Genesis 22:1-18 - What Did You Give Up for Lent? - February 18, 2018

This past week, while the world was busy celebrating Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day, the Christian church commemorated the beginning of Lent by gathering for worship on Ash Wednesday. Each year around this time the question is often asked: where did this annual tradition of Lent come from? Two places. First and foremost, Lent is an annual commemoration of our Savior’s 40 days of starvation and temptation in the wilderness – a brief illustration of the immense suffering he endured to save us from our sins. Second, in the early Christian Church (according to the Council of Nicea - 325 AD) it was tradition for new converts to make their confession of faith and be baptized on Easter Sunday – and so the 40 days before Easter served as a time of concentrated instruction; a time for repentance and faith.

 

The tradition of giving something up for Lent likely stems from these traditions. Although, odd as it may seem, giving something up is intentionally not an emphasis in the Lutheran church. We are very careful not to urge or demand that anyone do anything that might suggest that we are trying to earn forgiveness or merit a reward from God by our words or actions. We steadfastly maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) At the same time, we recognize with Luther that fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose (Small Catechism, Sacrament of Holy Communion, Part 4) as long as they focus our attention on Jesus and his work of redemption.

 

In many ways, “giving something up” for Lent has become a meaningless tradition. Not only because so many people treat the day before Lent as a day to indulge all of their ugliest, most carnal desires; not only because fewer and fewer people (even Christians) attend midweek Lenten services; but also because many of the things people “give up” for Lent fail to focus attention where it should be. Every year the website openbible.info surveys Twitter users to see what they are giving up for Lent. 2018’s top ten list: 10) fast food; 9) coffee; 8) soda; 7) sweets; 6) meat; 5) swearing; 4) chocolate; 3) alcohol; 2) twitter; 1) social networking. [1] We’re really willing to sacrifice for our Lord, aren’t we? 40 days without twitter and swearing; how could anyone survive? “Aren’t those good things to give up?” That’s not the question. The question is: “does doing this help me focus my attention on Jesus?” I think you’ll see that Genesis 22 does a much better job of focusing our attention on Jesus than Twitter does. We will consider what Abraham and God gave up.

 

We meet Abraham after God had kept his promise to give him a son – even though both he and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. Isaac was the child of promise. Through him God would give Abraham descendants as countless as the stars in the sky; one of whom would be the Savior of the world. (Genesis 12:2-3) Abraham and Sarah undoubtedly loved their son as much as any parents can love a child. God decided to use that love to help them better understand his love for them. God told Abraham take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about. Human reason argues that a good and gracious God would never issue a command like this. Many say “I could never believe in a God who would demand that.” And they seem to have a point: for Abraham, this command appeared to not only violate his duty to love his son but also destroy his hope for salvation – because without Isaac, there could be no Savior.

 

And yet, as we follow Abraham through this test, we will see that while Abraham was asked to give something up – he was actually the one who ended up gaining something. Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddles his donkey and set out for the place God had told him about. Could he not sleep because his conscience was tortured by the thought of sacrificing his son? Did he wake up early in order to avoid having to explain to Sarah what he was about to do to their son? We don’t know. What we do know is that Abraham listened to God and obeyed. But the test was just getting started. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. Imagine that. For three days Abraham walked with his son. For three days he had to dwell on God’s command. For three days he planned to do something that no parent would ever dream of doing. For three days Abraham had to weigh his seemingly contradictory responsibilities to his son and to his God. And yet, Abraham pressed on. In Abraham, we see not only the readiness of faith to do whatever God commands but the determination of faith to carry out the command – no matter the cost.

 

And then, before Abraham and Isaac ascend that dread mountain, we get to hear his faith: he said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you. We will come back? How could possibly come to that conclusion? Human logic couldn’t. This was the logic of faith. The writer to the Hebrews reveals: Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead. (Hebrews 11:19a) More than his own reason, more than his own aching heart, more than anything else in all creation – Abraham trusted God’s promises.

 

And so Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Can you imagine stacking the wood for a burnt offering on your child’s back? What parent wouldn’t choke up at the innocent and reasonable question: “where is the lamb?” Who of us would have the faith to say: God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son. This is what Abraham was willing to give up: he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

 

None of us has ever been asked to make such a sacrifice. But that doesn’t stop us from thinking about all of the things we believe we’ve sacrificed for God, does it? We think about all the Sundays (and now Wednesdays) we left our warm homes and traveled treacherous roads to sit at Jesus’ feet. We calculate all the money we’ve placed in the offering plate. We can vividly recall the temptations we’ve avoided. (Those we gave into? Not so much.) Those are real sacrifices we’ve made for God, right? How is it that we’ve been able to convince ourselves that these things are real sacrifices for God? Worship is not about us doing something for God, it’s about God opening the storehouse of heaven and pouring out his grace on us. God has placed us in the wealthiest nation in the world, he has given us a stable economy, a home, cars, clothes, food, and countless other luxuries. And then he invites us to give some of it back to him. How is this a sacrifice on our part? It’s simply giving back to God what is already his. This world is full of dangerous things; things that can hurt and harm us and others, things that can destroy our families and our lives. And God is considerate enough to point out these dangers in his 10 commandments so that we don’t hurt ourselves and the people we love. And – on the rare occasions we actually listen to him – we have the gall to turn around and say “Look Lord! See how much I have given up for you?”

 

We may imagine that we have made sacrifices for God; for Abraham there was no imagining. He was holding a knife over the throat of his son, his only son, the son he loved. But at just the right moment, God stopped him in his tracks. The angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Hands shaking, tears streaming, heart breaking…God stops Abraham cold. Abraham’s faith was justified…God kept his Word! And he went one step further. Abraham look up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. Not only did God spare Isaac from Abraham’s hand, he also provided a substitute to take Isaac’s place. Instead of losing that which was most precious to him, Abraham gained something far more precious – a firmer faith in God’s promises.

 

But Abraham isn’t the only one who has gained faith from this account, is he? Can you possibly read this account without seeing Jesus in every sentence? Just as Abraham loved his one and only son so God loved his only Son and testified to this love at both his Baptism and Transfiguration: this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17; 17:5) Abraham led Isaac up a mountain in the region of Moriah like a lamb to be slaughtered and so did God. He led Jesus. Like a lamb. Up that same mountain. To be slaughtered. For the sins of the world. Just as Isaac carried the wood for his own execution up that mountain, so Jesus carried his own cross to Calvary. In Isaac’s innocent question about the lamb, we hear an echo of Jesus’ agonized plea: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. (Luke 22:42) But that’s where the similarities between Isaac and Jesus end. The angel of the Lord (Genesis 22:15) – stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son. But no one stopped God from sacrificing his son, his only son, the son he loved on that cross on Calvary. No ram caught in the bushes would take Jesus’ place – because, Jesus was that ram. Jesus was the substitute. For what? For whom? For you and for me. God actually gave his Son up to death because he refused to give up on us, refused to give us over to the death and hell we deserved. Certainly Abraham is not the only one who was given a greater faith in God’s promises through this account.

 

So, in light of these things, what did you give up for Lent? If you’re hoping for a Lutheran top-ten list, you’re going to leave here disappointed. But there are two sacrifices that are not optional for Lent; in fact, are not optional for a Christian any time of year. First, God invites you to “give up” your sins. No, not to stop sinning (if we could do that, we wouldn’t need Lent) – but to bring your sins, ever last one of them and lay them on Jesus like Abraham stacked that wood on Isaac. Leave them here, let Jesus’ blood wash them from your heart and bury them in his grave forever. A broken and contrite heart – that is a sacrifice pleasing to God. (Psalm 51:7) Next, “give up” any idea of saving yourself – give all your faith, all your trust, all your hope for heave to Jesus: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Repentance and faith – those are the truly necessary sacrifices of Lent.

