Luke 13:22-30 - Wrong Question; Right Answer - September 15, 2019

It’s generally accepted as an undisputed and unchanging truth. You hear it repeated everywhere from elementary school classrooms to doctor’s and financial advisor’s offices, and you may have even heard it in church. What is this unchanging, undisputed truth? “There are no stupid questions.” You’ve heard that before, right? Is that true? Are there no “stupid” questions? There are stupid questions. There are questions that should not be asked. There’s one in our text. Jesus is teaching his way through towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem telling them that he must be betrayed and abandoned by his friends, abused and wrongly accused by the church and executed by the state in order to pay for the sins of the world. And yet, even as Jesus is proclaiming the saving Gospel, someone from the crowd, someone who undoubtedly thought he was pretty clever, asks: Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?

 

Now, you may be thinking, “what’s wrong with that question? I’ve been wondering that myself.” In fact, people love to ask questions like this in Bible class, questions with no obvious answer, questions that make them appear to be deeply wise and theological, questions they hope will stump the pastor. It’s a popular question, no doubt. But it’s a bad question. Why? First, because it reveals a sinful preoccupation with the salvation of others. Like other questions in this same vein: “What about people who never had a chance to hear the Gospel, God wouldn’t send them to hell, would he?” God has never commanded us to worry about the salvation of the nameless, faceless people we will never meet. He consistently tells us to take advantage of our own time of grace (Psalm 32:6; Isaiah 55:6; Philippians 2:12-13). Second, it’s a bad question because it is an attempt to uncover the hidden will of God. God has revealed everything we need to know in his Word. If he hasn’t revealed it, it’s something he doesn’t want us to know. And we should accept that. In fact, we just get ourselves into trouble if we don’t. Remember Adam and Eve? God chose not to reveal to them the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). But that wasn’t good enough for them. They tried to peer into the hidden will of God by eating of the forbidden fruit and instead of finding wisdom and knowledge they wound up finding guilt and shame, sin and death instead. Third, and most importantly, questions like this tend to turn repentance and faith, which are to be intensely personal things, into mere abstract, theoretical ideas. This question makes heaven and hell seem like imaginary places. This question reveals a prideful and presumptuous heart; one which thinks he is clearly “in”, but is curious about how many others there will be.

 

How do you deal with stupid questions? With the Law. This person wanted to ask hypothetical questions about other people; so Jesus points the razor edge of the sword back at him. (Literally: “YOU”) Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. “You asked about others, when you should be worried about yourself. Are you sure you will be saved?” And to maximize the impact, Jesus shows us what lies outside that door once it shuts. You will stand outside knocking and pleading…there will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth. Jesus does here what the Holy Spirit chose not to do in Genesis. Genesis 7 does not describe the gut-wrenching scene outside the closed door of the ark as thousands of people pound on the door until their knuckles bleed as the flood waters rise around their necks. We don’t hear their anguished screams, the cries for a second chance. We don’t see the torrential rain sweeping them away, one by one, to certain death. As bad as that must have been, the scene on Judgment Day will be even worse. Not only will they face an eternity of torture, they will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.

 

Jesus closes with a statement that Martin Luther described as enough “to frighten the greatest saints.” [1] Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last. In other words, don’t get cocky. Don’t think that just because you’ve been baptized and confirmed, because you give your offerings and read your Bible that you can sit back and set the cruise control to heaven. Continue making every effort to enter through the narrow door, which doesn’t leave time for foolish hypothetical questions about others. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’re familiar with this concept. During the safety speech, what does the flight attendant tell you to do if the oxygen masks drop out of the ceiling? First secure your mask and make sure it is functioning before you worry about anyone else. Otherwise, you both might end up dead. If these words seem startling and uncomfortable – that’s because they are. They are cold, hard Law. They are intended to shake us out of our complacency and force us to ask the hard questions: If those who appear to be first in line to heaven can be lost, where does that leave me? Am I going to be saved?

 

That’s a very good question. That’s the question we should be asking. But where do we even start? With Jesus’ words. Jesus says that there’s a door through which people can pass in order to be saved. Yes, it’s a narrow door, and many will try to enter and will not be able to, but there is a door into the kingdom and it’s open…for now. The day will come when that door is shut and locked forever – but today – as long as the Gospel is being preached and you’re still alive to hear it – that door stands open.

 

To whom is this door open? Well, to whom did Jesus extend the invitation as he was teaching and preaching in the towns and villages of Israel? Did he call to the proud and self-righteous? No, he said come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Are you wearied by your sin and burdened with guilt? Then Jesus’ invitation is for you. Yeah, but only perfect people can go to heaven, and I’m not perfect. That’s right, but remember what John said when he saw Jesus? Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Are you in the world? Then Jesus took away your sins. Yeah, but certainly Jesus expects us to be getting better, to sin less and do more good, to get into heaven? That’s not what Paul said, Paul said here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:15). Do you get the picture? The door to heaven is open, not to prideful, presumptuous, self-righteous people – but only to confessed sinners. Yes the door is narrow because there is only one door. But Jesus is this one door – and the sacrifice he offered on the cross has opened the door wide enough for a whole world of sinners to fit through – including sinners like us.

 

 

If that’s true, then why did some people think they were “in” only to find themselves locked out? Those who said we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets. Why did they hear I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers! (This translation doesn’t clearly convey their precise argument. They’re not saying that they ate and drank with Jesus but in his presence. In other words, they had an external, superficial relationship with Jesus, but that’s as far as it went.) You know the type, don’t you? The type who wants nothing to do with the church until the time comes for a baptism, wedding, or funeral – then they insist that the church open its doors, as if that somehow opens up heaven. The type that thinks coming to church on Christmas and Easter makes you a Christian. But it can also be the type who sit right there in those chairs week after week and say all the right words but don’t really mean it; who come merely out of habit, not because they desperately need forgiveness, who imagine that somehow, every single sermon is aimed at other people and not themselves. People like that believe what the evildoers in our text believed: that salvation comes by proximity, that merely being in the presence of Jesus is enough to gain you entrance into his kingdom on the last day.

 

The fact is that being in Jesus’ presence doesn’t make you special – any more than breathing air does. Jesus is present everywhere (Jeremiah 23:23-24). There is nowhere anyone can escape his presence (Psalm 139:7-10). But salvation doesn’t come by merely being in Jesus’ presence. Salvation is attached to the body of Jesus hung on a cross and the blood of Jesus shed to cover sins. Jesus doesn’t tell us to eat and drink in his presence but to eat and drink his body and blood (Matthew 26:26-28), to believe in him (John 6:36), to be saved. Jesus made this point explicit to some of the 5000 people he had miraculously fed with just a few fish and loaves of bread. They believed that because they had eaten in Jesus’ presence, they were set. But Jesus dashes this fantasy to pieces: 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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:53-54). The door to heaven is narrow, impossibly narrow for anyone bloated with unforgiven sins or hauling the baggage of self-righteousness to enter. But the door to heaven must open for all who have become small by laying their sins at the foot of Jesus’ cross and placing their faith in his merits. That’s repentance. That’s what Jesus is driving at when he says [continue] mak[ing] every effort to enter through the narrow door. Continue repenting, continue believing in Jesus for forgiveness. Continue struggling against the devil, the world and your own sinful flesh that would have you think that only others need to repent. Repent and believe and step through Jesus, the narrow door to heaven.

 

This text began with a fundamentally foolish question: are only a few people going to be saved? It’s foolish because it comes from a heart of pride and presumption. It’s stupid because it tries to pry into the hidden knowledge of God – knowledge that God doesn’t want us to have. But did you notice what entrance into the kingdom depends on? Those locked out claimed to know Jesus, but what does he tell them not once, but twice? I don’t know you. Entrance into heaven doesn’t depend on whether you know Jesus…it depends on whether Jesus knows you. If you are really concerned about your salvation, that’s the all-important question: does Jesus know you? How can you be sure? Well, if Jesus has called you by name in Baptism, then he knows you. If you have heard Jesus’ spokesman say to you: “I forgive you all your sins” then he knows you, but he doesn’t know your sins. If Jesus gives you his body to eat and his blood to drink – I’d say it doesn’t get more intimate than that.

 

Do you see why we place such a huge emphasis on the means of grace – the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – here? Those are the only means, the instruments, through which Jesus gets to know you, to wash away your sins, to cover you with his righteousness so that you can be certain that the narrow door to heaven will be open for you. I don’t think we can overstate how comforting it is that our salvation doesn’t depend on how much we know – or think we know, but rather on how well Jesus knows us. Newborn infants can’t confess their faith – but Jesus welcomes them into his arms and blesses them – he knows them (Mark 10:16). There are times in all of our lives when we forget all about Jesus, we stray from the narrow path, and we can start to think that he could never forgive us for what we’ve done, we can begin to think that we are beyond saving – but even then Jesus is thinking about us, praying on our behalf: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Perhaps most important of all, the day may come when we don’t know our spouse, our children, or what year it is. Even then, Jesus says I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep…I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:14, 28). Does Jesus know you? Continue making every effort to hear his Word, to receive his forgiveness, to eat and drink his body and blood at this table – and you can be absolutely positive that Jesus, the narrow door, knows you.  

 

Forget about asking foolish, theoretical questions regarding things that God doesn’t want you to know. Don’t worry about how many will be saved, that’s God’s concern, not yours. Instead ask the important question: am I going to be saved? And cling to the answer: Jesus has died for your sins, Jesus has called you by name in Baptism, cleansed you with his absolution, and given his very body and blood to you to eat and drink – he knows you, he claims you, he is the only door, the narrow door to heaven for you. Yes, one day this door will slam shut forever. So don’t wait, repent and believe today, because today this door is open to you. Amen.

 


[1] Lenski, Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Columbus, Ohio: The Wartburg Press. 1946) 755

1 Samuel 2:12-26 - How'd She Do That? - September 8, 2019

School has resumed and among the many things students may be learning about this year (if they’re still teaching history classes today) are the seven ancient wonders of the world. You remember what they are, right? No, me neither, because all but one have been destroyed. They are proof that man-made marvels just don’t stand the test of time. Is there anything you marvel at today? Anything that makes you go “how’d they do that?” Or have we become cynical, knowing that today’s marvels will be topped by tomorrow’s and none of them will really last? Did you know that there is one thing that is a perennial, perpetual marvel – not just in 2019 but in any year? Something truly rare and priceless? A faithful and active Christian young person. Now, I could recite some numbers from polls of religion in America detailing the loss of young people from the church, but I would argue that the best evidence is right here in this room: look around and see how few of the young people who were confirmed at this very altar still attend faithfully. Yes, a faithful Christian young person is a rare and precious modern marvel, and our text this morning puts one of the marvels before our eyes. The boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with God and with men. What parent wouldn’t love to have their child described in those terms? And so the question is: how did Hannah do that?

