Galatians 3:23-4:7 - Christ Became a Slave So That We Might Become Children - July 14, 2019

Have you ever felt that your whole life, your whole being was under the control of someone else? Someone who claims authority over you and possession of you. Someone who tells you what to do and when to do it – when to eat, when to sleep, when to work, who to hang out with, how to think, speak and act – from sunup to sundown. This someone pays you nothing, gives no breaks, is quick to criticize and gives no credit for a job well-done. You exist at his pleasure: you own nothing; he owns it all, from your food to your clothes to whatever kind of roof he chooses to put over your head. You are under his thumb, his eye, his control in every conceivable way, every single day. No, I’m not describing your job or marriage. This is a description of slavery. Have you ever been a slave? Are you sure? We’ll come back to that. Broadly speaking, we’ve all experienced that situation in our lives – and there are many individuals who still are; it’s called being a child. Of course, we all know there’s a big difference between being a slave and being a child: a slave is truly oppressed and enslaved while a child is being trained and protected – although children may not see it that way. Keeping this in mind will help us understand what Paul means in these verses which we will consider under the theme: Christ became a slave so that we might become children.

 

“Believing in Christ is not enough for salvation; you must also obey the OT Law to be saved” – this was the message the rival teachers were preaching to the Christians in Galatia (e.g., Galatians 5:4). In the heat of controversy, you might expect Paul to throw the Law out altogether; to argue that it has no role in Christianity. But he doesn’t do that. He instead clarifies the proper role of the Law: Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. Have you ever felt yourself enslaved, imprisoned by the Law? If not, that’s not a good thing. It means you either don’t know what the Law demands of you – in which case you should open up your Catechism; or it means that you don’t think God is serious about his Law – in which case you need to reread the conclusion to the 10 commandments. Anyone who has taken God’s Law seriously knows how brutal a slave master it is. How every morning you wake up the Law is there, spelling out God’s will for our lives, it’s just ten items long and yet they’re 10 things that we are naturally opposed to, that grate against our idea of being independent and autonomous and free-willed. All day long the Law is there watching, analyzing, judging our thoughts, words, and actions – stinging and shaming us when we disobey, creating fear and guilt and remorse, offering no encouragement, no support, no congratulations when we do obey (because obedience is nothing more and nothing less than our duty (Luke 17:10)). And at the end of every single day, the Law issues its stern and unforgiving evaluation: you are guilty, guilty of breaking every one of God’s commandments, guilty of disregarding your Creator’s will and following your own instead. This verdict demands death (Ezekiel 18:20). If you’ve experienced this – then you know what it’s like to be a slave to the Law. This is the Law’s job. The Law doesn’t hear excuses or appeals, it doesn’t care about intentions or feelings, the Law is not about mercy and forgiveness but threats and judgment and damnation. But, the good news in this verse is found in that little word until – the law only can enslave, imprison us until faith [is] revealed.

 

So Paul shifts the image somewhat in verse 24: So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. That’s a poor, misleading translation. Better would be the law was our chaperone until Christ, so that we might be justified by faith. The Law doesn’t lead to Christ, only the Gospel does that, but the Law was our chaperone until Christ came. The Greek word is paidogagos from which we get our English “pedagogue.” In the ancient Roman Empire, a wealthy father would assign one of his slaves to serve as the “pedagogue” for his son. That slave would be the boy’s guardian, his escort, his chaperone to make sure that he got to school and back safely – and that he didn’t go off on his own, as boys so often do. The “pedagogue” was not the teacher – his job was to ensure that the child got to the teacher. Paul explains further at the beginning of chapter 4: what I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. From the child’s perspective, he’s no different than a slave – he doesn’t have free will, he must go where his chaperone leads. There’s a difference though. Eventually, the child would outgrow his need for his chaperone – he would finally be liberated, free to assume his rightful place as child and heir.

 

That’s how the law functioned in our lives – it served as our “pedagogue” to make sure we got where we needed to go. How does the Law – which always convicts, always condemns, always crushes, always commands us to do things we cannot do – get us where we need to go? Kind of like a toothpaste tube. The Law closes off all other avenues to salvation. The Law shows us that we will never, ever get right with God on our own. The Law with its unchanging demands and unrelenting pressure squeezes repentance and cries for mercy out of us. The Law cannot save us, only Christ can. But before we can get to Christ, we need to see our need for his salvation – which is the first and primary use of the Law. That’s why we need to hear the law preached to us week after week – to show us our sin and our need for a Savior.

 

But once the law has done its job of exposing our sin and revealing our need, then the Law has to get out of the way. Paul goes on Now that faith (a reference to the object of faith – Christ) has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. Because now you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. What we couldn’t do through the Law God has done for us in Christ: given us a place in his family. Like those boys in ancient Rome who reached the age of maturity, we no longer need the law to supervise us, chaperone us, enslave us. Now we are treated as sons of God, with all the freedom and privilege that entails. (By the way, when Paul talks about “sons” here, he is in no way excluding women, but in that culture the only sons normally received an inheritance – and ladies, that includes you.)

 

The great question is: how did this happen? How did we go from being slaves to sons – and not only sons, but heirs of a heavenly inheritance? All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Whereas human nature will try to work out all sorts of complicated ways to earn our way into God’s family – try harder, do more good than bad, follow a complex set of rituals and ceremonies – the Gospel solution is simple: be baptized. Your baptism was your adoption into God’s family because in baptism you were clothed with Christ. In the Roman world, your clothing said a lot about you. It told the world where you were from, whether you were rich or poor, a slave or nobleman. In Baptism God clothed you with Christ, his righteousness, his holiness, his status. So that when God looks at you he sees Christ and the words God spoke over his Son at the Jordan River: this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17) now apply to you.

 

And what’s more, in God’s family there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul is not saying that we are all equal in this world. This isn’t the great progressive social dream – where all distinctions melt away so we become some big genderless, faceless, nebulous blob. Paul is not describing a change in worldly status, but a change in status before God. Out there we are still men and women, parents and children, employers and employees – but in here, before God, we are one in Christ – equally sinful and equally forgiven. This transformation is far more revolutionary and effective than any kind of social engineering proposed by our world today. Just look around: in a society that seeks to divide and conquer, we stand united in Christ’s Church; bound together not by our own will-power or effort but by our common baptism, common faith, common confession, and common Father (Ephesians 4:4-6).

 

But there’s more: If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Do you remember the promises God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12? I will make you into a great nation…I will make your name great…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). The false teachers who had come to Galatia were telling the Christians there that they had to become Jewish by obeying the OT Law in order to claim Abraham as their father. Paul says that if you have been baptized, if you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s descendent and you receive the benefit of all the promises God made to him. You are a member of Abraham’s nation in the Christian church. You are under the perpetual blessing and protection of God – which he will give you yet again at the end of the worship service. God is leading through this dark world to the Promised Land of heaven. All the promises God gave to Abraham – whether you are genetically related to him or not – are yours through faith in Christ.

 

There’s got to be a catch, right? It can’t be that easy. That’s right, it wasn’t. It cost God dearly to give us a place in his family: when the time had fully come, God sent his Son (Take that to heart. When God decided to save you, he didn’t send more laws, he sent his Son!), born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. To free us from our slavery, God sent his Son to be born of Mary in a cattle stall in Bethlehem, one with us and subject to the very same Law we are. Unlike us, he was up to the challenge of carrying the yoke of the Law, fulfilled its demands, perfectly. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), presented in the temple on the 40th day (Luke2:22-24), he came to the Temple for all of the appointed feasts and festivals (Luke 2:41-52), he loved God with his whole heart and he loved his neighbor as himself. The free, all-powerful, independent Son of God became a slave to the law and did everything the law requires. That’s called Jesus’ active obedience – he actively obeyed the Law in our place. But the Law required one more thing. The Law required death to be paid as the wage for sin (Romans 6:23). Holy, sinless Jesus willingly allowed himself to be nailed to a cross in our place to receive the punishment we deserved. This is called Jesus’ passive obedience. Jesus’ submission to slavery to the Law is your salvation. Jesus has liberated us from slavery to the Law by obeying it and suffering it’s punishment for us, in our place. He became a slave so that you might become God’s child.

