition of words must change along with it. And our own sinful flesh, that part of us which will never be converted, will never want to obey God, will never believe in God, always tries to persuade us that God is just a bully who wants to take all the fun out of life – and that true freedom is found not in obedience but rebellion. The Christian life is one of constant struggle against these enemies and their lies – and that’s why we are taking the time to review and take to heart God’s unchanging, holy moral will. Today, we see God’s will as he revealed it in the 5th commandment: You shall not murder. In it, God leads us to love his gift of life, by teaching us the value of life, how to love life, and then how even the loveless receive life.

 

First, let us define the terms. You shall not murder in Hebrew is lo taratzach. This word is never used for the slaughter of animals, and “kill” (KJV) is too broad a translation. Narrowly defined, murder is the lawless taking of human life. It refers to premeditated murder – such as when Cain killed his brother Abel. (Genesis 4) It refers to murder that has a façade of legality or coincidence, such as when Ahab had Naboth murdered for his vineyard (1 Kings 21:19) or when David arranged for Uriah to be slain in battle. (2 Samuel 11) It even applies to killing that is the result of momentary passion or negligence. (Numbers 35:16-34) All are forbidden. However, not all taking of life is forbidden. Long before Moses stood on Mt. Sinai, God set down this basic principle when Noah stepped off the ark: whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. (Genesis 9:6) From the moment God pushed restart on creation with the Flood, he carved out an exception for his authorized representatives to take life. Soldiers, police officers, executioners, and people fighting back in self-defense are not guilty of murder if they take life in the course of carrying out their duties. They are God’s representatives, authorized by the 4th commandment to punish the wicked and protect the innocent.

 

The fact that God authorizes his representatives to take life only proves how serious God is about protecting life. Why? Why is life so valuable? Still speaking to Noah, God continued: whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Genesis 9:6) Life – every life – has value, for two basic reasons: 1) Man is created in God’s image, thus any attack on human life is an attack on God himself, and; 2) because a person’s life is the only time they have to come to receive God’s grace in faith and be saved. All life belongs to God and God gives life for one primary reason, as Paul spelled out: so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. (Acts 17:27) In other words, your lifetime is the only time you get to come to know and believe in Jesus Christ and be saved. There are no “do-overs”, no second chances – after death there is only judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) God created life, God preserves life, God’s Son has redeemed our lives, and God wants all people to come to saving faith so that they may live with him eternally. That is why life is inherently valuable and why God forbids murder.

 

So, let’s put that principle to work. Let’s learn the “how-to” of loving life. Does this apply to unborn babies – which the world has taken to referring to as nothing more than a “clump of cells” or the unfortunate “by-product of conception”? [1] Yes. We sang in Psalm 139: your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16) What if the baby is the result of rape or incest, what if the baby is doomed to live with Down syndrome will be born into an unhealthy home-life? Did you hear any exceptions in the 5th commandment? All life comes from God, and no one has the right to dispute or deny or legislate to destroy that life. Abortion is murder. [2] Does this commandment apply to those with mental or physical handicaps, those whose life will only last a few, grief-filled years, those who will never have a “normal” life? Yes, the consequences of sin do not change the fact that God our Savior wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and does not nullify the fact that God can create saving faith in all people – even those the world considers to have a poor “quality of life.” God loves all people as his children regardless of skin color, education, ethnicity, or mental ability. Does this apply to those near the end of life, those with terminal diseases, those who are enduring awful, chronic pain? Do we have the right to end these lives and call it mercy-killing; euthanasia? No. God decides when life begins. God decides when life ends. Period. (Psalm 31:15) What if I don’t think my own life is worth living anymore – what if I am so ashamed, so guilty, so depressed, such an outcast that I would rather end my life than endure it? (If this describes you, please get help. Suicide is not a solution; it is sin. It hurts you. It hurts those around you. Don’t do it. Jesus offers help to everyone. Jesus offers hope in any situation.) Does this apply to illegal immigrants, Islamic terrorists, black lives and blue lives, or any other class of people you can come up with? Yes. The fifth commandment is clear: you shall not murder any one for any reason. Life, every life, has value because God created it and Jesus redeemed it.

 

Look down at your hands, are they stained with innocent blood? Maybe not, but remember what John wrote in our first lesson? Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. (1 John 3:15) God calls murderers not only those who take life with their hands, but those who take life with their lips or in their hearts. Children, have you ever hit or insulted your sibling or classmate? Parents, has your discipline ever crossed the line from love to frustrated rage? Husbands and wives, have you ever struck one another with a balled up fist or a deeply cutting word? Have you ever taken vengeance into your own hands? Are there any grudges lurking in your heart even as we speak? Hatred, angry outbursts, grudges – even if we never act out on them – are murder in God’s eyes. And no murderer has eternal life in him.

That’s the negative side. In his explanation, Luther also recognizes the positive side: we should fear and love God that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body but help and befriend him in every bodily need. Jesus zeroes in on the positive angle in his response to the expert in the law who asked him who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) I won’t retell that story, but consider a modern-day Good Samaritan story. Do you know the name Peter Enns? Peter Enns, of Alberta, Canada was a man who spent a lot of time on the road. For five years he worked for a company transporting campers from Indiana to Canada. In that time, he noticed that many people who break down on the side of the road don’t carry the necessary tools for repair. So Peter made it a habit of carrying extra tools and spare parts in his truck so he could help anyone in need. On the evening of July 8th, Peter Enns put his principle into practice on the side of I-94 near Delafield where the minivan of a family of six had broken down. As Peter was stopped on the side of the road helping this family another person entered the picture. This man’s name is Frank Schiller. Frank also had a history. He had been arrested and convicted of drunk driving not once, not twice, but five times. Frank also happened to be on I-94 that evening and according to the criminal complaint, he was again driving impaired. As he approached the Delafield area, he noticed that traffic was slowing as it neared the broken down minivan. So he decided to pass the slow-moving traffic on the shoulder – the same shoulder where Peter Enns was bent down changing a stranger’s tire. Witnesses estimate that Schiller was going 90 mph when he struck Peter Enns, killing him instantly. Another road in another time, a Good Samaritan, and a thoughtless individual who placed his own desires above the needs of others.

 

Both stories, the one Jesus told and the one lived by Peter Enns, answer the question: who is [our] neighbor? You see, like the expert in the law, we want to believe that our neighbors are going to be our family and friends, people who can return our kindness or at least people we can help in a way and at a time that’s convenient for us. We want to believe that clicking “like” on some noble Facebook cause satisfies God’s demand or we pass by on the other side when we think we’re too busy to be bothered or we insist on making sure someone is “worthy” of our help before we give it. Jesus’ answer to the expert and to those thoughts, to put it bluntly, is “Stop wondering who your neighbor is. Instead, look in the mirror and ask, what kind of neighbor have I been?” Peter Enns understood that. I failed to mention that Peter was a confessing Christian who used to say to family and friends “we can’t change the entire world, but we can change the part of it that we interact with. Let’s change it for the better.” [3] How do you love life? Not committing murder, not aborting unborn babies, not holding grudges and hating, yes. But loving life also means being ready to help anyone in need, regardless of who they are, whether it is convenient for you or not. One thing is clear: if you want to get to heaven by keeping this commandment, you must love everyone you interact with, with unfailing, self-sacrificing love every moment of every day. That’s the 5th commandment. There are no legal loopholes, no valid excuses, no circumstances that justify disobedience. In God’s courtroom, you and I are just as guilty of murder as Frank Schiller is.

 

It almost makes you wish that we didn’t review this commandment after all, doesn’t it? But actually, doesn’t sharpening our understanding of God’s will in the fifth commandment drive us back to that expert’s first question: what must I do to be saved? And so, it’s good for us to be here, convicted and guilty of murder before God. Because the good news is not that we now know who our neighbor is or suddenly feel energized to go and do likewise. The good news today is that the one who told this parable is the true Good Samaritan who has had mercy on us. Jesus loved the lives of murderers like Frank Schiller, like you, like me so much that he stooped down from heaven to be born and live among murderers like us. All through his ministry he proved his love for life – the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, those with diseases on their skin and demons in their hearts – all came to Jesus and Jesus helped them all – whether it was convenient for him or not – because he loved life. Even the dead did not stay dead when the Lord of life spoke his life-giving Word. Jesus loved God’s gift of life so much that he was willing to lay down his life for murderers like us. Isaiah wrote he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12) The 5th commandment declares that we are murderers. From the cross, Jesus says “Nope, not anymore. I’ve taken your conviction and suffered your sentence.” Jesus has cleansed our bloody hands and bloody hearts with his precious blood. Jesus exchanged our rap-sheet for his perfect life of love. Jesus traded his death for our life. Jesus was buried as a criminal so that we could inherit his home in heaven. And because Jesus lives, you also will live even though you deserve to die! In Jesus there is life, true life, eternal life, even for loveless murderers like you and me.

 

Love God’s gift of life. Love it by seeing every human life as a precious soul created by God and redeemed by Christ. Love life not just by keeping your hands from violence but by keeping hate from your heart and by recognizing that your “neighbor” might be closer than you think. Most of all, love life by loving and trusting the one Good Samaritan who loved you enough to give up his own life. He’s the neighbor who showed us mercy when we didn’t deserve it and he is the true source of life now and forever. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/fetal-development-101/article/2619147

[2] Nearly 60 million babies have been aborted in the US since 1973 - http://www.numberofabortions.com/

[3] http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2017/07/14/victim-delafield-94-crash-remembered-good-samaritan-who-often-helped-motorists/479110001/

Exodus 20:1-2, 8-11 - Guard the Rest God Has Given You - July 16, 2017

It’s no secret that Americans are among the hardest working people in the world. We pride ourselves on it. And not only do we work hard, we rarely stop to rest. The United States is the only developed nation that does not require employers to give paid vacations or paid holidays. [1] Of those who do get paid vacation, more than half of American workers (55%) do not use all of it. [2] For many, taking a day off is not an option. Some work overtime, others work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Americans are willing to work such long hours that in some industries, the government has had to step in with laws to ensure that people with occupations that are especially dangerous or demanding, don’t work more than is safe. For example, flight crews and truck drivers are limited to a certain number of hours they may be on duty in any 24 hour time period. It may frustrate you if your package is late or your flight is delayed because the driver or pilot was sleeping, but hey, better late than dead, right? The laws that govern work and rest in those industries are meant to save lives.

 

As we continue our series on the Ten Commandments, we’ll see that the third commandment functions much like a labor law. God said: remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. In this commandment God guards his gift of rest – he commands rest for our bodies so that he can give us rest for our souls.

 

With the third commandment, God is saying, in effect: “Don’t just do as I say, do as I did!” In six days, using only the toolbox of his Word, God fashioned planet earth, everything on it, and the universe in which it spins. (Note that this verse is a subtle rebuke to anyone who is tempted to compromise with evolution and allow that six days could mean “six periods of millions of years” – because God certainly did not intend the Israelites to work for six million years and then rest for one million!) God labored six days and rested on the seventh – thus sanctifying it, setting it apart. Now God wanted his people to do the same: work six days and rest on the seventh. Why was a day of rest so important that God enacted a law to protect it? In short, because God knew that the Israelites were people of little faith. What? What does rest have to do with faith? Well, why do we bust our butts from sun-up to sun-down 5, 6, 7 days a week? Why do we spend more time than necessary at work and then keep our phones on just in case more is needed? Why do we scrimp and save and strive for retirement under the assumption that no amount is ever enough? Isn’t it because we struggle, really struggle, to trust that God will keep his promise to provide for our daily needs? Isn’t it because we have a tendency to trust what we can do with our hands more than what God promises to do in his Word? We may call it the American work ethic, but at heart it’s doubt, it’s unbelief. Jesus rebuked his disciples for this kind of lack of trust in God when he told them do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)

 

With the third commandment, God was telling Israel: “Look, if I can create the universe in six normal days and keep it going generation after generation, I’m pretty sure I can provide you with everything you need for life on earth.” God proved this point to the Israelites when he gave them an extra helping of manna on Fridays so that they didn’t need to go out on Saturdays, the Sabbath Day, to collect any. (Exodus 16:5) As if that weren’t enough, Moses added another thought to this commandment when he repeated it just as the Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land: remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15) Why did the Israelites even have the luxury of taking a day off of work? Only because God had rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. To ignore it was to say: “God, you might be able to create the universe, to crush Pharaoh’s army and part the Red Sea – but my dinner, my mortgage, my retirement – I’ve got to take care of that myself!” One man in Israel with this faithless attitude went out and gathered wood on the Sabbath day. The Lord had Moses and the Israelites stone him to death for his lack of faith. (Numbers 15:32-36) Why was God so serious about this commandment? Because the Sabbath was to serve as a weekly object lesson that his relationship with people never was and never could be based on anything they do. Instead, it was based solely on what he had done and would do for them. Every Sabbath was a silent sermon in which God was declaring: “Do nothing as a reminder that I made you, I will preserve you, and I will save you. Do nothing but trust my promises!”

 

But what does the Third Commandment have to do with us, NT Christians? Maybe you’ve noticed that we don’t rest – or even gather for worship – on Saturdays anymore. Should the church council line us up in the parking lot and throw stones at us? No. The New Testament makes it clear that we are no longer under the ceremonial part of God’s Law – the part that mandated when and how the Israelites were to worship. Paul wrote to the Colossians: therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)

 

And now we have the ultimate purpose behind the 3rd commandment, don’t we? The ultimate purpose was not just to give the Israelites a day of rest for their bodies; it was to give them time every week to ponder how their God would one day give them perfect rest, both for their bodies and their souls. That perfect rest would come through Christ. The other reason we work so hard and so long without rest – and without taking time to hear and read God’s Word – is not only that we lack faith that God will provide, it’s that deep down inside we can’t get rid of the notion that we must do something to earn God’s mercy, forgiveness or love – that somehow our eternity depends on what we do. At the end of each long, exhausting work day, part of me – and I’m guessing part of you – wants to be able to look at God and say: “Did you see that, God? Did you see how hard I worked, how diligent I was, how much I accomplished? Did you catch that God? Aren’t you pleased? Haven’t I earned your favor?”

 

While this commandment no longer mandates that we do nothing but worship on Saturdays, God still does use this commandment to guard the time we need to rest in his Word; the time we need to gladly hear and learn God’s two most important truths: 1) That if our eternity is based on our work – we are going to hear “You’re fired” – in more ways than one – on the Last Day. Why? Because our work is never good enough. We don’t give our employers the perfect respect they deserve, we are never honest or diligent enough, we never finish all our tasks and we do nothing flawlessly. Therefore, on the Sabbath day – whatever day we celebrate it – we hear the Law. It tells us that left to ourselves we would be damned to spend all eternity in the fires of hell – where there is no rest. (Revelation 14:11) A terrifying thought that drives us to repentance and leads us to the second truth: 2) that by God’s grace, our eternity does not depend on our work ethic or diligence, it depends completely on Jesus. Jesus, who worked in his human father’s shop during the week, but never, ever missed a service at the synagogue. (Luke 4:16) Jesus, who never doubted his Father’s loving care – perhaps most clearly evidenced by his sound sleep in a boat on the storm tossed Sea of Galilee. (Matthew 8:23-27) Jesus, whose work of sharing the Gospel was the most important job ever given – but who also took regular time to rest, to be alone with his Father in prayer. Jesus, whose life of perfectly balanced labor and rest covers our lives like a blanket. Jesus, who willingly undertook the back-breaking labor of carrying our sins to the cross, suffered the hellish punishment they deserved, declared once and for all that the hard work of salvation was completely and utterly finished – and then, bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30) Do you remember what Jesus did after that, on the Sabbath? He rested. And on the third day he rose again as proof and a pledge that God has prepared an eternal Sabbath rest for us in heaven – which, incidentally is why for centuries Christians have set aside Sunday for worship.

 

Guarding the time necessary to rest and consider all that our perfect Laborer did for us is what the writer to the Hebrews was driving at: there remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:9-11) Let us make every effort to enter that rest…did Martin Luther have that admonition in mind when he wrote his explanation to the Third Commandment? We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy, and gladly hear and learn it. We can’t say for sure. But it certainly helps us understand why Luther would connect the Sabbath day with hearing God’s Word. It’s through the Word – and the Word alone, that we receive rest for our souls – because in the Word we are told repeatedly that because Jesus has done it all; there’s nothing left for us to do for salvation.

 

So should we rewrite the Third Commandment to read: “Be in church every week”? The truth is that you can come to church every Sunday and still be guilty of despising God’s Word. If we revert to viewing church attendance as primarily something we do for God, then we are again trying to earn God’s favor and worship will always be a burden. If we hear the Word of God but fail to put it into practice, James says that we are as foolish as a man who looks at his face in the mirror and then after walking away forgets what he looks like. (James 1:22-25) If we demand to have our egos pumped up or our ears tickled with the latest, greatest manmade doctrines, then we are despising the one thing that God promises will give true rest to our souls: his Word. In the end, this commandment is primarily aimed at our sinful nature, which will need to be beat over the head with the command to remember the Sabbath day until the day we die. Our new man on the other hand, craves every opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his Word for the new man knows and believes the Savior’s gracious invitation: come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-29) God did not write the Third Commandment to burden us; he gave it to guard the precious rest he wants us to have now and eternally.

 

Although God meant for the Third Commandment to be a blessing to his Old Testament people, they rarely kept it. When they did, it was often only out of a sense of duty. It’s easy for us to fall into that same trap and imagine that we’re too busy accomplishing the important tasks of life to take the time to listen to and meditate on God’s Word. But what we’re really saying is that we’re too busy to rest in God’s grace and love. Slow down. Take a break. Open your Bible. Not just because it gives your body a bit of the rest it needs – let’s not kid ourselves, 60 minutes isn’t going to do the trick; but because the forgiveness of sins, peace, and promise of eternal life Jesus dispenses here gives your soul the rest it so desperately needs. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/tanyamohn/2013/08/13/paid-time-off-forget-about-it-a-report-looks-at-how-the-u-s-compares-to-other-countries/#14bf1f6d6f65

[2] https://www.projecttimeoff.com/news/press-releases/americans-waste-record-setting-658-million-vacation-days

Exodus 20:1-2, 7 - You Shall Not Misuse the Name of the Lord Your God - July 9, 2017

Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of running into someone so unbelievably rude that they had the guts, the nerve, the audacity to mispronounce your name? I’m sure we all have. And, while we can probably shrug that off pretty easily, it’s a different story when someone misuses your name. When someone slanders your name or says you did something you didn’t or calls you a liar or a cheat or unfriendly or boring or lazy – that can quickly make your blood boil. But consider this: sometimes, those descriptions are accurate. I have lied, been lazy, unfriendly, boring (you may think so right now), and foolish – and you have been too. We may get angry when people slander our reputations, but if we’re honest, we must admit that at least sometimes, they’re right. Contrast that with God – whose very essence is holiness, wisdom and love; who never has done and never can do anything wrong or evil. How should God feel when people slander and abuse and misuse his name? That’s what the 2nd commandment is all about. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; God’s name is sacred, because God’s name saves.

 

First, we have to define what God’s name is. Sometimes we think of God’s name as no more than labels or titles. In fact, I bet many of us as children believed that Christ was Jesus’ last name. But God’s names are more than simply labels, they are the way God reveals himself to us, shows us his will and love – who, on our own would never be able to fathom or imagine the one, true God. For example, when God calls himself almighty (Genesis 17:1) he’s telling us that he can do anything. I AM (Exodus 3:14) reveals that God is timeless and changeless. Christ (Luke 4:18) is not Jesus’ last name, it describes his office, it tells us what he came to do, that he was anointed as our substitute to live and die for us. If we were to list all of the names God uses to reveal himself to us, I would need more than two pages for this sermon. And if we were to take the time to explain what each of them means, we would need a book as big as…well, the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the best definition of God’s name. The Bible is God’s name because the Bible is where God reveals himself, his heart, his reputation, and his work to us. If this were confirmation class, I would say that reading the Bible is like browsing God’s Facebook page. But’s there’s one big difference. Unlike most Facebook pages, which are designed to bring popularity and praise to the user, God has revealed his name and reputation and work to us in the Bible, not for his good, but for ours. God told Moses shortly after giving him the Ten Commandments: wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. (Exodus 20:24b) God gives us his name to bless and save us – which is why he’s so serious about protecting it and making sure that we don’t misuse it.