 

I’m fairly certain if we were to go around the room and ask the question: “what’s the secret to successful parenting?” there would be as many answers as there are people. Why would that be? Well, because in today’s world most people today see child-raising as a matter of personal preference. “You raise your kid the way you want to and I’ll do it my way and don’t you dare question or criticize how I do it.” Is that true? Are we free to raise our children however we want? God doesn’t seem to think so. Train up a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6), he says, not whichever way you think is best. “Ah, but that’s just a dusty old proverb, and no one even knows what it means.” We learn what Proverbs 22:6 means by comparing and contrasting the interwoven stories of Hannah’s and Eli’s sons. 

 

The Lord first directs our attention to Eli’s sons: Hophni and Phinehas. Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD. Literally, the Hebrew says that “they did not know the Lord” – they didn’t believe in him. That’s every Christian parent’s nightmare, right? And their unbelief manifested itself in their lives. Apparently Eli had adopted a very progressive style of parenting – he allowed them to live however they wanted. And do you know what happened? That’s exactly what they did. They abused their positions as priests. They would steal the best part of the people’s sacrifices for themselves through threats of physical force (1 Samuel 2:16), and they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Eli had raised two worthless, good-for-nothing, unbelieving sons. “That’s not very nice, who are you to judge another parent?” Fair enough. Here’s the Lord’s judgment: this sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight.

 

Eli knew all about his sons’ lifestyles, and what did he do? Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel…So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” Eli did what a parent should do, right? He confronted his wicked sons with their sins. Well, kind of. He griped and complained about their behavior, but he didn’t do anything about it. He just made empty threats. He seemed more concerned about his reputation among the people than his sons’ standing before God. Eli’s failure was aggravated by the fact that he wasn’t just a father, he was also the high priest. As high priest, he should have stripped them of their priesthood and excommunicated them until they repented. When Eli finally rebuked them, it was too little, too late. He had tolerated his son’s wicked lifestyles for so long that by the time he tried to correct them, their hearts had become callous and hardened. And because Eli had failed to discipline his sons, God decided to do it for him: it was the LORD’s will to put them to death. Yes, this is the same LORD who wants all people to be saved (2:4). But as a result of Eli’s failure to discipline his sons (Proverbs 13:24) and the resulting hardening of their hearts, God had run out of patience and ended their time of grace in judgment. (Not long after this both were killed in battle on the same day (1 Samuel 4:11)). Eli serves as a cautionary tale against failing to discipline children when they need it.

 

So much for the pastor’s kids, what about Hannah’s? What do we know about Hannah? We know that she and her husband faithfully visited the tabernacle to worship and offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 1:3). We know that Hannah was barren for many years but that she prayed persistently to the Lord for the gift of a son (1 Samuel 1:12-13). We know that she remained faithful even after the Lord granted her request: first, she named her son Samuel which sounds like the Hebrew for “heard by God.” Second, she kept her vow to give Samuel back to the Lord once he was weaned. (Can you imagine sending your five or six-year old away to study for the ministry?) Just as important, even when Samuel was already serving the Lord in the tabernacle at Eli’s side, Hannah knew that her job as parent wasn’t finished. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Even though Samuel was no longer under her roof, she still took responsibility for his spiritual welfare. She was hands-on. She supplied and supported and encouraged his work in the Word.

 

Two families. Both with the same advantages and opportunities – but drastically different outcomes. Why? Well, while Eli’s highest priority seemed to be maintaining his position and reputation among the people, what was the highest priority in Hannah’s life? If you guessed Samuel, you’d be wrong. Samuel was not Hannah’s #1 priority – and that’s what makes her such a fine example. (Children are gifts from God, but they are not little gods!) God was the highest priority in her life demonstrated by the fact that she kept her vow to give him back to the LORD. Hannah was willing to sacrifice everything, even the precious time with the son she had prayed and prayed for, because for both her and her son, God came first.

 

 

Do we do that? Do we teach our children that the highest priority in life is God? Make no mistake, theology class is in session every minute you spend with your children. What are we teaching them when we send them to Sunday school but skip Bible study ourselves, when we prioritize academic and athletic success over Christian education, when screen time replaces devotion time, when our Bibles sit on the shelf at home gathering dust, when we only pray as a family in crisis situations, when summer vacation means a vacation from worship? When push comes to shove in our busy lives and first thing to get shoved out is God and his Word – what do you think your children learn from that? Who or what will they think is “god”? And when that’s the case, why would we expect the outcome to be anything different than Eli’s sons? Parents – you – not their Sunday school teacher or pastor – are the primary connection to God’s Word in your child’s life! If you have neglected God’s Word in your home and life, it’s not just your sin anymore – you are also causing one of Jesus’ little ones to sin. You heard what Jesus said about that, right? If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

 

Do we deserve to be wearing a millstone? I do. I’ve found it far too easy to prioritize other things before God in the lives of my sons. And I know how easy it is to rationalize bad priorities. It’s easy to assume that they’re too young to learn or imitate my bad behavior. It’s way easier to throw on a TV show than read a Bible story. We come to church regularly, why would we need to have a family devotion at home? Giving them what they want is a whole lot easier than disciplining them. I know how tempting it is to follow modern parenting methods rather than the way God has laid out in his Word. Just thinking about it feels like a millstone around my neck. The guilt and shame are unbearable. Thankfully God is a far better parent than I am – because when I come to him dragging my millstone of parental malpractice, do you know what he says? “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18) Parents – you need to hear this and take this to heart. Whether your child is 3, 33, or 53, your sins of parental malpractice are forgiven, cleansed, gone. That doesn’t mean they were no big deal – they were – but God does not hold them against you. That’s the biggest question of all: how could he do that? Like Hannah, he had to give up his one and only Son to do it. He hung the millstone of our sin around Jesus’ neck on the cross so that we could be forgiven. And in the end, that’s why God and his Word must be our top priority – not because his Law provides guidance for this life, though it does – but because his Gospel is the only thing that can open the door to eternal life. If we believe that children really are sinful from conception (Psalm 51:5) then what could possibly be more important in life than giving them every opportunity to receive the forgiveness of sins God’s only Son purchased with his own blood?

 

Now for the million dollar question: if I do that, spend the time and money to train up my child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6) will that guarantee that they will be faithful throughout their lives and saved on the Day of Judgment? We should know better than to ask questions like that. In the end, each person is accountable to God for their sin and their faith (Ezekiel 18:20). We cannot force anyone, not even our own children, to believe in Jesus as their Savior. But we can encourage them, we can train and discipline them, maybe most important – we can teach them by our own example to treasure God’s Word. We can remember that our job isn’t done once they’ve been confirmed. And, here’s perhaps the part that gets overlooked most often, we can recognize that the primary classroom for this training is not in those rooms over there. It’s on the couch as you choose which TV shows to watch and which to turn off. It’s in the car as your children hear the language you use towards other drivers. It’s in the kitchen as they learn about marriage from how mom and dad treat each other. It’s in the crowded restaurant where you lead them in giving thanks for the food God has provided. It’s in how you talk about your neighbors and coworkers and governmental leaders. It’s in the “Jesus forgives you and I forgive you” when they repent color on your walls or crash your car or mess up their lives as adults. The biggest lie the devil has sown regarding Christian education is that it’s something that happens for one hour a week in Sunday school. If we believe that, then we’ve already lost the battle. Christian education is a life-long process and the world is the classroom. We cannot force our children to be faithful to God, but we can be faithful trainers in God’s Word like Hannah.

 

So back to our initial question: how’d she do that? How did Hannah’s son grow in favor with the LORD while Eli’s fell under God’s judgment? Was it nature or nurture? How about neither? Here’s the secret. When Samuel was old enough Hannah dedicated him to the LORD (1 Samuel 1:28 EHV). The Hebrew word contains the same idea as the one translated train up in Proverbs 22:6. It’s the word used for dedicating something to the LORD (Deuteronomy 20:5; 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chronicles 7:5). In other words, Hannah knew what every Christian parent should know: we can’t raise children the way they should be raised, that’s why we need to dedicate, entrust, give them to our good and gracious Father in heaven. It begins with baptism and Sunday school and confirmation class – but it doesn’t end there. It continues as the Word of God fills our hearts and our homes and our lives and is absorbed by the little sponges God has given us. As we said earlier, manmade marvels just don’t stand the test of time. But when you entrust your child to your heavenly Father’s care in in Word and Sacrament, don’t be surprised if people come to you and ask you: “what’s your secret? How did you do that?” And now you know the answer. “I didn’t. The LORD did.” Amen.

 

Genesis 15:1-6 - The Miracle of Faith - September 1, 2019

Have you ever thought about how impossible faith is? How there is really no good, demonstrable reason that we should believe anything the Bible says? How none of us have seen with our own eyes the people and events on which the Christian faith is based? If you stop and think about everything that is working against faith – it’s nothing short of miraculous that anyone living in 2019 has it. And so today we’re going to talk about the miracle of faith.

 

Our text for today relates a portion of the life of Abraham, or Abram, as he was still called. Scripture regularly presents Abraham as “the father of faith,” a prime example of someone who was sure of what [he hoped] for and certain of what [he did] not see (Hebrews 11:1). And the final verse of our text tells us why: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. Abraham believed God’s promises, staked his life and his eternity on them – and through this hand of faith God gave Abraham the righteousness that he needed to be saved from final judgment and receive the gift of eternal life. Through faith, God gave himself to Abraham as his shield and reward. This is also why for centuries Lutherans have claimed the motto of sola fide, “faith alone.” When we discuss true, biblical faith, we are not discussing some trivial element of Christianity, we aren’t talking about personal feelings and opinions, and God forbid we ever equate Christian faith with other so-called “faiths” in the world. When we talk about faith, we are talking about the one thing that can save sinners from God’s wrath, the one thing that divides the world into those who are saved and those who are damned forever. Because faith is so important and yet can sometimes seem to be some nebulous, indescribable thing, God has put Abraham forward as a living and breathing example of faith.

 

I’m not sure that Abraham would have been my first choice. Just think about everything that was working against him. Back in chapter 12, the Lord called him from out of the blue and told him to leave his family, leave his home and go to a land he had never seen. How quick would you be to pack up everything and leave based on literally nothing more than the promise of God? On top of that, the Lord told Abram that he would make him into a great nation – as innumerable as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). And you know what obstacle stood in front of that promise, right? Abraham was 75 and his wife, Sarah, was 65 – and they had been childless the entire time. We’ve been blessed with lots of babies in recent years at Risen Savior, but none from mothers who were eligible for social security benefits. Certainly, by all appearances, the deck of reality was stacked against God’s promises.