 

Anything else you or I might choose to give up for Lent pales in comparison to what Abraham was asked to give up and what God has already given up. But if giving something else up, causing yourself some minor inconvenience, sacrificing some favorite food or activity – if doing those things helps you better focus your heart and life on Jesus – then by all means set aside the candy bar and deactivate your social media account for a few weeks. But might I suggest that if you do, you fill that empty time and those empty hands with the Bible and spend even more time learning about the God who did not spare his one and only Son but gave him up for us all. Because that, finally, is what Lent is all about. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.openbible.info/labs/lent-tracker/2018

Mark 1:29-39 - This Is Why He Came - February 4, 2018

The more you read and grow familiar with the Gospels, the more you begin to notice the distinctive styles and emphases of the individual authors. For example, Matthew, with dozens of quotations from the OT, emphasizes that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed Savior God had promised throughout the Old Testament. Luke, with his extended biography of Jesus’ early life and his genealogy, focuses on Jesus’ humanity – that he is one with us and is our perfect substitute. John emphasizes the timeless, eternal nature of Jesus – both his work and his Word. So what makes Mark special? As we’ve discovered over the past several weeks, Mark is especially interested in the deeds of Jesus’ ministry. His is a breathless accounting of Jesus’ activity during his three year public ministry. And today’s account doesn’t disappoint. From a service at the synagogue to healing Peter’s mother-in-law; to healing the masses, driving out demons, praying in solitude and then quickly moving on from Capernaum – Mark proceeds at a feverish pace. But what’s the point of it all? This is why Jesus came: the miracles are important; the message is better.

 

If your house has been one of the many struck with sickness in recent weeks – you might be thinking that it would be nice to have Doctor Jesus on call today. Instead of driving to urgent care, waiting for hours next to someone who probably has some infectious disease, haggling with the insurance company, and trying to keep track of all the different prescriptions, wouldn’t it be better to have Jesus take your hand, lift you out of bed – suddenly, completely healed – so that you can go about your life? Sometimes, isn’t that what we expect? In the back of our minds or at the front of our prayers, don’t we suggest just this kind of miracle to God? “Lord, just make me, we, them better!” It would make life a lot easier, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that our faith in Jesus would be firmer and we would be more eager to serve Jesus – just like Peter’s mother-in-law. And who knows, more people would probably come to church if they heard that Jesus miraculously heals those who come here.

 

Before you sign a petition to change our name from Risen Savior to Healing Savior, listen to the rest of the story: that evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was. The whole town was there trudging up the driveway and trampling down the flowers. People were carrying their friends and family members on mats or over their shoulders. Demon possessed people were spitting and swearing and foaming at the mouth. There were even people there with horrible, disfiguring, infectious diseases. It looked like a trauma center. It looked like hell. And Jesus healed them. He cured their bronchitis and influenza and leprosy. He silenced their demons – because he wasn’t about to have them testify to his identity or cast doubt on his message – and drove them out. He worked late into the night.

 

And when morning came, he did something just as important as healing: he went off by himself to pray. There’s a lesson here for us. When life gets crazy: find a quiet place and pray. Unfortunately, the disciples didn’t get it. Everyone is looking for you. Translation: you don’t have time for prayer, there are too many sick people who need your help. And how did Jesus respond? Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come. Doctor Jesus, the compassionate and caring Son of God just left all those sick people…sick. Why? Why didn’t he finish the job? Why did he leave them to suffer? Why didn’t he just wave his hand over the village and grant everyone full health? Because, healing, exorcising, miracle-working was not, finally, why Jesus came. He came to preach.

 

With an attitude like that, Jesus would probably have a hard time finding a job as pastor today. Why? That’s not what people want. That’s not what they think they need. They need healing. They need their problems solved, their bills paid, programs to keep their kids out of trouble and recovery groups and financial advice. They want God to fix their bodies, fill their bank accounts, make them happy and healthy and wise. They want clear answers to life’s questions and easy solutions to their most stubborn problems.

 

Answers. Miracles. Healings. Church consultants say that those are the necessary ingredients for success and growth today. And many churches have bought into it. They offer programs for every age-group, solutions for every problem, and promise help for every issue. There’s just one problem. They can’t follow through. Sick people stay sick; the poor stay poor; and worst of all, guilty sinners remain guilty. And the result is the religious scene we have in America: people don’t get the answers or healing they are looking for at one place, so they wander from church to church, religion to religion, god to god searching for answers. And in the chaos, what does Jesus do? He just keeps on preaching. And not only did he preach, he sent his apostles to preach, he sends pastors to preach (2 Timothy 4:2), he commands his whole Church to preach the good news to all creation (Matthew 28:19-20).  

 

Well, if that’s what he came for, then why did he do any miracles at all? They were signs. They served as proof that he was the Christ and his message was true. Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would take up our infirmities and carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4) – and so Jesus lifted up the infirm and carried the sorrows of the sick. And the Holy Spirit caused three of the Gospel writers to record this healing as a sign for us, too. A sign of what? That Jesus is the source of all healing in this world. No matter what your illness is, no matter who you consulted about it, no matter what treatment you took, your healing is the work of Jesus. These miracles are important. They show us that he was who he claimed to be. They confirm his preaching. They remind us that all sickness comes from sin and Satan and that all healing comes only from Jesus. They tell us ought to look to him in our time of need and thank him whenever and wherever he grants us healing.

 

But the question remains, doesn’t it? Why am I or someone I love still sick? Why doesn’t he always grant healing? Why didn’t he heal all of the sick in Capernaum? Because that’s not the real reason he came. Temporary fixes are not how Jesus came to deal with our sicknesses, diseases, demons and the root cause of them all – our sin. Jesus came to deal with those problems permanently; by dragging all of our sins and diseases and sicknesses into the grave with him. He heals us, not with Band-Aids and surgeries, but by his death and resurrection. To proclaim that message of forgiveness and to carry out that mission of salvation – that’s why Jesus came. Jesus’ message and his mission are the foundation of our faith. It has to be that way. Faith trusts the Word, not the miracles. Faith in miracles is no faith at all. Just ask the Jews who witnessed Jesus’ miracles – and still had him crucified; just ask the thousands of people today who have stopped going to church because they didn’t realize the healing they were promised. Without the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the miracles were worthless.

 

Job learned that lesson the hard way. Our reading from Job was a depressing and desperate description of how life often seems short and pointless and full of suffering. Chapter 7 is part of Job’s prayer to God after he had lost his property, his family, and his health. Job’s wife had suggested that he curse God and die. (Job 2:9) His friends counseled that God was punishing him for some sin and that if Job just got his act together, God would heal him. Throughout the book, Job is protesting his situation and demanding that God explain why he is suffering. God never does. But we, the readers, know the real reason Job is suffering. It’s because Job is already righteous, justified and right with God – through faith in the Savior. God knew that. The devil knew that. But the devil wanted to test his theory that Job only believed because God had so richly blessed him – and God allowed the devil to carry out his test.

 

The book of Job is God’s great protest against man-made religion. Man-made religion – no matter what form it takes – believes that if we live and believe and pray right, God will bless us; and if we don’t, God will punish us. The book of Job destroys that thinking. The book makes it clear that Job didn’t commit some grave sin to earn God’s wrath. (Job 1:22) God didn’t answer Job’s questions or complaints. He didn’t miraculously relieve his suffering. And when God did appear to Job (Job 38:1) he didn’t explain why he allowed Job to suffer. He simply said “I’m the Creator. You’re my creature. How dare you question my ways!” Job’s disease runs its course. He gets better. He repents for ever questioning God’s wisdom and ways. And God, out of pure grace, gave Job twice as much as he had before; seven more sons and daughters, and a good, long life. (Job 42:12-17) And then, Job dies, and that’s how the book ends. But there were no miracles. No answers. No explanations. Just the simple, vivid encouragement to trust God’s Word in spite of the circumstances.