 

So how is God’s name misused? Luther explains: we should fear and love God that we do not use his name to curse, swear, lie or deceive or use witchcraft. (SC 1)

 

1) Cursing. Cursing means to ask God to damn someone or something to hell. Immediately, we might think, yes, we should never do this. But there are times when cursing is proper. Jesus himself says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) Every time the law is preached faithfully, it will declare that those who disobey will be damned. But God alone sets the standard for damnation, we don’t ever have that right. So when we smash our thumb with a hammer and shout “God damn it”, or worse, shout the same at a driver who cuts us off – asking God to send that hammer and that driver to hell – that is a reckless misuse of God’s name. A sin against the 2nd Commandment.

 

2) Swearing. Swearing means calling upon God as our witness. Once again, swearing is fitting when we call upon God to witness our confirmation or marriage vows or that we are telling the truth in court. But to swear to God that the pizza we had last night is the best pizza in the world is a sin that earns us God’s wrath. James writes: above all, my brothers, do not swear…let your “yes” be yes, and your “no,” no, or you will be condemned. (James 5:12)

 

3) To lie. (General lying is covered under the 8th commandment.) But to use God’s name to lie means to use God’s name to cover up false doctrine – to say “God said!” when God hasn’t said it. This could be a sermon by itself. You’ve heard people say that God hates the sin not the sinner? That’s a lie, see Psalm 5. You’ve heard people say that God promises wealth, health, prosperity and happiness to true believers? More lies, look at the life of Job, or even Jesus. Maybe you’ve heard pastors or churches create rules and traditions that God has not given? You heard Jesus’ response in Matthew 15: Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. (Matthew 15:6, 9) We’re not simply being petty when we insist on pure doctrine. Every false doctrine is an assault on God’s name – the only name that can save sinners.

 

4) To deceive. Jesus exposed this sin when he said to the Pharisees in our Gospel lesson: you hypocrites! Isaiah was write when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:7) Do we show up on Sunday because we think it sanctifies six days of godless living? Do we confess our sins fully planning on going right back to the same old sins? That’s deceiving by God’s name – and even though we may be able to fool the people around us, the warning stands: God cannot be mocked. (Galatians 6:7)

 

5) Witchcraft. This word may seem to us like a throwback to the dark ages or third world countries; a word we link to ignorance or incivility. But the Bible teaches that dark powers are real. Much of today’s entertainment – movies, books, video and board games – have superstitious and Satanic undercurrents. Even seemingly harmless superhero movies can lead the immature, and especially children, to trust in powers other than God for help and guidance. One thing is certain, Satan will stop at nothing to gain control of our hearts and minds. And if our eyes and ears and hearts and minds are not filled with God’s truth, Satan will find a way to fill that vacuum with his empty lies and deceits.

 

Luther was especially masterful though, in how he saw not only a negative side to the 2nd commandment, but also a positive side - how we should use it, how we can keep it sacred. He writes that we should call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and gives thanks. (Pop quiz: law or gospel? Do = law.) And so, even though this is the positive side of the 2nd commandment, it may just be the way we, as Christians, break it most often. That statement demands proof, doesn’t it? Well, the last time your car broke down or the doctor’s test was positive or you found yourself struggling to pay the bills, what did you do? If you didn’t call upon God first, you broke this commandment. Or, take the Lord’s Prayer. How many times has your mind been on the weather or lunch or the person sitting in front of you as you thoughtlessly mumble “Our Father, who art in heaven…”? How often have we given the credit for the good things that happen in our lives to a lucky break or our own hard work rather than God? How many shopping trips have ended without a prayer of thanks to our One who gave us the means to provide for ourselves?

 

In dealing with sins against both the positive and negative aspects of the 2nd commandment, there’s a great danger for us to think that breaking this commandment isn’t as bad as committing murder or adultery. Satan and our world tempt us to think: “What’s the big deal? It’s just a name. Doctrine? That’s just words. Deeds are more important than creeds anyway.” Does God care if our mind wanders a little as we are speaking to him in prayer? Does God care if we use his name as an exclamation point or as a way to express our outrage? Does God really care if preachers and teachers take a religious liberty with his Word – after all it seems like more people would come to our church if pastor would talk a little less about sin and hell and the cross and a little more about wealth and health and prosperity? Does God take his name seriously or is it just a polite request – like one of us correcting someone’s pronunciation of our name? Think about how quickly your blood boils when someone slanders your reputation – see how firmly Jesus rebukes the false teaching of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-9) or see how the Holy Spirit struck Ananias and Sapphira dead on the spot when they used God’s name to cover up their deceptive hearts (Acts 5:1-11) – and you get some idea of how God feels about the misuse of his name. God doesn’t just threaten to punish those who misuse his name; he promises it: the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. All of which proves that under the unyielding demands of the 2nd commandment we are worse than just lazy, unfriendly, fools – we are lawless sinners who deserve to be damned for our misuse of God’s name and failure to use it properly.

 

But – here’s the good news – the same God who gave us this commandment also sent his Son to keep it. When we think of what Jesus did to save us from our sins, we usually think of his suffering and death on the cross; his passive obedience. Just as important, however, is Jesus’ active obedience, his active keeping of God’s law. Whenever the guilt of misusing or not using or abusing God’s Name and God’s Word creeps into your heart, take some time to read through the Gospels to see how Jesus used God’s name – and do it remembering that he is the Christ, the one anointed to be your substitute. When Jesus was tired or stressed or oppressed, he didn’t vent his anger or call down curses – he poured out his heart to his Father in prayer (no fewer than 25 times). Whether Jesus sat down for a meal with 5000 people or to eat his last supper with his disciples, he never failed to thank God for his food. And, when Jesus was bowed and bleeding on the cross he cried out my God, my God have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34) not as a curse, but as a plea for help and relief. Only, for him, no help came because God decided to punish Jesus for all of our sins against the 2nd Commandment. And then, at the very end, he entrusted his soul to his heavenly Father – with unwavering trust that God’s will was best – even though God’s will was for him to die. God gave us his 2nd commandment not just to condemn us and lead us to repentance, but to point us to Jesus, who not only paid the penalty for our sins, but also prayed and worshiped and spoke in perfect obedience to this commandment. Jesus took the ugly name we had earned with our lips: damned sinners – and made it his own; so that the blessed name he had earned from his Father’s lips: beloved children of God – could be ours. And the only way you or I or anyone could ever know this good news is because God has chosen to reveal it to us in the pages of Scripture – can there be any better reason for us to want to keep his name, his reputation, and his Word sacred?

 

You astute students of Scripture know that we haven’t exhausted the explanation of the 2nd Commandment. But I pray you do see what a great blessing it is that God has given us his name – and uses this commandment to protect it. Don’t misuse God’s name – but don’t fail to use it either. Call upon him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Keep God’s name sacred, because by it you are saved. Amen.

 

Exodus 20:1-5a - You Shall Have No Other Gods - July 2, 2017

Independence Day calls to mind the many blessings we have as Americans. Maybe the most cherished of which is freedom. We are free to speak our minds, free to gather, free to worship, free to decide where to go to school, where to live, whom to marry, free to bear arms etc. Freedom from the tyranny of the British king and his taxation without representation was what our founding fathers fought and died for. But our forefathers were wise enough to realize something else in their fight for independence – that freedom cannot exist all alone. Freedom can only exist in a place where there are laws and authorities in place to protect that freedom. So that, while the Declaration of Independence declared freedom from British rule – the Constitution, with its principles, establishment of government, provisions for laws and law enforcement protects and preserves those freedoms. Human nature – because it is infected with sin – will always ruin absolute freedom, so that freedom must be limited by law. As we study the Ten Commandments, we will see that the same is true in the spiritual realm. Our sinful nature prohibits absolute freedom because by nature we are totally self-centered, hostile to God and one another. Which is why even though God wants us to see that obedience to his commands is the path of freedom in life (James 1:25), it doesn’t always feel that way because they restrict and curb our sinful human desires. We see that in the 1st commandment where God protects his crown and by doing so, protects our crown of salvation.  

 

And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Why is this commandment necessary? Why should God – who bought Israel with the blood of thousands of lambs and bought the world with the blood of the Lamb – have to give this command? Who would be so bold as to challenge God’s claim to the crown – after he had destroyed the world in a flood, shredded Egypt’s land and people with the plagues, parted the waters of the Red Sea with a word, and descended on Mt. Sinai in lightning and thunder? The entire ancient world, for one. Polytheism – the worship of many gods – was not the exception but the rule in Moses’ day. Israel’s Egyptian overlords worshipped no fewer than 40 different gods, gods fashioned in the image of man and beast and sometimes combinations of both. There were sun gods and moon gods, gods that looked like crocodiles and cats, gods who allegedly controlled the wind and the Nile and fertility. Polytheism continued to flourish under the influence of the Greeks and Romans in the days of the NT. The gods and goddesses of the Greeks and Romans were strikingly similar to the rich and famous of today – they were larger than life, but with very human flaws and weaknesses. Paul warned the Corinthians that all of these gods and goddesses were nothing less than demonic creations of men. (1 Corinthians 10:18-22)

 

Nor is polytheism a relic of history. As always, some of these idols are right out in the open. Hinduism with its numerous gods and goddesses, the mystic spiritualism of native tribes that deify nature, ancestors and animals, Mormonism and the Eastern religions which teach that we can all become gods are modern forms of polytheistic idolatry. But some idolatries are hidden and therefore, more seductive, even for Christians. Lodges, like the Masons and organizations like the Boy Scouts – demand allegiance to a nameless, faceless, moralistic deity – which is why membership in those organizations is incompatible with the Christian faith. Sadly, in many American churches the God and Christ proclaimed is whoever you want him to be. So that if you want a female, social justice warrior, tree-hugging, gay-approving, morally relativistic, hip Jesus who only wants you to be happy – you can have it your way. And there are still others that are so engrained into society that we might not even notice them. Secular schools are filled with disciples who study at the feet of the gods of Reason and Science. The business world bows down to Money. Social media has elevated Popularity and Peer Approval to divine status. And millions of people regularly present huge offerings of time, effort and energy on the altar of Sports.

 

In a society filled with false gods; in a religious atmosphere that fosters Burger King’s concept of god (the have it your way god) we, who have just confessed the Bible’s truth in the words of the Nicene Creed, know better. We know that you shall have no other gods means exactly what it says. God claims a monopoly on our hearts – not only as number one, but as the only one. To fear, love, and trust any other god or any other thing on heaven or earth is idolatry punishable with death and hell. Anyone who claims otherwise is not a Christian and will not be saved. Period. We’re comfortable with that little Catechism lesson, aren’t we? If our presence in God’s house is evidence that faith in the true God is beating in our hearts – then the first commandment sounds to us like a call to arms, summoning us to stand firm against the waves of false gods that are crashing onto the modern cultural landscape.

 

But then there is the uncomfortable reminder from Paul that the law is spiritual (Romans 7:14). The first commandment not only forbids us to have a Hindu shrine in a spare bedroom and shows us why the Boy Scouts is an idolatrous organization – it forbids us to rob God of the fear, love, and trust that rightfully belong to him. Luther’s definition takes aim at the central issue: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. [1] In other words, the heart of the matter is the heart. We can confess the Nicene Creed with our lips, but if we aren’t looking to the God described there both for every good thing and in every time of trouble we are just as guilty of idolatry as the atheist or the Muslim. God puts up with an awful lot in the hearts of his creatures – but second place is not one of them.

 

That’s what Jesus taught the rich young man today, wasn’t it? By showing him that because he was unwilling to give up his wealth he hadn’t even kept the 1st commandment, Jesus shattered that young man’s smug self-confidence. But Jesus’ lesson was broader than just a warning against idolizing wealth. The disciples – not always noted for being quick to catch on – actually caught on for once. When Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24) the disciples – who were not rich by any means – threw up their hands and said who then can be saved? (Matthew 19:25) In exposing the rich man’s sin, he had exposed the disciples’ as well. They realized they were still trusting something other than God for salvation and so they were ashamed, shocked, guilty, convicted – and so they repented. Does this lesson bring us to repentance, or have we constructed walls in our hearts, no-trespassing zones where we don’t want God or his spokesmen to go; certain things that we don’t want to be exposed or discussed? Whatever it is – money, sexual desires, ambition, popularity, convenience, priorities, drinking habits, the church of the holy mattress on Sunday mornings, siding with family and friends when they live in defiance of God’s Word, how we raise our kids or spend our time, science or reason or beauty or pleasure – whatever it is – if we do not submit any of these things to God’s command and direction, if we are unwilling to abandon them for God’s sake, then they have become the gods of our hearts and lives. The 1st commandment still thunders: you shall have no other gods!

 

Why is idolatry – whether its out in the open or hidden in our hearts – so foolish and dangerous? Because the nature of idolatry is to lead us away from God and lead us to hell. Isaiah painted the idols Israel – and we worship – as they truly are. He pictured them as helpless and worthless – gods that have to be carried on carts like a child pulling a teddy-bear in a wagon; gods that had to be nailed down so they don’t fall over; gods that you pull out of your wallet and then bow down to worship. (Isaiah 44-46) And not only are idols empty and lifeless – they are unrelenting slave masters. They demand more of us than we can give. They are deaf to our cries for help. They promise us peace and happiness but never follow through. When death comes, they leave us to rot.

 

Who then can be saved? With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26) For the people of Israel, the people of Isaiah’s day, for Jesus’ first disciples and for us, it’s an unparalleled comfort to know that the true God doesn’t need to be carried – that instead he’s the one who carries us. He carries us even when our bones creak and our hair grays and our lives fall apart, he helps us when all other helpers fail. The true God is the only God who is not a burden to believe in or follow because he’s the God who bears our burdens for us – to the point of sending his own Son to bear the burden of our sins against this and every commandment on the cross.

 

So the voice that thunders from Mt. Sinai you shall have no other gods, is not only protecting his crown with this commandment, he’s protecting our crown of salvation. His demand that we never allow wealth or wisdom or pleasure take his throne in our hearts is not motivated by a petty sense of pride – as if the Creator and Judge of the universe is worried about losing his job. No, you shall have no other gods because there is no other God; no other God who really is looking out for your best interest, no other God who gave himself to us before inviting us to give ourselves to him, no other God who loved you before you were born, no other God who will always answer when you call for help, no other God who promised salvation for sinners and then became a man, lived a perfectly obedient life in your place, suffered and died on a cross to get it done. You can look far and wide and you will never find a God who has done all that for you – except here, in the Bible, in Christ and his cross. Protect God’s crown, his rule in your heart – because you know and believe that the One who gives this command has given everything to win and protect the crown of your salvation.

 

While the 4th of July is a great opportunity for us to give thanks for the many freedoms we have and cherish – maybe this year we can give thanks for the constitution, the laws, the authorities that protect and preserve those freedoms. More importantly, today, let us hear and heed God’s first and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods, because we recognize that the One who demands that we submit everyone and everything in our hearts and lives to his crown has already sacrificed his one and only Son to win and protect the crown of our salvation. This God, and this God alone, is worthy of our fear, love, and trust because there is no other God and there is no other Savior. Amen.

 

[1] LC p 18

Numbers 6:22-27 - God's Blessing Leaves You Lacking Nothing - June 11, 2017

Think about the occasions in life when you speak and you must – more than usual – mean what you say. When you were confirmed, you vowed before God and man to “reject the devil along with all his lies and empty promises” and “to continue steadfast in this teaching and to endure all things, even death, rather than fall away from it.” If you are married, you again stood before God and man and promised “to be faithful [to your spouse] as long as [you] both shall live.” If you’ve been asked to testify in court, you swore to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” There are certain moments in life when we want everyone to know that we mean what we are saying. There’s a problem though. Whenever we, as sinful humans, make a promise or take an oath or swear to tell the truth, whenever we speak – there’s always something lacking. Raise your hand if you’ve never doubted or wavered in your faith since you vowed to endure all things for the sake of Christ. Raise your hand if you’ve never been unfaithful to your spouse in thought, word or deed. Raise your hand if you believe you can ever really know the WHOLE truth. No matter how sincere we are when we speak, we are always lacking; lacking steadfastness, commitment, knowledge or information or will or ability. In the end, our words are always lacking because we are weak, sinful human beings. But today we will see that when God speaks, he always has the power to do what he says. And when God gives you his blessing, he leaves you lacking nothing.  

 

I.                    The Father’s Providence

 

The words before us this morning are very familiar. In the course of the church year, you will hear these words dozens of times; with the result many of you have heard them hundreds of times, and a few of you have heard them thousands of times. There’s a danger in this familiarity though, isn’t there? The danger is that we might start to believe that these are just words; just words that mark the end of church; just words to make us feel good as we leave God’s house. The law for today is this: if you have ever taken these words for granted or have found your mind wandering as these words are spoken or have left with this blessing but then allowed the worries and distractions of life cause you to forget them: repent. Repent for treating the blessing of the triune God as nothing more than words. Repent for failing to recognize that these words are God’s promise to you, his guarantee, his contract that he signs with his own name. Repent and be forgiven so that you may always treasure the incredible gift God gives you as you leave his house.

 

God first gave these words to Moses and Aaron around 1500 BC as Israel was preparing to set out from Mt. Sinai for the Promised Land. At God’s command, Aaron and his sons were to speak this blessing over Israel every morning and every evening. For more than 3500 years God’s servants have placed his name on his children by repeating these words. Even though I have spoken these words countless times, I noticed something for the first time as I was studying them this past week. This blessing alludes to and spells out the work of each person of the Trinity. Not just in the threefold repetition of the name LORD, but in the unique and specific blessings each part contains. The Israelites would not have seen this clearly, they were still looking forward to the full revelation of God in the person of the Messiah – but as NT Christians who have the full revelation of God in Jesus, we can see clearly how this blessing is a shadow of what God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have each done for our salvation.  

 

The LORD bless you and keep you. In the OT the word “bless” means to endow – to actually give – someone something. It’s more than a good intention; it’s God the Father’s good intention in action. We see an example of this in Genesis 1:28 where God blessed [Adam and Eve] and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and birds of the air and over every living creature.” God blessed them – and what happened? They were fruitful – today their descendants cover the earth. They ruled over creation – and today we have more food than we can eat. The point is this. When God speaks, it’s not just a pious wish. His Word carries the power to do what he says. Maybe this is more striking when you consider the opposite: God’s curse. In Genesis 3, God cursed the ground – and even now our gardens are filled with thorns and thistles. (Genesis 3:17-19) In Genesis 19, God cursed Sodom and Gomorrah and to this day all that remains of them is scorched earth. (Genesis 19) When God speaks, things happen. When God promises to bless you, he is promising to provide everything you need for life – your talents, your abilities, your health, your home and job and family are the result of this blessing. But the Father doesn’t only provide for you, he also protects you. His promise to keep you means that he will watch over you every day of your life. Everything you are and have, your past, present, and future are in your Father’s hands – and he promises to use every moment of it – the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, life and death – for your eternal good. (Romans 8:28) God’s blessing leaves you lacking nothing and the Father’s special work is that he will provide for you and protect you. We call this his loving, undeserved Providence. Let us thank the Father for his provision and protection by confessing our faith…

 

II.                  The Son’s Grace

 

I’m willing to bet that among the many pieces of mail you receive every week are at least a few requests for a donation of time or money. When you receive that request, see that there are people in need and decide to help them – that’s called charity. That thought of helping someone in need comes out in part two of the Aaronic blessing. The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The first question is: what is God’s face? This is called an anthropomorphism – that is, giving God – who is spirit (John 4:24) – a human attribute. When you turn your face toward someone or something, you are giving it your attention. And that’s the point here. Even though our sins have separated us from God and prevent us from coming into his presence (Isaiah 59:2) he turns his attention to us. His gracious attention. When you hear the word grace you think: undeserved love. But the Hebrew uses a different word meaning “to grant a favor” or “help someone in need” [1] - much like you do when you send a gift to a charity.