 

From that perspective, the purely human perspective, there’s no way Abraham should have believed these wild promises. And at certain times, Abraham showed that he didn’t – at least not perfectly. He got impatient with God. He challenged God: you haven’t given me any children. He didn’t trust God’s plan or timeline. He tried to take matters into his own hands; sleeping with his wife’s servant to work around God (Genesis 16). Does that sound familiar? Do we ever get impatient with God – expecting him to act on our timetable – and when he doesn’t, to take matters into our own hands? But this is meant to comfort us. To show us that not even the “father of faith” was by any means the perfect believer – especially in the face of real, seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle believers face today in holding onto faith is that they’ve been led to believe the wrong thing, for example, that when you put your faith in God then life will automatically get better (that having faith is like having an all-powerful genie on your side to make life go according to plan). Perhaps more believers have fallen from faith in recent decades because they believed this lie than any other single reason. The truth is that faith is not a guarantee that your life will get better – in fact it means that you will face more challenges in your life than you otherwise would. Don’t be surprised by this, because Jesus didn’t say “take up your La-Z-Boy and follow me.” He said take up your cross and follow me (Luke 9:23).

 

Take another one of the heroes of faith found in Hebrews 11, Abel, for example. This is what God says about Abel: by faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead (Hebrews 11:4). Abel is a hero of faith. He’s still speaking to us. What is he saying? “There I was, minding my own business, bringing my offering to the Lord. But then my brother got jealous of me and one day he invited me to go out into his field and guess what happened! He killed me! That’s what I got for trusting the promises of the Lord!” Did God fail Abel? Absolutely not! He rescued him from this awful world where a man could do that to his brother. Sadly, Abel’s example is not unique. Throughout Bible and church history, the greatest challenge countless believers have faced have been the people closest to them. Again, the lesson is that we shouldn’t expect the life of faith to be smooth. In fact, we should expect just the opposite. But that doesn’t make it easy, does it? It still presents an obstacle because in those hard moments, the devil tempts us to believe that God isn’t good and doesn’t care about us and isn’t serious about keeping his promises.

 

What happens when those temptations come to you? What happens when God doesn’t come through for you in the way or in the time you expect? What happens to faith when your world comes crashing down around you and there’s no magical happy ending? When the biopsy comes back “malignant”? When you get laid off from work because they’re looking for someone younger and cheaper? When the pension or social security you were counting on fails? When your spouse says “I don’t love you anymore”? When the child you raised to fear and love the Lord decides to marry a Mormon or comes out as homosexual or attempts suicide? Has God failed? Is your faith shaken? And these aren’t just theoretical obstacles either, are they? Some of you are facing challenges like them right now.

 

And those are just some external obstacles. Think about the internal obstacles. So you say you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is really true God in the flesh and your Savior? Have you ever seen this Jesus guy? Have you seen any evidence of those fantastic miracles he’s said to have performed? Can you explain to me how a Jew dying as a criminal on a cross 2000 years ago has any impact on your life, much less wipes out everything you’ve ever done wrong? And then you believe that he rose from the dead? Tell me, when was the last time you saw somebody rise from the dead? You really believe all this? Do you see how impossible this faith thing really is? And yet, you believe. You’ve staked your life and your eternity on a man you’ve never met, who died as a convicted criminal on a cross because he supposedly escaped a sealed tomb and rose to life. There are only two options: either faith is a miracle – or we’re all crazy.  

 

Faith faces a huge test when we’re faced with obstacles like that – obstacles that seem to come with more frequency and ferocity as this world spirals down the drain to Judgment. And we need to be honest about these obstacles. It doesn’t do anyone any good to simply walk around with a stupid smile on our faces pretending that these challenges don’t exist. That kind of shallow, superficial faith will quickly wilt in the face of trials and temptations (Matthew 13:21). Faith has to be able to deal head-on with these challenges.

 

How? The first way is to recognize that that all of those obstacles – as real as they are – are only obstacles “humanly speaking.” These challenges are only insurmountable from our limited, human point of view. For Abraham to trust that he could find a safe home in a place he had never seen or heard of, that Sarah could bear a son post-menopause, and that one of his offspring would be the Savior of the world – was, indeed, impossible from his limited, human perspective. But we don’t talk about faith from a human point of view. Humanly speaking, faith in God’s promises is exactly what the world calls it: a foolish, unintelligent, delusional dream. But faith is not a matter of humans speaking; faith is a matter of God speaking – and that’s what really matters. Because when God speaks, all sorts of “impossible” things happen: everything comes from nothing (Genesis 1), highways appear in seas (Exodus 14), virgins give birth (Luke 2), and former pagans like Abraham believe! And that’s the real reason we call faith a miracle – not because you’ve got to be crazy, but because it’s God’s work from start to finish. And so when our faith is challenged, what do we need? More of God’s Word! Like Abraham, we need to hear God repeat his promises over and over to sustain our faith.

 

Faith is a miracle because faith is God’s work. For most of us, that miracle first happened in baptism – which is a beautiful picture of this. There at the baptismal font, God used nothing but his Word and some water to adopt us into his family, wash away our sins, plant the seed of faith and write our names in the book of life. That’s why, both the authors of the NT and faithful Christian teachers go back to baptism so frequently, especially in times of trouble. When your faith is tested and challenged, even by death itself, the very best thing to do is ask yourself: am I baptized? Did God promise me in that sacrament that he would never leave or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5)? Has he ever revoked or nullified that promise? Is there anything in this world that can separate me from the love of my God who is bigger than the world and whose grace is greater than any of my sins (Romans 8:38-39)?

 

Putting us into circumstances that make us ask those questions is how God exercises our faith. He puts obstacles into our lives in order to strengthen our faith, by forcing us back into his word and promises. Because in the end, faith is not an emotion, it’s not the mere knowledge of some Biblical facts, it’s not some vague belief in a generic “god.” The demons have that kind of faith (James 2:19). That’s not saving faith. Saving faith starts with a specific knowledge of what the one true God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has said and promised in his Word (which is why, if you don’t know your Bible, you can’t really have faith!). Then, saving faith agrees with those words and promises. Faith agrees or confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, that his death has wiped away the sins of the world, that he did, in fact, rise from the dead after three days and will return again to judge the living and the dead. And finally, saving faith trusts these things, making them personal. Saving faith trusts that Jesus loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20), that he is my shield from judgment, my very great, eternal reward. Saving faith is trust in the promises of God and saving faith recognizes that all of God’s promises find their center and their answer in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).

 

This is faith that lasts. This is faith that is unshaken by challenges and obstacles because this faith is not rooted in me and my ever-changing circumstances but in God and what he has done for me in Christ – and that will never change, not even when this body and this world are destroyed (Isaiah 54:10). You will be tested, of that you can be sure – just like Abraham, just like the apostles, just like every saint who has gone before you. But this faith does the impossible: it trusts God’s promises in spite of challenging circumstances because it sees beyond the present to the ultimate, unshakeable proof of God’s goodness: the cross of Christ. The cross is the one thing you can, you must hold onto – because it will not move, even when the rest of life is falling apart around you.

 

Yes, this faith is a marvelous and miraculous thing. Not because you’ve got to be crazy to believe it, but because it is all God’s doing, from beginning to end, through his powerful Word. This miracle of faith will see you through every obstacle you face in life and by this faith you will be shielded and rewarded on the Last Day. If you haven’t in a while, take some time today to thank God for his miraculous, powerful gift of faith! Amen.

Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:1-11, 17-26 - Chasing After the Wind - August 25, 2019

Have you ever tried to catch the wind? It’s impossible. Oh sure, you can catch some of the things carried by the wind: butterflies, mosquitoes, the common cold – but not the wind itself. But what about accomplishments, pleasures, wealth – have you ever chased after them, tried to grab on to them and store them up, thinking that at some point they will make you happy? In the Gospel Jesus taught that it doesn’t matter how big your barns are and how much stuff they are filled with – because when God comes for your soul, none of it will matter anyway (Luke 12). Our lesson from Ecclesiastes goes even further, claiming that apart from God all earthly pursuits are meaningless in view of death. Aren’t you glad you rolled out of bed this morning to hear that? The Lord loves us too much to let us chase the winds of this world now and learn the truth only when it’s too late, when our eternity is already determined.

 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Havel havelim [1], declares King Solomon. When Hebrew writers repeat a word, it’s a superlative; “the epitome of meaninglessness.” Emptiness. Nothing. Vapor. What is? Anything and everything; life itself. And if anyone would know, it would be Solomon – because he had it all and more – and yet, probably writing as an old man, he looks back and calls it all meaningless, as meaningless as chasing after the wind.

 

And while Solomon learned this hard lesson, each generation must learn it for itself – and in our generation, these are fighting words. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve been conditioned to evaluate life based on wealth, fame, power, beauty, accomplishment – and a host of other earthly measures. We’ve been taught to study hard so that you can get a good degree with which you can find a good job which will make you appealing to a good spouse who can help you find the perfect house in which to raise the perfect children until you enroll them in the ideal college and find them an ideal spouse – at which point you can crack open that giant nest-egg you worked so hard for in retirement, take life easy; eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12:19). It’s not a stretch to suggest that this is the American dream. But on a deeper level, this is the delusional dream spawned by our sinful nature – that true happiness is out there, just around the corner, you just need to find it and grab ahold of it. And it’s not going to let go of its dream easily. The sinful nature can’t be persuaded or converted – it must be killed. And that’s the job of the Law – to expose the sin that lives in our hearts and put it to death (Colossians 3:5). It’s an ugly and painful death – but it must be done to escape the hellish eternity which awaits all who set their hearts on earthly things. So, for the sake of your soul, listen as Solomon drains the life out of the American dream.

 

The first illusion to die is that of pleasure. I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. “Work hard, party harder” is not just a saying found on T-shirts and bumper stickers, it’s the philosophy many live by. And it’s not new. The Lord condemned the Israelites for lounging on their ivory-embroidered beds and drinking wine by the bowlful (Amos 6:1-7) The Epicureans of Paul’s day lived by the motto let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32). The hedonistic, Hugh Hefner philosophy of chasing personal pleasure is attractive – the question is: does it work? Does it satisfy? You can fill your belly with the very best food and drink – and make no mistake, these are gifts from God (Psalm 145:15) – but if these gifts are enjoyed apart from thanksgiving to the Giver, then you’re no better than livestock; you’re simply a well-dressed food processor. Last night’s gourmet dinner amounts to nothing more than this morning’s hangover and heartburn. Well, sex then. Sex is satisfying, right? Not outside of the boundaries God has painted around marriage – color outside of these lines and all you get is loneliness and emptiness, broken hearts and broken families. Millennials are known for pursuing pleasurable “shared experiences” over accumulating “stuff” – thus the rise of adventure vacations, escape rooms, and Airbnb’s. Does it work? No, just like “stuff” there’s always one more adventure to have, one more niche restaurant to “experience” and one more exotic place your friends say “you just have to visit.” Chasing the wind of pleasure is just that: chasing after the wind.