 

The same lesson played out in Jesus’ ministry as well. Jesus didn’t attend the bedside of every sick person. He didn’t cast out every demon and heal every disease. Sometimes he avoided the crowds and went and prayed or simply pressed on to the next town. And he never explained why. And that tells us something about how Jesus handles our sicknesses and diseases and our prayers for healing today. He always, always hears and answers the prayers of his children – you have his Word on it. (Matthew 7:7-8) At the same time, learn to recognize his answer. Sometimes he does grant miraculous, immediate healing – like he did with Peter’s mother-in-law. Sometimes he lets the sickness run its course and leaves us in bed. Other times he lets the disease linger for months, years, or decades. Finally, all of us will die from one disease or another. But that’s not the worst thing that could happen. In fact, it’s the best thing.

 

Why? Because Jesus died…but then he rose again. And he took us with him. He not only carried our sins to the cross, he carried our sicknesses, our frailties, our diseases. He crushed the head of the devil and all the demons that torment us. He even defeated death itself. And his victory stands, even if we are still tormented by demons and diseases. That’s why Paul can say that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39) – not the devil and his demons, not a freak accident, not cancer or dementia or the flu.

 

That’s the point of this story. That’s what the Holy Spirit wants us to know and believe. That’s the truth that Job learned, Peter’s mother-in-law learned, Peter and Andrew and James and John all learned. And do you know how they learned it? They got sick – and Jesus was there. They suffered – and Jesus was there. They died – and Jesus was there to carry them home to heaven.

 

Whether you’ve gotten the flu yet or not, chances are that sickness will strike you sooner or later – but Jesus will be there. You will suffer pain and loss – and Jesus will still be there. And, one day, all of us – yes, even Mackenzie – will die – but even then Jesus’ work and Jesus’ word will stand – just as it has for 2000 years. He will reach down to you, like he did with Peter’s mother-in-law. He will take you by the hand and raise you up out of your grave. And that’s when all of those prayers for healing will be answered. Finally, the only solution for all the problems we face in this life involves dying and rising again to a new life in heaven. The very good news is that that is precisely why Jesus came. The miracles are important – they confirm Jesus’ identity and his power over sin and sickness and Satan; but the good news of his redemptive death and resurrection is even better. You know that. Believe that even when sickness or disease threaten to distract you from the real reason Jesus came. In his name. Amen.

 

Mark 1:21-28 - An (Un)common Service with Jesus - January 28, 2018

It was just your standard, ordinary, common service at the synagogue in Capernaum. At least, it started out that way. Your standard synagogue service would have been pretty familiar to us. They would hear lessons read from the Scriptures. They would sing Psalms. A teacher would provide a commentary – a sermon. They would pray. They would leave with God’s blessing. As liturgical Lutherans, we would have felt right at home – if we understood Hebrew. This account helps us realize that even though we may think of our worship service as ordinary and common – there’s nothing common about worshipping with Jesus, because we, like those 1st century Jews hear an authoritative Word and witness an amazing result.

 

First of all, why did Jesus go to church? Wasn’t he the all-knowing Son of God? As the author of Scripture, didn’t he have a pretty good handle on what it contained? Why did Jesus have to go to church? For you and for me. By faithfully attending worship, Jesus was stepping into our shoes, taking our place, doing what we haven’t always done. He was obeying the third commandment by keeping the Sabbath Day holy – that is, set apart for God and his Word. (Exodus 20:8) He had to do this for all the times our parents had to drag us kicking and screaming out of bed for church; for all of the times what happened on Saturday night took priority over what was happening on Sunday morning; for all of the times that we have come to worship grudgingly instead of cheerfully; for all of the pathetic excuses we’ve made to stay away. Because we have broken the third commandment by our reluctance, apathy – and downright disobedience, Jesus kept it so that his perfect record could be credited to our account.   

 

But on this particular Sabbath, Jesus did more than just show up and sit down. He went into the synagogue and began to teach. What did he teach? We don’t have the sermon. But we can piece together a little bit of the substance of Jesus’ teaching by contrasting it with what it wasn’t. It wasn’t what the people were used to. The people were used to the teachers of the law droning on and on and on about the rules and regulations of pious Jewish living. They would offer careful guidance on how to properly wash your hands for purification purposes, remind you to give ten percent of your garden herbs from your pantry, they would issue strong warnings against doing any work on the Sabbath, and they would hail the virtues of frequent fasting – even though God had only commanded his people to fast one day per year. (Leviticus 16:29-31) Week after week: rules and regulations, the traditions and teachings of men. Worst of all, the people knew full well that their teachers didn’t even practice what they preached. Later in his ministry, Jesus would rebuke this these very teachers for their manmade teaching and their hypocritical living: woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24) In contrast to the teachers of the law, Jesus’ sermon had a shocking effect: the people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

 

One might think that going to church week after week to listen to nothing but rules and regulations is silly and would never fill the pews today – but you’d be wrong. If you were to go home and listen to a televangelist or stop by the largest, flashiest mega-churches in the area – you would have a good chance of hearing a message pretty similar to that preached in the 1st century synagogues. You’d hear about the 5 ways to salvage your broken New Year’s resolutions, 7 tips to being the best you you can be, 3 principles for career and personal success. These days you can again hear about the virtues of fasting – not just as a religious ritual but as a part of a healthy diet and you can find eager, energetic volunteers to help you calculate the 10% of your income you should be bringing to church. Very little has changed in 2000 years. Much of what passes for Christian preaching and teaching today is nothing more than moralism and legalism; rules and regulations; the traditions and teachings of men.

 

So what made Jesus’ teaching different and authoritative? It wasn’t just that he didn’t drone on about the number of steps you could take on the Sabbath or how long the tassels on your robe needed to be – it was that his message penetrated deeper than the hands and lips – right to the heart. We heard a summary of his message last week: the time has come…the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. (Mark 1:15) To those living in the darkness of sin and unbelief, Jesus came proclaiming a message of life and light. To those caught up in living for the moment, Jesus revealed the truth that where you spend eternity is more important than earthly luxury. To those burdened with guilt, Jesus offered relief through free forgiveness. To those doomed to death, Jesus revealed the path to life. To those who feared God’s wrath over their failure to properly wash their hands or that they had walked one too many steps on the Sabbath – or today, those who have failed in marriage or parenting or business – Jesus came with the good news that he had come to quench God’s wrath over sin. It was a simple, “common” service in that synagogue in Capernaum, but Jesus had touched the hearts of every person there with his authoritative Word. It’s no surprise that the people were amazed – literally “overwhelmed” – by what they had heard.

 

Or is it? Does it surprise us that people were actually amazed by what they heard at church? After all, we have our own routine, our own “common” service here too. Show up. Sit down. Stand up. Leave. The Gospel of Christ stands at the center of everything we do. Same old, same old week after week. If worship ever seems boring, irrelevant, or monotonous, whose fault is it? (Hint: it’s not Jesus’ fault!) If we fail to see our need for the absolution is it because we have forgotten the Law’s damning verdict: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God? (Romans 3:23) If we are reluctant to come because we are burdened with guilt or shame, aren’t we forgetting that Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners? (Luke 5:32) If worship doesn’t seem relevant for our daily lives aren’t we forgetting that this life is preparation for eternity – which will be spent in only one of two places? If receiving the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins doesn’t amaze us any more, don’t we need to consider how faithful we are in preparing ourselves for it; so that we recognize what we are receiving and why we need it? What word better describes our attitude toward our ordinary, common service: amazed or apathetic? If it’s the latter, we need to repent.