How did the LORD most clearly demonstrate that we have his attention and help in our need? Here’s one place the classic Sunday school answer – Jesus – is the right answer. We needed something and he provided it. We needed the forgiveness of sins; we needed someone to save us from the fire of hell; we needed a perfect life to cover our own imperfect lives. We needed help, and Jesus was the only one who could give us what we need. When the virgin Mary conceived and gave birth to a baby boy that night long ago in Bethlehem (Luke 2:6-7), God made his face shine on the world. And as that baby boy grew and learned and taught and healed and lived and loved – all in perfect obedience to his Father’s will, Jesus was weaving together the robe of perfect righteousness that covers all our unrighteousness. And when that grown man climbed Calvary and surrendered himself to the worst punishment that God and man could dish out, we see how the Son of God paid the price for our sins with his blood. We were in need, we are still in need, and so as we leave God’s house the Son assures us that he came and lived and died and rose again as proof that God’s attention and favor are ours.

 

Too often when people think about receiving blessings from God they are only thinking of earthly, material blessings – our prayers tend to focus on 1st Article blessings. But when you set the first two parts of this blessing side-by-side, an interesting thing happens: you realize that the Father’s material blessings would be worthless apart from the spiritual blessings Jesus won for us. A steady income is a wonderful blessing, but no amount of work can earn the righteousness God demands from us. But Jesus can. Jesus provided for our lack of righteousness by living a flawless life under God’s law as our substitute. A roof over our heads is a wonderful blessing; but it cannot shelter us from God’s wrath over our sin. But Jesus can. Because Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath his blood shelters us from God’s judgment. It’s certainly a blessing to live in a country where we can speak and worship freely, but neither the constitution nor the military can free us from death’s prison. But Jesus can. Jesus robbed death of its sting when he burst out of his three-day prison and rose from the dead. When God blesses you, he leaves you lacking nothing; and the unique work of the Son is to give you grace – his undeserved love and attention that frees us from the eternal consequences of our sin. Let us thank him for his grace by confessing our faith…

 

III.               The Spirit’s Peace

 

You know how whenever there’s a terror attack or a natural disaster or a political scandal, people always react with shock and surprise – as if these things never happen in our world? It’s almost as if people assume that peace is the normal status quo in this world. You don’t have to be a student of history to recognize that this is not the case. Peace is not the norm, war, unrest, violence, terror is. If we have peace in our world and in our personal lives, we should never take it for granted, because it is a rare and precious gift.

 

Given the way many people glide through life without ever giving a thought to God or repentance or forgiveness or judgment or eternity – you might get the impression that we are simply born into a peaceful relationship with God. In the balance, this is a far more dangerous misunderstanding. Peace is not our natural relationship to God; by nature we are God’s enemies who are in open rebellion against him and his Word. (Romans 8:7-8) That’s why it’s so important to appreciate that in the last part of his blessing, God promises us the opposite of what we have earned and deserve; he promises us peace. The LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace. Our world has a twisted understanding of peace. To the world, peace is having enough money in the bank to pay the bills; peace is having a family that always gets along; peace is absence of crime and war; peace is looking on the outside the way you feel inside. The dirty little secret is that you can have all those things – and still not have peace. True peace, the peace that Jesus died to win for you is the peace of forgiveness, the peace of a clean conscience and a heart free from guilt, the peace of knowing that this screwed up planet is not your real home – true peace is peace with God.

 

Jesus created true peace between you and God once and for all when he took the guilt of your sins away by his death, but the Holy Spirit is the delivery man. He first delivered this peace to you when you were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. On that day, the Holy Spirit converted you from God’s enemy into God’s child. As Paul writes in Galatians: you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. If you belong to Christ, then you are…heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29) But the Holy Spirit’s work didn’t end there at the baptismal font. Daily and weekly the Spirit delivers God’s peace to you – in the words of absolution, in the body and blood of Jesus you receive in the Sacrament, in your own personal mediation on the Word of God – wherever and whenever the message of forgiveness in Christ is taught or offered or read, the Holy Spirit is delivering God’s peace to your heart – even and especially when your life is anything but peaceful. God’s blessing leaves you lacking nothing; and the Spirit’s special work is to deliver true peace; God’s peace, the peace Jesus earned, to you through simple human servants and the simple means of grace – the Gospel in Word and sacrament.

 

How can we respond to our God’s blessing of providence, grace, and peace? Before we close with Luther’s explanation of the third article I want you to take something to heart. While today we take the time to repeat back to God exactly what God has promised us, most Sundays we respond by simply saying or singing “amen,” a Hebrew word meaning “Yes, it shall be so.” Every Sunday, and every day for that matter, God promises to give you everything, leaving you lacking nothing, and what does he want in return? Only faith that believes and receives his promises. So whenever you hear this blessing, trust that God will provide anything and everything you need, so that you can sing and speak and live with the conviction that: “Yes, it shall be so.” Amen.

 

[1] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, p 302

John 16:5-11 - The Holy Spirit: Defender of Truth - June 4, 2017

Every day we hear news reports about people who have been arrested and charged and are then brought to trial to answer for their crimes. Occasionally you will hear about someone who is so convinced of their innocence and intelligence that they don’t request representation by an attorney – instead they will represent themselves. In legal circles, a proverbial story provides a cautionary tale about one person who tried to do just that. This person arrived at the courtroom and informed the judge that he would be representing himself. To this the judge replied: “May I warn you, sir, that the man who defends himself has a fool for a lawyer.” This proverb has always been true, maybe today – with the complexities of our legal system and the countless ways in which the truth can be bent or distorted or ignored – more than ever. When it comes to the law, you really need an objective, unemotional expert on your side to properly defend you.

 

In a way, Christians are on trial their entire lives. They are tried and accused and tempted and abused by the unholy trinity of the world, the flesh and the devil. All of their lies and all of their abuse are intended to do one thing: destroy our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior. Jesus knew that left alone, we would not be able to defend ourselves, we would be lost and condemned just as certainly as that man who presumed to represent himself in court. That’s why when Jesus left, he didn’t leave us alone – he sent the Holy Spirit. There is a lot of confusion today about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. We hear various churches teaching and preaching about speaking in tongues, gifts of healing, or warm, fuzzy feelings in one’s heart. But this morning our Lord and Savior himself tells us about the person and work of the Holy Spirit – and he shows us that the third person of the Trinity does something far more important than cure arthritis or make your heart flutter – the Holy Spirit works through the Word to defend the truth about sin, righteousness, and judgment.

 

Jesus spoke these words in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday as he was preparing to be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and crucified. This was at least the fourth time Jesus told his disciples what was about to happen (Luke 9:22; 9:44; 18:32-33) but they still didn’t get it. They were so overwhelmed with the thought that Jesus was leaving them that they never thought to ask where are you going? That’s an important question to ask, isn’t it? Unless they understood why Jesus was leaving them and where he was going they would despair that their friend, teacher and Lord was leaving them alone. The disciples were too distraught to even ask the question. But Jesus wasn’t. And he knew they needed to know the truth more than they needed to wallow in self-pity. Because I have spoken these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I am telling you the truth. It is for your benefit that I go away, because if I don’t go away the Counselor will not come to you. If I go, I will send him to you. Jesus was leaving his disciples, but he wasn’t leaving them alone. He would send them the Holy Spirit to take his place as their Advocate, their Representative, their Counselor. How? When he comes, he will convict the world about sin, righteousness and judgment. In one sentence Jesus clears up a lot of confusion about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Does he come only to a select few members of the clergy? No. The prophet Joel made that clear. (Joel 2:28-29) Does he come in visions and dreams to tell us the future and heal our bodies and minds? No. He comes to convict. He comes to testify. He comes to defend the truth.

 

He will convict the world about sin…because they do not believe in me. As Lutherans, we have been trained to look to the 10 Commandments as the mirror which shows us our sins. (Romans 3:20) Why didn’t Jesus go that route? Why didn’t he say “because they do not obey the 10 Commandments”? Two reasons. The first should be fairly obvious. Is the difference between Christians and everyone else that Christians obey the Law and everyone else doesn’t? Really? No. The difference is not obedience vs disobedience; it’s faith vs. unbelief. The second reason is that humans are very skilled at distorting God’s Law. We can suppress the law God printed on our hearts through persistent disobedience, we can attempt to modify God’s law by redefining it according to today’s standards, we can try to justify our sin by blaming it on other people or genetics or mental illness; but the Holy Spirit shows us Jesus so that we see the truth about sin. Whenever we are tempted to think that God isn’t serious about his commands to have no other gods, to keep his name holy and to remember the Sabbath; we need to remember that Roman soldiers dragged a whip across Jesus’ back to punish him for our sins. Whenever we use these hands to greedily grab all we can for ourselves we need to see Jesus’ nail-pierced hands stretched out on the cross as poured out his blood for us. His agonized cry my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46) should ring in our ears whenever we justify our favorite sin with “it’s not hurting anyone” or “no one will find out” – because, the Holy Spirit reminds us that God did find out and he hurt Jesus for it. The world – we – can perform all sorts of moral gymnastics to escape the conviction of God’s law, but when we see Jesus we see that none of it worked. The Holy Spirit works to convict the world with the truth about sin: God is so serious about sin that he crucified his own Son to pay for it. Everyone has disobeyed God’s law; but it is faith in Christ’s cross that separates Christians today and will divide heaven and hell in eternity – as Jesus himself declares: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) The truth about sin is that you either believe Jesus paid for it on the cross or you will spend eternity in hell paying for them.

 

He will convict the world about righteousness. Whenever the world tries to minimize the severity of sin it simultaneously replaces God’s standard for righteousness with its own standard. Instead of simply telling you how the world does this today, I’m going to show you. (State Farm Commercial[1]) The world tries to deny the fact that we are all accountable to God, but it hasn’t completely succeeded – and this is the result. (I’m NOT saying these things are evil…Do not walk out of here saying that pastor hates strays, vets and dropouts.) The problem is not that these things aren’t good. It’s that they aren’t good enough. You could spend every minute of your life doing these things and it still wouldn’t get you into heaven. The Holy Spirit defends the truth that we are to be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) and the result: that no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law. (Romans 3:20)

Here’s the good news: I am going to the Father and you will no longer see me. Since we confess this truth every week in the Creed it may no longer have much impact on us to hear that Jesus returned to his Father’s side in heaven. But it should. Remember what God is like. Psalm 5 tells us: you are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. (Psalm 5:4-5) Jesus’ resurrection and ascension prove that he accomplished what no State Farm commercial could ever guilt us into doing: he satisfied God’s justice. As much as people think that it’s the Law that makes Christianity offensive, this Gospel is really what offends people. We want to believe that we can please God if we just try hard enough. And that’s why Jesus sent the Holy Spirit – to convince us from Scripture that the only righteousness that satisfies God and that will be allowed into his presence in heaven is Jesus’ righteousness. How does Jesus’ perfect record become ours? Paul tells us: a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17) The reason the Holy Spirit tells us that saving dogs and vets and dropouts is not going to save us – is not because he hates dogs and vets and dropouts – but so that we stop trusting our own goodness to save us (because it never will) and instead cling to Jesus and receive his righteousness as his free gift through faith. That’s the truth about righteousness.

 

He will convict the world…about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. Earlier in John Jesus called Satan the prince of this world (John 12:31) meaning that most of this world’s institutions, ideals and philosophies are under his influence. He rebelled against God and he leads the world to do the same. He tempts us to live our way, according to our wants, feelings and desires – instead of according to God’s holy will. And he defends it by lying about judgment. He has convinced many – sadly even many who call themselves Christian – that in the end everyone goes to heaven, or at least, that hell (if it’s real) is reserved only for the Jeffrey Dahmer’s and Adolf Hitler’s of the world. But the Holy Spirit testifies that this is a damnable lie – and the evidence is that Satan has already been judged. He has lost the war. His eternal fate in hell is sealed. What God vowed to Satan in the Garden of Eden: he will crush your head and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15) was accomplished by Christ on the cross. So that we can sing with Luther: this world’s prince may still, scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him. (CW 200:3) Satan has been defeated and damned to hell for all eternity and all who believe his lies will suffer the same fate. That’s a terrifying thought. But you don’t have to be afraid because Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to guard and keep you from Satan’s lies with the Gospel truth that because Jesus was condemned in your place there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) That’s the truth about judgment.

 

The Day of Pentecost may not be as big a celebration as Christmas and Easter, but the truth of Pentecost is just as important as our Savior’s birth and resurrection because Pentecost proves that we are not alone to defend ourselves in this world. If we were, we too would have “a fool for a lawyer.” But after Jesus completed our salvation he returned to his Father so he could send us the Holy Spirit – the Defender of Truth. He defends the truth about sin – that God is so serious about it that he crucified his own Son; about righteousness – that only Jesus has satisfied God’s demands and his righteousness is yours through faith; and about judgment – that the devil can lie and distort the truth; but the truth is that he has been judged and holds no power over those who have been covered in the blood of Christ. Thank God for the Holy Spirit and his work of defending the saving truth of Christ. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm-ZMB3kzaw

2 Corinthians 4:13-18 - Weigh Life on God's Scales - May 28, 2017

Since 1971, America has set aside the last Monday in May as a federal holiday to recognize and honor those who have given their lives in service to their nation. From Arlington National Cemetery to local graveyards throughout the country, the number of those who have paid the ultimate price to protect our lives and freedoms is staggering. (Estimates place the total at over 1.1 million.[1]) Which begs the question; why do people volunteer to serve in the armed forces, when they know full well that there is a very good chance that they might come home in a flag-draped casket? It’s naïve to think that every volunteer enters the military because of fierce patriotism and love of country – although there are many who do. In years past, many didn’t have a choice – they were drafted. There are others who join to take advantage of the GI Bill to pay for school, some volunteer because they desire the structure and discipline and purpose the military offers, and still others enlist simply because they don’t know what else to do. Whatever the motivation, every enlistee must weigh the long-term benefits against the short-term risks: college aid, structure, discipline, a regular paycheck against leaving behind family and friends and the real possibility of physical or psychological trauma or death. This morning Paul leads us to place more than just a career path in the scales to be weighed, he urges us to weigh our entire lives in God’s scales.

 

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is largely a defense of his ministry over and against some false ‘super-apostles.’ Apparently one of the accusations these false apostles leveled against Paul and his coworkers was that they couldn’t possibly be genuine servants of God because to all appearances, God had abandoned them. And to all appearances, they were right. Paul and his companions faced hardship everywhere they went. Later in the letter Paul lists the afflictions he faced; he had been stoned and imprisoned, shipwrecked three times, he experienced hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness and danger and death. (2 Corinthians 11:23-33) To all the world it seemed as if God was against, not with Paul. The Christians in Corinth were being tempted to turn away from the Gospel Paul had preached – a Gospel of cross and crown; to a false gospel that promised health and wealth and success right here and now.

 

The words before us are Paul’s defense of his Gospel ministry. He says: It is written: “I believed, therefore I have spoken.” With the same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak. Why would anyone follow and preach Christ when it often leads to hardship and suffering? Paul quotes the Psalm we sang earlier, Psalm 116. Paul didn’t preach Christ because it made life easy and enjoyable; he preached Christ because he believed the Gospel’s promises. That’s the first point we always need to remember as we face suffering for Jesus’ sake – God’s love and mercy are not found by sight – in our outward circumstances – but by faith in his promises. Paul was a living testimony to this; so are we. If someone walked into church this morning and looked around, what will they see? Fantastically wealthy, healthy, successful and happy people? Or people who are pressed on every hand by the anxieties of life, who suffer through poor health, financial struggles, family conflict and emotional trials? They may question what we’re doing here since following Christ doesn’t seem to offer many earthly, tangible benefits. And what would our answer be? You’re right! You have nailed the Christian faith on the head! The primary promise of the Gospel is not to give us earthly benefits now (although we can all testify that God has blessed us far beyond anything we deserve) but the certainty of forgiveness and peace with God now and life with him forever.    

 

We can be sure of this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. On the last Sunday in Easter, it’s fitting that Paul one more time centers our hope and faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Paul’s confidence and our confidence is not in what we see in our lives, but what Jesus did in his life. He was born in Bethlehem as our divine and human substitute. He grew in wisdom and stature before God and men. He obeyed God’s will perfectly in our place. He suffered rejection, temptation, hunger and loneliness – but he never doubted God’s love. And at the end of it he shouldered our sins; sins of doubt and complaining and discontent with what God gives us and how he leads us – and he carried it to the cross where he endured the cursed death and punishment of hell we deserved. What did it all mean? What impact does Jesus’ death have on us? On Memorial Day weekend, we find the answers to those questions in a tomb. Only unlike every other tomb on earth, this one is empty. The empty tomb proves that Jesus has earned the righteousness we lack before God, and gives it to us through faith. The empty tomb proclaims real peace that no human army has ever achieved: the end of the war between God and man. The empty tomb proves that because Jesus’ precious blood is covering our sin on the scales of God’s justice, we don’t have to fear anything because no hardship, no sickness, no financial distress – not even sin and death – can separate us from God’s love. The empty tomb gives us courage to face whatever life throws at us because we know that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will kick open our tombs and raise us to life, too!

 

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. Christians are sometimes characterized as being so doped up on religion that they are detached from reality. But Paul didn’t deny or ignore the ugly realities of life. He owned the fact that he experienced more pain than pleasure, received more hostility than praise, in following Christ he was content to shoulder the cross before receiving the crown. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12) Any form of Christianity that preaches glory and success here and now is not really Christianity. Any Christianity that does not confess with Paul that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22) is actually a religion of Satan.

 

We don’t have to look very far to find confirmation that Christians are wasting away, either, we only have to look in the mirror. We may not face starvation and nakedness like Paul did, but setting aside our first and best every week for God’s kingdom while balancing the mortgage payment, education expenses, food, childcare, retirement – all while fighting against the sins of worry and greed – is a lifelong battle. God has not called us to risk our lives traveling the world to preach Christ, but he has called us; he has called us to be children and parents, spouses and employees, friends and neighbors, church members and citizens; and every one of those callings demands sacrifice in one way or another, it demands that we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Jesus. We may not be whipped or stoned for our faith, but we do live in a society that mocks our faith, with coworkers and friends who distort our faith, family members who have drifted from faith, and Satan plants doubts in our own hearts about our faith. God has not given us a definite thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) to keep us humble, but when, like Hannah, our bodies don’t work as God intended, when we have to carry around a bottle of oxygen, when bikes and fishing poles are replaced by canes and walkers, when we visit the pharmacy as regularly as the grocery store, when we need glasses and contacts just to be able to see, hearing aids so we can hear, crowns and dentures to be able to eat we are humbled because we see that we are wasting away. Satan loves to pile those hardships on the scale and point to the aches and pains and stresses and sorrows and lead us to think: “God doesn’t care about you, he’s abandoned you; just give up, it’s not worth it.” But when those temptations come – and they will come – don’t deny the reality of hardship, embrace it like Paul did. Embrace it by throwing away the scale that our world uses to measure life – the scale that measures everything by what we can see, by how much we have or how much we have lost – and measure your life on the only truly accurate set of scales – God’s set.