 

Ok then, how about acquiring wealth? I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well – the delights of the hearts of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve…nothing was gained under the sun. Can piles of wealth give meaning to life? Jesus calls the person who believes that a fool who has forfeited his soul (Luke 12:20). Sooner or later, everyone realizes that death will rob you of every last penny you worked so hard for – that’s why hearses aren’t equipped with trailer hitches. But it’s far more important to see that wealth doesn’t bring happiness even when you’re alive. To the illusion that says “If I can only make enough to buy this, to find financial security, then I’ll be happy,” Solomon responds, “don’t bother, I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work.” Have you ever known anyone who earns enough? Who has saved enough? Has a car that is new enough? Gadgets that are cutting-edge enough? You build your own little kingdom only to have your children give it all away to Good-will. You might die a millionaire and be buried next to a beggar. It’s meaningless – a chasing after the wind.

 

Well, if it’s not the destination, then it must be the journey: life’s meaning must come from work. To this proposition, Solomon responds, what does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. Ah, but that’s not what the American dream seductress whispers into your ear. She transforms the quiet wisdom of “work ethic” into the shrill scream of a slave-driver: “Work, work, work. Learn, earn, compete, build your resume, plan, sacrifice, worry, lose sleep, skip vacations, add hours, increase responsibility, climb the corporate ladder, scratch the right back, invest, buy low, sell high, save, risk, work, work, work!” After all this, your life will have meaning and fulfillment – right? Wrong! Solomon says that all the hours he worked, all the plans he made, after building a temple for the Lord and a palace for himself, all his toil brought him nothing more than greater stress and sleepless nights. And if you think his experience was unique, consider that 1 in 6 Americans take medication to combat depression and anxiety. [2] What will all your hard work amount to after you retire, after you hand it over to someone else who tears it all down and starts over? Nothing. Apart from God, even work is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

 

Depressing, isn’t it? It’s depressing to think that all your hard work, all the blood, sweat and tears you’ve spilled to acquire wealth and experience pleasure is nothing more than chasing after the wind. But it’s the soul-crushing truth. It’s why many people today struggle to summon the energy to get out of bed in the morning, why others just live for the weekend when they can drown their despair in parties and substances, why so many of us need the constant distraction of music, movies, and entertainment – anything to escape the dark, silent emptiness of life under the sun. That’s idolatry for you, and idolatry when viewed from that perspective is pretty horrifying, isn’t it? It’s dark and empty and meaningless. Idols consume their worshipers from the inside, leaving behind nothing but an empty shell. This is life without God, life without Christ at the center. Why? Because it’s not who you are. You are not the sum total of what you own and what you’ve done. You’re so much more than that. You were created by God, redeemed by God, adopted by God to live forever with God. And without God at the center of your life, your being, your identity, all you do and all you have under the sun is truly meaningless. But God offers us a better way. In spite of our futile attempts to find happiness apart from him, God graciously gives us a new way of life. He enables us to see beyond the horizon of life under this sun, to find the true meaning of life in his Son, Jesus.

 

In the final verses of our text, Solomon points us in the right direction: a man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? Hang on, I thought Solomon just finished arguing that all work, pleasure and wealth is meaningless, now he says that there is nothing better than eating and drinking and working? Did you catch the key phrase? Without him – without God – no one will find contentment or happiness, but with him we can be joyful whether we are rich or poor, whether the meal is the chef’s special or Chef Boyardee, whether we are running our dream business or just counting the minutes to 5 o’clock. Because Jesus has redeemed this life by destroying the one thing that makes it all meaningless: death. He left his place at his Father’s right hand, he emptied himself of his glory and power as the Son of God, he became poor so that we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He despised all other earthly pursuits apart from his pursuit of your salvation; which led him to the cross where he willingly suffered the horrifying wrath of God and the miserable, meaningless death and hell we deserved for our sins of greed, idolatry, gluttony and lust. The blood he shed won for us the greatest treasure of all: the forgiveness of sins. When you have this treasure, then death is not the end, but the beginning of true life. When you have this treasure you can be certain that you will pass the test on the night God calls for your life – because you have Christ and his righteousness. Through baptism this treasure is yours – which means that you don’t have to chase your best life now because your best life is still to come, when you will finally be free from sin and the futility of chasing the wind of meaning in this life.

 

And therein lies the secret to a meaningful life here and now. The secret is not having a better life now, but rather a better perspective on life. Knowing that Jesus has secured the eternal riches of heaven for you – frees you to actually enjoy life now. While the unbelieving world tries to squeeze meaning out of pleasure, wealth and work, believers understand that the good things of this life are just that: things of this life – to be used, enjoyed, and, eventually, left behind; just like the wind. Don’t fall for the lie that happiness is something that lies just over the horizon, after just a little more work and a few more years of saving (when you’ve moved into your dream house, bought the perfect car, brought the baby home, gotten the promotion or pay-raise, or finally reached retirement) – because if you do, you won’t just find yourself perpetually disappointed – you will miss the wonderful gifts God has already given you. Instead see that the meaning of the pleasure and wealth and work you have today lies in the simple fact that the God who created and redeemed you has given it to you for your enjoyment – nothing more and nothing less.

 

The meaning of life isn’t the sum total of the pleasure we’ve experienced, the wealth we’ve acquired or the hard work we’ve completed. The meaning of life is that God has loved us so much that he gave us life, gave us his Son, gave us faith to believe in him, and has promised to give us a place in his heavenly mansion. Try to grasp hold of what this life under the sun has to offer and you will find yourself empty handed, like trying to catch the wind. But open your hands to receive Christ in faith and God will fill those hands with everything you need for this life and more (Matthew 6:33). The Christian life is the simple life: 1) trust in God to take care of the big picture – now and forever – and 2) enjoy the life under the sun he has given you – because you already have eternal life in his Son, the one who puts an end to all of our chasing by giving us the one thing we could never get for ourselves: true, lasting happiness. Amen.

 


[1] Incidentally, havel was the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, whose life was so meaninglessly cut short by his brother Cain (Genesis 4:8)

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/1-in-6-americans-takes-a-psychiatric-drug/

Genesis 18:16-32 - Pray Boldly Because of Who Your God Is - August 18, 2019

When you make a petition to someone, when you ask someone for something what do you base it on? Children, at least my children, simply seem to think that they ought to get whatever they want whenever they want it. As we get older, petitions often take the form of a negotiation: you do this for me and I’ll do this for you. Mom, if you let me spend the night at my friend’s house, I’ll clean my room. Dad, if you let me take the car, I’ll wash it. Honey, if you get up to change this diaper, I’ll get the next one. In the worlds of business and academics, petitions are usually merit-based: I’ve worked here for 2 years, I deserve more vacation time. I’ve got a 4.0 GPA, I deserve to get this scholarship. But what about when we make our petitions to God? Every time we pray, we are petitioning God for something, asking him for something that we can’t do or achieve on our own. On what should we base our prayers? On blind presumption? On what we can do for God in return? On our past or present merit? How bold would you be, could you be, if the basis of your prayer was yourself? And yet Jesus both invites and commands us to pray – and to pray boldly (Luke 11:1-13). What’s the secret to prayer like that? Today, Abraham shows us.

 

Genesis chapter 18 is not only a remarkable chapter in the life of Abraham, it’s a remarkable window into God’s heart. The incident before us takes place years after God had called Abraham out of his life of idolatry to faith (Genesis 12), after Abraham and his nephew Lot had gone their separate ways (Genesis 13), and after God had confirmed his covenant of grace (Genesis 15). Perhaps the most notable context, however, is that this incident occurs shortly after Abraham had rescued both his nephew Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah from the hands of the Elamites (Genesis 14). In the name of the Most High God (Genesis 14:22) Abraham had rescued the kings and people of these two cities – and yet just a few years later, almost to a person, they had turned away from God in unbelief and expressed their unbelief by engaging in depraved sexual behavior (Jude 7).

 

At the beginning of chapter 18, the LORD (the pre-incarnate Christ) appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18:1) accompanied by two angels. He had come for two reasons, first, to restate his promise to give Sarah and Abraham a son in their old age, and second, to conduct an investigation. As verses 20 and 21 state the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know. And, while the angels continue on their way, the LORD stays with Abraham for a little pow-wow. The LORD not only revealed his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah to Abraham, but he stayed behind to hear Abraham’s thoughts on the issue. He treated Abraham like a friend (Isaiah 41:8).

 

Here’s the first truth that makes us bold to pray: even though God is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent King of the universe, he invites you to present your requests at his heavenly throne and promises to consider them. And that’s not just my opinion, that’s what Jesus promised when he said ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Luke 11:9-10). Just like with Abraham, God is present with you – he has revealed his heart to you in his Word; and his gift of prayer is his invitation to open up your heart to him. God is eager to listen to your prayers – so boldly take him up on his offer!

 

Which brings us to Abraham’s prayer. I won’t reread it in full, but doesn’t it strike you as bold, bordering on rude? Who does Abraham think he is asking a holy God to change his mind, to spare the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah at all, much less refuse to take “yes” for an answer? Maybe a better question is, why don’t we pray like that? Why aren’t we bold, persistent, almost rude in prayer – even though Jesus made it clear that God wants us to “bother” him (Luke 11:7-8)? Are we too proud to ask more than once? Don’t we believe he is listening? Do is it because we think we have everything under control – that we trust our own strength to solve all our problems? Is it guilt or shame? “Why should God listen to me? Why should he care what I have to say? I’ve sinned too much and failed to do too much good to have any right to ask for favors from God. I don’t dare be bold in prayer.” Or is it the other extreme: a lack of faith in God’s promises? “I’ve poured my heart and soul out to God asking for something in the past and all I heard were crickets. No reaction. No response. Nothing happened.” Do you see the problem with all of those reasons? It grounds the basis for prayer in me and my worthiness and my perception and my emotions. If our prayers are based on who we are and what we’ve done, then it’s true, we have no right to come to God and no right to expect him to answer – because we have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and our sins do separate us from him so that he does not hear us (Isaiah 59:2).

 

Clearly, Abraham understood that. Did you notice how he appeared to sense that he was treading on thin ice? He says now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes and twice he pleads may the Lord not be angry. But he boldly forged ahead. Why? Because his prayer wasn’t based on who he was but on who God is! Listen to how Abraham hangs his petition on God’s character: Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? Abraham was bold because Abraham knew God. He knew that God is just. Abraham doesn’t defend Sodom and Gomorrah. He doesn’t try to excuse their sin by calling them “enlightened” or “progressive.” In fact, he doesn’t mention their sin at all. But he does plead with the Lord to spare those cities for the sake of the righteous. Abraham knew that even as a just Judge cannot let the guilty go unpunished, neither can he rightly punish the righteous.