 

And you bear evidence of this changed status right now: because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” If you can call God your Father – and not righteous judge or harsh slave master – and mean it, then you are no longer a slave, you are a child of God. Some have understood “Abba” as the equivalent of “daddy.” But, Paul’s point here is not to express intimacy but rather status. You have every right to call God your Father, every right to ask him anything, every right to expect him to keep all of his promises to you because God has freely adopted you as his child. While some of us may have suffered at the hands of earthly fathers or mothers, have experienced the pain of a broken home or broken marriage, or maybe struggled with our identity – the assurance the Spirit of Christ gives you in your heart is that nothing in the universe can separate you from the love of God your heavenly Father (Romans 8:39). It’s no longer about who you are, it’s about whose you are – and in Christ you are God’s child.  

 

And so you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. Who are you? In Christ, you are no longer the sum total of who you are and what you’ve done – that would make you a slave again to the Law. No, Christ lived and died as a slave so that you might be called a child of God and heir of eternal life. No matter where you come from or what you’ve done – through Baptism that is whose you are! Amen.

Galatians 2:15-21; 3:10-14 - The Gospel Reveals Two Kinds of People - July 7, 2019

“There are only two kinds of people in the world…” We’ve all heard that opening line, and know that there are seemingly infinite ways to finish it. Some are an attempt at humor: “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are Greek…and those who want to be Greek.” (from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who think the Three Stooges are hilarious…and women.” Others are attempts at bumper sticker philosophy: “There are only two kinds of people in the world: people who accomplish things…and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” (Mark Twain) “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who work hard…and those who let them.” Finally, there is C.S. Lewis’ great summation of mankind: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “[Your] will be done,”…and those to whom God says, in the end, “[Your] will be done.” (The Great Divorce) In our text, the Apostle Paul chips in his own version. [1]

 

It’s almost impossible not to divide the world into two different camps, isn’t it? There seems to be something inherent in our nature that seeks to divide and distinguish people: there are Packers’ fans…and we won’t even mention those other teams, there are Republicans and Democrats, there are “my kind of people” and “everyone else.” And this isn’t just a 21st century phenomenon. According to Paul, in the 1st century, there were people like him, Jews by birth, and then there were ‘Gentile sinners.’ How did Paul come up with this division? From Bible History. In the Old Testament, there was Israel – the children of Abraham and God’s chosen people; and then there were the nations – and what separated them was not only genealogy but the great big wall of civil, ceremonial, and moral laws God had given Israel on Sinai. Jews believed that because they had the Law, they were righteous – and that Gentiles, because they didn’t, were sinners in God’s eyes. And this “two kinds” concept is not just a relic from the Old Testament. Think of Jesus’ description of Judgment Day in Matthew 25: there are the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In Revelation, there are those who wash their robes that they may have the right to…go through the gates into the city…and outside are the dogs (and those are Jesus’ words!) (Revelation 22:14-15) Apparently there is something to this “two kinds of people” thing. But in Galatians 2 and 3, Paul wants us to see beyond just the ethnic and religious distinctions between Jew and Gentile.

 

Paul goes on: we who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. He’s saying that even the Jews who have the Law of God know that it cannot justify them, earn them a not-guilty verdict, from God. You might say that Paul has shifted his perspective; there are still two kinds of people, but the division isn’t between Jew and Gentile but between those who try to justify themselves and those who stand justified by faith in Christ. And that’s where we will end up today. But there’s an important middle step that we can’t afford to skip over.

 

The all-important middle step is that, in the most fundamental way there is only one kind of person in this world: sinners, people who have disobeyed God’s holy will, stepped across his forbidden line, fallen short of his demands, and earned his wrath and punishment. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12). And this was true long before Abraham, long before there was any distinction between Jew and Gentile. This became true the moment Adam fell into sin – and, like it or not, we are all related to Adam.

 

How did Paul come to this realization? How did he arrive at such a dramatic shift in perspective? This was not the result of Paul’s research or experience or philosophical ponderings. It was the result of a divine encounter with the living Lord Jesus (Acts 9). Jesus destroyed Paul’s comfortable distinction between Jew and Gentile. In fact, Jesus destroys any and all distinctions we may fabricate. And we all do it, right? Here’s how it works: we find and then fixate on people who have so screwed up their lives that we look good by comparison. The law-based standard by which we judge ourselves becomes: I may not be perfect, but I’m sure better than that guy. That’s called self-justification. And, in our heads at least, in may seem to work. You may speed a little – but that guy must be going 15 over. You may let a lustful thought linger for a bit – but at least you haven’t had an affair. You may really hate some people – but at least you don’t act on it. You may slack off at work when the boss isn’t looking, but at least you get more done than Joe down the hall. You may not have family devotions or teach your children to pray or answer “here am I” when the call goes out for volunteers – but at least you come to church – unlike some people you know. Those are all just variations on the standard: “I may not be perfect, but I’m better than most.” But self-justification dies when it is confronted with Jesus. Because Jesus wasn’t just good, he wasn’t just moral, he wasn’t just better than some people, he didn’t just obey some of the Law some of the time, he was holy, sinless, pure, unblemished. He was exactly what God created Adam and Eve to be and exactly what God demands us to be. If you want to compare yourself to someone – it must be Jesus. If you want to know the kind of life God demands from you – Jesus is it. And who measures up to him? No one! Compared to Jesus we are all filthy, disgusting sinners – regardless of our good works and good intentions. No one measures up, so Paul makes the corporate confession for us all: by observing the law no one will be justified.

 

And so, if there are really two kinds of people in the world, then it actually breaks down this way: there is Jesus Christ, the Son of God who lived a perfect, flawless, obedient life before God and men. And then there’s the rest of us: sinners. That realization hit Paul like a ton of bricks. Proud, moral, self-righteous Paul became a man who called himself the worst of sinners in a letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15).

 

And what’s true of Paul is true of every one of us. That’s why, in a strange and terrifying way, those who believe themselves to be the most pious, the most righteous, the most moral are in the most spiritual danger. They are in the position of Paul before he met Jesus, who trusted his own works to satisfy God, to earn a verdict of “not-guilty” in his courtroom (Philippians 3:3-11). They are King David – who imagine that as long as they keep their sin out of the public eye that God will be fooled. They are the Pharisees who felt they deserved to eat with Jesus and were appalled that Jesus would acknowledge, much less forgive, a known sinful woman (Luke 7:36-39). Today, they may be those who feel self-justified because of their strict adherence to the laws of tolerance and diversity, because they stand up for all the “right” causes, because they join the social media mob in heaping hatred and scorn on anyone who dares to cross the line of political correctness. Or, “they” may be people like us: who are so sickened by the moral depravity in society around us that we believe that just because we are pro-life or pro-marriage or pro-religious freedom, or because we read the Bible and go to church that we stand righteous before God. Don’t get the wrong idea; it’s not that those things are inherently evil – it’s that they cannot justify us before God. Why? Because all who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law. We cannot justify ourselves before God because we have not kept God’s Law perfectly. (Just consider the 8th commandment. Try going one day without telling a lie – even a little white one. Have you even succeeded so far today?) Self-justification in all of its forms ends in death – eternal death – because trust in works leaves no room trust in Christ.

 

Wait a minute. I thought Jesus was just the Holy One whose perfect life sets the example that puts us all to shame. Well, yes that’s true. If you look at Jesus through the lens of the Law, that’s all he is: a good example. But he’s also the one whose perfect obedience climaxed when he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)! Or, as Paul put it: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.

 

So Paul points us away from ourselves and our failed obedience and instead points us to Christ and his perfect obedience and says that justification and life can only be found in him. Listen again: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. So here are the options Paul is laying out for the Galatians (and us) to consider: 1) you can stand before God’s judgement seat dressed in the tattered robes of your own righteousness, your own obedience and hope to justify yourself; or 2) you can confess with Isaiah that all [your] righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), tear them off in repentance, and rejoice that God has credited Jesus’ perfect life to your account. Here’s how the Law and Gospel function properly in my life: The Law shows me that in here, in myself, there is nothing good (Romans 7:18), just sin, condemnation and death. The Law kills me by showing that there’s no hope in me or my life – it must come from outside of me. And Christ and his cross and his promise are certainly outside of myself – and that’s the Gospel.