 

Yes, outwardly you are wasting away – but inwardly [you] are being renewed day by day. How? That butterfly on the banner didn’t begin life looking light and beautiful. It started out as an ugly, hairy caterpillar that one day crawled into a cocoon and to all appearances died. Paul says the same is true of believers. When the signs of age begin to appear in our bodies and minds, it becomes clear that the threat of the Law is real, that the soul who sins is the one who will die. (Ezekiel 18:20) Because we sin, we will die; the only question is when. These bodies belong to a world that is infected with the terminal disease of sin. Our only hope is in God’s promise to renew us through the resurrection. In a very real way, this lifetime is preparation for eternal life. And that truth gives us the right perspective. It keeps us from falling for the world’s lie that we can achieve immorality for ourselves in the sense that given enough time, money, and ingenuity we can conquer any disease and even death. If we fall for that lie, we will find our lives and our faith tied to this body and this world. But when this body breaks down, we are forced to run back to God, to trust his promises, to commit ourselves to his care. That’s how, even as our bodies waste away, our real life, our faith is renewed and restored day by day.

 

Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. (Not that trouble earns us eternal glory, but that God uses trouble like a knife to cut one cord after another that holds us to this earth and its glory.) Just as those who join the military have determined that the benefits outweigh the risks, so Paul says that on God’s scales, the scales that weigh life not in terms of momentary pain and pleasure but in terms of eternity, the troubles we experience now cannot even compare to the glory that awaits us. What are 70 or 80 or 90 years of pain and disappointment in this world compared with thousands upon thousands of years in heaven where [God himself] will wipe every tear from [your] eyes [and] there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away? (Revelation 21:4)

 

And so, with Paul we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. It really is all about Easter. It’s all about believing that Jesus died but God raised him to life. It’s about focusing not on the hardship we see, but on the tomb where we don’t see Jesus’ living body and our tomb which God will empty one day. When you look at life from that eternal perspective, you can see how God uses trouble now to prepare you for eternal glory.

 

So as you weigh the purpose and meaning and direction of your life – make sure you’re using the right set of scales. The hardships may seem to outweigh the pleasant times in life – don’t deny it, embrace it; because that puts you on the same path that countless believers – including Paul and Christ himself – walked before you. Weigh life on God’s scales and you will see that our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So our prayer is not only “Lord, take away my troubles,” but “Lord, take me away from this troubled world.” And come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.  

 

[1] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/many-americans-died-u-s-wars/

Acts 17:1-12 - The Good News Always Gets A Reaction - May 14, 2017

Have you noticed that much of what is reported as news these days isn’t really news at all? Instead of reporting the news, much of the focus is on the reaction to the news. Driving to church this morning, the reporter announced “Kim Jong-Un fires another missile – listen to the world’s reaction.” When celebrities make outrageous comments the headline reads: “Social media explodes over outrageous comment.” It’s Mother’s Day, and many of the ads you’ve seen in the past week promise that if you give their product to mom, you’ll get the reaction you’re looking for; funny, I thought Mother’s Day was about showing mom how much we appreciate her. As Christians, we are in the news business too. As Paul reports the good news in Thessalonica and Berea he shows us that the good news always gets a reaction; some will get angry and reject it, others will believe it; and we can prepare for both by keeping our minds open to Scripture.

 

We’re going to approach this lesson a little bit differently than the news media, though. Instead of focusing on the reaction, we’re going to first concentrate on the news itself. Paul had developed a strategy for preaching the Gospel in each new city he visited. Even though he was called by God to be the missionary to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15), he didn’t ignore his fellow Jews – he always visited their synagogue to proclaim the Gospel to them first. So when he came to Thessalonica, that’s what he did. Three straight Saturdays he reasoned with them from the Scriptures. When Paul visited a synagogue, he knew he was working with people who knew the Old Testament, and so he worked with their knowledge explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He laid the prophesies of Scripture and the facts of Jesus’ life side by side to make the point: “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.” (The Savior God had promised.) Whenever you think that sharing the good news is a complex task reserved for highly educated Christians, remember this account. While Luke only gives us a short summary of Paul’s sermon, the message he proclaimed was so simple that any Sunday school student could stand up here and preach it. The Savior God promised from the beginning of time came and suffered and died and rose again. Why? To pay for our sins against God and to rescue us from eternal death in hell. That’s the Gospel. That’s the Good News. It doesn’t take a master’s degree to understand it.

 

So why are we so hesitant to share it, then? Could it be that instead of focusing our attention on the news, we become distracted by the way people might react to it? Instead of thinking “The news of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection is so important that everyone needs to hear it” we think “I’m kind of scared how they will react if I tell them why they need a Savior (Law) and that Jesus is the Savior they need (Gospel).” Has anxiety ever prevented you from telling the truth to a friend or coworker or family member? Here’s how it goes, at least in my experience: “I don’t dare tell anyone that God created the universe in six days or that the Bible is God’s Word and every letter of it is true or that Jesus was born of a virgin or that Jesus is truly God and man – they will call me a brainwashed lemming who believes things that no rational person would believe.” “If I warn them that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead and anyone who doesn’t believe in him will die forever in hell – they will accuse me of being judgmental.” “I can’t invite them to church, because if it’s a communion Sunday they won’t be allowed to join – they will call us intolerant.” “I can’t let it be known that the 10 Commandments are God’s will for all people of all time – don’t you know how unpopular God’s commands are among people – especially young people – today?” What are we forgetting when we let fear or anxiety over someone’s reaction silence our testimony? We’re forgetting that it’s the truth, right? We’re forgetting that God did create the universe in six normal days (Ge 1), that every sentence of the Bible is God’s Word (2 Ti 3:16), that Jesus was born of a virgin (Mt 1:18) and is true God and true man (Co 2:9) who will return to judge the living and the dead (Mt 25); we’re forgetting that closed communion is Christ’s command (1 Co 11) not the church’s invention and that the 10 Commandments really are God’s unchanging will for mankind (Mt 19:18) – these doctrines are true and have always been true regardless of how anyone reacts to them. Jesus himself say heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35) To put it another way, when someone asks you for directions, you don’t hesitate to give them the right directions because you’re afraid they might not like it, do you? You know it’s right and they can listen to you or not, that’s up to them. The same is true of the Good News of Christ. It is objectively true whether people like it or not, believe it or not. The good news is true – don’t ever forget that.  

 

And this good news will always get a reaction, be prepared for that. When Paul told the Jews in Thessalonica that Jesus had to suffer they got jealous and angry. Why? Well, Paul undoubtedly told them why Jesus had to suffer. He had to suffer because their sins were bad. Really bad. Bad enough to earn God’s judgment and punishment in hell. Jesus had to suffer and die to satisfy God’s justice. That offended them just like it offends anyone who thinks that people are generally good and can earn God’s love and favor. The Jews got angry and rejected Jesus as the Christ, not because Paul’s testimony didn’t agree with the rest of Scripture, but because they didn’t want to believe they needed this kind of a Savior – a Savior who would live in humility, suffer and die for their sins. That’s what Peter meant when he wrote: now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe…[Christ is] a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. (1 Peter 2:7-8)

 

The good news gets the same reaction today. It offends people. It wounds their carefully cultivated self-confidence and self-image to be told that they are not good enough to get to heaven on their own, so God had to send a Savior to suffer and die in their place. But that’s not the only thing that makes people mad. It’s also the other thing Paul proved from the Scriptures: that the Christ had to…rise from the dead. Doesn’t it seem like people are as gullible today as ever? Santa Claus – sure; Easter bunny – why not; you won $20,000 and all you need to do is hand over your SS# and bank information – awesome; the carbon dioxide we breathe out is destroying and warming our planet – only high school dropouts don’t believe that. But believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead? That’s ridiculous, that’s foolishness. They will deny this even though the evidence is overwhelming: 1) it was predicted thousands of years beforehand (Ge 3:15; Psalm 16); 2) Jesus proved his power over death during his life (Mt 9; Jn 11); 3) he appeared to hundreds of people after his resurrection (1 Co 15); 4) Jesus’ enemies had to bribe the guards to cover up the resurrection (Mt 28) – even with all that historic and scientific evidence people still get mad at Jesus’ resurrection because they believe it insults their intelligence.

And, just like in Paul’s day, they often aren’t very civilized about their rejection either. In Thessalonica they formed a mob, started a riot, and when they couldn’t find Paul and Silas they seized Jason and a few other Christians and hauled them before the city officials and accused them of troubling the world and committing treason against Caesar. That’s what people who don’t like this good news always do. They’ll exaggerate. They’ll lie. They’ll twist what we teach. They did it in Thessalonica and they still do it today. They’ll say that Christians hate women and worship a paper God and want to take society back to the Stone Age. Don’t be surprised by it. Paul warned the Corinthians: we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Don’t expect everyone to embrace the good news of Christ crucified. In fact, expect that many people will reject it and hate you for it, because the Good News has always gotten that kind of reaction.

 

But you can also expect that some will receive this news and joyfully believe it. That’s the reaction Paul’s message received in the next town he visited. As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. (Note that Paul didn’t change his strategy even after his experience with the Jews in Thessalonica.) Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. In one city the good news prompts people to react angrily and violently, in another it is received with great eagerness and believed by Jews and Gentiles, men and women. But really, that shouldn’t surprise us either, should it? Paul told the Christians in Rome: I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. (Romans 1:16) The good news is believed by some, not because of who preaches it or how we share it, but because it is the very power of God.

 

There’s something else noteworthy about the Bereans. You know how the world loves to call Christians close-minded, intolerant, and judgmental? The word translated noble character can also be translated open-minded. The Bereans who gladly received and believed the good news are called open-minded by no less that God the Holy Spirit. They were open minded because they had open Bibles. They weren’t gullible. They weren’t brainwashed. They weren’t brain dead Neanderthals. They didn’t believe Paul’s message just because he told them it was true. They tested everything Paul told them against the one thing they knew to be absolutely true: the inspired Scriptures. This is one of the hallmarks of truth: it bears up under the most intense scrutiny. God doesn’t expect anyone to blindly accept his good news; in fact, by giving us the Bible he is basically daring us to examine it and test it for errors. (Spoiler alert: you won’t find any!)

 

I wonder if another reason we are not always eager to report the good news of Christ crucified is because we aren’t always like the Bereans. We don’t examine the Scriptures to see if what we hear and think we believe matches what God says in Scripture. We haven’t discovered what God says for ourselves and so the faith remains something that pastor preaches and our church teaches but that we aren’t really sure about. The truth is that we will always be shy and hesitant to share the Good News if we have little more than a superficial knowledge of the Bible. Be like the Bereans. Test what I say against God’s Word. I won’t be offended. In fact, there is no greater compliment that you can pay a Lutheran pastor than to test everything he says against Scripture. Not only will your faith be reinforced, but you will grow in courage and confidence to be like Paul – witnessing to others the truth that Jesus is the Christ, regardless of their reaction to it. You will have that confidence because when your mind is open to Scripture, God’s unchanging truth becomes your saving truth.

 

Much of what is reported as news these days isn’t really news but people’s reaction to the news. That’s understandable because the media depends on ratings and reactions to survive. The Christian church is not dependent on ratings and reactions. The Christian church is built on the rock-solid promises of God and is in the business of proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who suffered and died to save us from our sins. We know that it will get a variety of reactions – that some won’t tolerate it and will get angry; but we also know that some will gladly receive it and believe it. Either way, our confidence doesn’t come from the reaction but from the fact that it’s God’s truth – the only truth that leads heaven. May God open our hearts and minds and the hearts and minds of many more to eagerly receive and believe the good news of Christ crucified and risen for sinners. Amen.

John 10:1-10 - The Good Shepherd Leads Us - May 7, 2017

The words before us are some of the most familiar in the whole Bible. This chapter of John has inspired many well-known hymns and works of art – like the one over there. For many Christians, their first impression of Jesus is as their Good Shepherd, as their parents and grandparents sing them to sleep with “I Am Jesus Little Lamb.” We know Jesus as our Good Shepherd. But here’s something you might not know: Jesus’ description of himself as the only good shepherd was born from controversy.

 

Jesus had given a poor back his sight. This man’s friends and neighbors were shocked and stunned by this unheard of miracle. So they brought him to the religious authorities, the Pharisees. The Pharisees conducted an investigation. When they interrogated this man and he refused to retract the truth that Jesus of Nazareth had given him his sight, the Pharisees threw him out of the synagogue; they excommunicated him. Jesus bluntly and directly called the Pharisees blind guides; robbers and thieves who were destroying God’s flock.

 

Why was Jesus so judgmental, so intolerant of the Pharisees? Quite simply, because they were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of God’s people; they were called to keep them safe by pointing out the dangers of sin and unbelief and feed them on fertile pastures of God’s promises. But the Pharisees had betrayed both God and his people. They had become spiritual thieves and robbers who were leading Israel away from God by adding their own ideas to God’s Word. The Pharisees taught that salvation was achieved by obeying a set of rules and regulations that they had invented above and apart from God’s Law. They were not faithful shepherds. They were leading Israel into spiritual destruction. In response to the Pharisees’ malpractice, Jesus uses the opportunity to make a bigger point: not everyone who claims to come in God’s name is a faithful shepherd of the flock.

 

I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice. Even if you’re not in the sheep business, you can understand this imagery. Every evening the shepherd would lead his flock to the sheep pen where they would be safe from wild animals and thieves throughout the night. Quite often, several shepherds would keep their flocks in a single enclosure, to reduce the number of night watchmen needed. In the morning, as each shepherd arrived, he would call to his flock and they would follow him out to be fed and watered. But the legitimate shepherds weren’t the only ones interested in the sheep. Some would sneak into the pen to steal the sheep. They were robbers and thieves. They weren’t interested in the well-being of the sheep, they sought only to take and steal what they could from the flock. That’s what the Pharisees had done to the blind man and were doing to God’s people: they were sneaking into the fold – claiming authority over God’s people – by means other than the Gospel and were robbing the sheep of their salvation.

 

We might think that the Pharisees are ancient history, but godless sheep stealers are still everywhere. We know the world is filled with voices preaching something very different from God’s Law and Gospel. We hear them on the radio, TV; we read their heresy in the newspaper and online; their voice comes from Washington D.C. and Hollywood, and they feed our children lies about everything from creation to sexual identity in school. As dangerous as those humanistic, immoral voices are a far greater threat comes from those who claim to speak for God and yet proclaim an anti-Christian message. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons may come to your door carrying their Bibles and able to quote a whole slew of Bible passages for you, but if you listen closely you hear that they aren’t interested in pointing out sin and leading you to Christ for forgiveness – but that they want you to accept and believe their own message and method to get to eternal life – a message that depends on how earnest, zealous, honest and obedient you are.

 

But perhaps more of a danger today are the men (and sometimes women) who claim to speak in God’s name throughout America – apart from any denomination. They can be found in the big box churches you see popping up all over the place. They are often good-looking and always well-spoken, they use lots of Christian-sounding words and they draw hundreds and thousands of spectators. But when you listen carefully, you will not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. You might hear promises of earthly wealth and peace and prosperity – but Jesus has never guaranteed those things. They tease people with the promise of a close, personal relationship with Jesus – but they deny the very means through which Jesus has promised to come to us: the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Like flies drawn to light, people fly to their churches, attracted by their image of wealth and success – but the untold story is that they become rich by fleecing the flock. These leaders are not faithful shepherds, they are robbers and thieves. Why do so many fill pews and write checks to these frauds? Why do they follow the voice of strangers, frauds and false shepherds? The only conclusion can be that they really don’t know the voice of the Good Shepherd.

 

Which begs the question: do we know the voice of our Good Shepherd? Would you recognize a stranger’s voice, a false teacher? Would you know if someone, if I or any other preacher, was not leading you to Christ but stealing you away from him? You might be tired of hearing the regular encouragement to be faithful in worship and bring their children to Sunday school and attend Bible class and have family devotions at home and study the Bible on their own time. Satan makes it seem like spending time in God’s Word is some terrible burden that no one should have to bear. But just like it takes years of listening for sheep to recognize their shepherd’s voice, it takes years – a lifetime – of study for believers to learn the voice of Jesus so well that they will not be misled by the voices of the thieves and robbers; the frauds and fakes – who are out not only to steal your time and money, but the salvation of your soul.

 

Nothing can replace the time you personally spend with Jesus in his Word. But here are three basic things you should listen for in any sermon that claims to be Christian. First, what’s the subject matter? If the main focus is on your life or the life of the speaker, alarm bells should go off. The only proper focus for a Christian sermon is the inspired, inerrant Word of God with its central message of Christ crucified. Second, what is the problem that the shepherd is seeking to cure? Does the problem go no deeper than your health or wealth or emotions or marriage or social life or coworkers or politics? Or, is the main problem deeper than that; is the main problem in you, the sin that lives in your own heart and separates you from God. (Closely related to that, does the speaker proclaim God’s Law and threat of punishment in all its sternness, or do they modify the Law to better fit our secular, immoral culture?) Third, what’s the solution to the problem? Do you have to do something? Do you need to pray more, give more, work more, try harder or climb some ladder to get right with God? God loves you too much to leave your salvation in your hands. The real message of Christianity is that the real, deep, eternal problem is human sin – not only the sins we do but the sinfulness we were born with; the solution can only be found in the cross of Christ; and this message can only be found in the pages of Scripture. If that’s not the message you’re hearing, run. Run away and don’t look back. Run because your Good Shepherd tells you to run – that’s how he keeps you safe from robbers and thieves.

 

The crowd – and especially the Pharisees – didn’t understand this metaphor, so Jesus used another, even simpler picture. I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. If you’ve ever wondered why the world hates Christians, this is why. The unbelieving world wants the freedom to create its own religion, its own god, its own morality, its own way to heaven. But Jesus says that the only way to heaven is through faith in him. Christians are called intolerant and bigoted and hateful and judgmental and, in some places, are blown up and beheaded for standing firm on this truth. But no one will go to heaven who denies Jesus as the only Savior from sin. The entire NT makes it clear that this is the central doctrine of the Bible and the linchpin of salvation. When a jailer asked Paul what he had to do to be saved, Paul answered believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. (Acts 16:31) In his Pentecost sermon Peter proclaimed salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Jesus himself said whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18) Can this really be true? Can we really believe that there is only one path to heaven and it passes through a Jew from Nazareth named Jesus? Are we willing to face the hostility of the world and the wrath of hell, are we willing to put our present and future, our time and talents, our very lives and our eternity in the hands of Jesus as our Good Shepherd?  

 

The answer to that question doesn’t lie in your heart, it lies in what this shepherd has already done for you. This shepherd didn’t sit in his mansion and tell you how to earn God’s favor, he came down to this troubled planet to do the dirty, bloody work of earning God’s favor for you. This shepherd volunteered to take the blame for your lies, your hatred, your impatience and greed; your sins of thought, word and deed. This shepherd allowed himself to be betrayed, arrested, condemned, beaten and whipped for you. This shepherd took your place on a cursed cross and suffered your punishment in hell. This shepherd rose again to life for you. This shepherd offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation to all people, free of charge, no strings attached. What other shepherd, leader, preacher, or teacher can say that? Jesus is the only shepherd you can trust because he’s the only way to eternal life – and the only way to a full life right now.

 

Jesus closes: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Sheep don’t need much to keep them happy; give them some green grass, a cool stream, a safe shelter and a faithful shepherd, and they are content. For a sheep, that’s a full life. What’s your idea of a full life? Are you content with the essentials – food, water, clothing, shelter, the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life? Is that enough for you? We don’t seem to be as easily pleased as sheep, do we? We want more. A better job. A bigger house. A nicer car. Better health. A more luxurious retirement. A different, more attractive spouse. More money, more influence, more, more, more. Satan tempts us to equate having a full life with having a life full of earthly things.