 

God is still just today. He will always do what is right even if we don’t understand it. In recent days, the death of Jeffrey Epstein behind bars again raised the question: did he escape justice for all his wicked deeds? The Biblical answer is that God is just. He will not leave the guilty unpunished nor will he punish the righteous. And we can hang our prayers on this truth about God. Whenever you pray your will be done – understand that God’s will is to punish the wicked and spare the righteous. When you pray for God to heal your body and cure your diseases, know that God’s answer – whether he says “yes,” “no,” or “not yet” is the right answer for you at this time. When you pray for a relative who has fallen away from faith – know that God will deal with them justly. Maybe most importantly, when you are confronted by the death of someone who was not a confessing believer, when you wonder where they are – you must understand that wherever they are: God didn’t act without all the evidence, he didn’t treat them unfairly – wherever they are, God is and remains perfectly just. We may not always see or understand it now, but don’t ever doubt that, in the end, God will do what is right – you can base your bold, persistent prayers on it!

 

Now, you may be thinking: how is the fact that God is just supposed to make me bold and confident in prayer? After all, I just admitted that I’m a sinner who deserves nothing but his wrath and punishment. Well, that’s true, but that’s not the whole truth. There’s a story told about a circuit judge who had built a reputation for fair and firm judgments. Without fail he punished the guilty and acquitted the innocent. One day, his son was brought into his courtroom to stand trial, charged with driving 50 mph over the speed limit. “How do you plead?” he asked. “Guilty,” his son replied. “Good, because you are. Guilty as charged.” He bangs down his gavel, “the sentence is a $500 fine or a week in jail.” Well, the son didn’t have $500. But just as the bailiff came to take him away, his father, the just judge, steps down from his bench, takes off his robe, reaches into his pocket and writes out a check for $500 to the court. He paid the penalty for his son’s crime himself.

 

This story illustrates the other side of Abraham’s knowledge of the Judge of all the earth. He is just, yes; but he is also gracious. That’s something no one would ever know unless God revealed it – and God had certainly revealed his grace to Abraham. It was nothing but grace that led the LORD to choose Abraham and declare him to be the Father of all believers as he did at the beginning of our text (Genesis 18:18-19). Abraham knew God was gracious and he appealed to this grace in his petition on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And how did the Lord react to this bold and reckless request? He never lost his patience, he never got angry, he never said “now you’ve gone too far!” God had called and justified Abraham – he had made him his child. That relationship is why God patiently listened and heard Abraham’s plea. Keep that in mind. In baptism, through sheer grace, the Judge of the universe became your Father. A Father who never tires of hearing your voice, a Father for whom no request is too big or small, a Father who has the patience of God, a Father who will listen and answer in his own time and way.

 

In the end, God did not find even 10 righteous people (Genesis 19:15) in Sodom and Gomorrah and he rained down burning sulfur [on them] (Genesis 19:24) to carry out his justice. But even there we see God’s grace, don’t we? For even though he didn’t find 10 righteous people, he did spare Lot and his family – his grace extended even beyond Abraham’s wildest request! (Incidentally, how many times has God not given us what we ask, only to give us more than we asked for?)

 

But something still doesn’t add up, right? How can God be perfectly just and perfectly gracious at the same time? If God doesn’t punish us as our sins deserve, doesn’t that mean that he’s unjust? And if God only spares good people, that’s not really grace at all, is it? How do we resolve this tension between God’s grace and his justice? That’s the big question, isn’t it? That’s what people wonder when they see a world where the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous seem to suffer. Where is this just, gracious God now? How do we resolve this tension? We can’t, only God can.

 

God’s justice demanded that he punish sin with death and hell – and God’s grace demanded that he forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:7). How did God maintain both perfect justice and perfect grace? Through the cross. The cross satisfied God’s demand for justice because on it, Jesus suffered under the unmitigated wrath of God’s justice and paid for the sins of the whole world – yes, even sins like those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Because Christ satisfied God’s justice, God was freed to show us grace, to forgive our sins and declare us not-guilty. You may have wondered how Abraham could allege that anyone, even 10 men, were righteous when the Bible says that no one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). Only through faith in Jesus can anyone be counted righteous before God (Romans 3:22). Through faith, Jesus takes your sins and gives you his righteousness. Jesus’ righteousness will shield you from God’s judgment on the Last Day – a judgment that will make Sodom and Gomorrah look like child’s play – just as surely as he spared Lot and his family. And knowing that, knowing that because of Christ you stand in God’s good graces, that is what makes you bold in prayer.

 

The secret to bold prayer, then, is not to look in the mirror, but to look to the cross. There you see what kind of God you have: a God who is right here with you, for you; a God who is perfectly just and a God who is perfectly gracious. Pray boldly. Pray boldly that God would execute his justice on earth – punishing the wicked and sparing the righteous. Pray boldly to the Father who has already declared you “not guilty” for the sake of his Son. When you pray like that, you can be sure that God has heard and will answer, because his answer is right there, hanging on the cross in your place. That’s who your God is. Amen.

 

1 Samuel 3:1-10 - The Lord Is Speaking; Are We Listening? - August 11, 2019

Anyone who’s read the Old Testament knows that God frequently spoke directly to his people. He talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3); he personally warned Noah of the flood that was coming and provided instructions to build an ark (Genesis 6); he spoke to Abraham on multiple occasions, calling him out of idolatry and sending him to a new land (Genesis 12), testing his faith (Genesis 22), confirming his covenant (Genesis 15); and he called Moses to lead Israel from a burning bush (Exodus 3); and here, in the account before us, the Lord not only spoke but even stood before Samuel in the middle of the night. And the natural question that many people ask is: why doesn’t God do that anymore today? Does God have laryngitis? Are we doing something wrong? Do we need more flashing lights and pumping bass and emotional praise music and, certainly, more inspiring, visionary preaching to get God to loosen up? Ironically, it was agent Dana Scully on the TV show The X-Files, who suggested that maybe God is speaking but no one is listening. [1] If we believe that in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2), then we realize that only half of agent Scully’s suggestion is up for debate: God is speaking. The question is: are we listening?

 

Since technology has given us more ways to communicate than ever before, there are very few excuses for us to be “out of touch.” More often, if we don’t hear what someone is saying it’s because we don’t want to hear it. It’s called selective hearing. Whether it’s ignoring emails, screening phone calls and texts, or simply putting headphones in and cutting ourselves off from the world – we all practice selective hearing, even when we know we shouldn’t. And it’s not a new phenomenon – Israel, in Samuel’s time, had a severe case of it. It wasn’t that God wasn’t speaking; they still had the Law given to Moses and the promises given to Abraham, but neither those tasked with preaching it nor those tasked with listening were doing their job. The problem started with Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phineas, the priests of the LORD (1 Samuel 1:3). Instead of preaching and teaching God’s Word to the people of Israel – as they were called to do – his sons used their office to fatten their own bellies and satisfy their own fleshly desires. For example: God had instructed his priests to receive their portion of the sacrificial offerings only after it had been offered to the Lord (Leviticus 7:29-36; 1 Samuel 2:12-17) – but Eli’s sons robbed the people by demanding their portion first, sometimes by threat of force. They were also notorious for sleeping with the women who served at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22). Worst of all, they refused to listen to anyone who tried to correct their sinful ways – they refused to repent (1 Samuel 2:25).

 

What do you do when you’re trying to talk to someone and you can tell they’re not listening? The Packer’s preseason has started, how many times will you try to get the attention of a diehard fan during a game before you give up? Parents, what do you do after the 9th and 10th times you’ve told your child to clean up their toys? Often, when we know someone is not listening, we react by refusing to speak. And that’s how God decided to treat Israel – they had stopped listening, so he stopped speaking. That’s what it means when it says in those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. God was giving Israel the silent treatment. God wanted to speak to his people, to lead them, discipline them, forgive them, comfort them but because they refused to listen God refused to speak. It was the worst judgment possible.

 

Do we have a listening problem? Do we deserve the silent treatment from God? The numbers tell a sobering story. At Risen Savior we have 143 baptized and 103 communicant, adult members. And yet, our June and July average worship attendance was 82 and Bible class was 17. In terms of percentage, only 57% of the people God claimed as his own in Baptism and only 16% of those who swore at their confirmation that they would endure all things, even death rather than fall away from [God’s Word] were regularly hearing God’s Word. How long would you be able to keep your job, your marriage, your family if you only listened 50% of the time? If you owned a business, what would you do with an employee that only shows up half of the time? Phew, I’m a 50-percenter, I’m safe from the accusations of the Law today. Really? Consider that God says do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (James 1:22). Do we ever worry (Matthew 5:25-34) or lie (Colossians 3:9) or place our trust in earthly leaders (Psalm 146:3), even when God says not to? Do we fail to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to love others as ourselves (Luke 10:27), to give God’s Word a central place in our homes (Deuteronomy 11:18-21)? Does God ever speak and we ignore what he has to say? Do we have a problem with selective listening or, just as dangerous, selective obedience?

 

Why? Why is the one thing needful often the first thing that gets cut from our schedules? Well, we’re busy, right? Busyness is easily the #1 excuse for not hearing, not meditating, not taking time to study God’s Word. But busyness is just a cover for the real reasons. Reasons like pride. Pride that wants to say “Listen up, Lord, I’m speaking” rather than “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  “Listen up, Lord, here’s how I want the course of my life to go, here’s how I want my marriage to be, here’s the dream college, job, home, career, salary, gift or blessing I want – and if you don’t give me what I want, then I’m going to kick you to the curb.” Or maybe it’s anger, the presumption that we are hurting and God doesn’t care. “God, where were you when my brother died, my daughter got into a car accident? Where were you when I was alone or depressed or panicked?” Or maybe our problem is just sheer laziness. Bibles, devotional books, sermon videos – and more – are all easily accessible, but we’re just too lazy to make use of them. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a senior demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his demonic nephew named Wormwood – who’s just getting started in the family business of tempting humans. Screwtape gives him all kinds of sage advice about how to hasten mankind’s damnation. In one letter he writes “It’s funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” [2] If the devil can snatch God’s Word out of our hearts and minds (Luke 8:5), then he doesn’t need to fill them with all kinds of other voices, he’s already succeeded in stealing the “one thing needed” from us. Then Israel in the days of Samuel is a cautionary tale: we deserve for God to give us the silent treatment, too. Now and eternally.  

 

And yet, even though we deserve the silent treatment, God, in his grace, continues to speak. He hasn’t taken his Word from our homes, from our church, from our country – in fact, just the opposite, he speaks to us in more places and ways than ever before. God is infinitely more patient with our deafness than we are with one another. Have you ever felt the burden of your sin, the guilt of your disobedience and not found your Savior standing here, offering you his body and blood, telling you to go in peace, your sins are forgiven. Have you ever desired guidance or peace or comfort and not had access to a Bible? Have you ever come here on Sunday morning and found the parking lot empty and the doors locked? In spite of our selective listening and in spite of our disobedience God continues to speak to us, for only one reason: grace. Grace that is rooted in Jesus.