 

The Gospel, the good news, is that God has given us the righteousness he demands of us in Christ. The Gospel is not advice. It’s not directions on how to be better. It’s not new rules to help us fix our lives – because, as anyone who has tried to change a bad habit knows, we cannot fix ourselves. Only in Christ and the good news of what he has done for us do we find life. To put it another way, justification is not something we earn, it is a gift; a gift that we can only receive by faith. It’s the gift God gave us in Baptism, where we received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), where we were baptized into his death and his resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). It’s the gift we receive week after week in the Absolution where Jesus continues to stand behind the promise he made to his first disciples in John 20: If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (John 20:23). That gift is given in an unforgettable way in the Lord’s Supper, where Christ not only joins his own body and blood with the bread and the wine, but he gives himself to us so that we can all say as we walk away from this table: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Do you sense how personal Christ’s crucifixion was for Paul? Yes, Jesus died for the world – but Paul couldn’t get over the fact that he died for him! Make Paul’s truth your truth. Jesus didn’t just die for the world, he died for you. And his death and resurrection is what justifies you (Romans 4:25), makes you right with God, and gives you life now and forever.

 

Martin Luther summarized all of this in just two sentences: “Now the true meaning of Christianity is this: that a man first acknowledge, through the Law, that he is a sinner, for whom it is impossible to perform any good work… The second step is this: If you want to be saved, your salvation does not come by works; but God has sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him.” [2] So the comedians and arm-chair philosophers are right: there are only two kinds of people in the world. There are those who remain dead before God because they try and fail to justify themselves and there are those who are alive, justified through faith in Christ. To put it very simply: do you want God to judge you based on your life or Christ’s? God help us to look away from ourselves to Christ for our justification and salvation. Amen.


[1] Based on the outline of a sermon written by Rev. Larry M. Vogel (Concordia Pulpit Resources)

[2] AE 26:126

Galatians 1:11-24 - Proofs of the Gospel's Power - June 30, 2019

Today is the second of six consecutive weeks in which we will be walking through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week we heard Paul’s bold and uncompromising declaration that there is no Gospel other than the one that proclaims salvation by grace alone through Christ’s merits alone to God’s glory alone. If the Gospel of Christ alone saves, the clear implication is that all other messages, all other paths, all other religions are false and lead to hell. But how can we be so sure? Isn’t it arrogant and unloving to say that billions of Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, agnostics and atheists are going to hell if they do not repent? How can we be sure that the Bible is true when it seems so out of touch with the times, especially in regard to the things it says about the Lord’s Supper, the roles of men and women, church fellowship, marriage and sexuality? How do we know that the Gospel is God’s Word and not just a manmade idea? Those aren’t new questions. They were also on the minds of the Christians living in Galatia. They needed to know why they should trust Paul’s Gospel and not the “other” and “different” gospel being preached by the rivals who had come after him. These are challenging questions, but Paul doesn’t waver. He steps up with three proofs of the Gospel’s power.

 

While Paul ended last week with harsh curses, he strikes a completely different tone today. We see that he is genuinely, pastorally concerned about the souls of the Galatian Christians. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Why does Paul make this point? Well, it seems that one of the rivals’ critiques of Paul was that he didn’t get his message from the other apostles in Jerusalem (as they did!) and therefore couldn’t be trusted. And…Paul agrees with them. “You’re right, I didn’t get my doctrine from the apostles in Jerusalem…I got it from Christ himself.” And we know the details: that one day around noon when Paul was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians there the Lord Jesus struck Paul blind, called him to repentance, converted him through the Gospel, and called him to be an apostle – all attested to by multiple witnesses (Acts 9). Now, you might say: what does that prove? Many religions claim divine revelation. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to have spoken to an angel named Moroni. Muhammad claimed to have received the Koran from the angel Gabriel. The governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses claims to receive progressive (“new”) revelations from God. Tune into almost any televangelist and you will hear them talk about “what God revealed to them.” So what makes Paul’s Gospel any different? We’ll get to that in a moment.

 

But let’s make one thing clear: Christianity is grounded in the truth that the Gospel is not manmade but originates with God himself. That’s why you can trust every word of it. You can bank your life and eternity on it. If it were only manmade words, manmade opinions and idea that I stood up here spouting – you would have every right to judge it, to take it or leave it or change it or dismiss it altogether. There is no reason you should care what I think – I’m a sinful human just like you. But if what I preach to you is the Word of God, then you do need to listen very closely, because it’s not really me, but God speaking to you. That’s the only thing that gave Paul the boldness to say that there is no other gospel and the only thing that gives me the confidence to say that if you believe what is preached here, you will be saved. In a broader sense, this is why we can’t just deny, dismiss or “update” the teachings of Scripture to fit the culture or the times. We don’t dare call the doctrine and practice of church fellowship – politically incorrect practices like closed communion or refusing to worship with false teaching church bodies – unloving; we don’t dismiss the Biblical roles of men and women as sexist; we don’t dare call it a cute but unrealistic idea to expect that sexual behavior should be restricted to a man and woman within marriage. These doctrines and practices are not mere human traditions, opinions, or ideas – they are the very words of God which he inspired human prophets to preach and teach and write down. We call this verbal inspiration – that every word of the Bible is God’s Word – and therefore true and trustworthy. (see also John 14:26; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21)

 

But knowing that his claim of divine revelation doesn’t end the controversy, Paul goes on to paint a portrait of the Gospel’s power: for you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me… What is it that sets the Christian Gospel apart from every other religion? One word: grace. Every other religion in the world (and, sadly, many false forms of Christianity) teaches that salvation comes by works, obedience to a set of laws or rules. The final proof that the Christian Gospel alone is divine is its foundation in God’s grace. Paul points to his own life as an example. He brings up his own shameful past, not as an emotionally manipulative “testimonial”, but as evidence that neither his conversion nor his message were his own idea. Why not? Because he was extremely zealous to destroy the Gospel he now proclaimed. He savagely persecuted the church of God and even imagined that he was serving God by doing so. He had cooperated (and likely supervised) the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7:54-8:1) and was headed to Damascus to find some more Christians to round up and arrest (Acts 9). That’s how spiritually blind and dead he was. Paul was just as capable of turning himself from unbelief to faith as those boys we heard about in our other lessons were able to bring themselves back from the dead. But Jesus did the impossible: he breathed life into Paul; he created faith in his unbelieving heart. And when you read Paul’s letters, you see that he just couldn’t get over God’s grace to him, grace made him what he was, grace was what he preached and he didn’t dare take that grace for granted.  

 

And neither can we. While I don’t think any of us had a former life where we arrested and killed Christians and called it God’s work – we were all born dead in sin, blind to Christ, and enemies of God (Ephesians 2:1-3). In fact, we continue to bear evidence of our depraved nature whenever we reject God’s will for our lives or begin to imagine that we have somehow earned or deserved God’s favor. We bear evidence of it if we think we deserve some credit for coming to faith – or, at least, remaining in faith. But grace exposes the lies. Like Paul, left to ourselves, we would still be doomed to destruction. We contribute nothing to our salvation – God does it all, from beginning to end. It was nothing but grace that led God to send his Son into this wretched world and nothing but grace that led Jesus to willingly go to the cross to save us – long before we were born. It was nothing but grace that led God to give us life, to choose us, baptize us, give and preserve us in the one true faith. And when we die, our rock-solid confidence is that it will be nothing but God’s grace that opens the gates of heaven to us. This is what sets the Christian Gospel apart from every other “gospel” that is preached. Grace is what proves that the Gospel is divine. This grace is what Paul received directly from Christ; this grace is what Paul preached to the Galatians – and this grace is what we still receive and preach today.

 

To review: what proof do we have that faith in the Christian Gospel is the only way to be saved? First, it came from God, not from man. Second, the heart of the Gospel is something that no man ever would have dreamed up: salvation by grace. Which leads to the final proof: this Gospel has the power to change lives. It certainly changed Paul, didn’t it? He went from being a “Jew’s Jew”, dedicated to obeying the Law of Moses and hunting Jesus’ disciples to a “Christian’s Christian”, dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth. From persecutor to preacher – that’s the dramatic turnaround the Gospel worked in Paul’s life. To the extent that the Christians in Judea (who were likely well aware of Paul’s prior persecution of the Church) had to confess: “the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”

 

The gospel changes lives. In some ways, this last point may be the hardest for us to believe. Sure, we can see it in Paul’s life and maybe we can even see it in the lives of others. But what about when we look in the mirror? When I look at my life, I don’t see as much change as I should. I still lack the holiness God demands and I still rebel against God’s will for my life in more ways than I can count. And I’m not alone and neither are you. Paul saw the same lack of progress in his own life even after his dramatic conversion and call to apostleship. He admits as much in Romans 7: I do not understand what I do…For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing (Romans 7:15, 19) Why? Because even after conversion, our sinful nature clings to us and keeps coming to life and keeps trying to control our lives day after day. That’s why we not only need God’s grace to bring us to faith, we need his grace to keep us in the faith. That’s why we need to repent daily and daily find God’s forgiveness in Christ.