 

There is good reason for us to be just as amazed at what happens here as those people in Capernaum. Because even though Jesus himself isn’t physically teaching and preaching – when his Word is taught and his Sacraments are practiced – amazing things happen here. Things that don’t happen anywhere else. You want proof? Ok. A few minutes ago you confessed that you were altogether sinful and don’t deserve to be called God’s child. And what did God tell you? I have forgiven all your sins and for Jesus’ sake you are my dear child. In our OT lesson we heard words spoken by Moses himself over 3500 years ago. And today, his words are fulfilled as Jesus continues to carry out his prophetic office by continuing to come to us in his Word. After the sermon, we will confess the words of the Apostles’ Creed – a creed written over 1500 years ago – an amazing fact in itself. But what’s even more amazing is that through the power of the Holy Spirit we actually believe the mysteries that confession contains: that God created this world; that Jesus suffered and died to save us; that the Holy Spirit calls and gathers the Holy Christian church through the message of forgiveness. Then we will pray, and our Father in heaven – the one who controls all things – hears and answers our prayers. Is that not amazing? Apathy has no place in Christian worship – not when Jesus is here offering us unimaginable blessings from heaven.

 

The crowd’s amazement was heightened even further when this “common” service took an uncommon turn. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook this man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.”

 

You might think that a worship service is a strange place to find one of Satan’s demons, but, in truth, it’s not. Satan does all he can to disrupt the worship of God’s people. And he has a huge arsenal at his disposal: distractions, doubts, boredom, and false teaching. Christian worship is not immune from Satan’s infiltration – in fact, he works his hardest among God’s people. In Capernaum, Satan threw his efforts into overdrive. A man who had been possessed by a demon disrupted the service and tried to cast doubt on Jesus’ identity and message. What the demon possessed man said was absolutely true – but what would everyone think if it seemed like Jesus was in league with the devil? The credibility of Jesus and his urgent message of salvation would have been tarnished. The devil and his demons know the truth – but their testimony can only hinder the message.

 

Modern, scientific, enlightened critics classify this as an example of primitive, unenlightened behavior. They arrogantly assume that Mark didn’t know the difference between mental illness and demon possession and so allege that this was simply a case of schizophrenia or some other mental disease. Playing devil’s advocate: let’s just say they’re right. Jesus spoke five words in Greek and this poor man was completely, immediately healed. I’d like to see a modern-day psychiatrist cure schizophrenia by speaking one sentence after a 30 second diagnosis. In any case, this wasn’t schizophrenia. Critics – in fact, we all – can believe it or not; but no one can deny that God’s inspired Word identifies this as a case of demon possession.

 

“Well, nothing that amazing or exciting ever happens here. If it did, then we’d really be excited to come to worship; then the people would really start storming through the doors!” That kind of thinking underestimates the devil’s cunning and overlooks his primary goal: to draw attention away from and lead people away from – or at least plant a seed of doubt – in Jesus and his Word. Here’s a question: does the devil need to physically possess someone today to lead people to doubt or mistrust Jesus and his Word? Not if he can possess us to doubt Jesus’ identity or Word through false teaching. Not if he can possess us to place our focus on material things instead of the spiritual riches God wants to give us. Not if he can possess church members to object to clear, Biblical doctrines and practices based on nothing more than their own experience or gut feeling. Not if he can convince us that we’re pretty good people who might need a divine therapist or a gift dispensing genie from time to time – but not a Savior from sin. Satan is happy whenever we doubt Jesus or his Word or turn away from him for any reason at all. It’s actually pretty alarming that Satan has so much success leading people away from Jesus through lesser means than bodily possession.

 

On the whole, this might scare us. “Satan and his demons can really possess us?” Yes. But there is good news: when Satan is at his fiercest, Jesus is still triumphant and his Word is still the cure. Come out of him was all it took in Capernaum. The demon was driven out and the man was freed from his prison. But this little victory in Capernaum was only a taste of what Jesus had come to this earth to accomplish. Knowing full well that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. (1 John 3:8) Short, authoritative sentences describe how Jesus crushed the Satan’s skull once and for all. It is finished (John 19:30) and he is risen. (Matthew 28:6) Because it is finished: our sin is forgiven, our guilt is paid for, our hell has been suffered, God’s wrath is satisfied. Because he is risen: we will live forever with the one who has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. When we hear that good news; when through the Spirit’s power we believe that good news – Satan’s power to harm us is destroyed. Is that not amazing? Is that not reason enough to make regular worship our highest priority?

 

Yes, today’s is a rather “common” service during the relatively “ordinary” time of the church year between the big festivals of Christmas and Easter. But there’s nothing common about worshipping with Jesus. He still comes to us in the Word that is more powerful, relevant, and authoritative than the words and wisdom of any man. He’s still accomplishing amazing results through that Word: cleansing us from sin, strengthening our faith, and increasing our hope of heaven – all of which send Satan scurrying back to hell with his tail between his legs. May we never fail to recognize the truly uncommon blessings Jesus pours out through the “common” means of grace week after week. Amen.

John 1:43-51 - See the Hidden Glory in Christ's Call - January 14, 2018

Humanly speaking, we Christians are a strange bunch. For starters, we submit our faith and our lives to a book that was written thousands of years ago in languages most of us cannot read. Then we find our greatest hope and joy in a man we have never met personally – a man who was tried and executed as a criminal, and we call him Lord and Savior. Then, if asked why we do these things, Lutherans will answer “I can’t really tell you why.” We don’t point to a dramatic epiphany we had or a process we went through or a decision we made. To top it off, most people today think that something is worth doing, worth committing to, worth sacrificing for – only if it leads to real, tangible, immediate benefits. Has following Christ made you happier? Eh, sometimes. Wealthier? Not really. Healthier? Nope. Well, then your family life must be peaceful and conflict-free, you must never be anxious about the future, your life must be easier and more pleasant now, right? No. Well, then, why do it? Why trust the Bible and follow Christ? That’s the heart of the issue, right? That’s the secret of Christianity. We are adamant that we don’t follow Christ because we are forced to or because it brings us temporal benefits – but, at the same time, we can’t really explain it. And that is the hidden, mysterious, inexplicable, glory of Christ’s call. It is both unexpectedly simple and incredibly profound.

 

The simplicity of the call to faith is on center stage at the end of John 1. Jesus is beginning to establish the Christian church. But he’s not standing in the Roman Senate. He’s not shouting from the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem. He’s out in the wilderness near the Jordan River where John the Baptist was baptizing and preaching repentance. As Jesus walked past, John said Look the Lamb of God! and two of his disciples, Andrew and John, heeded his encouragement and started following Jesus. (John 1:35-39) Andrew brought his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus and Jesus called Peter to be his disciple as well. Peter and Andrew were from the town of Bethsaida (“house of fish”) – which led naturally to the next man Jesus would call: Philip.

 

Can you imagine a less dramatic, less interesting, less “made-for-TV” moment than the account of Philip’s call to discipleship? The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.” Simple might be an understatement. But apparently there was something powerful behind those two little words follow me, because the next thing we know Philip is relating some truly dramatic information to Nathanael: we have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote. This claim was anything but uninteresting and anticlimactic. This was what every believer since Adam and Eve had been waiting for. This was what God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This was what all of the sacrifices, all of the rituals, all of the rules and regulations God had imposed on Israel were pointing to. Philip had become convinced that he had found the promised Messiah, the Savior on whom the hopes of Israel and the world hinged.

 

Who was it? A young prince who had been groomed for leadership in Herod’s palace? A savvy young priest in the line of Aaron? A prodigy from a Jewish seminary? No. Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? There were probably two parts to Nathanael’s skepticism. First, Nazareth was located in the part of Israel known as Galilee. Far from being a hotbed of religious thought, Galilee was generally thought of as a religious wasteland. A reputation supplemented by the fact that it housed a garrison of the hated Roman army. The who’s who of Judaism wouldn’t want to travel to Galilee far less live there. Second, Nathanael knew his OT well enough to know that Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament – and, therefore, is correct in questioning how the Messiah, the Savior, the King of Israel could possibly be connected with this Galilean village. A Messiah from Bethlehem or Jerusalem? Sure. But a Messiah from Nazareth in Galilee – that was unexpected.