 

Here’s the truth about a full life: in his abundant grace, our Good Shepherd has given us more than just the bare essentials, but even if he didn’t, and even if he takes some of those things away from us, we would still have a full life. How? Because having a full life doesn’t depend on our level of comfort, health, wealth or any other thing that this world can offer. The full life Jesus promises you is one filled with the things of God: the promise of his abiding presence every day, peace with God through his blood, his protection from enemies both physical and spiritual, his unwavering love, his abundant mercy and forgiveness, the absolute certainty of salvation. Those are the things your shepherd died to win for you. Those things are yours whether you are rich or poor, healthy or sick. Those are things no one can steal from you. Those are the things a full, content, joyful life is made of.

 

Today your Good Shepherd calls to you. Listen to his voice and he will keep you safe from thieves and robbers and lead you to a life full of blessing now and forever in heaven. Amen.  

Luke 24:13-35 - Great Expectations - April 30, 2017

Set in 19th century England, Charles Dicken’s novel Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, an orphan adopted by a blacksmith’s family, who has good luck and great expectations, and then loses both his luck and his expectations – and in the process finds true happiness. Without rehashing a book you may have read decades ago, in the character Pip, Dickens portrayed the situation many citizens in 19th century England faced: the nation was becoming a wealthy world power, the industrial age was making factories more productive, inventions were making life safer and easier – and yet, in spite of all the progress, the average citizen still did not realize the wonderful life the turn of the century had promised. I suppose such a story could be told about any nation in any age. Does the theme of great – and often unfulfilled – expectations ever characterize our lives as Christians? Here we are, a mere 14 days from celebrating the ultimate turning point of human history: our Savior’s resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil. But it doesn’t even take 2 weeks for reality sap our joy, does it? Easter’s victory and joy already seem like a distant memory. Why? Easter has given us great expectations; so why do we so often feel gloomy and hopeless? On the road to Emmaus, our Savior teaches us a few things about Great Expectations; namely that human expectations lead to sadness, but that Scripture’s promises ignite our faith and renew our joy.

 

Luke 24 takes us back to Easter Sunday afternoon. For the disciples, it had been a chaotic and whirlwind week. On Sunday, Jesus had entered Jerusalem to great fanfare, Monday through Wednesday he taught in Bethany and Jerusalem, on Thursday he celebrated the Passover and then instituted a new meal as a sign of a new covenant, and then, in the span of mere hours was betrayed, arrested, convicted, crucified and buried; he was there and then suddenly, he was gone. Then Easter morning came and only seemed to complicate matters. The women who had gone to finish the burial of Jesus’ body reported that the tomb was empty and that an angel appeared, claiming he was alive. But when Peter raced to the tomb he didn’t find anything but some empty grave clothes. (Luke 24:1-12) Confused and sad, two of the disciples had given up hope and decided to return to Emmaus.

 

What would you say is the most important detail of this story? Jesus himself came up and walked along with them. We tend to pass over this detail because we are captivated by the words that follow: they were kept from recognizing him. How? There are many theories, but two things stand out to us: 1) Jesus now had a glorified, heavenly body so different from the humble human flesh he had before his resurrection that the disciples could see him, but could not recognize him; (Mark 16:12) 2) imagine you are driving home from the cemetery after a burial, who’s the last person you expect to see driving the car next to you? They believed Jesus was dead and gone; so they couldn’t see him right in front of them. In any case, Jesus was with them, but they didn’t recognize him (which, incidentally, is a gospel truth we all need to learn over and over).

 

Why did Jesus do that to them? He could certainly see how sad and confused they were. It seems cruel and cold-hearted to let them languish in their hopelessness. Why didn’t Jesus just reveal himself and remove their sadness and confusion immediately? Why do we ask those questions? Isn’t it bordering on heresy to suggest that Jesus could do anything less than loving? We ask these questions because we see ourselves in this story. We have all found ourselves in situations where we have more questions than answers, more confusion than clarity, more sadness than joy. In really tough times, we can feel a lot like those disciples: hopelessly walking and talking in circles. We feel for these disciples because we often feel like them. We feel bad for them because we often feel bad for ourselves. We wonder why Jesus didn’t relieve their pain and answer their questions sooner because we wonder why he doesn’t give us relief and answers sooner. As understandable as all that is, they overlook the most important fact, don’t they? Jesus was there! Jesus is always there, he’s always here; he promised! (Matthew 28:20) Then why didn’t he show himself, why didn’t he give them what they wanted? We ask the same question, don’t we? Why doesn’t Jesus just answer my prayers, why doesn’t he give me what I want and expect?

 

The truth is, we should thank Jesus for not living up to our expectations. Have you ever done that? You should. You should thank him every day for refusing to live up to all human expectations because if he hadn’t heaven would still be locked to us. Thank Jesus that he did not do what we want, but what his Father wanted. Humans expect God to stay in heaven where he belongs – but God’s Son was born in Bethlehem. Humans expect God to show favor to the good and rich and powerful – Jesus spent his time healing and preaching the gospel to the outcasts of society, to poor, weak, helpless sinners. Humans expect that God will accept them just the way they are – but when God’s Son appeared humanity hated him so much for who he was that they not only laughed at him and rejected him but nailed him to a tree and killed him. Humans expect to get what we deserve – God poured out on Jesus the wrath that we deserve so that we could receive the inheritance we don’t deserve. Humans expect dead people to stay dead – God raised Jesus so that we could be certain of our salvation. Those disciples on the road to Emmaus had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. They didn’t realize it yet, but he did! He bought us back from sin, death, and the devil by suffering, dying and rising again. Who would have planned or expected that? No one but God. So, thank Jesus for not living up to our fallen, foolish, selfish expectations – because if we are looking for a Savior who lives up to our expectations, then not only will we mope through this life, but we will have no hope for the next.

 

The first lesson we learn on that road to Emmaus is that human expectations lead to sadness now and eternally – so Jesus doesn’t live up to human expectations. The second is that the promises of Scripture are better than anything we would expect – so that’s where we should look for Jesus. Again, don’t forget the most important detail of this journey to Emmaus: Jesus was with these disciples. He walked beside them. He talked with them. And, when he had heard their hopeless story, he rebuked them and corrected them. How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. Jesus put his finger on the real problem, didn’t he? The problem was not with Jesus, the problem was with the disciples; they had the wrong expectations. We shouldn’t think that these disciples expected what many of their fellow Jews did: a revolutionary Messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire. No, even though their faith was weak and incomplete, it was there. And from what they report about the events of the previous week we gather that their disappointment didn’t stem from the fact that he died, but the fact that he hadn’t yet showed himself to them alive – they had hoped for Jesus to establish a kingdom on earth. And yet, while Jesus would reveal himself to them in the end by breaking bread with them, that expectation was misplaced and foolish. Why? Because faith doesn’t need to see and touch, faith needs only to hold on to God’s promises. (see Luke 16:31) The disciples weren’t lacking visible proof of Jesus’ resurrection; they were lacking faith. That’s they lesson they learned in the end, wasn’t it? Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? Jesus rekindled their faith and joy, not by revealing himself to them – he disappeared again in moments – but by pointing them back to Scripture.

 

Have you felt sad or downcast or disappointed in the 14 days since Easter? Why? Is it because it turns out Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? No, he did; more than 500 people saw him alive. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) Is it because you have committed a sin that can’t be forgiven? No, John assures us that the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7) Is it because your life has taken a turn you didn’t expect? Maybe. Is it because you have grown frustrated with the people around you or life in general? Possibly. Is it because Jesus is not the Risen Savior you expected him to be? Getting warmer. Or is it because like those disciples you are slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken – or even worse, you don’t know your Bible well enough to know what the prophets have said? Bingo. If you don’t know your Bible and believe what it says you will always be disappointed because you don’t know what Jesus has promised. So if you’re tired of wandering through life like those disciples, then turn to the one place Jesus promises to be found – and you will find that what he promises is better than anything you could have expected.

 

That’s a pretty big claim; let’s put it to the test. I’m struggling with chronic pain or a sickness that just won’t go away, I’ve prayed about it and was expecting Jesus to have cured me by now. No wonder you’re sad. Jesus has promised no such thing. This is what he did say to the Apostle Paul when he pleaded with the Lord to take away the thorn in his flesh: my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) If a physical ailment has forced you to rely on God for strength – that’s a good thing! I looked around the church on Easter and saw how full it was and I was expecting that God would keep bringing those people back and keep our church growing. No wonder you’re disappointed (I am too!). You’ve forgotten that even as Jesus commands us to preach the Gospel to all people, he reveals that the seed will fall on all sorts of different kinds of soil, that most people who hear the Word will let the devil or the world or worry or unbelief crowd it out. (Matthew 13:1-23) I have sinned but I repented and so I was expecting that I wouldn’t face any consequences. No wonder you’re confused. Forgiveness doesn’t prevent earthly consequences, but even then the book of Hebrews offers this assurance: do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. (Hebrews 12:5-6) Discipline is not a sign that God has abandoned you, but that he loves you! Life is short and hard, and at the end of it, you die – I expected more as a disciple of Christ. No one is denying that life is hard. That’s why Christian hope is not built on what we see but on what is unseen, safe with our Savior in heaven. Paul wrote: Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18) Those are just a few examples, but I hope you get the point. Hoping that Jesus will live up to your fallen, limited expectations will only leave you sad and disappointed. But when you open your Bible and read it and trust it, your will find that God’s promises are better than you ever would have expected; so that you can say: was not my heart burning within me while he talked with me and opened the Scriptures to me?

 

Charles Dickens was on to something. People of all times and places have great expectations, but reality regularly dashes those expectations. Those two disciples on the road to Emmaus had great expectations for Jesus. They were sad because Jesus wasn’t what they expected him to be. But when Jesus opened the Scriptures to them he taught them that their Risen Savior was even better than they expected. He is our redeemer; and our redeemer lives! Turn away from your own expectations – expectations that regularly leave you sad and hopeless. Turn instead to the promises of Scripture – where Jesus walks with you and talks with you, rekindling your hope and joy; that great expectation will never disappoint, because Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. Amen.

 

 

Acts 10:36-43 - He's Risen So You May Know - April 23, 2017

As evening fell on Easter Sunday, Peter had a lot on his mind. As his eyes grew heavy he remembered how he slept instead of watching and praying during his Lord’s struggle in Gethsemane. (Mark 14:32-42) The sword at his side reminded him of his foolish, rash actions as the mob, led by Judas, arrived to arrest Jesus. (Mark 14:43-52) He couldn’t help but kick himself for allowing a servant girl’s question to lead him to deny his Lord – a dark betrayal he would remember every time a rooster crowed. (Mark 14:66-72) The scene on Golgotha – the gambling soldiers, the wailing women, the angry mob, and in the midst of it all, the quiet determination of Jesus to die – was permanently impressed on his memory; but the shame of watching it all from a distance still left a bitter, guilty taste in his mouth. (Mark 15:21-41) And then there was the tomb. Earlier that morning Peter had raced with John to the tomb expecting to find…what? We don’t know what they expected to find – but all they found were the scraps of linen that had been wrapped around Jesus’ body. (John 20:1-9) And now in this locked room Peter felt fear; the fear of doubt, the fear of loss, the fear of the Jews – most of all fear of God’s judgment because of his weakness, his betrayal, his lack of faith. On Easter evening, Peter had a lot on his mind – but peace was not one of them.

 

But now it’s several years later and Peter is a changed man. No longer sad and guilty and fearful – now Peter has peace. Now Peter is in Caesarea, doing something he never imagined – walking into the house of a Gentile soldier named Cornelius to preach a sermon that all people need to hear. He proclaims that because Jesus rose from the dead you may know peace with God, the lasting significance of Jesus’ work, and the mission of the church.

 

From a human perspective, Cornelius had every reason to be at peace. He had a good job – as a centurion in the Roman army he had power and prestige, authority and a regular salary and a government pension. He lived in a Roman outpost on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. He had his spiritual bases covered – or at least he thought he did. Luke tells us earlier in Acts 10 that [Cornelius] and his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:2) And yet, Cornelius didn’t have peace, because all of his earthly success, his best efforts, his generosity to the poor, even his prayers couldn’t quiet the voice in his head that condemned him as a sinner and warned him of God’s impending judgment. So God sent Peter to Cornelius with the only message that could quiet that voice by removing his sin and guilt forever.

 

You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. God puts an innate, natural knowledge of himself into every human heart from conception – so it comes as no surprise that people of every language and nation believe in and worship a god or gods. But what is shocking is how drastically different the gods people make for themselves are from the one, true God revealed in history and Scripture. The Greeks and Romans fabricated dozens of gods whose lives were like soap operas – not so different from the celebrities people worship today: rich and powerful, but very flawed; very human. During Luther’s day most people thought of god as a harsh judge whose anger needed to be appeased by good works and offerings and prayers. Today, many think of god as a divine therapist whose only job is to help them deal with the uncomfortable realities of life. And there have always been those who have no more use for god than someone to point the finger at when things go wrong – and to be forgotten and ignored when things go right.

 

Thankfully the Holy Spirit used men like Peter to tell us what God is really like and what is really on his mind. And do you know what’s on God’s mind – has been on his mind since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world? Peace. Peace, the end of hostility and enmity, between himself and humanity. The message God has been trying for thousands of years to get through to humanity is that he has ended the war we started; he created peace in the midst of our treachery and rebellion. He is not mad at you, he doesn’t want you to try to buy his love – he wants you to trust that he loved you first, he wants to have you in his family, he has reserved a place for you in his home in heaven. Far from the vindictive, irrelevant, bully that many people think of when they make their own god out of thin air, the true God, the God of Israel, the God revealed in Scripture is a God of peace – and he wants you to know that peace.

 

But how can we be sure? Everything we experience tells us just the opposite. We sin with terrible frequency. Our consciences testify against us. The law – not to mention our coworkers, spouses and children – regularly point out how imperfect we are. We know, without anyone telling us that we have not done enough good and done far too much evil to be right with God. Cornelius knew that too. That’s why Peter pointed him in a different direction. He told him the really good news that peace with God didn’t depend on him, but on someone else. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

 

Do you want proof that you have peace with God? Then don’t look in the mirror, look at Jesus, look at his life, his cross, his empty tomb. Jesus’ life, from his baptism in the Jordan to his miracles to his preaching, proves that he is the one sent by God. When you see the cross you see how seriously God takes disobedience to his commands. There you see the kind of punishment all of your sins – from the biggest to the smallest – deserve. Look at the tomb and see that God means it when he declares that the wages of sin is death. (Romans 3:23) But then look at your hands and feet and remember that it wasn’t you the Roman soldiers nailed to that tree. Look at the cross and see how much God wants peace with you – so much that he sacrificed his own Son to create it. Look there and know that because God poured out every ounce of his anger on Jesus, his mercy and forgiveness are freely given to you. Look at the tomb and see evidence that because Jesus is gone, your sins are gone – removed from God’s record books forever. You may still have all sorts of doubts and fears and anxieties in life (certainly Peter and Cornelius still did) – but when you know and believe that everything Jesus did, he did for you, you will have peace even when doubts arise and even when life doesn’t go the way you planned. That’s why Jesus taught and healed and suffered and died – and because he has risen, you can know that with certainty. That’s the lasting significance of his work.

 

And, finally, Christ is risen so that you may know the mission of his church. One of the reasons people, especially young people, lose interest and leave the church is because they misunderstand or forget the purpose of the church. Sadly, in large part this is the church’s fault. People think that the church simply exists to enforce earthly morality – because the church has often made the enforcement of earthly morality its highest priority. People treat the church like nothing more than another social organization – because too often the church has emphasized fellowship over discipleship. Too many churches ask “what do people need?” and then spend every resource filling that need. So you can find churches that offer Christian yoga because people need to lose weight; churches that hold financial seminars because people need help with money management; churches that hold concerts instead of worship services on Sundays because people think they need an emotional escape from life. Now, none of those things are necessarily evil by themselves. But if you’ve ever come to church hoping to find financial peace or physical health or emotional relief – you’ve probably left disappointed, not only because the church isn’t very good at those things, but because that’s not the mission God gave to his church.

 

For a long time Peter didn’t get that either – he too thought Jesus’ kingdom should be an earthly one that fixes earthly problems – but now he gets it: He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. This is God’s message for his church. Is it good news or bad news? Both, right? The bad news: Judgment Day is coming and Jesus, the one you put to death by your sins will be the judge. The good news: the one you put to death died to pay for your sins so that you may be found “not-guilty” in his courtroom. Preaching and teaching law and gospel, the church’s mission is as simple as that. And, if you don’t want to take Peter’s word for it, then listen to Jesus. He strips down his mission for his church to its bare essentials: he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22) Jesus did not commission his church to make this world a better place or solve every problem or satisfy the needs of every person on earth. Christ has commissioned his church to distribute the one thing that every single person, young and old, wealthy and poor, absolutely needs: the forgiveness of sins. Whether this takes place here at the baptismal font, from the pulpit, the altar, in a Bible study; or out there when a parent lovingly disciplines their child or Christian spouses forgive each other or a family gathers for a devotion at the bed of a loved one – the church’s business is sin: forgiving those who repent and refusing forgiveness to those who refuse to repent. That is what Christ commanded his church to do. That’s what all people need. That is the church’s mission. Whenever the church loses its focus on this mission, there will be unrest, disagreement, and the absence of any real peace.

 

But God sent Jesus to earth so that we may have real peace. He brought peace to a rebellious world by satisfying God’s demand for perfect obedience. He brought peace to sinful people by paying the price for sin with his blood on the cross. He proved that peace is ours by walking out of the tomb alive. And, he brings peace by making the church’s mission clear: to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name. We may not know everything and we certainly cannot do everything for everyone, but we know peace with God through Jesus' work and we have our mission – because Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! Amen.

 

 

Psalm 118:14-24 - This Is the Day the Lord Has Made - April 16, 2017

When it comes to holidays, most of the dates are immovably etched on calendars and engrained in our minds. Memorial Day is always observed on the last Monday in May; Labor Day the first Monday in September; on October 31st Protestant Christians commemorate the Reformation while the unbelieving world celebrates Halloween, Christmas always falls on December 25th and Valentine’s Day on February 14th. But what about Easter? When do we celebrate Easter? The date for Easter changes each year. How? Why? Does God send angels to every church to tell them when they ought to celebrate Easter? No. Nothing so dramatic. The date for Easter is actually established by the moon. Since our Lord was crucified the day before Passover and he rose again the day after, we fix Easter to correspond with the date God set for the Passover celebration – that is, the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Of course, we do this in Christian freedom, the Bible does not command us when to celebrate the Resurrection. In the end, while human calculations may have fixed April 16th as Easter this year, our Psalm makes it clear that this is the Day the Lord Has Made. For on this day the Lord has made Christ our salvation, our strength, and our song.

 

Psalm 118 places us right in the middle of a great victory celebration. God gave his OT people many great victories throughout history: God used the waters of the Red Sea to wash Pharaoh and his army into oblivion, he used the fortress walls of Jericho against its own people, he used a shepherd boy to defeat a Philistine giant. But this victory is greater than any of those. This victory is Christ’s victory over the previously undefeated enemies of sin, death, and the devil! You may have noticed that our Psalm doesn’t come right out and say that. It doesn’t echo the angel’s Easter message: He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. (Matthew 28:6) There is no tomb, no angels, no women. But our Psalm tells the Easter story just the same: the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

 

If you’ve ever built with stone, maybe a walkway or a chimney, you know that you need just the right one – right size and color – and if the one in your hand isn’t just right, you throw it away. Throughout his life, that’s exactly what many people did with Jesus. Jesus came to his own people, the Jews, but they rejected him because he did not fit their ideas of what the Messiah, the Savior, ought to be and do. The Gentiles rejected him because his plan to save mankind by suffering and dying did not sound glorious to their ears and was unacceptable to their reason. They all treated Jesus like a stone that didn’t fit the blueprint and so they rejected him, mocked him, beat him, whipped him, and finally nailed him to a tree to die. And for three days it seemed like Jesus’ enemies were right. If he stayed dead, he was just an imposter, a fool, a fake. But on the third day God went out to the grave where his Son was buried and made him the capstone, the cornerstone – the most important stone to be laid in human history.