 

Because Jesus, our substitute, never practiced selective listening, he never ignored his Father’s will or decided that he knew better. Jesus not only made hearing his Father’s Word his highest priority (Luke 2:41-52), he obeyed every word, perfectly. When His Father decided that the only way to save the human race was for the Son of God to become man, Jesus left his throne in heaven and took the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:7). When His Father told him the salvation of sinners is only possible if he assumed the guilt of the sins of the world, Jesus sweated blood, Jesus begged for his Father to find another way, but he listened and obeyed (Luke 22:39-46). When God’s plan meant an illegal trial, mockery, and torture, Jesus endured it all in silence (Mark 14:61). And, when the Father’s wrath over our sin demanded that Jesus be nailed to a tree, suffer the depths of hell and give up his life, Jesus went, without complaint, like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). And, in his grace, God credits Jesus’ perfect listening skills and obedience to our account. He forgives our deafness and remembers our disobedience no more – all because Jesus endured the cold shoulder of God in our place (Matthew 27:46).

 

For Jesus’ sake, God still speaks to us. He speaks to us day after day, year after year, so that even stubborn, selective listeners like us get the message. And when he speaks, he gets results. We see that in the case of Samuel. The fourth time the LORD called to him, he finally listened. And he kept listening even though the message God had for him was unpleasant and even though what God was calling him to do wasn’t easy. God was calling Samuel to announce his judgment and punishment on his mentor and friend, Eli, and his sons for their deafness and disobedience (1 Samuel 3:11-18). Without question, it would have been easier for Samuel to just roll over and stay in bed. Humanly speaking, it might have seemed prudent for Samuel to change or modify God’s message to avoid offending and angering Eli. But through his Word God gave Samuel faith to not only listen but to boldly obey.

 

God continues to do that for us, too. He gives us the wisdom to understand that in a noisy world, there’s only one voice we really need to hear (Luke 10:42). He gives us the gift of the Spirit, so that we not only hear his Word, but believe it (Romans 10:17). He guides our lives with his Word like a light shining on our path (Psalm 119:105). And, like with Samuel, he transforms people like us – who were all-too-often hard of hearing – into his representatives, who boldly obey and boldly proclaim his Word. No, he doesn’t call each of us into the public ministry like he did with Samuel. And God often doesn’t tell us what we want to hear; that’s he going to make us rich or cause all our dreams to come true or heal all our sicknesses here and now – you will search the Bible in vain for promises like that. But he does call each of us to carry out our callings. We are husbands whom God has called to love your wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25) or wives whom God has called to submit to your husbands as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). We are children whom God has called to obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right (Ephesians 6:1) and parents whom God calls to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). We are citizens and neighbors and employers and employees – all callings that have come from God. Those are all high, hard callings, how can we possibly carry them out? Listen to what the Lord promises: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:26-27). God’s Word has the power to do what none of the other voices in the world can do: he transforms us so that we not only want to listen, but we are emboldened to obey. It might not always make sense. It won’t always be popular. It will never be politically correct. But it is God’s Word – the only voice we can trust in this noisy world.

 

In the book of James, the Lord says: my dear brothers, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19) The Greek philosopher Epictetus made the common sense observation: we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. Both theology and biology tell us that we should listen more than we speak – good advice in every area of life, but especially when God is speaking. Listen to the Word through which God gives you the humility to listen and the boldness to obey his calling. Above all, thank God that for Jesus’ sake he’s still speaking to us. Amen.

 

 

 

 


[1] http://www.generationterrorists.com/cgi-bin/x-files.cgi?ep=3x11

[2] http://www.samizdat.qc.ca/arts/lit/PDFs/ScrewtapeLetters_CSL.pdf

Luke 10:25-37 - What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life? - August 4, 2019

What’s the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a lawyer on a motorcycle? The vacuum cleaner has the dirt bag on the inside. What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer? One is a spineless, poisonous blob; the other is a form of sea life. How does a lawyer sleep? First he lies on one side, then he lies on the other. I’m sure you have heard your fair share of lawyer jokes. Why are lawyers such an easy target? Why do they rank just above members of Congress and used car salesmen in terms of trustworthiness and respect? We meet a lawyer in today’s text who embodies the worst characteristics of the profession: he’s sneaky, he’s deceptive, and he’s looking to twist the law to serve his own purposes. Sadly, lawyers aren’t alone in this last area. Today, Jesus exposes the lawyer in all of us in his response to the most important question that can be asked: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

 

This parable is one of the best know sections of Scripture. It’s referenced by news anchors and politicians and civil rights leaders. You’ve probably heard at least one sermon on this text. Here’s how it often goes: the priest and the Levite were heartless, evil men. Don’t be like them. Instead, be like the Samaritan. Be compassionate. Stop and give a couple bucks to the guy holding the sign by the highway onramp. Slow down and ask if the stranded motorist needs help. If you do that, you will satisfy God’s law and earn your way into heaven. Go and do likewise, then, is supposed to be the Gospel, the “good news” in this parable. Is it? If I tell you to be a “Good Samaritan” and send you on your way, will you be sure that eternal life is yours? Let’s look at the parable in a little more detail and see.

 

In 1st century Israel, the scenario posed by Jesus in this parable was an all-too-common one. The roughly 17 mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, passing through rugged, barren terrain and filled with pilgrims coming to and from the Temple, the road was a favorite haunt of thugs and thieves. This man was probably returning home from offering a sacrifice or attending a festival when he was jumped by robbers who stripped him, beat him and left him to die in a ditch on the side of the road.

 

Three men had the opportunity to be a neighbor to this poor soul. The first, a priest, a man of God, a man who knew God’s mercy, showed no mercy himself and passed by on the other side. The second, a Levite, a temple assistant, who knew God’s Law, including love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), also passed this poor man by. Naturally, we ask: what were they thinking? How could they be so heartless and merciless? It’s frighteningly easy for us to get inside their heads, isn’t it? First, if the robbers were still in the area, they might wind up in the same ditch – how would that help anyone? Best to let someone else deal with it. Second, it wasn’t as if they could just stop, dial 911, wait for the ambulance to show up and then go on their way. If they stopped to help, everything fell on them. These were important men with things to do and people to see. Third, they may have had legal concerns of their own. There was an OT law that said that anyone who so much as brushed against a dead person was considered ceremonially unclean (Numbers 19:11) and, for a priest or Levite, would disqualify them from serving in the temple (Leviticus 21:1-4, 10-12) – in other words, if the guy was already dead and they touched him, they would not be able carry out their duty to the Lord – surely honoring God was sufficient reason to ignore this man. And so, in their minds, they had good, legal, justifiable reasons to ignore this poor man.

 

Then a third man passed by. He was not a temple worker. In fact, he wouldn’t have been welcomed in the temple. He was a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a mixed race, consisting of the Jews left behind after the Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom and foreigners whom the Assyrians imported. Samaritans were the object of Jewish ridicule, hatred, and even curses. [1] Well, this Samaritan also came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went down into the ditch, cleaned and bandaged his wounds, set him on his donkey and took him to the local inn where he paid for him to spend the night. The next morning he left the man in the hands of the innkeeper, gave him two day’s wages and left his tab open in case there were any additional charges. Who, then, was the neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves? (So much did the Jews hate the Samaritans that the lawyer wouldn’t even identify him by name!) Not the priest or the Levite, but the half-breed heretic to whom no Jew would give the time of day much less a drink of water (John 4:9). The Samaritan wasn’t worried about defining who his neighbor was – rather, he understood the spirit of the law: he saw someone in need (there’s the definition of neighbor), had compassion on him, and helped him.

 

Now that you know who your neighbor is and how you are to treat him – go and do likewise. Yep. Walk out those doors and do the same thing. Help every man, woman, and child who happens to cross your path in life, regardless of how busy you are, regardless of your circumstances, regardless of what it will cost you. And while you’re doing it, do it with the purest of intentions and attitudes. Do it not out of obligation or fear of punishment or the promise of reward but purely out of love for God and love for others. Oh, and do this perfectly every day of your life if you want to earn your eternal life by what you do, because that’s what God’s law demands.

 

After all, a question about eternal life is what inspired this parable in the first place, wasn’t it? A lawyer came to Jesus and asked him Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life? And yet, while Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, he wasn’t really looking for an answer. He knew what the Law said, he rattled off Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 without hesitation. This was not a question borne out of curiosity or the honest inquiry coming from a troubled conscience – this was a lawyer doing what sleazy lawyers do: try to manipulate the law to serve their own purposes. It comes out crystal clear in his second question: and who is my neighbor? This question exposes the lawyer’s heart. If I know who my neighbor is, then, I also know who my neighbor is not. Then I can actually be justified in not loving and helping some people – such as Samaritans. After all, the lawyer inside us argues, God can’t expect me to love everyone all the time – why, that would be impossible! But if I can narrow the scope a little bit, lower the bar just a tad, then I stand a chance of doing it, keeping it and therefore justifying myself by my works – earning salvation by works of the Law.

We may make fun of lawyers for being devious and manipulative, but are we really any different when it comes to God’s Law? The lawyer inside us even has a name: old Adam. Old Adam is convinced that he can do enough to earn eternal life – that he isn’t the problem, God’s Law is, and that what needs to change is the law. You’ve heard his arguments before, haven’t you? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Can I do this, go there, watch that without sinning? These days people bounce from church to church asking, “does your church, your pastor permit this, that or the other thing?” Here’s a hint: if you have to ask, you already have your answer. What that old legal-beagle Adam wants is not God’s Law explained but God’s Law limited, restricted, modified. Like the very best, most highly paid lawyers, he will search high and low for that tiny little loophole, that intricate work-around, that one exception God overlooked to cling to in the hope that maybe, just maybe, keeping God’s Law isn’t impossible for me, maybe I can justify myself and then I…don’t…need…Jesus. And, we don’t even have to go to law school to perfect these techniques.

 

Do any of these sound familiar: 1) Justification by Loophole – did God really say? At what point does it become “adultery”? How often do I have to go to church? How much of an offering is enough? 2) Justification by Comparison – I’m not as bad as those people. I go to church. I’ve never driven drunk. My family is intact – unlike some I know. 3) Justification by Virtue Signaling Labels – I’m pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-environment, pro-universal healthcare, pro-human rights, women’s rights, animal rights and therefore God must be satisfied with me regardless of the other stuff I do. 4) Justification by Inner Goodness – “I may have my flaws and weaknesses, I may not always show it, but deep down, I’m really a good person.” 5) Justification by Appeal to Justice – “She gossiped about me so I’m justified in gossiping about her.” 6) Justification by Imaginary Laws – I don’t drink, smoke, gamble or dance. Never mind there are no commandments against those things – I keep them and God ought to give me credit for it – or else, he’s the one with the problem. There are countless others. I’ll stop at six. Do you get the point?