 

Did you notice the simple genius of Philip’s response? He didn’t argue with Nathanael. He didn’t tell him how it made his heart quiver and his knees knock to be in Jesus’ presence. He didn’t try to lure him in with a promise of some material benefit. He didn’t adjust the truth to fit what Nathanael’s expectations. He simply said come and see. In a time when the church is frantically chasing after the latest and greatest outreach scheme, when simply preaching and teaching and baptizing and administering the sacrament is despised as “small-minded”, when we’re told that people won’t care about the Gospel unless the church first takes care of the things they want and need –we can learn an awful lot from Philip about how the church is really built. Come and see. No carefully scripted strategy, no pandering message, no social justice cause, no slick marketing campaign can compare to the simple invitation to come and see and hear the Word of God – because only the Word is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) Philip shows us how the Christian church grows: one person at a time through the means of grace!

 

So no, there was nothing earth shattering or newsworthy about Jesus’ call to Philip or Philip’s call to Nathanael. And as Isaiah prophesied 700 years earlier, there was nothing especially noteworthy about Jesus either. (Isaiah 53:1-3) He was a carpenter’s kid from a painfully average village in Galilee. But the impact of that simple call was huge. Christ’s call to Philip motivated him to tell others – beginning, where evangelism naturally does, with his close friends and family. Christ’s call to Philip and Nathanael resulted not only in their discipleship but, later, in being appointed as apostles. This simple call would lead them to follow Jesus for three years, to follow him through storms stirred up by nature and stirred up by Satan to a cross on Calvary and eventually (according to tradition) to their own deaths as martyrs. God’s call to faith might seem simple; but there’s nothing ordinary about what happens when the almighty God brings his power to bear on the heart of a sinner.

 

There was nothing earth-shattering about your call to faith, either. For most of us, a pastor said simply “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” splashed some water on our head, and that was that. For others, you first heard Jesus’ call as adults through simple words on a printed page or spoken by another human being. This is not the kind of stuff that makes the headlines or sends the Twitter-verse aflutter.

 

But that’s where the glory of the call lies. It looks so simple, but hidden behind the simplicity is an incredible miracle. For when Jesus called us to faith, he was not just calling hesitant skeptics like Nathanael. He was calling natural born enemies. We hated him with every fiber of our being before we even took our first breath. If you doubt that, first look at Psalm 51 or Ephesians 2 to see God’s analysis of your heart. Or just look back at the past week. Remember the thoughts and words that crossed your mind and lips, recall the actions you’d like to have back – and you will see the proof that your sinful nature is still opposed to God.

 

And how does God overcome our hostility? He simply connects the righteousness of Jesus to the words and water of Baptism and declares us to be his children. He sends his Spirit to work through the words of an ancient book that tells us about a God who became man to suffer and die to bring forgiveness and salvation to sinners. The whole thing is so simple that many try to liven it up by turning Baptism into something we do for God and conversion into an emotional decision we make for Christ. But don’t fall for it; don’t let the simplicity of it fool you – because that’s where the glory lies. The glory is that through even the simplest of means – words and water – Christ has called you out of the darkness of sin and unbelief and into the light of faith and holiness.

 

So simple…and yet so profound. Humanly speaking, we would give Nathanael a little credit, right? He did more than many people are willing to do: he went and checked out this Jesus fellow for himself. And Nathanael is introduced to the profound nature of Christ’s call before he even meets him face to face. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said to him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” In confirmation class we talk about three things that prove Jesus is true God. First, the Bible calls him God. Second, he did miracles only God can do. Third, he has divine attributes: omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience. The call to faith might appear simple, but for Nathanael it came from someone who had the power to read his heart, the power to see what he was doing long before spy satellites and drones. Faced with the divine power of God himself, he couldn’t be skeptical any longer: Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.

 

And that was just the tip of the iceberg: Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus appears to be referring to an incident in Genesis 28 from the life of Jacob. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau – whom he had robbed of his father Isaac’s blessing. Jacob had fled from home and was sleeping outdoors with a stone for his pillow. Scared and alone, God came to Jacob in a dream depicting a staircase from earth to heaven – and angels ascending and descending. God was telling Jacob that even though he seemed to be alone, he wasn’t. God was present with him, even in the middle of nowhere. Here, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man – emphasizing that he is God in human flesh. In other words, Jesus is the staircase that reaches from earth to heaven. Jesus is the one – the only one – through whom we have access to heaven. His life has bridged the gap between God and man because his life satisfied the demands of God’s law that ours never have and never will. His cross has bridged the gap between God and man because his death has removed the barrier of sin that stood between us and God. It doesn’t get more profound than that. As Jesus would later tell Philip anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

 

Jesus’ call brings you blessings that are no less profound. He brings you forgiveness of sins, freedom from having to obey the Law perfectly to earn heaven, certain victory over death, and the assurance of God’s guiding grace and presence no matter where life leads you. Jesus’ call to faith brings us blessings we certainly do not deserve and would never think to expect. But sometimes that’s the problem, isn’t it? We don’t expect such profound blessings or we don’t see forgiveness and salvation as profound – and so we undervalue Christ’s call. We scoff at forgiveness as old news and begin to expect and demand different blessings; earthly, temporal, tangible blessings. Instead of expecting Jesus to keep his promise to open up the floodgates of heaven to pour out the spiritual blessings we really need, we expect him to satisfy our earthly, physical, emotional, momentary wants. The Christian author C.S. Lewis illustrated the foolishness of looking for Jesus to give us what we want rather than what we really need: It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. [1]

 

Don’t shortchange Jesus’ call to faith. Don’t pass on its profound blessings in favor of the trivial things this world prizes. Don’t turn Jesus merely into a life-coach who gives you good advice for day-to-day living or a psychologist who merely helps you cope with life’s challenges. Don’t turn Jesus into a buddy who simply pats your back and makes you feel good when you’re down. Yes, Jesus’ Word does direct our lives, his grace does help us cope, and he offers comfort for hurting souls – but if that’s all you’re looking for you will miss the much more profound and much more necessary blessings he offers. When you see the blessings that Christ’s call to faith has given and is still giving you – the adoption he gives at the font, the forgiveness he offers at the Altar, the promises he gives in his Word – then you have blessings that are so profound that they will last through all eternity.

 

But all of those things are only yours because in his love and mercy Christ has called you to faith and discipleship. No, it probably wasn’t an earth-shattering, mind-blowing spectacle, but it was profound nonetheless. It’s hard to explain it to others. So follow Philip’s example: don’t try to explain it, simply invite them to come and see Jesus for themselves. It’s that simple. It’s that profound. That’s the hidden glory of Christ’s call. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/702-it-would-seem-that-our-lord-finds-our-desires-not

Isaiah 60:1-6 - Rise and Shine - January 7, 2018

“Rise and shine!” If that phrase doesn’t make you cringe; if it doesn’t make you want to reflexively throw something at the door and yell “get out!” – well, I have to break it to you: you’re one of those obnoxiously cheerful morning people that the rest of us resent. “Rise and shine” usually implies a burden; get up and make breakfast, go to school, go to work – or at the very least, put some clothes on. Well, at the risk of being too cheerful this early on a Sunday morning, I – following the lead of the prophet Isaiah – want to encourage you to “rise and shine.”

 

When Isaiah wrote these words – roughly 700 years before Jesus’ birth – they weren’t just annoying, they were shocking and virtually unbelievable. The people of Israel heard these words as they were living under the dark storm clouds of war and the gloomy shadow of exile in Babylon. These people were miserable, they were brooding, they had resigned themselves to live in captivity and then die. And Isaiah has the gall to come along and say “rise and shine!” Why? Why should they look up from the misery of their exile? Why should they rise and shine when everything – their land, their temple, their freedom, their homes – had been taken from them? Because the long-promised Messiah – the Christ, the Savior – will come! He will come in spite of the storms and shadows, the gloom and doom that swirled around them. The people of Israel could rise and shine in spite of their present circumstances because God had promised to send a Savior to rescue them from their circumstances.