 

God did that by raising his Son from the dead. The Apostle Peter explains: the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone means that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11-12) By raising him from the dead, God declared Jesus to be the one and only Savior – because only he did what needed to be done to save sinners. God demands perfect obedience from his creatures – from us – and anything less must be punished with death in hell. The Law tells us that we have not obeyed God perfectly and that we deserve to suffer forever for it.

 

But 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) Christ took our humanity and he took our place under God’s law. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he never sinned. And then, although he had lived the only life that didn’t deserve punishment, he took our sins on his shoulders and paid for them by suffering the scorn of men, the wrath of God, the depths of hell and the horror of a miserable death on a cross. By his flawless life and his sacrificial death, Jesus did everything necessary to save sinners like us. There was only one question left after his lifeless body was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb: would God accept his payment, was it sufficient to satisfy his righteous anger? Easter gives us the answer. The builders – both Jew and Gentile – had rejected Christ, but God accepted him – and declared him to be the capstone, the Lord of Life and the Savior of sinners.

 

And today – God pleads with us to build our faith and our lives on this precious cornerstone. He shows us our need for this Savior by holding the mirror of his Law up to our far-from-perfect lives. He tells that he demands nothing less than perfect love and obedience from us. And he reveals to us the Law’s diagnosis – a diagnosis that holds true for every person ever born: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) So he pleads with us to build on Christ. Salvation can be found in no one else – but salvation for all can be found in Christ.

 

Does God really need to plead with us to do this? People love free stuff. Who would reject this Savior and his offer of free, no-strings-attached salvation? You’d be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t. Some people reject Christ because they don’t think they need a Savior, they don’t think their lives are all that bad (they are living in a fantasy world). Others reject him because they don’t think that a dead Jew can provide the key to salvation, so they try to get to heaven their own way; by following their own made-up rules. There are others who think of Jesus as a glorified life-coach whose only role is to teach them how to be better spouses, better parents, better people – or they think of him as a genie who can fill their bank accounts and heal their bodies and make them happy – but they deny his resurrection and reject him as Savior. There are millions of people who are so wrapped up in the trivial things of this world that they have no time for a Savior from sin – and there are the people who don’t mind Jesus but stick up their noses at organized religion and still others who think they have earned God’s (or at least mom’s) favor if they darken the doorstep of church once or twice a year. (They may think they are right with God, but Judgment Day will provide a terrible wakeup call for them.) Because so many people still reject the only real Jesus God pleads with you today. Stop building on the flimsy foundation of your own goodness; stop thinking of Jesus as nothing more than a dead Jew or a life coach or a wish granting genie – he’s so much more than that. Because this is the day the Lord has made Christ our salvation. He has taken the stone that so many reject and made him the capstone – the only Savior. Build on him for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

Christ is our salvation – and he is our strength. Listen again to our Psalm: shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” If you’ve ever seen a boxing or wrestling match, you know that after the last whistle has blown, the referee lifts the hand of one of the competitors to show that he is the winner. In that garden with the empty tomb, God raised Jesus’ hand in victory. He went toe to toe with sin and death and Satan and he won. He destroyed sin by paying its dreadful price with his blood. He descended into hell to put a collar on Satan and led him in a victory parade as his beaten enemy. He ripped the guts out of death by stepping out of the grave alive.

 

But this victory doesn’t only belong to Jesus. The very human author of our psalm writes: I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done. Christ is our strength – because his victory is our victory. Paul’s words echo this certain victory over death: Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-56) Christ didn’t just defeat death for his own sake; he robbed death of its power over the world. He has paid for every sin and obeyed the Law for everyone. So that, just as Jesus died but did not stay dead, whoever believes in him may die but will not stay dead. In him, death is not final – it is the gateway to eternal life. This is the day the Lord has made Christ our strength to face death…and, until then, Christ is our strength to face life.

 

Did you notice that even though our psalm speaks of victory over death, it doesn’t ignore the harsh realities of life? The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Even though God has promised us certain victory over death, he does allow pain, hardship and suffering to come into our lives now. Which begs the question: where do you look for strength when you face trials and troubles in daily life? When sickness or loneliness plague you, when your body breaks down or your family breaks up, when you lose your job or think you are losing your mind – where do you turn for help? Your wealth, your career, your family, your friends, your government, your own physical strength or intellect or determination? Many place their trust in those things. But then money runs out; the pink slip comes; the best your family and friends can say is “I wish there was something I could do”; the government – let’s not even go there; the day will come when you will face a problem that your strength, intellect and determination cannot solve. Stop looking to those things for strength – because sooner or later they will all fail. Instead, look to Jesus – the one who during his lifetime healed sick bodies and sick minds, who provided food for thousands and calmed the fiercest storms, who went face to face with sin, death, and the devil, and won – he is the only one who will never fail. He’s the only one who can (and has) promised do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10) Today, because he rose from the dead, you can look to Christ for the strength to face death – and, until then, to face life.

 

And because of that today Christ is our song. The day was so victorious that the author couldn’t keep it to himself: open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. You know when you have a song or radio jingle stuck in your head? A tune you hum or sing without even realizing it? Or maybe you have a particular song you turn on when you’re feeling down or really happy. That’s what Christ is like for believers. He’s in our heads, our hearts, and on our lips. Today, on Easter, our voices are raised in praise – we know that our Redeemer lives and we aren’t afraid to let the world to hear about it. But just like a tune will fade from your mind after time – this saving faith in Christ will fade from your heart if you don’t hear it regularly. That’s why God gave us the Church; yes, believe it or not, the much maligned institution many despise as “organized religion” is actually God’s creation and his gift to us! Every Sunday Christ comes here to serve us with his Word and Sacrament. He comes here to forgive our sins and calm our fears and guide us through a dark, troubled world. He leads us – young and old – beside quiet waters and restores our souls, he guides us in paths of righteousness (Psalm 23) – so that when we leave here, to walk through the valley of shadow of death, though we may be harassed and abused by the devil and the world the song of his forgiveness and love will guide and strengthen and sustain us. This is the day the Lord has made Christ your strength and salvation. Tomorrow and every day, make Christ the theme-song of your life.

 

This year, Easter falls on April 16th, and while we admit that human calculations determined the date for this celebration, we know that this is really the day the Lord has made: he has made Christ our salvation – by raising from the dead the stone the builders rejected; he has made Christ our strength – so that with his power and promise we can face the challenges of life and death without fear; he has made Christ our song – the theme of our lips and our lives. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

 

 

Psalm 111 - Let's Not Forget - April 13, 2017

“Lest we forget” are words engraved on memorial stones around the world. Most often they are found on military memorials which recall battles and wars and those who fought in them. This reminder is necessary because the passage of time makes it easy to forget the people who gave their lives, the lessons we should learn, and the fact that war in any form causes tremendous suffering and loss. The words are even more meaningful when you know their original context. In 1897 Rudyard Kipling composed a poem for the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee called Recessional. His poem expressed pride in the accomplishments and prominence of the British Empire, but it also expressed the fear that the Empire might go the way of all previous empires. As a student of history, Kipling recognized a recurring theme: when nations rise to power they tend to become proud and forget God. With this background, here is the second verse of Kipling’s poem: “The tumult and the shouting dies; the Captains and the Kings depart, still stands thine ancient sacrifice, a humble and a contrite heart. Lord, God of hosts, be with us yet, lest we forget – lest we forget!” [1] “Lest we forget!” Kipling points out that while it is tragic to forget the lessons we should learn from the people who have gone before us, it is a far greater tragedy to forget the lessons and promises of our God. “Lest we forget” or “Let’s not forget” serves as a fitting theme for Psalm 111 because in it, the Holy Spirit speaks to us about remembering: how God remembered his covenant and how God wants us to remember his covenant.

 

While Psalm 111 is not the most familiar psalm among us, Martin Luther was familiar with it, and he gives his thoughts on the context of this psalm: We know that God instituted the festival of Passover among the people of Israel as an occasion for them annually to praise His wonderful acts and to thank Him for their deliverance when He led them out of Egypt…therefore it seems to me that this psalm was composed for the Passover festival. (LW 13:354) As we look at the Psalm, it seems that Luther is correct. The first words in Hebrew are: הַ֥לְלוּ יָ֨הּ Translated: Praise the Lord! And then the psalm writer goes on to list reasons to praise the LORD, reasons that call to mind one specific event: the Exodus from Egypt.

 

In the OT, the Exodus was the standard by which all of God’s other works were measured by his people. For good reason. In delivering his people from the hand of the mightiest nation on earth, the LORD proved himself to be the living God and exposed the pharaohs, armies and idols of Egypt as nothing. In reading this psalm, we can’t help but think of the plagues that God brought on Egypt and angel of death that brought misery and destruction to Egypt; salvation and freedom for Israel; how God parted the waters of the Red Sea and provided manna from heaven as the Israelites traveled through the wilderness; how he led them into the Land he had promised them, giving them possession of Canaan, even though it belonged to other nations. In doing these things, God proved himself to be a covenant-keeper. He had promised Abraham – when he was already old and yet childless – five centuries earlier: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you…To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:2, 7) And in leading hundreds of thousands of Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land, God proved that he had not forgotten his covenant.

 

But God’s covenant with Abraham involved more than just leading the Jews out of slavery; it pointed to a far greater exodus, a greater redemption. God had also told Abraham: All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3) God had promised Abraham that one of his descendants would redeem people from every nation – not from slavery in Egypt, but from slavery to sin and Satan and the doom of death and hell, and bring them to the true Promised Land of heaven. God remembered that promise. When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5) Tonight, we see that promised Savior gathered with his disciples in an upper room to celebrate the Passover one last time; before that OT sacrament would be replaced by the NT sacrament of Holy Communion. This night is the hinge of human history because on this night Jesus proves himself to be both the true Passover Lamb, and the Lamb of God sent to carry the sins of the world to the altar of the cross and take them away forever.

 

And so, just as the Passover Lamb reminded the Israelites that God had not forgotten his covenant with Abraham, this meal reminds us that God has not forgotten his covenant with us. What is that covenant? The Lord spelled it out through the prophet Jeremiah: “the time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant…I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31, 34) Here, at this table, God demonstrates that he has remembered his covenant by inviting all who who are weary and burdened with sin and guilt to come and receive tangible proof of forgiveness in the body and blood of his Son. As our Psalm says: He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. God did not forget his covenant to Abraham and he has not forgotten his covenant with you. He has remembered it. And he gives us proof in this meal. Do this regularly, so you don’t forget how the Lord remembered his covenant – his promise to take action to remove and forgive every one of your sins.

 

But “lest we forget” applies to more than the one who made the covenant; it also applies to us, the recipients of that covenant. Psalm 111 puts it this way: He has caused his wonders to be remembered. When I was at the Seminary in Mequon (a center of Judaism), around Easter (Passover) the grocery stores would carry unleavened bread, roasted lamb – even butter molded in the form of a lamb – to make a proper celebration of the Passover meal easily accessible for observant Jews. It wasn’t that easy for their forefathers. In the seven days leading up to Passover they had to clean all the yeast out of their homes and eat only unleavened bread (Exodus 12:15); they were to find a specific lamb – a year-old male without defect (Exodus 12:5); they had to care for this lamb, make it part of their family for four days (Exodus 12:6); and then they were to slaughter this lamb, paint its blood on their doorposts, roast it over a fire, eat it (Exodus 12:7-8) – all while hearing again the story of the Exodus. Why did God command his people to go through all that for 1500 years? It was more than a memory trick, and just going through the motions wouldn’t benefit the Israelites at all – these rituals were intended to create and strengthen faith in God’s promises. Our psalm says great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.

In the same way, our remembering of God’s covenant is more than just a memory exercise and simply going through the motions will not save us but actually harms us. In order to receive this sacrament to our benefit, we must believe the promises God attaches to it. Our Lutheran forefathers wrote in the Augsburg Confession: Christ commands us, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Therefore, the Mass [the Communion service] was instituted so that those who use the Sacrament should remember, in faith, the benefits they receive through Christ and how their anxious consciences are cheered and comforted. To remember Christ is to remember his benefits. It means to realize that they are truly offered to us. It is not enough only to remember history. (The Jewish people and the ungodly also remember this.)” (AC XXIV 31-33)

 

To remember God’s covenant first means believing that all he has done, he has done for us. While we no longer call it the Mass, the words and songs surrounding the Sacrament serve us by reminding us of the great things God does for us here. The words of institution remind us of the what and the why. What do we receive here? The very body and blood of Christ – in, with, and under the bread and the wine. (Matthew 26:26-28) Why do we do this? Because Christ our Savior, on the night he was betrayed said: do this. (Luke 22:19) Then, unlike being dismissed from any other table, when you leave here, you are reminded that you leave your sins behind. (Matthew 26:28) Because all of the wonderful things God wants to give us in this meal can only be received through faith, Paul commands us to prepare for it: a man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:28-29) Never forget, when you are getting ready to come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper this is no ordinary meal; Christ is truly present here for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Believe it and receive it.

 

And when you leave this meal, never forget that just as God didn’t just remember you – and then go on twiddling his thumbs in heaven, but instead he took action to save you – so God feeds your faith in this meal so that you may leave and be active in living for him. James reminds us: do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. (James 1:22-24) God feeds our faith here so that we can produce fruits of faith out there.

 

Maundy Thursday calls us to be very specific about the type of fruit God produces through this heavenly food. Jesus once told a story about a man who didn’t remember – he called him the unmerciful servant. (Matthew 18:21-35) This man had received unconditional forgiveness of his debt – 10,000 talents worth. But he forgot. Or at least, if he did remember, it didn’t show in his life. He refused to forgive a man who owed him a far lesser debt. Jesus finished his lesson this way: shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each one of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. (Matthew 18:33-35) As you leave here tonight, never forget: you are forgiven – fully and freely, even though you don’t deserve it; so that you can be forgiving – fully and freely, even and especially to those who don’t deserve it. That’s how we remember God’s covenant long after we leave here.  

 

Luther wrote one more thing about this Psalm to encourage us to receive the Sacrament joyfully and faithfully: Here you learn that Christ did not institute his remembrance or Sacrament out of anger or displeasure. It is not to be poison for you. He will not devour you or stand over you with a club when you go to the Sacrament. He lets himself be called the gracious and merciful Lord, so that it might actually be pure grace and mercy…Now, if you are afraid to go to the Sacrament, and your conscience frightens you, as if you were unworthy, put this verse into your heart and on your lips. Then you must hear and feel how sincerely he calls and invites you. He is here and is waiting for you with hands and heart wide open, for you to take and receive grace and mercy…Whoever is inclined to put pictures on the altar ought to have the Lord’s Supper painted, with these two verses written around it in golden letters: ‘the LORD is gracious and compassionate. He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.’ (LW 13:373) Why do we need so many reminders? Lest we forget!

 

In a few minutes your Lord will invite you to come forward to receive his body and blood with the words: do this in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:24) Let’s not forget how God remembered his covenant and let’s not forget how to remember God’s covenant. Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recessional_(poem)

John 12:12-19 - Jesus Redefines Success - April 9, 2017

If someone were to ask you to describe the scene in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, what would you say? Would you say that it happened exactly like the Holy Spirit said it would through the prophet Zechariah? Would you point to the message behind the humble circumstances? Many might read this account and consider it somewhat odd, a little bit quaint, maybe a touch confusing. But would anyone read this account and say “This is a victory parade. This is the culmination of thousands of years of promises. This is evidence that in spite of everything arrayed against him, Jesus Christ was a resounding success.” Was Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem a sign of success? It depends on your definition of success, right? So what standard do you use when judging success or failure in your life or the lives of people around you? Don’t say you don’t make those judgments, we all do it. We all know people we would describe as successful and others we would consider failures. Granted, most people probably fall somewhere in the middle, but there’s no question about it: in this world some do better than others.

 

How do we measure success? If you’re a golf fan, measuring success at this weekend’s Master’s Tournament is pretty easy: whoever has the lowest score wins. But I don’t think any of us are professional golfers, so we need broader set of standards. The first is fairly obvious. In our culture, money makes the world go round. Everyone wants it and the more, the better. Certainly wealth is one way to measure success in this world? But just having money is not enough. Some people inherit or make vast amounts of money, but live and die without accomplishing anything meaningful. So it’s also necessary to have accomplished something – and be recognized for it. Success must be recognized or it’s meaningless – thus we post our lives and accomplishments on social media for all the world to see. Success means rising above your peers, so there must be something to compare it to. If you have great potential, but don’t live up to it, you have failed. If you have alienated your family and friends in accomplishing great things, that diminishes your success. 15 minutes of fame doesn’t count, you must be consistent and leave behind a lasting legacy. And we could go on and on. In this world success is marked by wealth, achievement, recognition, respect, consistency, legacy, and adoration from family and friends – if a person managed to do all that, you’d judge them to be pretty successful, wouldn’t you? Sure. Why so much talk about success this morning?

 

The reason is this: it’s Palm Sunday and today John gives us a snapshot of Jesus at the very end of his public ministry. His time on this earth is coming to an end. And now he rides into Jerusalem surrounded by crowds of adoring fans waving their palm branches and shouting their praises. All Glory, Laud, and Honor are given to him. It’s wonderful. But when we apply the world’s standards to Jesus’ life, has he been successful? He’s not rich. He’s not riding in a war chariot but on a donkey. A donkey he doesn’t even own – he had to borrow it. He doesn’t live in a mansion, in fact he doesn’t have a place to call home at all. He doesn’t have a standing reservation at Jerusalem’s finest restaurants; rather, he eats whatever his disciples and the women who followed him from Galilee can find and afford. He IS relatively famous – at least for the moment. Two crowds – one from Jerusalem, and one from Bethany – turn out to greet him because they heard that he had raised Lazarus from the dead. An impressive miracle to be sure; but it falls short of his potential. He is the Son of God after all. He could have raised a whole cemetery – or, and this is probably what many of those people on his parade route were hoping for – he could have started a revolution to free Israel from the tyrannical Roman government. That would have been much more impressive, made him much more successful; but he didn’t do that.

 

The truth is that Jesus made a career of purposely not living up to his potential. For 33 years he had been purposely holding back. Apart from this entry into Jerusalem, he generally avoided crowds and their praise. Sure, he achieved some fame among regular people – fishermen and sinners, but his peers (the Pharisees) didn’t respect him. In fact, they hated him and wanted him dead and gone. As for family and friends; Jesus’ mother and siblings thought he was crazy for spending all his time with sinners and the sick and demon possessed. (Mark 3:21) He did have 12 close friends, but John tells us that they did not understand the significance of this moment and we know that one was planning to betray him and the others would shortly abandon him. There are the people shouting “Hosanna” (Lord, Save Us!) and “Blessed is the king of Israel!” – but many of them would soon be shouting crucify! (John 19:6) Today, the name Jesus Christ is used quite often – in the same context as a lot of other filthy language that shouldn’t be repeated – hardly a noteworthy legacy. So, was Jesus’ life a success? If we judge it according to the world’s standards, we would have to say: No. Jesus, the Jew from Nazareth, was a colossal failure.

 

So it’s with the greatest irony that we call Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem “triumphant” right? Not if we try to look at it from Jesus’ perspective. Here he is receiving the glory, laud, and honor of men, but this kind of popularity was never his goal. Why not? He knew that it was fickle and short-lived. He knew that the palm branches would be left there in the road to be trampled into the dust; the echoes of praise would quickly fade away. Jesus knew that the world’s standards for success are just like those palm branches and praise: here today, gone tomorrow. And that’s why he wasn’t pursuing success or glory according to those standards. Don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not that Jesus was determined to fail; in fact, his goal was to be successful, he was working for acceptance and fame and glory. It’s that both his mission and the standards he strived to meet were not from this world.