 

And this, this cycle of daily repentance and running to Christ for forgiveness – is how the Gospel changes our lives. Where’s the proof, you might ask? Well, why are you here? There are a million other things you could be doing on a summer Sunday morning – and yet here you are to listen to God’s Word and receive his gifts. The Gospel did that. Want more proof? I don’t talk about giving offerings very often – and yet you keep bringing them. Your service to our Risen Savior is unpaid and often unrecognized – but you keep volunteering. But there’s proof even closer to home. I know that we all have struggles with mental or physical or emotional health, we all have issues with loneliness or in our marriage or our families – and the world offers easy outs, escape through drugs or divorce or just ending it all – but you don’t give up, you keep working, keep forgiving, keep loving as God has loved you. In a society that is determined to annihilate the gender roles God has given men and women, that has all but destroyed the institution of marriage, that regards human life as cheap and disposable, that preaches accountability to no one but yourself – you stand by the truth of Scripture – in spite of the consequences. Some of you have even sacrificed job opportunities, social standing, friendships and even peace in your family for the sake of Christ. What else on earth could explain those life changes other than the power of the Gospel? But it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic. Simply the fact that you come here to willingly and publicly confess that you are a sinner who deserves nothing from God but death and judgment – while simultaneously clinging to his promise of mercy and forgiveness in Christ – is proof that the Gospel has changed your heart and life. And so, if you’re ever frustrated at the lack of change you see in your life or the lives of the people around you, don’t buckle down and try harder, but trust more in God’s promise to work real, tangible change through the power of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. God works real change through the Gospel. Paul is proof and so are you.

 

Until the day you die the devil will never stop trying to lead you to doubt the Gospel’s power. He will try to convince you that it’s just one of many equally valid religious messages out there, that it’s just a manmade message and can be changed or ignored like any other manmade message or, as he did in Galatia, to convince you that the Gospel is too good to be true – that you have to do something to be saved. When those attacks come, pull out the sword of the Spirit, remember these verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here is real, solid proof of the Gospel’s saving power: it comes from God and not from man, it proclaims God’s unimaginable grace – that salvation is God’s free gift from beginning to end for Christ’s sake, and this Gospel has and will continue changing lives until the end of time. Amen.

Galatians 1:1-10 - There Is No Other Gospel - June 23, 2019

In a society like ours, which worships the idols of pluralism, compromise and tolerance, absolute truth claims have fallen on hard times. What is an absolute truth claim? It’s the assertion that one way, one teaching, one answer is right – and all others are wrong. We see this in education – where the goal of teaching a student formulate their own personal answer is viewed as more important than teaching a student the right answer. We see this in gender identity – where the old idea that you are born either male or female is thrown out in favor of a gender spectrum. We see it in the refusal of our nation to accept the truth that any abortion is murder. Obviously we see this in religion where it’s thought that all religions – even those that directly contradict one another – lead to the same place. In a world like ours which takes such a cavalier, subjective approach to truth, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a breath of fresh air and a necessary shock to the system. He will not tolerate any other gospel nor will he compromise the pure gospel because he contends for the absolute truth that there is no other gospel.

 

We will be working through the book of Galatians in our sermons over the course of the next six weeks. Galatians was Martin Luther’s favorite NT book – to the extent that he compared it to his wife, calling it “my own Katherine von Bora.” [1] There are two preliminary items we should cover. First, I would encourage you to read through this short letter – only six chapters – at least once a week over the course of the next six weeks. It will only take about 15 or 20 minutes and you will be blessed if you too “marry yourself” to this wonderful book.

 

Second, is the background. Who were these Galatians? Where was Galatia? Why did Paul write this letter? 1) Who were the Galatians? They were people who belonged to the churches in Galatia. 2) Galatia was a region of ancient Asia-Minor, modern-day Turkey. While there is much debate regarding when Paul visited this region and established these churches, it appears to fit best with Paul’s first missionary journey on which he visited cities like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. (You can read about this in Acts 13 & 14.) 3) What led Paul to write this letter? Some false teachers had come into these congregations and were preaching and promoting a “gospel” that was different – and incompatible with – the Gospel Paul had preached to them. Like all effective heretics, they didn’t completely deny or dismiss Christ or God’s grace, they simply added some seemingly innocent and reasonable strings to the Gospel. We’ll call it a “Christ-plus” gospel and get to the details in a bit. It also seems that in order to gain credibility with the Christians in these churches, they began to attack Paul’s character and authority.

 

Paul confronts these accusations directly: Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead – and all the brothers with me, to the churches in Galatia. Paul calls himself an apostle – not to brag but rather to establish the authority of his ministry and message. An “apostle” is one who is sent – and in Paul’s case he was sent, not by humans but by Jesus Christ and God the Father. As Christ’s chosen ambassador, Paul doesn’t preach his own message based on his own authority – he preaches Christ’s Gospel based on Christ’s authority. Therefore, neither he nor any other minister had the right to change that message by adding to it or subtracting from it.  

 

Next, Paul summarizes the Gospel he had preached when he first visited the Galatians: grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God our Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. This is a loaded sentence, but if you can remember four key concepts, you will have a firm grasp on what the Gospel really is. 1) The first concept is grace. Grace is God’s undeserved, unmerited, unearned love for us. There was nothing in us to love and yet God loved us anyway. Grace is what led God to send his only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age. There’s the second Gospel concept to hold onto. 2) Salvation is God’s free gift to us, but it wasn’t free. God didn’t give up silver and gold, he didn’t give up property or power – he gave up his Son for you and for me. And he did it to rescue us from this present evil age. That’s important. Paul makes it clear that God didn’t send Jesus and Jesus didn’t die so that you could have a better, healthier, happier life here and now. No, God sent Jesus and Jesus died to rescue you from this world. Think of a hiker who disobeyed warning signs and fell off a cliff into a ravine, suffered a broken spine, and faced certain death. Would he consider it a “rescue” if someone rappelled down to him, gave him a soft pillow, a bottle of oxycodone to dull the pain, a tablet equipped with Netflix, and a book entitled 10 Steps to Surviving in the Wilderness while he slowly died? Of course not. So why would we accept anything less than a Savior from this world – not for this world? 3) The third key concept of the Gospel is peace. By our sin we declared war with God. We rejected him as our Creator and Lord. Like Adam we determined to go our own way. But Jesus came to bring us peace with God. He ended the war by suffering the consequences, the condemnation to hell we deserved. Therefore, God not only isn’t, he cannot be angry with us anymore, because his reason for being angry, our sin, has been paid for by Jesus. Being right with God – that’s real peace. Which brings us to the last point: who gets the credit for all this? If we do in any way, in the smallest way – then we no longer are talking about grace or the Gospel. 4) Therefore, the final key to the authentic Gospel is that, from beginning to end, God alone gets all the glory. If you ever hear anything from this pulpit or any other that claims to be Gospel but is missing grace, Christ’s atoning, substitutionary death, that he died to bring us peace with God, or fails to give all glory to God, what you are hearing is not the Gospel. The takeaway then should be clear, right? Own these verses, make them your own, compare everything you see and hear to them because this is what the Gospel is!!

 

The fact that the false teachers who had invaded the Galatian churches had perverted the pure Gospel is what Paul will deal with in the following verses and throughout the rest of the letter. (It’s sad, isn’t it: the Gospel is simple (just one sentence); it’s the heresies that make things complicated!) I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Imagine that I began this sermon by saying “Dear members and guests of Risen Savior Lutheran Church…what’s wrong with you? Have you lost your minds? Have you gone off the deep end?” You’d probably think I’d lost it. Why is Paul so harsh and judgmental – not to mention that he was probably hurting some feelings? One very important reason: the Galatians were in danger of losing the one and only saving Gospel. Nothing less than eternity was at stake and nothing less than shock therapy could show them the danger they were placing themselves in.