 

Clearly we live in a different day and age than the people Isaiah first wrote to. But isn’t it true that storms and shadows, gloom and doom still fill our world and lives in 2018? Short days and bitter cold keep us locked indoors. Trials and troubles still disrupt our lives. Wars and rumors of wars still paint the headlines. Immorality and hostility to the Christian faith are on the rise. Ignorance of Scripture – of even the most basic Biblical truths – is at an epidemic level in our land. It’s very easy to become resigned and depressed. We need Isaiah’s encouragement just as much as the Israelites did to: Rise and Shine; see the Son shining on you; see the darkness all around you; see the nations being drawn to you.

 

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. If Christmas marks the incarnation, the appearance and birth of God on earth; then Epiphany marks the revealing of that baby as the Son of God and Savior of the world. This revelation sent shockwaves to the ends of the earth. The evidence is found in our Gospel lesson, where some Magi, or wise men, from the East, rose up, left their homes and families and traveled hundreds of miles to Israel to worship the one who had been born king of the Jews. (Matthew 2:2)

 

Perhaps because of the influence of the famous carol We Three Kings, people tend to get bogged down in the details – or lack thereof – of the Magi’s visit. How many Magi were there? Tradition says three; Scripture doesn’t say. How old was Jesus when they came to see him in Bethlehem? Herod assumed he was two or younger (Matthew 2:16); but again, the Bible doesn’t tell us. How did the wise men get to Bethlehem? Did they ride camels, horses, or donkeys? What kind of animals should we have in our nativity scenes? Well, apart from the fact that the wise men and their animals shouldn’t be in our nativity scenes (different time & place!) – does it really matter? Or, maybe most mysterious of all: what was the star they saw? Was it a comet, a super nova, a convergence of planets, or something miraculous? People want to know; the Bible doesn’t tell us. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Magi – but we shouldn’t let the unknown overshadow the wonderful things Scripture does tell us.

 

We do know that the sole focus of Magi was on finding the newborn King of the Jews. We do know that they made the very best use of the talents God had given them as astronomers. We do know that they dropped everything to come and worship this king. We do know that they weren’t like those people who make a last minute stop at Walgreens to pick up a last-minute gift, they brought the very best they had: gold, incense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11) (Just as Isaiah had prophesied.) We know that the wise men used everything they had to worship God’s Son: their time, treasures, and talents – but that’s not what made them wise. What made them wise? They were wise because they followed this mysterious star to Jerusalem where they heard, perhaps for the first time, the prophecy from Micah that said the King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem of Judea, they believed the Biblical prophecy, and they went to worship this newborn king. The light of faith had dawned in the hearts of these Magi – making them truly wise.

 

Isaiah still calls to us today: arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. Unlike an annoyingly cheerful wake-up call, Isaiah isn’t calling us to do something. He’s calling us to receive something. To receive, with the Magi, the gift of God’s Son, the world’s Savior. Just consider: Why was Jesus born into this world? He was born for you – to be your substitute under the strict demands of God’s Law. (Galatians 4:5) Why did Mary and Joseph name him Jesus? He came to save his people – you – from your sins. (Matthew 1:21) Jesus didn’t come to demand something from you; he came to shine light into your darkness – whether that’s the darkness of an emotional low after the high of Christmas; the darkness of sickness or disease; or the gloom of the meaninglessness that seems to fill so many of our days. The special good news of Epiphany is that Jesus didn’t come only to give joy and life and light to the people of Israel; he came for Easterners like the Magi, Roman citizens like the Ephesians; and 21st century Americans like us. Christmas was only 13 days ago, but as you look around, it’s easy to wonder if it made any difference at all. The trees are already on the brush pile, the gifts are returned, the joy is packed away for another year. Epiphany helps us get the most out of Christmas; it reveals that this baby came to save you! Rise and shine and see it: see the Son of God shining on you – and he has brought you the best gift of all: salvation!

 

But this good news has the greatest impact when we clearly see the reality in which we live. Isaiah goes on: see, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples. Isaiah isn’t talking about short days and long, cold nights; he’s talking about sin. He’s saying that the world is blanketed with sin. He uses the same word Moses used in Exodus 10 to describe how the plague of locusts “covered” the land of Egypt prior to the Exodus. (Exodus 10:15) Just like those locusts invaded every corner of the land, disrupted people’s lives and destroyed their crops – so sin invades every corner of our world and disrupts and destroys every aspect of our lives. Sin covers. Sin consumes. Sin destroys. This suffocating blanket of sin threatens to block out the light of Christ, to leave us standing in the fog of unbelief, to land us in the eternal darkness of hell.

 

The insidious nature of sin is that it can even cover up and infect those whose faith ought to be burning most brightly. Did you notice in our Gospel lesson that the chief priests and teachers of the law could quote Micah 5:2 at the drop of a hat, but – in their unbelief – had no interest in seeing if it had actually been fulfilled? They knew that the promised Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem – but, while the Magi had put their lives on hold and traveled hundreds of miles to see this Savior, they weren’t willing to travel 6 or 7 miles to see him – let alone worship him. These were smart men. They knew their Old Testaments better than we ever will. They had the temple rituals memorized. But they were spiritually lazy and apathetic. They went through the motions, but it never struck their hearts. They were so convinced of their inherent goodness that they had no interest in a Savior from sin.

 

Do you know anyone like those high priests and teachers of the law – lazy and indifferent concerning Christ? See it for what it is: it’s the darkness of sin. It’s not something to play around with. It’s not something to excuse or condone. It’s nothing less than unbelief. And it manifests in several ways – even here, even among those whose faith should be burning most brightly. We see it when there are faces in church on Christmas Eve that won’t be here until next Christmas. We see it when those who have been baptized, instructed, and confirmed in the faith fall away before the ink on their confirmation certificate is dry. We see it when work or family or recreation takes priority over worship and Bible study. We see it when the slightest excuse will keep us from worshipping our Christmas King – a sniffle, a late night, a couple inches of snow, a warm, cozy bed – but the same excuses would never keep us from going to work or gathering with family or catching the game. Beware of the creeping darkness of religious indifference and spiritual laziness and complacency. The truth is: It’s not always convenient to take the time for Bible study and prayer; it’s not always easy to rise and shine to sit at Jesus’ feet and worship. So what? It wasn’t particularly convenient for Jesus to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, to flee for his life to Egypt, to live and work and grow in this hostile world, to be nailed to a cross on Calvary and suffer the bitter torment on hell – but he did it anyway, for you! Rise and shine! Let the light of our Savior’s Epiphany expose and abolish the darkness all around you – and, perhaps, even lurking within you.

 

Rise and shine and celebrate this Epiphany. See Epiphany as your personal visit to your Savior’s cradle – because, Isaiah says, that’s what it is: lift up your eyes and look about you; all assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Isaiah is pointing his first readers ahead to something they could never have imagined…to what? To us! We are the real, living, walking, talking fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. We are part of the nations that have come from afar to become members of God’s holy people – the Holy Christian Church. We are from different nationalities: Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, French, Polish, Hispanic, Asian – the list could go on. But we have Christ in common. We have different occupations: mothers and engineers, financial advisors and painters, business managers and delivery drivers. But we have Christ in common. We are from different generations: the silent, the boomers, the Xers, the millennials. But we all have Christ in common. We are wise men and women because God has shined the light of faith into our hearts. We confess one Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God and Father who is over all and in all. We trust one Savior from sin. We are one in mission. We look forward to one eternity. (Ephesians 4:6)

 

And now it is our privilege – a privilege that ought to make our hearts throb and swell with joy – to reflect the light of Christ to new nations, new nationalities, new generations. Just lift up your eyes to see it! Scan the Forward in Christ and listen to the monthly WELS Connection detail how the Gospel is being carried to the ends of the earth on your behalf and as the result of your prayers and offerings. Hear the crying babies right here at Risen Savior and see Isaiah’s prophecy being carried out right in our midst. Look around you at the people work with and live with – which of them could use a little Gospel light to brighten their gloom? See how generously God has blessed us that we are not only well over half-way to our goal for Building Our Great Heritage but were also able to bring our best to lay at the manger in the Christmas Gift for Jesus. I know we’re tempted to think that these words from Isaiah are hyperbole or describe some ancient, foreign scene or are reserved only for those churches that have huge buildings and superstar pastors and thousands of members and dozens of programs going on. But Isaiah begs you to lift your eyes to see that his words are being fulfilled right here, in us and through us. I hope you can see – as I get to every week – that when we keep the main thing the main thing – when we preach and teach God’s Word in its truth and purity and practice the sacraments in accordance with Christ’s command, God’s promise is not an empty platitude: [my Word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11) God is keeping his promise, right here, right now. Rise and shine this Epiphany. Lift your eyes to see how your Savior’s light is drawing the nations – along with their children and the wealth of the world – to you!