 

The purpose of this parable is not to teach us what we can do to inherit eternal life (after all, an inheritance isn’t about what you do – it’s about someone else dying!). The Law can’t get us to heaven. Paul says if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law (Galatians 3:21). It’s not even primarily about teaching us who our neighbor is – because that’s not the real problem, the real problem is that we aren’t good neighbors! The Law was not given to justify us, rather God gave the Law so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God (Romans 3:19). Jesus told this parable for the same reason: to silence our self-justifications, to humble us and bring us to our knees in repentance. That’s where the law, the go and do likewise should have led that lawyer, and where it should lead us.

 

So where’s the good news? One of the unique characteristics of Jesus’ parables is that we are invited to identify with the characters. Which one are you? Sinful pride wants to identify with the Good Samaritan. The Law exposes us as the priest and the Levite. But what about the Gospel? Which character are you in view of God’s grace? According to the Gospel you are that sad sack of bones lying in the ditch. The moment you were conceived you were ambushed, beaten and left for dead by the devil and the original sin you inherited from your parents. You were not just half-dead, you were fully dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1). All the good works in the world wouldn’t heal you and all the sacrifices you could offer couldn’t earn you a ticket to heaven. Left to yourself, you would have died in the ditch of your own sin, destined only to hear God’s verdict of guilty and be sentenced to an eternity in hell’s prison.

 

But then along came the most unlikely hero. Who is the most unlikely person in all the world to save you from the wrath of God you justly deserved? God himself. And yet, there God was, stooping down out of heaven, conceived in a virgin’s womb, laying in the hay in a stable, walking those same dangerous roads of ancient Israel, preaching and teaching and healing. Jesus was the Good Samaritan who reached into the ditch of this world to rescue us, bloodied and beaten and hopeless. He found us, not the other way around. He washed us in the waters of Baptism and bandaged our wounds with his forgiving love and brought us to the inn of his Church, where he has left the tab open to provide us with limitless help and healing. Jesus loved his neighbor and he loved God – perfectly, every day, his whole life. His love – not ours – fulfilled the Law of God for us. And, then, in the twist that no one saw coming, he traded places with us, he became the man who fell into the hands of robbers, crucified between two of them, bloodied and beaten by a world that wanted nothing to do with him. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25).

 

Do you want to stand justified before God? Then don’t be a lawyer, don’t look to justify yourself with loopholes and exceptions to the Law – because there aren’t any. Instead, look to Jesus. Trust in him and not yourself. For a man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone apart from any works of the law (Romans 3:28), including the law that commands us to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

Did you catch the answer to that lawyer’s first question, that most important question: what must you do to inherit eternal life? Don’t do anything. Just lie there and let Jesus, the real Good Samaritan, come to you and wash your wounds with his forgiveness, bandage and pay for your sins with his body and blood, and keep you safe and sound in his Church until he returns to take you to heaven. Amen.  


[1] Franzmann, 385

Galatians 6:1-10, 14-16 - Never Become Weary of Doing Good - July 28, 2019

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s merits alone – this doctrine, justification, which is not only the central point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but is the central focus of the entire Bible – is the rock on which the Christian church stands or falls. But did you know that there’s a problem with this doctrine? Or, at least, there is the perception of a problem. The problem: if Jesus has done everything – then that doesn’t leave anything for me to do. It leaves us without any purpose or reason for living. I’ve even heard Lutherans complain that it’s depressing that our theology is so focused on Christ’s death for sin and our goal of heaven; that it feels like we are just sitting around waiting to die. Well, let’s confront that question. Why are you here? What is your purpose in life? Throughout the ages, false teachers have tried to satisfy the human need for purpose. In Galatia, false teachers taught that the purpose of life was keeping the Law of Moses to please God. In Luther’s time (and our time), Catholic theology taught people to “do” penance, “do” mass, “do” the Rosary – and if you really want to “do” something, enter a monastery to earn God’s grace. Today, the vast majority of Christian best-sellers promise to give clear direction to how you must live to please God and receive his blessings. The sad truth is that these guides have confused justification and sanctification, law and gospel: implicitly or explicitly teaching that you are saved by what you do – rather than that you do what you do because you are saved. In contrast, Paul refuses to create a new legal system for Christian living. If you’re looking for a rule for every single area of life, you’re not going to find it in his letters (or anywhere else in the Bible). Paul stands firm in the freedom of the Gospel with his encouragement to never become weary of doing good.

 

What is “good”? We know there is a lot of good being done in the world (husbands and wives are faithful to each other, parents diligently raise their children, laborers provide necessary goods and services, the sick are treated, the hungry fed, the naked clothed) but also that there is a lot of evil masquerading as “good” (for example: encouraging a biological boy to identify as a “girl” is evil; classifying a divorce as “no-fault” is evil, regarding it as a “right” for same-sex couples to adopt children is evil (a perversion of God’s plan for the family); etc.) Clearly we need a better definition of “good” than the world can offer. And God – the only one who is essentially good (Luke 18:19) – has defined what is truly “good” in his Word. He has three criteria. First, “good” is a fruit that can only be produced by faith in Christ. Only Christians can do truly good works. In Romans Paul says that everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). The book of Hebrews states that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Second, it must be done in love, and the Biblical definition of love is activity that is in harmony with God’s will. Love serves as a mask for all kinds of evil today, but true, God-pleasing love is shaped by the 10 commandments. Paul says in Romans that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). Finally, for a thing to be considered “good” it must be done to the glory of God – and not for selfish, self-serving reasons. In Isaiah God says I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols (Isaiah 42:8). If something is done contrary to these three criteria, it doesn’t matter what the world says – it’s not truly “good” in the eyes of God.

 

As he closes his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives some practical examples of the good God wants us to never tire of doing. And it’s a bitter pill for the sinful nature to swallow. In our case, Paul is describing the opposite of the American way: instead of “living and let live” and “minding your own business” Christians are to take personally responsibility for each other (Genesis 4:9)! Paul says: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. To be “caught” doesn’t mean “ha, gotcha!” It means “overtaken, trapped, or stuck” – like a car that has slid into the ditch and is stuck in the mud. When you become aware that a fellow Christian has gotten stuck in sin, any sin, you who are spiritual, that is, you who believe in Jesus, are not to just stand back and watch them spin their tires. No, you are to roll up your sleeves and get down in the mud and help them. Notice that Paul does not say that this is only the responsibility of the pastor or elders, this is the responsibility of any and every Christian. For example, it would be very “good” in the eyes of God if you were to notice that someone hasn’t been in church for some time for you to reach out to them. This is to be done gently. In other words, the goal is not to further humiliate or shame them, but to carefully bring them to repentance and forgiveness. (The Greek word for “restore” is the same used for a doctor “setting” a broken or fractured bone.)

 

But the good God wants us to do for others isn’t limited to dealing with sin, either. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Again, this requires two things that don’t come naturally to us: first we must be will to share our own burdens and then we must be willing to shoulder the burdens of others. Both are hard, aren’t they? We don’t like to admit that we need help – and at the same time, we often think, I’ve got enough problems of my own – I don’t have time to help someone else. In the ancient world, burden bearing was a slave’s job. But that’s exactly what we are, aren’t we? Christ has set us free from serving the Law so that we might be free to serve others. What kind of burdens does Paul have in mind? The scope is limitless – which is probably why Paul doesn’t list any specifics. It could be befriending someone who is lonely or supporting someone who is struggling with addiction or encouraging a parent who has difficulty with an unruly child. It could be bearing with your spouse’s annoying and perhaps sinful habits, or it might simply be rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:12). Paul’s goal is not to tell us precisely what burdens to bear but to impress on us that burden bearing is a responsibility we all share.  

 

But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. At first it might appear that Paul is cautioning us against falling into the same sin as the person we are trying to help: for example, that you try to help a gambling addict break his habit but you end up sitting down at the slot machine next to him. And while that is a real danger, the context leads in a different direction. He’s warning against a different temptation: the temptation to be proud and condescending and judgmental. To adopt the attitude of the Pharisee toward the tax collector: God I thank you that I am not like…this tax collector (Luke 18:11). St. Augustine once warned “There is no sin that one man has committed that another man could not commit.” [1] We don’t dare look down on anyone who has been caught in sin or struggles with a burden – because none of us is free from sin ourselves. To drive that point home, Paul continues if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. Paul urges us to look at everything in view of Judgment Day. We will each stand in judgment for our own actions compared to God’s holiness – not compared to others. By ourselves, we are nothing, there is nothing good in us (Romans 3:10-12). Knowing this, we won’t be so quick to cast judgment when someone is caught up in sin. Instead, we will meet those who have fallen at the foot of the cross where we all find needed forgiveness.

 

Does that give enough purpose to your life now as you wait for heaven? There’s a part of me that says: “Nah. I think I like the American version of a “purpose-driven” life better; that life is all about fulfilling my dreams, reaching my potential, achieving my own happiness.” After all, that’s the way rest of the world works, isn’t it? If you spend all your time serving others, who’s going to serve you? If you don’t fight for your rights in your marriage, your family, your career, your church, you’ll just be run over and ignored. If you stoop down to give someone else a hand, how do you know you won’t get dragged into the mud? So it’s better to just mind your own business and take care of yourself and let everyone else do the same. And while we know that as the way of the world, isn’t that too often the way of the church? Let’s be honest. If you look around you right now, how many names do you know? Do you know where they live or what they do or what burdens they may be struggling with? How can we even pray for them, much less help them – if we don’t even know them? How can we claim to be spiritual when we quickly grow weary of doing good when it’s too inconvenient or takes too much energy or effort or takes away from my “me” time?

 

And so, because we are so quick to grow weary, Paul motivates us; motivation that has two sides: law and gospel. First, he addresses the very real reaction to a sermon like this: that we can sit here, listen, and simply dismiss it as either just hot-air or a message others need to hear as we walk out those doors. To anyone who might harbor such an attitude, Paul says do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. It is certainly possible for you to ignore and reject this sermon, and I would never know any better. But you do so at your own risk. Because, make no mistake, God sees all. God knows all. In the end, God will judge all. What we sow now is exactly what we will reap in eternity. If I dare to ignore God’s direction for my life today, if I instead sow to please my own sinful nature, I will reap destruction on the Last Day. So does that mean that I am responsible for earning my salvation? NO! The only way we can sow to please the Spirit is if we have already received salvation from the Spirit. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19)! The point is that my time, my energy, my money, my life are not my own. They are gifts from God. They are gifts he has given me to serve others and how I use them will have eternal consequences.  