 

Here’s where we need to discuss what the Gospel isn’t. In chapter 5, Paul makes it clear that the false teachers who had come to the churches in Galatia were teaching that you needed Christ and you needed to be circumcised in order to be saved (Galatians 5:2-3). (Circumcision here appears as representative of obedience to all of the OT ceremonial law: attending the festivals, giving tithes, sacrificing animals, etc. In other words, the false teachers were teaching that one must obey the law in order to be saved.) Paul says in no uncertain terms that if you try to add anything, anything at all, to the work of Christ, you have lost the Gospel completely. Sadly, it wasn’t just the churches in Galatia that were tempted to add something to the Gospel God had prepared and delivered in Christ. And here we could make ourselves feel good by talking about how Catholics believe that they are saved by Christ plus doing penance and saying the prescribed number of “Our Fathers” and “Hail Mary’s.” We could point out how Jehovah’s Witnesses add their own outreach efforts to God’s recipe or how Mormons trust their own good works to save their souls. We could talk about how Charismatics believe that you not only need to trust Jesus, you need to display visible evidence of the Spirit’s work in your life to be saved – by nearly perfect living, making a public “decision for Christ”, speaking in tongues, or experiencing miraculous healing. But why should we? Christ-plus is just as prevalent and seductive to confessional Lutherans as it is to anyone else.

 

What does the “Christ-plus Gospel” look like among us? Often I will visit someone who hasn’t been coming to church and I will ask them why they haven’t been hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament – why they haven’t been receiving the Gospel, the free gifts of God – and you know what they will tell me? “Don’t worry, pastor, I try to be good, I read the Bible and pray all the time.” That’s Christ plus reading the Bible and being good and praying – that’s not the Gospel. It’s easy for church leaders to give the impression that it’s good to trust in Christ but you have to give generously, volunteer all of your free time, and be evangelizing everyone you ever meet if you really want to be saved. That’s Christ plus offerings, service, and evangelism – that’s not the Gospel. Especially sinister are those helpful, practical, relevant, moral sermons on parenting, improving your marriage, or teaching money management skills – not because God’s Word doesn’t give guidance in those areas – but because those things aren’t the Gospel! It’s Christ plus. Christ plus anything is not the Gospel. By definition Christ plus anything equals Christ plus the Law and no matter how good our intentions, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we improve – we will never satisfy God’s standard of perfection. (Matthew 5:48) Paul states it bluntly in chapter 3: all who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law. (Galatians 3:10) In short, Christ plus anything equals eternal condemnation.

 

Which is what leads Paul to take the gloves off with some of the harshest words in the entire New Testament: Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Just so there’s no misunderstanding, Paul is saying that if you think you will be saved because of how much you give, obey, attend, pray, study – you have forfeited salvation. You are believing in another gospel – and…guest what? THERE IS NO OTHER GOSPEL! You have twisted the gospel of God’s grace in Christ into a religion of works – and that “gospel” will not save anyone. There are many, many people who hate this message. Does that bother Paul? Am I trying to win the approval of men or God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. Paul – and all faithful preachers like him – cannot care whether people like the Gospel or not, they are called and commissioned to preach the Gospel God gave them because this is the only good news that saves sinners. Yes, if I or anyone else preach any form of Christ-plus Gospel to you, let me and they be damned – because that is not what the Gospel is.

 

The irony is that Paul’s harshest words do serve to lead us back to the true Gospel. Why is he so much harsher with those who would add good, or at least seemingly innocent, things (like circumcision, tithing, prayer) to the Gospel than he was with people like the Corinthians who tolerated sexual immorality and got drunk when celebrating the Lord’s Supper? (1 Corinthians 5, 11) Because the heart of the Gospel is that God the Father’s will was to curse and condemn only his Son. Not because the Father didn’t love the Son, but because God so loved the world (John 3:16). Not because Jesus deserved to be cursed, but because he took our curse on himself (Galatians 3:13). Jesus was cursed and damned by God even for all those who have ever preached or believed any perverted “Christ-plus” version of the Gospel. The Father damned his Son on a cross so that you and I would never be damned. That’s the Gospel. That is the incomprehensible extent of God’s love for us. That is the Gospel Paul is so vehemently defending in these words and in this book.

 

And no, many in our post-modern world may not like it – but we’re not here to please the world. As Paul said, we are Christ’s ambassadors sent to preach the Gospel of Christ – and there is no other Gospel. Amen.


[1] AE 26:8

John 16:12-15 - Jesus Is the Key to the Mystery of the Trinity - June 16, 2019

“A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That’s how Winston Churchill described Russia in a radio broadcast to the British people only weeks after Nazi Germany had invaded Poland, the spark that ignited World War II. He meant that he could not with certainty predict whether Russia would ally itself with Germany or with those nations allied against Hitler’s imperialism. “But,” he said, “perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” In other words, in Churchill’s opinion, the key to understanding and predicting what Russia would do was understanding what was best for Russia. Churchill strongly doubted that having a well-trained and dangerously aggressive German army camped on her border would be in Russia’s best interest. [1] History has proved the wisdom and accuracy of Churchill’s prediction.

 

The Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit; one God in three persons and three persons in one God is seen by many people as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” For good reason: the profound truth about the essence and being of the one, true God is simply beyond our comprehension. The infinite, omnipotent, omnipresent God of the universe can’t fit in the space between our ears. The obvious question is: then why should we spend a Sunday focusing on a doctrine that we admit beforehand we cannot understand? Quite simply, because it is the truth God has revealed to us in his Word. It is an essential foundation of saving faith, without which no one can be saved – as the Athanasian Creed boldly states. So even as we admit that we cannot and will never understand the mystery of the Trinity, the Church has confessed for 2000 years that we must believe it in order to be saved. Fortunately, God has given us a key to the riddle, the mystery, the enigma of the Trinity. That key is Jesus.

 

Jesus is still speaking to his disciples on Maundy Thursday – either in the Upper Room or on their way to the Mount of Olives. He spoke candidly to them about a broad variety of things; teaching them not only his suffering and death in less than 24 hours; but also his resurrection, his ascension into heaven and the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit would be poured out on his disciples. It was a lot of information for the disciples to absorb – especially late at night after celebrating the feast of the Passover. Jesus knew how lost, how overwhelmed they felt. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. Jesus could have told them more if they could have handled it, but they couldn’t. They were so overwhelmed by the knowledge that their friend and Lord was going to be arrested and crucified that they weren’t ready to hear any more. What else might Jesus have wanted to tell them? With the hindsight of the rest of the NT Scriptures, we don’t have to guess. The disciples weren’t ready to bear the knowledge that they too would suffer and die for their faith, that the Gospel would reach beyond Israel to the people of all nations, that the rest of human history would consist of a great war between the dark forces of hell and the power and glory of heaven, and that false teachers would distort and destroy the Gospel.

 

But that didn’t mean that Jesus would leave them to figure it out for themselves. He pointed them ahead to the day of Pentecost – which we celebrated last week. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. This is important. Jesus is revealing what the Holy Spirit’s job is. Jesus had called himself the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6) which the Holy Spirit would guide them back to. The Holy Spirit wasn’t going to fill their stomachs with a mystical feeling that would make them feel vaguely “spiritual.” Nor would the Holy Spirit introduce all sorts of “new” teachings and doctrines which undermined or contradicted what Jesus taught. No, the Holy Spirit would lead them into the truth; the same truth that Jesus taught them; including, but not limited to the simple facts of salvation: that Jesus was true God and true man in one person and that he had to suffer, die, rise, and return to his Father in heaven to pay for the sins of the world and bring them into the kingdom of God. Jesus spoke clearly and definitively: He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. In other words, the Holy Spirit would serve as heaven’s press secretary – delivering the wisdom and work of the Trinity to the world.

 

But perhaps the most important detail Jesus reveals about the Holy Spirit is this: He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. Is this yet another riddle? No. The Holy Spirit’s primary job is to point people to Jesus, to bring glory to Jesus, to proclaim Jesus’ work for salvation and bring people to faith in him. Some of you have heard my go-to illustration for describing the primary work of each person of the Trinity: picture a movie set, the Father is the all-knowing director, the Son is the superstar actor, and the Holy Spirit is the diligent but invisible…camera man – he points people to Jesus. To use Jesus’ words, the Holy Spirit would take the truth about who Jesus is – the Son of God; and the truth about what Jesus has done – redeemed the world from sin by his death on the cross; and make it known to the disciples and through the disciples to the world.  