 

The success Jesus was after wasn’t the kind that gets your face on the cover of Time magazine or can be quantified by the number of Twitter followers. He wouldn’t carry out his mission or receive glory through military might or political pandering. It wouldn’t come from the pursuit of wealth, fame, and popularity. Rather he would accomplish his mission by stooping down, by bending low, by setting aside honor, privilege, and power and becoming the lowliest of all servants performing the most dishonorable of tasks. The glory he was working for came from serving sinful mankind. It came by bearing the shame and punishment for sin that we deserved. It came by being falsely accused and mocked and despised and spit on and beaten. To achieve success in God’s eyes, Jesus had to live a perfect, flawless life and then humble himself and become obedient to death; the most miserable and disgraceful death possible: death on a cross.

As he hung suspended from a cursed tree, it appeared to the world that Jesus was the biggest failure who ever lived – that his death was just one more epic defeat. It was, however, his greatest moment of triumph. A life that ended in a criminal’s death was successful because that’s how he saved a world of sinners like us from the eternal suffering we deserved. The writer to the Hebrews confirms that Jesus achieved exactly what he set out to accomplish: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set out before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2) By ignoring every single standard by which the world measures success, Jesus earned for himself (and for us) the never-ending glory of heaven. We are sincere when we call his entrance into Jerusalem “triumphant” because it shows his determination to suffer and die for our salvation. That’s how God had defined success for his Son’s life – and that is the mission Jesus was determined to complete.

 

Not only did Jesus flip the world’s definition of success on its head by his life, he does it in ours too. We don’t want to be like that crowd who gushed with praise one day then cried for crucifixion the next. We don’t want to be like those disciples who abandoned Him in the moment of trial. We don’t want to be like those Pharisees who resented his popularity and orchestrated his death. But that is what we do if we talk and sing about humility, service, and set our hearts and minds on heavenly things here in God’s house, only to leave and go back to chasing after success as the world defines it in our daily lives. Where does it start? More often than not with the rat race to accumulate wealth. Maybe we don’t call it striving for success; maybe we call it security for the future, or just what we need to be comfortable, or the well-deserved reward of a long, hard career. But then even wealth doesn’t satisfy anymore, and we want recognition for our accomplishments – no, not world-wide fame; we just want our spouses, children, and Facebook followers to recognize all we have done and continue to do – a little gratitude, a little praise isn’t too much to ask, is it? But just like that we have forgotten that our Palm Sunday King has set a different standard for success in our lives, too.

 

The lasting success Jesus wants you to have doesn’t come by accumulating wealth in this life, but in storing up treasures for the next – faith, believing family and friends; because those are the things you can take to heaven, those are the treasures that last. The lasting glory Jesus won for you doesn’t come when this world praises you for your accomplishments, but rather when after a life of humble service, God lifts you up and say: Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:23) On Palm Sunday 2000 years ago, our King rode on a donkey to the death that earned eternal success for all people. This Palm Sunday, Jesus shows us that a successful life in God’s eyes consists of quiet, humble service to God and to one another.

 

We started by talking about how our world measures success. Let’s finish with a challenge. Following Jesus challenges us to change our definition of success. Consider how much better God’s way is than the world’s – not to mention; far less stressful than getting caught up in the rat race of this world. If success isn’t defined by how much you have but by how much you can give away, what does that free you to do with the blessings God has given you? If success isn’t defined by how many people serve and obey you, but by how many people you can serve and help – what opportunities do you have at home or at work or right here to be very successful? If success is not defined by being recognized by other people but rather being recognized as one of God’s children – then doesn’t even the lowliest task have great meaning? If you recognize that your status before God doesn’t depend on what you do, but on what Christ has done for you – how does that lift a burden off of your shoulders and simplify the way you prioritize your life? Will following in Jesus’ footsteps be glamorous? Unlikely. Will it result in a life and legacy that the world considers praiseworthy and successful? Probably not. Will it be easy? No. It will be a fight every step of the way. It means not only dying to the world but also crucifying our own sinful natures. So how can we possibly follow a path that’s so countercultural, so uncomfortable, so hard? Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart…fix your eyes on Jesus! (Hebrews 12:2-3)

 

Today, forget about the way the unbelieving world – the world that is racing at breakneck speed to hell – defines and strives for success. Rather, stand on the side of that road into Jerusalem and watch Jesus riding a donkey on his way to winning eternal glory for you and me and all people. Be assured that because Jesus earned his Father’s stamp of approval by dying on a cross, your sins are forgiven and you too have the Father’s approval. And leave here with the goal of becoming genuinely successful according to God’s holy standards of humility, service, and faith. And, even though this scene in Jerusalem doesn’t look like much, always, always, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus – he is the very definition of success. Amen.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 - Can These Bones Live? - April 2, 2017

The scene was gruesome. Worse than any Civil War battlefield, worse than Auschwitz after the Allies had liberated it, worse than Hiroshima after Truman dropped the bomb. The valley before Ezekiel was not filled with dead bodies, or even skeletons, but a sea of scattered, dried, disconnected bones. Bones that were very dry. Ezekiel would have shuddered at this grisly scene. Not only because as a priest he was prohibited from touching a human corpse, but because according to God’s holy law, bodies were left unburied as a sign that they had fallen under God’s curse. (Jeremiah 34:17-20) These people were not only dead, they were damned.

 

What had happened here? The Lord explains: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.” The people of Israel not only felt dead and dry, before God they were dead because they had made two huge mistakes. Their first mistake was not taking God’s Word seriously. For centuries they had laughed at the prophets who warned of God’s judgment for their disobedience and called them to repentance. In fact, that’s why Ezekiel was in Babylon. He was there to remind them that they were prisoners in a foreign country because they had rebelled against God. He was there to preach repentance to them – and to tell them that Jerusalem was about to fall completely. Solomon’s temple, the Lords’ dwelling place, would be burned to the ground. But still, the Israelites didn’t believe it. Not Jerusalem – not David’s city. Not the temple – not the dwelling place of the Lord. Not Judah – God would never do this to the tribe from whom the promised Messiah would come. But it happened just as the Lord said. A year and a half later – 586 B.C. – (Ezekiel 10:18) Nebuchadnezzar’s army steam-rolled Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. (2 Kings 25) When the exiles heard about the fall of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 33:21) – they were stunned in shock and disbelief. They fell from the heights of overconfidence to the depths of utter despair.

 

It’s still a huge mistake to not take God’s Word and warnings seriously. Just like God chose Judah and gave her every possible advantage – so God has chosen us and given us every possible advantage. We have been baptized, instructed, confirmed, God proclaims his Word to us week after week, he invites us to receive his Son’s body and blood. But just as Judah ignored God’s warnings, so Satan is always whispering in our ears: “You hear that sermon, that Law, that warning – yeah, that’s for other people; not you. God would never actually punish you for your sin; after all, look how many others are doing it and getting away with it.” He tempts us to think that God’s warnings against greed and materialism are only for the rich – or only for the poor – and so we excuse our own love affair with money and things. He tempts us to believe that the warning of the third commandment: we should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it (SC: 1) only applies to one hour on Sunday mornings. He tempts us to think that we already know everything we need to know about God – and leads us to skip Bible study in favor of Sunday brunch. And you know what – we can probably get away with it for a while. God is patient with us. But to go on ignoring sin and disobedience is like ignoring cancer – it will eventually do to us exactly what it did to Judah – it will destroy us. This gruesome scene is a warning for us: if we don’t learn from Judah’s example, we will experience their same fate.

 

Maybe that’s what you feel like this morning. Maybe you feel the depression, disappointment and emptiness sin brings. Maybe you feel like your bones are dried up and your hope is gone. If you do, don’t make Judah’s second mistake. Instead of repenting, Judah argued that it was God’s fault that their friends and family were dead, their temple and homes were in shambles, they were exiled and enslaved in a foreign country. But none of it was God’s fault. God did not bring this destruction down on the heads of the Israelites; they brought it on themselves by their disobedience, rebellion, idolatry and adultery, their apathy and impenitence. God had not left Israel. Israel had left God.

 

Don’t we make that mistake too? Don’t we sometimes blame God for the hardship we experience? It’s God’s fault that I’m struggling to pay the bills or fighting one major medical issue after another or that my marriage is on the rocks or that my children have fallen away. It’s God’s fault that I feel ashamed or guilty or broken. God did not bring pain and sickness and suffering into this world – sin did. God did not force us to spend our money foolishly, he didn’t lead us to be unfaithful in marriage, he doesn’t lead our children astray – the devil does that. Even death itself is not God’s fault. Death is our fault. Paul told the Romans: if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die. (Romans 8:13) The reason our world is in chaos, the reason we feel guilt and shame, the reason our bodies break down and our families break up, the reason we feel hopeless and helpless – is because of our rebellion, our unbelief, our disobedience. Whether you’re looking with Ezekiel at a valley of dry bones or the evening news or looking in the mirror – what you’re seeing at is not God’s fault; you’re seeing the dreadful results of sin.

 

Can these bones live? Is there any hope? If it’s up to us, no. We can no more breathe money into our bank accounts, breathe love into our marriages, breathe health into our bodies, breathe obedience into our children – than Ezekiel could breathe life into those dead bones. But Ezekiel teaches us that the only proper response to a hopeless situation is to put the ball back in God’s court: O Sovereign LORD, you alone know. And God responded. He told Ezekiel to prophesy [literally: preach] to these bones and say to them, ‘dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.

 

While preaching may seem like an unlikely cure for death, Ezekiel did what God commanded. He preached to a valley of dead, dry bones. And as he was preaching there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them. But there was still no breath of life in them. So the Lord told Ezekiel to do the impossible one more time: breathe life into them. This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.

This was more than a fantastic vision. This is what God would do for his people, people who had been destroyed and exiled, people who were without hope and without a future in Babylon. To those who were saying our bones are dried up and our hope is gone God promised I will open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel….then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD. And 70 years later, God kept his Word. In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD…the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to let God’s people go back to Israel to rebuild the temple, their homes and lives. (Ezra 1:1-4)

 

If God did this for Israel, can he do the same today? Can our bones, our lives, our families, our faith that have been dried up and deadened by sin be brought back to life? Absolutely, 100% yes! Our Savior allowed his body to be dried out by sin and death for us, so that through faith our dead, dry bones may have the breath of life. The Hebrew word for “breath” (10x) is the same word for “spirit.” Just as God breathed life into those dead, dry bones so he promises to, he longs to fill us, who are dead and dry because of sin, with his life-giving Spirit. How? Don’t overthink it. What did God use to breathe life into those bones? What did Jesus use to call Lazarus out of his tomb? Jesus once told his disciples: the words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. (John 6:63) The instrument, the one and only instrument, God uses to create life out of death is his Word. God has given us the cure for death – you would think people would be knocking down the doors to get it – but so many forfeit this cure because they don’t want it and can’t understand it.

 

Here’s the thing, God doesn’t command us to understand it, he commands us to believe it. And the evidence for believing in the power of God’s Word is undeniable, isn’t it? In six normal days God created everything that exists, including mankind – and he did it with nothing but His Word. Abraham and Sarah were old and their bodies were dead but at the word of the Lord, Isaac was born. Judah was as good as dead in Babylon, but God breathed life into them and brought them back to their homes and land and temple. The body of Lazarus had already begun to stink in that hot Middle Eastern grave, but when the Lord of Life spoke, he walked out.

 

We will never understand how the Word of God can give life, but Jesus swears by it: I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24) And, we’ve seen the evidence of the Word’s power with our own eyes, haven’t we? Spiritually dead, unbelieving infants are brought to the font where God washes away their sins and breathes life into their hearts, and from the moment they can speak they will tell anyone and everyone that they are Jesus’ little lambs. Spiritually drained, worn out people come forward to eat and drink the life-giving body and blood of their Lord, hear his word: “go in peace, your sins are forgiven” and leave relieved of guilt and reenergized in faith. How many Christians find financial peace, not because their bank accounts are suddenly flush but because they found contentment in God’s gifts and peace in his promises? How many of us were at one time those “young people” that our pastors and families worried about – until God sent someone to preach the Word to us – which brought us back to the path of life? How many marriages have found new life, not just through better communication but by communicating to each other the forgiveness God has freely given them? How many Christians have faced cancer or disease or surgery with confident determination because they trust that God means it when he says never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. (Hebrews 13:6) Not even death itself can shake us when we believe with Martha that [Jesus] is the resurrection and the life. (John 11:25) Still today, God creates hope out of hopelessness and life out of death, and he does it through his Word.

 

Can these bones live? God asked Ezekiel. As we look at our own hearts, our own lives, our own families and see the dreadful results of sin, we might be asking the same question. With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 20:26) Doing the impossible – like creating life out of death is God’s specialty – that’s the nature of his grace and the incredible power of his Word. Amen.

 

Matthew 20:17-28 - What Kind of Christianity Do You Want? - March 26, 2017

We Americans love to have choices, and if free-market capitalism is good at anything – it’s offering choices. Choices everywhere. Say you’re shopping for something as mundane as a loaf of bread. You could get the standard white or wheat, you could choose pumpernickel or rye, frozen dough you bake yourself or a loaf of French or Italian or Sourdough someone else baked for you. You can find bread made without yeast and bread made without gluten. When you get to the checkout you get to choose whether you want to pay with cash, check, credit or debit. And then, the most important decision of all: paper or plastic. And that’s just for a loaf of bread! Then you have to decide what to put on the bread, what kind of vehicle to transport it in and what style of home you will eat it in. In America, we certainly have freedom of choice. So why should Christianity be any different? Well, it’s not. You have choices. But today we’re not talking about Roman Catholic or United Church of Christ or Reformed or Lutheran. This morning we’re not discussing denominations, we’re asking a far more basic question: what kind of Christianity do you want: a Christianity of glory or a Christianity of the cross?

 

Americans tend to judge church (and everything else for that matter) by their personal experience. When you come to church what do you expect to experience? Do you expect the service to be all about you, your individual wants and needs – a religion that comforts and coddles your human nature? Or a religion that confronts your human nature by placing Christ and his cross at the center of attention? You have choices. If you visit or watch a service at one of the many mega-churches in our country, chances are you will hear some form of prosperity gospel: that Jesus died to make you rich, happy or healthy. It’s capitalism cloaked in Christianity. It’s a Christianity of glory. I’ve taught a few adult information classes to those who come from a non-denominational background, they have said that in their experience the sacraments – and especially Holy Communion – take a backseat to moving music and inspirational leaders. Why? Because the most important thing is “what you feel on the inside.” When what Jesus commands takes a backseat to what I feel – that’s a Christianity of glory. The trendy thing these days is to get rid of the altar, pulpit, and baptismal font, remove any crosses, and forget any sort of confession of sins or absolution – to make way for a stage, a band, and a 40 minute inspirational speech. The purpose of going to those churches is not to confess or learn or worship, but to celebrate. Now that sells…because who doesn’t like to celebrate? Celebration is easy. But you have to wonder: without Christ, his cross, and the forgiveness of sins – what is there to celebrate?

 

So what will it be for us? This morning Jesus demonstrates that he has nothing to do with the Christianity of glory. Jesus will have nothing of the warm, fuzzy religion that appeals to human wants and desires. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, Jesus presents his disciples and us with the Christianity of the cross – because it’s only at the cross that Jesus meets our deepest needs: our need for mercy, forgiveness, and life.

 

Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life. That summary is so familiar that it can easily go in one ear and out the other. He would go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, condemned, turned over, mocked, flogged, crucified, raised. We confess it every week in the creed, right? Yawn. (Can’t we come up with some new material?) But don’t ignore this fact: Jesus knew ahead of time exactly what he would face in Jerusalem. He knew about every drop of spit that would run down his face, every slap that would sting his cheek, every lash that would tear his flesh. He knew that at the end of it all stood a cross and a grave with his name on them. He knew every ugly detail of Holy Week. And he was willing to do it anyway – because his Father’s will was not for him to find glory in a palace in Jerusalem but suffering and dying on a cross outside the city limits.

 

This wasn’t, or at least, shouldn’t have been news to the disciples. This was the third time Jesus told them that he would suffer and die. But when we look back at each prediction, we see that the disciples never really got it. The first time Jesus predicted his suffering, death, and resurrection: Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” He said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Matthew 16:22-23) “You know Jesus, if you want to be popular, if you want people to follow you, you shouldn’t bring up things like suffering and dying – people don’t like that, it’s bad for your image.” Peter was willing to follow Jesus wherever he led, as long as it was a painless path that ended in glory. Sound familiar?

 

The second time, Matthew tells us that the disciples were filled with grief. (Matthew 17:23) They weren’t just sad that Jesus was going to die. They were sad that all of their dreams of power and riches and glory would be dashed on that rock with the ugly name: Golgotha – the place of the skull. (Matthew 27:33) Instead of thanking Jesus for his willingness to go to the cross for them, they curled up in a safe space of self-pity because Jesus wouldn’t give them the glory they wanted.

 

Finally, the third time Matthew records this fascinating reaction: then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” He asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” Can you imagine having the guts to ask Jesus what James and John did? Neither could they. That’s why they had mom do it. (Who, by the way, we believe was Jesus’ aunt. see Matthew 27:56 & John 19:25) Who can say no to their aunt? They completely ignored what Jesus had just said about his arrest, torture, and death. They were after the easy life – the life where they could recline in La-Z-Boy’s next to the guy calling the shots with all of the power, honor, and glory that would bring.

 

Shame on them…shame on James and John for being so brash and bold and stupid and foolish! But…do we ever do the same thing? Do we ever ask for or expect special treatment from Jesus? Have we ever been stingy with our offerings, and yet expect Jesus to keep his spigot of blessing flowing full stream? Have we ever gone days or weeks without praying, but expect Jesus to keep his ears open just in case we decide to? Have we ever intentionally disobeyed God’s commands, and then expected him to swoop in to save us from the consequences of our actions? Do we ignore what God clearly says in his Word, but expect him to guide us to the right decision anyway? Do we shamelessly skip opportunities to be in God’s presence in His House – but still expect his presence in our homes and lives? Shame on James and John? No, shame on us! They certainly aren’t the only ones who expect glory without the cross.

 

But there was a deeper problem. By volunteering to share Jesus’ cup, James and John thought they were asking for a cushy job as Jesus’ closest advisors. But they didn’t know what they were asking for. They were like two little children who wished they were grown-ups. A child thinks that being an adult is all about calling the shots and going to bed when you want to and never having to follow anyone else’s rules. In reality, that child doesn’t know what he’s asking for. The aches and pains, the frustrations at work, the burdens of mortgages and bills and making ends meet, the wishing you could go to bed when you want to, and when you’re in bed not being able to sleep. That’s the reality of adulthood. James and John wanted to bask in glory at Jesus’ side, but the grown-up reality was that Jesus’ reign was not going to be on a glorious throne in Jerusalem.

 

No, Jesus’ reign consisted of drinking the cup the Father placed into his hands. What’s in that cup? Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Noah’s drunkenness. Abraham’s lies. Jacob’s deceit. David’s adultery. Matthew’s greed. Peter’s denial. Judas’ despair. Paul’s murder. All of it was in that cup – and more…The sins of the past we are desperate to keep hidden – in that cup. The thoughts in our heads that would make Hollywood directors blush – they’re in the cup. The words we’ve spoken to intentionally hurt others – in the cup. The things we’ve done to please ourselves or screw others over – in the cup. What have you thought or said or done this week that’s in the cup? And yet, the One who had no sin drank that cup and made our sins his very own.