 

Epiphany – the day that Christ is revealed as the light, not just of Israel, but of the world – is a call for us to rise and shine. To first see God’s Son shining upon us with forgiveness and salvation; to see – and beware – of the darkness that is all around us; to see the nations the light of Christ is drawing to us. Rise and shine; receive and believe – a Savior has been born to you he is Christ the LORD! Amen.

1 Samuel 28:3-25 - Don't Face the Future Without God - December 31, 2017

Every year at this time the headlines and airwaves are filled with predictions for the upcoming year. There are political predictions and economic predictions and estimates for how the recently passed tax law will affect your life. (By the way, you didn’t try to prepay your Wisconsin property tax bill for 2018 did you? Apparently it’s against the law.) The very fact that these predictions are made and received and discussed every single year demonstrates that people are extremely curious as to what the future holds. And that’s not only true about the world out there. I’m sure many of us wonder whether 2018 will be happy or sad for us and those we love, whether it will hold sickness or health, poverty or prosperity, new life or the end of life. In the Word of God before us, we have the story of a man who was deeply concerned about the future, a man who feared what the not only the next year but the next day held for him. In King Saul, we see the danger of facing the future without God.

 

First, let’s address the issue that many find to be the most fascinating question about this account: who or what appeared to Saul that night in Endor? Much ink has been spilled and many opinions given in answer to this question. Some say that this witch only pretended to see Samuel, and that in some way she tricked Saul into thinking her voice was that of the dead prophet. Others believe that this apparition was either a demonic spirit or Satan himself. Still others suggest that this really was Samuel who appeared at God’s command. The Bible doesn’t directly answer that question – therefore, we may consider this a truly “open” [1] question, and we can have different opinions. Having studied it, I fall on the side that this was really Samuel who appeared to Saul by the will, power, and command of God. For three reasons. 1) The medium herself was stunned and shocked when she saw Samuel appear even before she had begun her séance – perhaps proving that she had never before successfully communicated with the dead (1 Samuel 28:12); 2) the message was nearly identical to Samuel’s final words to Saul (1 Samuel 15:22-33); and, perhaps most convincingly, 3) the details of the prophecy actually came true – which is the litmus test God has given us to determine whether any given prophecy is from God or from the devil. If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. (Deuteronomy 18:22) In any case, the Bible is clear that attempting to communicate with the dead is a sin against the 2nd commandment; it is something that should never be done. Nevertheless, this text can teach us about how we should deal with the uncertainty of the upcoming year. Through the sad example of Saul, the Holy Spirit teaches us that the future apart from God ends in despair; while the future with God leads to peace.

 

It often happens that, at least from a human perspective, people who have no interest in God or his Word have pleasant, easy, and prosperous lives. Saul was one of those people. As king of Israel, Saul imagined that he could do just about anything he wanted, that he could even shape the future according to his own desires. It wasn’t always that way for Saul, of course. When God chose Saul he was a nobody from the smallest tribe in Israel, Benjamin. (1 Samuel 10:1) And when Samuel anointed Saul as king, he reminded Saul that this honor and authority was nothing less than a gift of God’s grace. (1 Samuel 10:7) But absolute power began to corrupt Saul from the inside out. Instead of following God’s commands, he began doing things his way. The result was that God rejected him as king over Israel, would rip the kingdom out of his hands and give it to David. Instead of repenting, Saul tried to prevent this by having David murdered. And when the priests of Nob helped David escape his clutches, he tried – by ordering the whole city to be destroyed and all its inhabitants killed – to make sure that no one would ever help David again. (1 Samuel 22:6-23)

 

In Saul we see a man who tried everything make sure that the future would be what he wanted it to be. He exemplified the spirit of so many in every age that says “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my destiny.” And if that sentiment was actually true of anyone, it seemed to be Saul. He was the king of Israel – chosen and anointed by God himself. He didn’t have to worry about elections or impeachment or Congress – his word was law. If he wanted food, he simply snapped his fingers and a servant would bring it to him. If he wanted entertainment, he could have a musician or one of his many concubines brought to him. If his subjects did not do what he wanted them to do, he could have them killed – as he did with the priests of Nob – or he could send his special forces to pursue them like he did with David. A man like Saul seemed to have his life and his future well in hand. He lived as if he didn’t need God.

 

But when a person decides to face the uncertainty of the future without God, eventually a day of reckoning comes. Saul finally came face to face with a situation he couldn’t control. The Philistines had invaded Israel, this time with a larger force than ever before. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. There at a place called Gilboa, Saul learned a hard lesson. He learned that there are some things that even kings with absolute power cannot control – just as people today must sometimes learn the hard way that there are some things that can’t be planned for, that can’t be solved with any amount of money, that can’t be healed or fixed even if you have the best doctors or lawyers or insurance policies.

 

Having come to his personal day of reckoning, Saul inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. God refused to speak to Saul using the regular means of communication he had established for his OT people. (Numbers 12:6; 27:21) Why did God refuse to speak to his chosen king? Saul had rejected God for so long that now God had rejected him. For Saul, disregarding God’s clear, reliable Word had become the rule rather than the exception. But now he was in trouble – and he didn’t have anywhere else to turn. When Saul realized that the LORD was not on speaking terms at the moment, he should have been struck with the terror of his sin, he should have confessed, he should have repented of his wickedness, he should have begged the LORD for forgiveness. But…he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he told his servants find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.

 

Rather than coming clean and putting his future back into the hands of the powerful and merciful true God, Saul piled one sin on top of another. The Lord had clearly and repeatedly forbidden his chosen people to participate in or even tolerate the sort of thing this witch practiced at Endor. Through Moses he commanded: Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) Saul knew perfectly well that this act was a sin. In fact, in the early years of his reign, while he was still a believer, he had ordered that those who practiced the dark arts be driven out of Israel. (1 Samuel 28:3) But now he turned to those same practices himself.

 

He went to the witch and she “brought up” Samuel – or something that looked and talked like Samuel. Which begs the question: why did Saul ask for Samuel? Well, when he was still alive, Samuel was Saul’s pastor. The irony is that when Samuel was actually alive, Saul refused to listen to him. It still happens today. “No, pastor, I don’t want to hear what God’s Word says, I will just follow my heart or listen to my feelings.” “Don’t worry, pastor, I may not be worshipping or receiving the Lord’s Supper, but I read my Bible and pray all the time.” “Pastor, just leave me alone and let me live the way I want to.” And after a while, they get what they want. No pastor wants that to happen, but it does. It happens when people reject God’s Word and decide that they are going to navigate through this world without God.