 

Is that how you’ve always understood the work of the Holy Spirit? In some circles it’s taught that “doctrine divides; the Spirit unites.” Meaning that the church that focuses on biblical doctrine will sow and reap division while the church that focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit will find unity. Underlying this belief is the false assumption that the Holy Spirit works apart from biblical teaching. But Jesus specifically says that the Holy Spirit will not speak a different message than the one Jesus himself had spoke and taught. And Jesus taught doctrine! And yet, even many “Bible-believing” Christians today are utterly confused about the Holy Spirit and imagine that he works through their own feelings or reason to reveal new and novel teachings to them.

 

The most obvious problem with that thinking is the context of Jesus’ words. Jesus is promising that the Holy Spirit would come in a miraculous way to those disciples who were with him in the Upper Room. But there is no promise in the Bible that this gift would be given – or necessary – to all Christians of all times. But there’s another, deeper problem with that line of thinking. What are we really “hearing” when we search our hearts and minds for messages from God? Aren’t we just looking at ourselves? Isn’t it just glorified navel gazing? It is profoundly stupid to confuse our own thoughts and feelings with the voice of the Spirit because Scripture tells us what our hearts and minds – our thoughts and feelings are really like. Jeremiah says the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9); and Paul says the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (Romans 8:7) More practically, wouldn’t we all have to confess that when we’ve chosen to do what felt right or seemed logical that it often led us to do something God calls sin? Our lives are littered with plenty of decisions based on logic and emotions that have had disastrous effects on our lives and the people around us. Our problem is not that we aren’t heeding the mystical voice inside of us; it’s that we have a pattern of disregarding God’s Word and following our own hearts and minds. When it comes to following your thoughts and feelings versus the Word of God remember the words of Isaiah: to the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. (Isaiah 8:20) To summarize: does God want you to follow your thoughts and feelings – because that’s where the Holy Spirit works? Absolutely not!

 

The Holy Spirit doesn’t speak through our reason or our feelings, he speaks through the Word of God. And the Word of God points to Christ. That’s what we should be listening to because that’s where we find some actual good news. Because when we hear that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2) the Holy Spirit takes that “not guilty” declaration and applies it to us. When we hear about Jesus’ life and work, the Holy Spirit takes Jesus’ perfect life and covers our sinfulness with it. When the water of Baptism touches us, the Holy Spirit applies Jesus’ blood to us to wash away our sins. And when we eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood we receive life-giving food for our faith and the absolute assurance of eternal life. Only when you hear this Gospel message and receive these sacraments instituted by Christ himself can you be certain that the Spirit is at work – because the Spirit’s job is to point you to Jesus.

 

If you paid careful attention as we read the Athanasian Creed earlier, you may have noticed that there are two distinct sections. The first gives a very detailed and precise summary of the nature and essence of the Trinity. The second part confesses and defends the biblical truth that Jesus is God and man in one person. There were plenty of false teachings about Jesus floating around during the first few centuries of the Christian church – just as there are today. One of those false teachings was the idea that Jesus was not really God, or that he was somehow “less” than God the Father. The Athanasian Creed clearly and forcefully disputed that false teaching.

 

More importantly, so did Jesus. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you. Everything that belongs to God the Father belongs to Jesus. God’s unapproachable glory, his divine, eternal nature, his almighty power – all these things belong to Jesus too. That’s just another way of saying what Christians have confessed for 2000 years: Jesus is true God. And so if the Holy Spirit delivers something to us that originates with Jesus, he’s really bringing us something from God himself – and nothing in the world is more important than receiving what God wants to give us!

 

Today God wants to give us himself. But the only way we can receive God the Father and God the Holy Spirit is through God the Son. The Spirit points to Jesus and the Father is one with Jesus. And that means that Jesus of Nazareth who walked the dust of this earth 2000 years ago was not merely a delusional prophet or a dedicated martyr – he was and is God Almighty! Consider what that means! The God we worship is not distant and unknowable – he broke into human history and became one of us. The God we worship is not coldly unconcerned about us and our lives – he knows the struggles, pain, hurt and meaninglessness of life because he lived it too. The God we worship doesn’t want to give us our “best life” or make us “healthy, wealthy and happy” now – he lived and died and rose so that we might live with him in heaven forever. The God we worship isn’t dependent on our works, our energy and excitement and determination to save us and preserve his Church – he annihilated the power of sin, death, and the devil all by himself. The Triune God did this all for you. And when the Spirit leads you to see Jesus as one with God the Father – our access point to the mystery of the Trinity – then you have in your hand the key – not to understanding, but to believing the Trinity.

 

Ours is an age of tolerance and acceptance. All religions and all beliefs about “god” are tolerated and even assumed to have some element of truth. Our world will tolerate anything except the proclamation of the truth that the one true God is triune – and that there is no other. (Pay attention to all the mentions of “God” by celebrities and athletes and politicians. Never is the Triune God referenced so as not to offend Jews or Muslims or Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.) But we boldly confess in the Athanasian Creed that “whoever wishes to be saved must, above all else, hold to the true Christian faith. (Including the Trinity.) Whoever does not keep this faith in all points will certainly perish forever.” Does that make you uneasy? Does that make you question your own faith or doubt your salvation? Does that leave you thinking that maybe the true God really is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”? It shouldn’t. Yes, we will never, ever comprehend the Mystery of the Trinity. But we don’t have to and that’s not the goal of Trinity Sunday. Our goal is to teach and take hold of what the Bible says about the one true God. And today, we have been given the key. It’s Jesus. The Holy Spirit points us to him and the Father is one with him. If you believe Jesus and his Words and work for you then you have the Father who sent him and the Spirit who proclaims him – and by that faith you will be saved. Amen.


[1] http://www.churchill-society-london.org.uk/RusnEnig.html

Acts 2:1-36 - Pentecost: What Does This Mean? - June 9, 2019

The historic Christian church celebrates three major festivals each year. Do you know what they are? Christmas, Easter and…Pentecost. It’s no secret that of the three, Pentecost is the least known and least celebrated. There are no Pentecost trees or Pentecost presents or Pentecost parties. Many Christians wouldn’t be able to tell you what happened on Pentecost. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? If these three events happened today, which one would create the biggest headlines? Christmas: a poor, unmarried teenage girl gives birth to a baby boy in a small town stable. Easter: several women find the tomb of their friend empty, Jewish and Roman authorities report that his friends stole his body during the night. But Pentecost? Pentecost would go viral, wouldn’t it? The sound of a violent wind, but nothing was destroyed; tongues of fire, but no one was burned; uneducated fishermen speaking in foreign languages they had never learned; and all of this witnessed and, incredibly, believed by thousands of people. Today’s world craves the unusual, the bizarre, the miraculous – so why is the festival of Pentecost so neglected and misunderstood today? Perhaps the answer is found right in our text: amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

 

I.                    God Gathers His People in Miraculous Ways

 

‘What does this mean?’ is the uniquely Lutheran question. Lutheran sermons and Bible classes generally consist of reading a portion Scripture and then asking “what does this mean?” Today we ask: what does Pentecost mean? The word itself simply means 50th or 50th day. Pentecost was originally an OT harvest festival (Leviticus 23:15-22) – where the people gave thanks to God for his gift of a bountiful harvest. But God determined that the Pentecost celebrated 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection would be a memorable one, unlike any that had come before, one which would change and shape the world until the end of time – where Jesus would keep his promise (John 15:26-27) to send the Holy Spirit to reap a harvest, not a of crops but a harvest of souls.

 

Usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of Pentecost are the strange miracles: the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire. But we must not overlook two key words: it was a sound LIKE the blowing of a violent wind and what SEEMED to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. It was not actual wind that filled the place where the disciples had gathered and they were not actually on fire. This wasn’t natural nor was it magic – these were miracles. But more than that: these were signs. Like road signs, these signs pointed to something else. Then what was the purpose of these signs? We don’t have to overthink it. Luke tells us that God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven were staying in Jerusalem. During the festival of Pentecost Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims who had come to celebrate. This sound of wind gathered these people around the disciples and the tongues of fire demonstrated that the Spirit of God had filled these disciples, and that what they were about to say came from God himself. (Fire is often a sign of God’s presence. See Exodus 3:2-4; Exodus 13:21; Exodus 19:18.)