 

But there is more in this cup. The final, bitter ingredient was justice. God’s justice demanded that sin be punished – that your sins and mine be punished – but instead of raining down his wrath on our heads, he rained it down on Jesus. As God raised his hammer of justice over Jesus, he cried out: my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46) He drained the cup of God’s wrath over our sin. That’s how Jesus rules. As he said: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Or, as Peter, one of the ten who resented James and John’s audacity, later wrote: he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24) Because of Jesus, we don’t just have to pretend to be happy; we can really rejoice – because God’s not angry at us anymore. Jesus has satisfied God’s wrath and delivered to us mercy, forgiveness, and eternal life. If you come to Christ and his cross, that’s what you should expect to receive – and that’s a good thing, because that’s what you and I need most of all.

 

But Christ and his cross offer so much more. The Christianity of glory may promise you whatever wealth, health or happiness you believe will complete your life; but the cross assures us that the same God who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32) The Christianity of glory will offer you free childcare while you enjoy a concert; but only Christ’s Word connected to the water of Baptism assures you that your child is in the care of their Father in heaven. The Christianity of glory tries to convince you with music and manipulation that you are “close to God”; in Holy Communion, Jesus offers you his very body and blood – you can’t get closer than that. (Matthew 26:26-29) The Christianity of glory prefers to pretend that disease and hardship and disappointment and suffering don’t happen to believers (at least, not the good ones); the Christianity of the cross confronts those realities with the promise that [nothing] in all creation will be able to separate [you] from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39) The ultimate goal of the Christianity of glory is to give you your best life now; Christ, who took up his cross for you, made this promise to all who take up their crosses and follow him: to him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21)

 

All those things – and countless other blessings – Christ has won for you and for me; and he did it on the cross. So what will it be? Let the world have their easy religion, their best life and their glory now; we’ll take the cross and the mercy, forgiveness and never-ending glory Jesus won for us there. Amen.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Outline written by Pastor Aaron Christie - http://www.trinitywels.com/site/outlines.asp?sec_id=2161&secure=&dlyear=0&dlcat=Sermons

Ephesians 5:8-14 - God's Spotlight In A Dark World - March 19, 2017

The Boston Globe is one of the oldest and most influential newspapers in the United States. Founded in 1872, it grew to nationwide prominence during the turbulent 1960s in large part due to its investigative reporting. Counting several Pulitzer Prizes to its credit, the Globe’s investigative journalists pride themselves on exposing crime, fraud, and abuse both in government and in the private sector. You may remember that in the early 2000s it was the Boston Globe that exposed the widespread priest abuse scandal and cover up that rocked (and continues to rock) the Catholic Church to this day. That investigation was also the basis for the movie that won last year’s Oscar for Best Picture – named after the investigative journalist unit, it was called Spotlight. [1] A fitting name, given that a spotlight reveals and exposes things that would otherwise go unnoticed. Yet, as fitting as that name is for a group of investigative journalists, it is an even more fitting description of our Savior, the Light of the world. (John 9:5) As God’s spotlight in this dark world, Jesus lights the way, he exposes the darkness, and he awakens the sleeper.

 

For you were once darkness. When Scripture refers to the darkness that covers this world and lives in human hearts, it is talking about something far worse than any kind of physical or mental darkness – with far worse consequences. Earlier in this letter, Paul defined the darkness into which all people, including us, were born into: as for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air…all of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1-3) We were born into this world spiritually dead and spiritually blind. Not only could we not see how to please God, we didn’t want to; we hated God. Worst of all, from our first breath, we stood condemned and guilty before God – worthy only of his wrath.

 

But now you are light in the Lord. What changed? When did this happen? It happened when we were baptized. By creating faith in our hearts, God taught us that if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die. (Romans 8:13) God shows us that disobeying his will – even if it feels good, even if it makes us happy, even if everyone in the world is doing it – is the surest and fastest way to eternal death in hell. He shows us that sin never satisfies – it only leads to broken hearts, broken dreams, and broken homes. The light of his Law shows us that we are utterly unable to save ourselves because even our righteous acts are like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6) At the same time, the Light of the Gospel illuminates the one and only way to heaven, through Jesus Christ – the way the truth and the life. (John 14:6) Not only did Jesus cure physical blindness when he was on this earth – he provided the cure to spiritual blindness by swallowing the darkness of sin, death, and the devil and crushing them by his death on the cross. The cross of Christ shines as the only path back to God – through faith in him our sins are forgiven, we are justified, the glory of heaven is ours. That’s justification. That’s 100% God’s work of saving us.

 

But Jesus does even more: he shows us how to live in this world. This is sanctification. This is how God keeps us separate from this world’s darkness. Once the Law has exposed sin and the Gospel has wiped it away – then God’s Word serves as a spotlight to guide us through this dark world. Paul encourages us to live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth). At first it might seem like Paul is mixing metaphors here, but what he says is scientifically accurate. Plants need three things to grow: water, CO2, and…light. Not only does Christ wipe out the darkness in our hearts, he enables us to produce the fruit of goodness, righteousness and truth. Goodness is genuine morality – morality that goes beyond good intentions to actually doing good things for others. Righteousness means doing what is right – not what the world says is right, but what God declares is right. Truth is God’s unchanging, authoritative, objective truth. In order to produce this fruit we must find out what pleases the Lord. This means that instead of simply going along with what is popular and acceptable to the world, we will test everything against God’s holy, unchanging, authoritative Word.

 

And just like a spotlight dispels darkness and reveals danger wherever it shines, so as children of light, we will expose the darkness in the world around us – in two ways. Paul writes: have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. Christians will first expose the deeds of darkness by not taking part in them. The contrast between our lives and the lives of unbelievers is to be as stark as the difference between darkness and light. Is that contrast clear in our lives? If the Globe’s Spotlight investigators followed us around, would they be compelled to report that we don’t live like those who live only to serve their own desires – or would they be left scratching their heads as to what, if anything, makes us different? If our TV viewing habits, our internet histories, the way we spend our time and money were to be made public – would they reveal the fruit of light or the deeds of darkness? You must answer those questions for yourself. And if you find that more often than not you are living in twilight rather than the brilliant light of Christ, repent. Repent, turn to Jesus, and find forgiveness in the blood he shed for you.

 

Secondly, Christ calls his people to not just avoid sin but to expose it in the lives of others. Can you think of anything less politically correct and more countercultural? Why should we take on such a thankless, difficult task? Think of it this way: would you rather go to a doctor who is willing to order the necessary, if painful, test to reveal the source of your illness or a doctor who tells you that you’re just fine – even when you know you’re not? That’s not much of a question, is it? We want doctors to expose the problem so that they can heal it. In the same way, just as God has brought us to the light of his truth – he wants us to expose the deeds of darkness in the lives of others, especially those we love and care about, so that they too can see the brilliant, saving, forgiving love of Christ.

 

Because we are children of light we will not sugarcoat sin, we won’t defend it, we won’t get angry when God’s Word or God’s servants expose it; we will call it what it is. This is what God’s spotlight does: it reveals hidden dangers and Satan’s traps – even when it hits close to home and even when it hurts – because it’s the only way to heal. Satan wants us to believe that having a busy schedule, children with too much homework or too many activities, or early bedtimes are airtight, God-pleasing reasons to ignore evening worship opportunities – God’s Word exposes the truth. Those “reasons” are weeds and distractions the devil plants in our lives in order to suffocate our faith. Whenever we think about worship, we should be thinking about it in terms of priorities – and the Apostle John warns about allowing worldly concerns to take priority over God and his Word: do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15) Satan wants us to think that cohabitating (living together outside of marriage) is the smart way to test-drive a relationship before making the life-long commitment. God’s Word exposes that lie as rebellion against his will. A person who intentionally, knowingly, and persistently lives in disobedience to God’s will for marriage will not go to heaven if he does not repent and change his sinful life. Paul warns: do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral…nor adulterers…will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) Satan wants us to believe that allowing money to dominate our thinking, our behavior, and our decision making is the only practical, responsible way to live in this world. God’s Word exposes it as greed and idolatry and a lack of trust in God’s promises. Paul shines the spotlight of God’s truth on greed: for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10) Satan loves it when Christian congregations tolerate or simply refuse to discipline unrepentant sinners in the name of open-mindedness or a mistaken understanding of love. God’s Word exposes this as utterly loveless and dangerous behavior. Paul sheds light on what the church should do when one of its members has fallen into sin and will not repent: what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13) We could go on, but you get the point. We are children of light – because that’s what God made us – so we will expose sin and rebuke it – and accept the consequences. Why? Why if it means losing a friend or starting an argument or hurting feelings? Because the light of Christ has exposed the true nature of sin to us. We can see that living in the darkness of sin only leads to broken hearts, broken homes, broken bodies, broken minds and a broken relationship with God forever. That is what Jesus came to save us from – not save us for.

 

And to inspire and give us courage as we seek to both live in Christ’s light and expose the darkness of sin, Paul quotes the words of an ancient Christian hymn: wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. Here is where the spotlight of Christ is vastly different from the Boston Globe’s spotlight unit. Once the investigative journalists of the Boston Globe have brought a scandal or secret to light, their job is done. They do nothing to help the person or people they have exposed to shame and guilt and sometimes even criminal prosecution. But Jesus said that God did not send [him] into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17) Just like a good doctor will diagnose the real problem so that he can prescribe a healing treatment, so the purpose of exposing and rebuking sin (yes, even excommunication) is to bring sinners to repentance. It is to show them the true darkness of their sin so that they can see the true brilliance of God’s forgiveness in Christ. It is to wake them up from spiritual slumber, so that they are awake and alive with saving faith in Christ.

 

That’s the ultimate goal. That’s the reason Christ came and suffered and died and rose again, that’s the mission Christ gave to his church and the reason he sends her pastors and teachers, the reason we fearlessly expose sin with God’s Law and graciously extinguish it with the Gospel. We want to live as children of light and we want all – both those who are dead in unbelief and our friends and family who are sleepy with apathy or indifference – to come out of this world’s darkness into Christ’s wonderful light.

 

May God continue to shine the spotlight of his love on us to show the way to life, to expose the darkness of this world, and to awaken those who have fallen asleep. Amen.  

 

[1] http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/special-reports/2012/06/22/distinguished-history-digging-truth/koYXOjPVD3CfTuRBtp0ZnM/story.html

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 - Does Faith Save? - March 12, 2017

Sola gratia; sola fide; sola Scriptura. Did you notice those words on your way into church this morning? They are engraved on the stone just to the left of the doors as you enter. In a world where we face sensory overload on every hand, it’s easy to ignore little things like that. I also realize that most of us never learned Latin and so the words are foreign. But for Christians – and especially for Lutherans – those are very important words. Those words sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), and sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) stand as the Biblical (and Lutheran) answers to the most important question in the world: how are sinful humans saved? Ever since our Savior ascended into heaven, these basic, foundational principals have come under attack by false teachers and false teachings, and have had to be defended with the sword of God’s truth. This morning God’s Word leads us to carefully consider one of those fundamental Christian doctrines: sola fide (faith alone). We ask with Abraham and Paul and believers throughout history: does faith save?

 

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? In answering this question, Paul uses Abraham as an example and guide. Why? Couldn’t Paul find someone else, someone who didn’t live 4000 years before us? In using Abraham, Paul is proving a couple points. First, he is showing that Christian faith is not something that has evolved over time – Abraham was saved the same way we are. And second, this question “how are we saved – is it by faith or works?” has always been the most important question a person can ever ask.

 

So, if we are saved by faith; how do you define faith? Is it a feeling? Is it knowledge of facts? Is it equivalent to church membership? Is it a hidden, undefinable force in a person’s heart that drives them to do what they do? The book of Hebrews gives a careful definition of faith: faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1) Is that the sense you got as you listened to Genesis 12 earlier? What stuck out to you: what Abraham believed or what he did? It’s hard to get past the fact that when God told Abraham to leave everything he knew and set out for an unknown “Promised Land”; he actually did it, isn’t it? We might think: “If that’s faith, I don’t know if I would have that kind of faith; I don’t know if I could drop everything and leave everyone and go to an unknown place even if God personally told me to.” If that’s what you took from Genesis 12, you’re not alone. Abraham was held up as the pinnacle of righteousness by the Jewish people because of what he did. The rabbis wrote: “Abraham was perfect in all his dealings with the Lord and gained favor by his righteousness throughout his life.” [1]

 

The Jews had learned the wrong lesson from Abraham. But, sad to say, many Christians do not really understand salvation by faith, either. Too often today when people are talking about faith they bring up either the internal psychology (the feelings) of faith or the great things that faith does. If a certain hymn or song makes us feel funny inside – that must be faith pulsating there. If a person has an incredible knowledge of the Bible – they must have great faith. Or, if a person who is going through a difficulty in life but they still come to church, they still have a smile on their face, they still confess their trust in God; they must have great faith. Or like the Jewish rabbis, we might think of Bible history heroes as having great faith because of what they have done. Noah, because he built an ark on dry land. Moses, because he stood up to Pharaoh and his armies. David, because he defeated Goliath. A grandparent or parent, a pastor or teacher may stick out in your mind as being of great faith – because of how they lived or preached or taught. But we must understand that when we think of faith in that way, then we’re not really talking about faith anymore; we’re talking about works. And Paul is very clear: if…Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. Admittedly, Abraham’s works were good and righteous – and before men they may have given him a reason to boast. But Abraham’s good works could never justify him in God’s courtroom, where nothing less than perfection is tolerated.

 

If you take only one thing from this sermon, take this: faith is the opposite of works. Faith is not what you know, it’s not what you do, and it’s not what you feel. How can we be certain? What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Do you remember what happened before Abraham took a single step toward Canaan? God said: I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2-3) Yes, Abraham obeyed God’s command to leave his home and family and travel to an unknown land. But Abraham didn’t believe God’s command, he believed God’s promise – the promise to make him into a great nation, to make him famous, to bless all nations through him (a reference to the Savior). That faith in the promise – trust in what God would do – is what was credited to Abraham’s account as righteousness.  

 

The same is true regarding our salvation. The Gospel is not a command, but a promise. Long before you and I were even a glimmer in our parent’s eyes, God promised to send a Savior into this world who would be born of a virgin, who would destroy the devil’s work by healing the sick and casting out demons, by preaching the good news, suffering and dying and rising again. 2000 years ago those promises came to a culmination on Calvary, where Jesus Christ offered his life as the perfect sacrifice for sin so that on Easter morning God could announce that the sins of the world had been paid in full. And in his Word, God has promised to credit Jesus’ righteousness to anyone who believes and is baptized. Where were you and I in that story? What did we contribute? Unless you want to take credit for your sins that put Jesus on the cross, you must admit that you contributed nothing. The only way to receive God’s promise and Christ’s righteousness is to accept it as a gift. Paul uses an analogy from the business world: now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness. If we must earn salvation by what we do, it’s not a gift – it’s something we have earned. But if salvation is a gift of God’s grace, then by definition, we can’t do anything to earn it. So, does faith save? Yes, in the sense that it simply believes God’s promise and receives Christ’s accomplished work. Faith saves because it takes us, and anything we might do, out of the equation. When it comes to salvation: we do nothing, God does everything. In that sense, faith, and faith alone, saves.

 

But we wouldn’t waste our time asking a yes or no question if the answer were that simple. There is a way that faith does not save. Briefly, faith, if it is misplaced or is regarded as meritorious, does not save. Jesus exposed misplaced faith in the Samaritan woman at the well. Did this woman have faith? Sure she did. In what, is hard to say (although it was likely some combination of Judaism and idolatry) – she seems to be very “open-minded” in her understanding of truth – like so many people today: “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe.” And we can see evidence of her “faith” in her life. She “had” a man; but they weren’t married. What does that tell us? This woman’s faith was misplaced; she trusted a make-believe god with make-believe laws. As Jesus told her, she was drinking from the wrong well. (John 4:13-14) In today’s terms, there’s no doubt that a young Muslim man who walks into a bar in Miami with the intention of killing as many people as possible (and knowing that he will either be killed or imprisoned for the rest of his life) has faith. He does. But it’s misplaced. Trusting Allah is no different than trusting nothing, because Allah is nothing. His “faith” will not save him.

 

In religion, like in rock climbing – the most important thing is not your rope, it’s what that rope is anchored to. What is your faith anchored to? In verse 13 Paul talks about the righteousness that comes by faith. That righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. Our right standing before God is based on Jesus’ work, not ours. He obeyed God perfectly, we haven’t. He poured out his blood on the cross, we didn’t. He paid the price for our sins – if we want to pay that price, we must spend eternity in hell. We are not saved because we believe; we are saved because Christ died to save us. The rope of faith, in order to save, must be anchored in Christ.

 

Paul also describes the problem with understanding faith as something meritorious: something that earns God’s favor: if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. If you trust your faith to save you, then you are back in the realm of obedience to the law. Specifically, the first commandment. You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3) If faith is going to save you, then your faith must be perfect in every sense: in what you believe and how you live. No one, not Abraham, not you, not me has that kind of faith. So, faith in faith is idolatry. I’ll say it again: faith in faith is idolatry. It is not trust in God. It is not trust in his grace. It is not trust in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is empty, futile, worthless. To use the rope analogy, having faith in faith is like trusting your rope because it’s so good and sturdy, even though it’s not tied to anything. Martin Luther was so averse to thinking of faith as meritorious that he said: “I am accustomed, for the better understanding of this point, to divest myself of the idea that there is a quality in my heart at all, call it either faith or love, but in their place I put Christ and say: “He is my Righteousness.”” (St. L. XXI)

 

Again, Abraham serves as a case study. He had saving faith, but it was far from perfect. Did you know that before God broke into Abraham’s life, he worshiped idols? Yeah, Joshua told the entire assembly of Israel: long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped foreign gods. (Joshua 24:2) Did you know that even after God brought Abraham to faith, he lied about the fact that Sarah was his wife, not once but twice – because he didn’t believe God would protect him? (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18) Did you know that Abraham had a baby with his servant because he didn’t believe God would keep his promise to give him a son? (Genesis 16:4-6) I don’t bring this evidence up to ruin Abraham’s reputation, but to demonstrate that even saving faith merits us nothing, earns us nothing in God’s eyes – because it is never perfect.

 

And you know what? That’s very good news. Because I don’t know my Bible as well as I should, do you? I don’t always live the way the Bible tells me to, do you? I don’t perfectly trust God’s protection, his love, his plan and I don’t always rejoice in suffering, do you? My faith doesn’t always show itself in acts of love for my family, friends and perfect strangers – does yours? Sometimes, when I keep falling into the same sin over and over again or when guilt leaves me lying awake long into the night or when the smartest people in the world claim to prove that there is no god, I sometimes have some doubts; do you? But that’s when I’m right where God wants me. Because God’s grace and his promise are not to save those who have lived a perfect life or even have a perfect faith. Jesus himself said that he didn’t come for the good, but the bad; not the healthy, but the sick. (Luke 5:31) Paul says: the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. In the end that’s where we come into the picture – we are the wicked people God has justified (declared “not guilty”) for Jesus’ sake. That promise is what saving faith clings to. So when sin or guilt or Satan or life has you feeling more like that Samaritan woman than Abraham – don’t look to yourself, your works, or even your faith – look to Christ; because his life and death and resurrection provide the only solid anchor for faith and the only certainty for salvation.

 

So, does faith save? Yes…and no. Yes, when faith is defined as the opposite of works – that clings to Christ alone; faith alone saves. But no, faith that is misplaced or meritorious cannot save. To say, “faith saves,” is like saying, “eating makes you strong.” Eating doesn’t give you anything – the nutritional value of the food does. Faith saves because it receives Jesus Christ as Savior. Faith alone saves, but saving faith trusts in God’s grace alone, in Christ’s sacrifice alone, spelled out in Scripture alone. That kind of faith, and that kind of faith alone, is what saves. Amen.

 

[1] BST Romans, 122