 

“That sounds like a threat!” It is. It’s the Law. Do Christians need to be threatened? Yes. For two reasons. First, the Law is the only language our sinful nature understands. Like a lazy, obstinate teenager, the sinful nature is not to be coddled or reasoned with but warned and restrained. Second, Paul knows how quick we are to grow weary of doing good. “I’ve been giving, cleaning, counting, mowing, parenting, leading, teaching, preaching, serving others for so long – no matter how hard I work, nothing seems to change or get any better – I’m tired, I’m old, I’m worn out…I’m done, let someone else take over!” I know – and you know – how often those thoughts arise in our hearts. Relative to all that God has done for us and relative to the eternity Christ won for us, we are lacking spiritual stamina. We, the part of us that remains corrupted by sin, needs to be warned and threatened against giving up. It needs to be beaten and disciplined like an athlete’s body (1 Corinthians 9:27).

 

And yet, while the flesh will only respond to threats, our spiritual nature is energized by the Gospel: may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. In the end, what drives us to do good is not the Law, but the Gospel – not what we must do, but what Christ has done. When Christ died, there were three deaths: his, yours, and the world’s. Christ died for your sin. You died to the world. And the world died to you. Crucifixion means death and death means separation, the end of a relationship. That means that you are free! Christ has set you free from the wicked, lazy sinful flesh. He has freed you from the values and priorities and ways of the world. Because Christ has freed you from your burden of sin you are free to turn your attention to bearing the burdens of others. In other words, the fact that Christ has made you “good” with God frees you to do “good” for others.

 

And so Paul closes his letter with virtually the same blessing with which he began (Galatians 1:3): peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. This “rule” is the balance, the tension in which we live as Christians: the rule of first receiving and then giving. It is faith that receives all that God wants us to have in Christ without any strings attached and it is faith that serves and gives and bears burdens for others without any strings attached. When the cross of Christ is your only boast, when you embrace the balance between receiving everything freely from him and giving freely to others, you will have two of the rarest things in the world: peace and purpose. Amen.

 

 


[1] LW 27:112

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 - Stand Firm In Your Gospel Freedom - July 21, 2019

Have you noticed that many of the biggest milestones in life are often characterized by the achievement of some level of freedom? From getting your first bike or your driver’s license – which free you from your parent’s schedules; to moving out of the house – which frees you from your parent’s rules; to paying off your home – which frees you from monthly mortgage payments; to retirement, which frees you from the demands of the workweek. At the same time, when you achieve these freedoms, does that mean that you are truly free to do whatever you want? Hardly. In fact, with freedom often comes greater responsibility. Up to this point in his letter to the Galatians, Paul has been adamant that salvation comes by grace through faith alone not by works of the Law. Obedience to the Law won’t save anyone. And now, in the third part of his letter, Paul addresses the accusation hurled against faithful Gospel preachers of every age: “It’s dangerous to say that people don’t have to obey the Law to be saved – because if people realize they are freed from the demands of the Law then they will just go back to their sinful ways.” And this challenge seems to make sense. Nonetheless, Paul doesn’t waver in his premise. He encourages us to Stand Firm in Our Gospel Freedom.

 

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Commentators refer to this as a Janus verse. Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways – he’s depicted as having two faces, one looking to the past and the other to the future. Before we look ahead to what it means to live as a liberated child of God, we must remember that we were slaves. Jesus said in John’s gospel: I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Apart from Christ we were enslaved by our sins, our disobedience – because we can’t get rid of them, can’t remove them; apart from Christ they control you, define you, and determine your eternity. Sadly, those who resolve to free themselves from their sins wind in an even worse form of slavery: slavery to the Law. Trying to overcome sin by being a better spouse or parent or friend, by striving to be more honest and diligent and selfless is futile because try as hard as you might, you can’t do it. You can memorize the 10 commandments and vow every day to keep them and you will wind up dead before you do it. As natural born sinners we can’t overcome sin nor can we keep the Law and so we were slaves to both – unable to free ourselves.

 

But Christ has set us free. Last week we heard how: God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law (Galatians 4:4-5). Remember those two big, technical terms from last week: Christ’s active and passive obedience? Christ has set us free from the Law by keeping it perfectly as our substitute – by lifting that yoke off of our shoulders and covering us with his righteousness through Baptism (Galatians 3:27). And having kept the Law for us, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem and carried the burden of our sins to the cross, to absorb God’s wrath and sin’s punishment as our substitute. And his work is completely, absolutely, finished (John 19:30). As a baptized believer you must stand firm in this message of freedom: you stand before God completely righteous, completely justified – free from the consequences of sin and the demands of the Law – through faith in Christ.

 

Don’t let anyone rob you of that freedom. Don’t let anyone tell you that you must do this or that, you must have this experience, you must be a better person to be saved. Don’t rob yourself of that freedom by turning back to your good works, your charity, your service as your confidence for salvation – because if you do, you’re becoming a slave all over again. Instead, stand fast, stand firm, in the freedom Christ died and rose to give you. But, remember, this is a Janus verse: it not only looks behind but it looks ahead. You are freed from sin and the Law but you are not free to use this liberty however you choose. In other words, having lifted us up out of the ditch on one side of the narrow road of freedom – the ditch of legalism; Paul now looks to keep us out of the ditch on the other side.

 

Paul describes this ditch in detail: You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature…the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. The ditch on the other side of the road is the abuse of Christian freedom as a license to sin. Paul says that these acts of the self-centered, sinful nature are obvious; but I wonder if that’s true anymore. A 2015 Barna poll showed that a majority of people in America think that not recycling is more immoral than viewing pornography. [1] We don’t have to even venture out past those doors to find people who secretly think that homosexuality is a defensible lifestyle, that living together outside of marriage or getting an easy “no-fault” divorce is ok because God really wants us to be happy. Then Paul mentions sins against the 1st commandment: idolatry and witchcraft. Lutherans especially are familiar with the phrase “you don’t have to go to church to be saved.” And that’s true. You don’t have to go to church, you don’t have to read your bible, you don’t even have to be Lutheran to be saved (just don’t tell anyone I said that!). To suggest otherwise would be legalistic. But if you use that freedom as a license to spend the summer ignoring the means of grace in favor of sports, fishing, camping, vacations and parties – you not only have abused your Christian freedom but you have cut yourself off from the God’s grace and revealed that you are really an idolater.  

 

And if that’s not damning enough, the majority of the sinful acts Paul mentions (8 of 15) apply to social interaction within a community – a Christian congregation like those in Galatia, or in McFarland, like Risen Savior. Do you ever wonder why more of our members don’t attend important quarterly meetings or volunteer to serve on vital committees? Is it because of the biting and devouring Paul mentions in verse 15? Is it because they seem to have a tense and argumentative atmosphere, because we are so quick to judge or heap shame on others when they don’t live up to our “standard” of behavior, because we demand others do things we aren’t willing to do or because approach decisions with an utterly selfish, “my way or the highway” mentality? This should not, cannot be. In fact, Paul says that those who make a practice of such divisive and self-centered behaviors have no place in the kingdom of God. And make no mistake, the one thing every one of these acts of the flesh have in common is that they are utterly selfish and “me” centered. But Christ didn’t free you to serve ourselves, he freed you from serving yourself. Now, this doesn’t mean that if we have committed those sins (which we all have) that we can’t be saved. These sins are not unforgivable. Jesus died for these sins too; he has erased them from our record forever. But Paul’s warning stands: anyone who makes a practice, a habit, a lifestyle of living in these sins will find themselves shut out of heaven.

 

Because the freedom which Christ died to give us is not freedom to serve the sinful flesh, but freedom of another kind: to serve one another in love. Yes, I know it sounds contradictory, but the Greek literally says that we are freed to be slaves – slaves to one another. And what does it look like to serve one another in love? The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Wait a minute, I thought Paul spent 4 chapters arguing that we are free from the Law, what gives? We are free from obedience to the Law – as far as our relationship with God goes. Christ has satisfied God in our place. But we still owe a debt of love to one another (Romans 13:8) and the Law still serves the all-important role of defining and guiding what love for others looks like. In other words, while we are freed from the Law as a means of serving and pleasing God (after all, God doesn’t need our service (Acts 17:24-25)) – that frees us to fulfill our real obligation: to serve one another in love.

 

It’s important to note here that Paul doesn’t use imperatives but indicatives to describe this life of freedom; he doesn’t say you must do these things, he says you will do these things, naturally, inevitably. We don’t love others to become Christian or to remain Christian, we love others because we are Christians – because we know how God loved and served us in Christ! Just as a good tree bears good fruit (Matthew 7:17) so Paul says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The first thing to note is that in contrast to the acts of the flesh; the fruit of the Spirit consists of changed attitudes – because where the heart is changed, where the tree is made good, good fruit will inevitably follow. The second thing to note is that these are not the product of our hard work and effort, but the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Set free from spending all our time and energy trying (and failing) to please God – we are now free to joyfully serve others in love. And against such things there is no law. That’s a dramatic irony – but you get the point, right? No law in the world forbids or restricts these fruits – you are free to be as loving, joyful, patient, kind and self-controlled as you want.

 

But if we are free to produce as much fruit of the Spirit as we want, why do we so often find ourselves going back to our old sinful ways? The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. The most violent war going on in this world is one that will never appear in news headlines – it’s the war going on in your heart and mine between the Old Adam and our New Self. Unlike the rest of the unbelieving world which remains completely enslaved to the sinful nature, we Christians are torn – so that what [we] want to do [we] do not do, but what [we] hate [we] do (Romans 7:15). And this war will not end until God kills this flesh once and for all and takes us to heaven.

 

But that doesn’t mean the outcome is uncertain, because those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. No honorable Roman would ever cast crucifixion in a positive light. Crucifixion was such a brutal and gruesome form of execution that it was reserved only for slaves and the very worst criminals. Paul’s point is that there is no reforming, no reasoning with the sinful flesh – the only thing to do with it is kill it without pity or mercy. That’s what the Holy Spirit for you through Holy Baptism. He nailed that sinful flesh to the cross to die. But, if you know anything about crucifixion, you know that death doesn’t come immediately. The sinful nature will claw and struggle to get down, to regain control of your life – and you will be tempted to help pull the nails out for him. The only solution is to return to baptism through repentance. That’s what repentance is: to hold out your sins and your sinful nature to God and plead with him to put this ugly beast to death once again.  

 

And, finally, Paul says that this inner transformation will produce visible results since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. These are military terms. He’s picturing a military parade where a disciplined squad of soldiers marches down the street in perfect sync with one another. This is what the Church looks like that is standing firm in Christian freedom. We walk in sync with the Spirit and with each other, not out of fear or guilt, but because we have been set free by Christ to serve one another. Yes, we will continue to stumble and fall along the way – but, freed by Christ from our sins of the past frees us to look forward in service to others – and that’s what it means to stand firm in your Gospel freedom

 

Martin Luther summarized these verses beautifully when he wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” [2] You are free; free from sin and the Law; you are free to serve others in love. Stand firm in that freedom because that’s the freedom which Christ died to give you. Amen.  


[1] https://www.barna.com/research/porn-in-the-digital-age-new-research-reveals-10-trends/

[2] AE 31:344

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.