 

What was the divine message? Those who heard them said: we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues! Clearly the disciples were not babbling incoherently, but were speaking in known languages – and we are probably safe in assuming that they spoke about the God who had created the heavens and the earth, who had destroyed the world in a flood and rescued his people from Egypt, who had led them through the wilderness for 40 years and given them the Promised Land, who had disciplined his rebellious children in exile in Babylon, and brought them back to rebuild the Jerusalem and the Temple they were gathered in this very day. The message was that this same God was about to do something brand new, something that would shock and change the world forever.

 

But before we get to the message let’s not forget that God continues to gather his people in miraculous ways today. The biggest story in our synod today is that we are working to build a Lutheran seminary in Vietnam. Can you imagine that? Just 50 years ago some of you were going to war against the evil of atheistic communism and now our own synod is being welcomed by the Vietnamese government to build a seminary and train confessional Lutheran pastors. There is a section in every edition of the Forward in Christ called Confessions of Faith. This month’s article is written by a woman who despaired of trying to find salvation through her good works as a Catholic nun and how God led her through marriage and the Word to the peace of free forgiveness and salvation in Christ in the Lutheran Church. But we don’t have to look to the other side of the world or even at a magazine to see the Spirit’s miraculous, gathering power. Whether we are lifelong Christians or have followed a long a winding road to Christ alone – our faith is living proof of the Spirit’s miraculous work. No roaring wind or tongues of flame, but miracles nonetheless. All of which means that Pentecost is not over. Right here and around the world, God is still gathering his people in miraculous ways in order to reap a harvest of souls for salvation in Christ!

 

II.                  God Pours Out His Spirit on All People

 

The crowd waited with eager anticipation to hear what these signs meant. And what did Peter say? Did he admit that when his friends got to drinking they sometimes spoke in foreign languages? Did he boast that these signs showed how they were super-Christians with a special connection to God? Did he promise the crowd that if they devoted their lives to God they would be able to perform signs like this? No! Even in the midst of these signs Peter went back to Scripture. He boldly and clearly proclaimed that the central miracle of Pentecost was the fulfillment of Joel’s 800 year old prophecy. In the last days, that is, the time between Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the final judgment, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. This is the true miracle of Pentecost, the effects of which continue to this day. No longer would God dwell in and work and speak only through a select few prophets and priests – nor only through one nation, the nation of Israel. Now God would send his Holy Spirit on all people, men and women, young and old, Jews and Gentiles. For what purpose? Twice Joel writes [they] will prophesy. Often we think of prophesying as the ability to tell the future. But here, Joel is using the word in a much wider sense. Prophesy simply means to speak on God’s behalf. Specifically, to first believe and then to speak about God’s work of saving sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You experience and enjoy the miracle of Pentecost whenever you hear the Word of God preached or taught or when you read at home, when you tell a coworker or friend about Christ, when you read Bible stories to your children and confess your faith. The true miracle of Pentecost is that God kept his centuries-old promise to pour out the Holy Spirit on anyone and everyone, so that all kinds of people might believe and confess the love of God who sent his only Son into this world to save sinners.

 

Ah, but what about the visions and dreams? I would encourage you to check this out for yourself, but when you look throughout the Bible, what did God show his people through visions and dreams? From Ezekiel’s vision of a temple (the NT Church) (Ezekiel 40-48) to Peter’s vision of the sheet filled with animals coming down from heaven (Acts 10:9-23) to Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man pleading with him to bring the Gospel (Acts 16:6-10); even to much of Revelation – God showed them how He was acting behind the scenes with His Word to break down every barrier created by sin and Satan – and, as he did on that first Pentecost, to use the Gospel to reverse Babel’s curse. (Genesis 11:1-9) These are visions that you and I get to hear about and see regularly. We see the simple, straightforward Gospel winning souls and converting lost sinners in our own families, our own community and through the work of missionaries around the world. The conversion of sinners of all races, nationalities and languages was unimaginable to God’s OT people, but today, these visions and dreams are a living reality for us.

 

What about that last bit of Joel’s prophecy: the wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood. These words describe what will happen in the days leading up to Judgment Day. Why would Peter bring up these frightening images on the day the NT Church is born? It is for our comfort and confidence. It’s as if God knew that we might doubt and wonder “Well, it’s nice that they had signs and wonders back then, but all we have are the boring old water and Word, bread and wine – is the Spirit really here with us?” Or “is the Holy Spirit like a migrating bird – where we have to be in the right place at the right time and hope he shows up to bring about an exciting revival?” Or “our nation seems to be turning against God, has the Spirit given up on America?” No! No matter how anti-Christian this world may seem, no matter how many polls show that Christian membership is declining, no matter how many preachers yell and scream that the church needs a great revival or it will die, the promise is that the Holy Spirit will continue his gathering and sanctifying work until the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And every war and revolution, every eclipse, every storm, every earthquake, every erupting volcano remind us that we live in the last days and that we may expect our Lord’s return at any time. Not so that we would cower in fear but so that we would lift up our heads and rejoice because everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

 

III.               God has Made This Jesus, Whom You Crucified, Both Lord and Christ

 

Men of Israel Peter began, but he could just have easily said, “men, women, and children of Risen Savior.” Listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God by miracles, wonders and signs…and you…put him to death by nailing him to the cross. Pentecost reaches its fullest meaning for you and for me when the Holy Spirit convicts us of this gut-wrenching truth; the truth that Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost happened because we as a human race had become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts [had become] like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We may not have been there to cry out “Crucify” or pound the nails or hurl insults as Jesus hung on that tree, but he was delivered over to death for our sins. (Romans 4:25) As awful as it was that God’s chosen people crucified his Son, it is just as awful that we who have been chosen by God and filled with His Spirit through Baptism should behave like sheep [who have] gone astray, each of us [turning] to our own way (Isaiah 53:6) with our selfish actions, our loveless words and our filthy thoughts. For Pentecost to mean anything to us, the Holy Spirit must lead us to confess that our sins put the Son of God to death on a cross. Just as Peter didn’t sugarcoat the truth that day, we don’t dare sugarcoat it today: I, by my sins, caused the death of God’s one and only Son; and so did you.

 

What hope could we possibly have? Just one: But God has raised this Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. What does this mean? It means that this wasn’t a tragic accident; it means that God planned from eternity to hand his Son over to evil men to be put to death to bring about salvation for sinners. It means that Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice for the sins of the world – and his resurrection proves that God accepted his sacrifice; you are forgiven! It means that Jesus has kept his promise to send the Holy Spirit to work through the Gospel in Word and sacrament to create saving faith and to work fruits of faith in our lives. This means that Jesus sits on his throne in heaven and directs everything, every election, every international treaty, every natural disaster, and every personal tragedy and triumph for the good of His Church. This means that one day soon Jesus will return to take all believers home to heaven. This means that God the Father planned your salvation, God the Son carried it out to completion, and God the Spirit brings and applies it to you personally through the Word and sacrament. This is not just good news; this is the best news!

 

What does Pentecost mean? Pentecost means that just as he did on that day in Jerusalem God continues to gather his people in miraculous ways in order to pour his Holy Spirit out on all people through the Word to convict and convince sinners like us to believe and confess this one eternal, saving truth: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. Amen.     

John 14:23-29 - Preparation for Separation - May 26, 2019

Preparation for separation. It’s probably not the way most parents think of parenting, especially not when they’re young (and definitely not the day they’re baptized), but it’s true nonetheless. It’s true not just for Matthew’s parents and sponsors, but for all parents, and really, all of us who are committed to teaching God’s unchanging truth to the next generation. We teach our children how to eat and live and behave and to know the will of God and believe in his gift of a Savior – to prepare them for the day when we won’t be there to teach them, guide them, comfort them.

 

Jesus is doing some parental-like preparing in the upper room on Maundy Thursday in our text. He’s preparing his disciples for life after his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, preparing them for a new reality (the only reality we know): when they will live without his visible presence. He’s told them that he’s going away. (John 13:33) And the disciples are lost. They’re troubled and confused. They’re full of questions. Peter wants to know why he can’t follow Jesus. (John 13:37) Thomas asks Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? (John 14:5) Finally, Judas, the other Judas, not the betrayer, asks Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world? (John 14:22) In answering these questions, Jesus prepares his disciples and us for separation.

 

As the first step in this preparation Jesus brings up the dreaded “d-word.” The word that many find to be dirty and divisive today. That word? Doctrine. If anyone loves me, he will obey (“keep,” “hold to”) my teaching (better: “words”)…he who does not love me will not obey my teaching. Why is Jesus’ teaching, his doctrine, so important – to the extent that your relationship to his words indicate faith or unbelief? Because these words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. And not only that, but the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. When it comes to the connection between the doctrine of the Trinity and the authority of Scripture, this point cannot be overstated: the words of Jesus and the words and thoughts of the Father and the Holy Spirit are one and same thing.

 

We all have some gems of our parents’ wisdom engraved on our minds (“if all your friends were jumping off a bridge…” “if you can’t say anything nice…”). Why did Jesus want to insure that his disciples remembered his words when he was gone? Well, while Jesus was with them, he was their source of comfort and counsel. When some horrible tragedy happened in the news (Luke 13:1-5) Jesus told them how to interpret such news. When the disciples were fearful on the storm tossed Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:25), unable to understand his parables (Matthew 13:36), or worried about their daily necessities (Matthew 6:25-34), Jesus personally counseled them. But now Jesus was returning to heaven. Troubling, mysterious things would continue to happen. There would be tragedy, disaster, illness and death – and they would wonder what God had to say about these things. Jesus here promises that neither they nor we would ever have to wonder what God is saying. Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to comfort and counsel them in his absence.

 

In the midst of problems, tragedy, sickness, when you don’t know what to think or where to turn for help, the Holy Spirit still brings Jesus’ words of comfort to mind. Words like: come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28); seek first his kingdom…and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33); surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20) We know these words. But the devil is always right there, isn’t he? He wants you to believe that Jesus’ words are insufficient; that Jesus’ words are “ok” but for real comfort you need to know what the Father thinks. He wants you to doubt and dismiss the simple, clear, black and white words of Scripture and try to reach into heaven, into God’s unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16) to find out what he has to say, how he feels about you. This is why so many people are so drawn to preachers who claim a special connection to God, to books that claim to contain new revelations, to searching for God in their hearts rather than their Bibles.

 

But what does Jesus say? How does he prepare us to deal with these temptations? He says, unequivocally, that his words are the Father’s words. Have you ever heard that “God works/moves in a mysterious way”? Did you know that neither that phrase nor that concept are Biblical? Certainly, the Bible does say that God’s ways and thoughts are far above our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:11) and it is true that God is hidden from our sight (Isaiah 45:15) – but the wonderful news is that God has revealed himself, his heart, his mind, his thoughts, his feelings to us. Where? In Jesus! Jesus says anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9) God’s ways are only dark and mysterious if you ignore or disregard Jesus. So instead of speculating, feeling or reasoning what God is doing or thinking, bind yourself to Jesus’ words – because that’s what the Father has done.

 

This truth is so important that it demands further examination. We’ve all heard of people who think that God has spoken to them in some sort of dream or sign. Maybe you’ve wondered yourself: “What about my dream, my feeling, that coincidence in my life? Is that the Holy Spirit? If I don’t listen and obey am I disobeying God?” Talk to anyone who has lived this way. This sort of thinking is downright demonic and leads to a fear-filled and anxious life. “If I don’t follow this hunch, this vision, this vague feeling I might miss out on God’s perfect plan for my life; or even worse, something awful might happen to me or someone I love.” That’s no way to live.

 

The best antidote for this sort of tortured existence is the sola Scriptura of biblical, confessional Lutheranism which forcefully declares: “We must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one except through or with the preceding outward Word (Galatians 3:2,5). This protects us from the enthusiasts (i.e., souls who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word)…Therefore, we must constantly maintain this point: God does not want to deal with us in any other way than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. Whatever is praised as from the Spirit – without the Word and Sacraments – is the devil himself.” [1] You don’t have to search to your feelings, the strange coincidences of life, some dream you or someone else had about your life out of fear that you might be missing something. In fact, you absolutely shouldn’t – because Paul says if anyone should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:9)

 

Isn’t that arrogant on our part, though? How can we, Lutherans, be so dismissive of dreams and feelings and celebrity preachers when so many Christians believe that’s how God works? How do we know we aren’t missing the Holy Spirit? Because of the words before us. Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Counselor. (Literally “paraclete” – “one who stands beside.”) This word can also translated “comforter.” The Holy Spirit would not be very good at his job if he communicates in ways that can be interpreted a thousand different ways. That dream, that feeling, that urge may be nothing more than a fever, than the consequence of spicy Mexican food, than a side-effect of medicine – and how would you ever know the difference? Where is the comfort in that kind of uncertainty? It’s like letting the wisdom of a fortune cookie determine your destiny. (Not to mention that much of what people “hear” from the Spirit is contrary to Scripture!)

 

So what do you say to the person who says “God spoke to me…”? Tell them what Jesus said: the Counselor, the Holy Spirt, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Jesus doesn’t describe the Spirit’s work as placing obscure and cryptic feelings or messages in your heart or life but as [reminding] you of everything [he has said]. The only time we can be sure it is the Holy Spirit speaking (a not a demonic imposter) is when he is bringing to mind the definite, clear things Jesus said while he was on earth. Things like If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching…he who does not love me will not obey my teaching; no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5); if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (John 20:23); take and eat; this is my body…this is my blood of the new covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28) Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven to leave you mystified, struggling to decipher what God might be telling you. And so he promises to send the Spirit, the Counselor, to teach and counsel you with his own words.

 

The Spirit’s work leads directly to the second step in Jesus’ preparation: his gift of peace. The peace Jesus promised, worked, won, and gave is not of this world. The world equates “peace” to having what you want: money, family, health, home, security, etc. But we all know people who have all these things and yet still lack peace. And that’s good news for us – because that means that you could lack any or all of those things, you could be struggling financially, be laid off from your job, be sick or even near death and still have Jesus’ peace. The peace Jesus leaves is the peace between God and sinners. Sin is our real problem, the reason we don’t have peace in our hearts and lives. Our sinfulness made us God’s enemies. Our sins separate us from him (Isaiah 59:2). But Jesus lived a perfect life in our place and died an atoning death to pay for our sins, to remove them from our record. By doing what God demands and absorbing his wrath, Jesus has ended the war between heaven and earth; has restored peace between sinners like us and God.

 

If you’ve ever had someone mad at you, you know what this means. As long as they’re mad you’re looking over your shoulder, avoiding their presence, wondering and worrying if and when the other shoe will drop. That’s how many people view God to this day. He’s angry, he’s bitter, he’s just looking for an excuse to squash you. By his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension Jesus leaves us the guarantee and the peace that God is not angry anymore, he’s not looking to damn us – because Jesus was damned in our place. Because of Jesus you are in a right relationship with God right now; you stand justified and holy in his presence through faith. That’s the peace no one but Jesus can give and that no one and no circumstance of life can take from you.

 

That’s why he says do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. It’s not a suggestion; it’s a command. Why, do you think, Jesus had to command us not to be troubled and afraid? Because we’re so slow to believe that he meant it when he said it is finished (John 19:30). Because Jesus knows that we still tend to picture an angry, mysterious, threatening God standing behind every medical issue, family problem and economic crisis; that we tend to be troubled because we still think the Gospel is too good to be true, we still imagine that there’s something we must to do earn God’s favor. When we forget Jesus’ words and work we are robbed of peace. Thankfully Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to remind us that Jesus suffered and died to bring us peace with God.

 

Day after day and week after week the devil, the world and your own sinful nature will work together to give you a fearful, troubled and anxious heart. The good news is that God is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:20). And today all three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speak with one clear, unanimous voice peace I leave with you; my peace I give you…do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Let there be no mistake, the Father sent the Son with his words, the Son died and rose and ascended, and the Spirit reminds you of all of it for one beautiful, simple reason: so that even though you are separated from Jesus now, you might have peace, true, lasting peace today and into eternity. Amen.


[1] SA VIII:3, 10

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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