 

But it rarely lasts. When the day of reckoning comes, guess who those people call? Surprisingly, it’s not their drinking buddies, their live-in boyfriend, their financial advisor or doctor. No, when people come face to face with a day of reckoning, who do they call? Their pastor. And for good reason. Just as God has instituted the government to protect our lives and property and parents to care for our livelihoods, so he has given pastors to guard and guide our souls. In the book of Hebrews he spells out our responsibility to his called leaders: obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17)

 

Saul’s disobedience and rejection certainly didn’t result in any advantage for him. He learned that the only destiny for the person who faces the future without God is despair. When he called for Samuel, this is what he heard: Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy? The LORD has done what he predicted through me. The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors – to David. Because you did not obey the LORD or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this to you today. The LORD will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines. Saul’s last, desperate hope was shattered. He and his sons would die and Israel would be defeated by the Philistines. In his last act on earth, Saul committed suicide – the final act of despair for an unbeliever. (1 Samuel 31:4)

 

So it will always be with those who do not listen to the word of the Lord and seek their certainty elsewhere. They may find what they think is comfort, but in the end, and for all eternity, they will find only despair. Far from being something that only happened long ago in less civilized societies, the influence of the occult is growing in our nation almost at the same rate as membership in the Christian church is declining. The warning for us and for those we love is that there is no neutral territory in this world. Jesus meant it when he said he who is not with me is against me. (Matthew 12:30) The only way God has promised to speak to us, to lead us, to comfort and console us is through his Word and Sacraments. All other sources of supposed insight and wisdom are tools that Satan can use to manipulate our minds and destroy our faith. Sadly, what happened to Saul is not at all a rare occurrence. Sadly, many forfeit the peace of God for the illusion of freedom and independence now. May that never happen to us.  

 

May this portrait of Saul keep us off of the path of despair and on the path that leads to peace now and life eternally. May we make the resolution that in 2018 we will seek our help and our comfort only in the words and promises of God, who assures us that he won’t turn away any who come to him. (John 6:37) And we can be absolutely certain of this because of Christmas. It’s important that we keep Christmas with us throughout 2018 because on Christmas God proved his commitment to us. Because one night 2000 years ago the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14) we don’t have to worry about the future – because we actually do know what it holds. We who follow in the footsteps of our Savior Jesus know that the future will hold trials and troubles – that we will each have our own cross to bear in 2018. We know that sin will still afflict our hearts and homes and that because we sin we will eventually die. But because Jesus has paid for all of our sins of 2018 and every last one we will commit in 2019, we also know that our destiny will not end in the despair of the grave. We know that because Jesus lives, we also will live with him. Don’t face the future without God. Neglecting the Word and Sacrament only and always leads to desperation and despair. But trust that when God takes you by the hand and leads you through his Word, through his Son’s body and blood, through each and every stage of life – 2018 will be a year of peace for you – because even though we don’t know what the future holds, we know who holds the future. God bless your new year! Amen.    

 

[1] “Correctly defined, open questions are such questions as inevitably arise in our study of the Scripture doctrines but are not answered by Scripture at all or at least not clearly. And Scripture enjoins us to let them remain open questions.” (F. Pieper Christian Dogmatics I (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1950) p. 93

Luke 1:26-28 - Nothing Is Impossible with God - December 24, 2017

In the fallen world in which we live, we know that there is no such thing as an unconditional, lifetime warranty, an unbreakable promise, a no strings attached guarantee. Anything and everything invented and constructed by man is bound to falter and fail. That’s why we go to great extremes to cover ourselves lest the “impossible” should happen. For example, I’m guessing you spent a fair amount of money on the making sure that your car is safe and reliable, but that doesn’t stop you from keeping a spare in the trunk, from paying for AAA and car insurance just in case your 80,000 mile tires go flat in 20,000 or the computer tells you that you have enough fuel to go another 100 miles as you sputter to a stop on the side of the road. As we are in the midst of marking items off of our Christmas list, one of the hazards we face, especially with buying clothes, is what size to buy? And, especially for men, you might just want to grab the whole rack of sizes, given the possibility that you might be wrong. In day to day life, we plan ahead, we save up, we put redundant safe-guards in place just in case an impossible or unlikely event should happen.

 

On the other hand, when it comes to entertainment, we seek out the impossible, we amuse ourselves with things that defy reality, that seem too extreme, too amazing, too incredible to be true. Hollywood capitalizes on this desire with superheroes and computer generated graphics and death defying stunts. We watch sporting events hoping to see an impossible one handed catches, impossible comeback victories, and remarkable individual efforts. In real life, we avoid the impossible by planning for every possibility. In entertainment, we seek out the impossible, seeing it as an escape from the hum-drum of everyday life.

 

And then we come here to church, we hear the Word of God and sing our hymns and confess our creeds and we are confronted with truly impossible things presented as historical fact; the other-worldly taking place in this world; the unimaginable becoming reality. Just to name a few examples: God spoke – and the universe came to be. (Genesis 1) Abraham and Sarah had a son even when they were both old and infertile. (Genesis 21) Moses reached out his staff – and a highway appeared in the middle of a sea. (Exodus 14) Joshua prayed – and the sun stood still. (Joshua 10) But as impossible as those things may seem, they pale in comparison to the three impossibilities Luke presents in our text this morning.

 

Let’s begin by first of all admitting the sad reality: many people (even many claiming to be Christian teachers and preachers) do not believe that the events of this text are true – or at best, that it’s open to personal preference. The critics and skeptics will pick out any detail, any seeming inconsistency to try to prove that this is nothing more than a fairytale. The first place Jesus’ own contemporaries looked was the setting of the entire scene: Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Nazareth was not a Madison, a McFarland, or even a Stoughton. Nazareth was more like one of those unincorporated towns on a two lane highway where if you blink, you’ve missed it. Nazareth was so insignificant that one of Jesus’ own disciples said can anything good come from Nazareth? (John 1:46) An event that would change the world forever would take place in backwoods Nazareth? No, they thought, that’s impossible.

 

It gets stranger. In this quiet little country village stood a house, and in that house was a young girl (13-14 years old), a virgin, and in this house to this teenage girl an angel – an angel!! – appeared and said: greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. If you’re picturing a rather odd, even uncomfortable situation, you’re probably not too far off. Mary herself was pretty disturbed by this strange being standing in her bedroom and was having a hard time coming to terms with it.

 

And that was before Gabriel even got to the point of his visit. When he did, he dropped this bombshell: Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. So, reviewing the details: 1) Nazareth, no palace, no post-office, no professional sports team – site of most important event in human history; highly unlikely; 2) An angelic being appears and speaks; doubtful; 3) He claims that Mary, a teenage virgin, will give birth, 2000 years before in-vitro fertilization – now that’s where most people draw the line. Mary herself found some great difficulty with this last point. She might have been young, but even she knew that virgins don’t have babies. Maybe the skeptics and scoffers have a point; maybe this is just a nice story, a legend or myth; because this all sounds too impossible to be true.

 

That might be the case if this was your teenage daughter telling you this story a month after spending a long weekend with her boyfriend, but this is not the report of a teenage daughter. This is God’s Word, penned by Luke, who not only did his homework in researching his book by interviewing eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4), but was inspired by the infallible Holy Spirit. Is this impossible? Absolutely. That’s why it’s called a miracle. This is something that does not, cannot happen according to the laws of nature. But for the author of the laws of nature, for God, nothing is impossible – not even a virgin conceiving and giving birth to a son.

 

The impossibilities continue: This baby boy, named Jesus, He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end…the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 2nd to unconditional justification by grace through faith, do you know the single doctrine that sets Christianity apart from it’s false, man-made counterparts? It’s this. The incarnation: God becoming a man. It is the almighty Creator of the heavens and the earth, the one who keeps the planets in their orbits and who keeps your heart beating – it is the only true God taking on human flesh and being born of a teenage virgin. No man could have ever dreamed up such a story, such an improbable setting, such an impossible event.

 

And that is exactly the point. Unbelievers scoff. Atheists laugh. Critics and scientists and historians point out that this event has never happened again in the history of the world, there is no physical evidence to prove it, no camera crews were there to record it – and therefore it must be a myth, it must be a fairytale. But isn’t that one of the biggest reasons to believe it? Isn’t that exactly why our consciences are bound by this book, why we believe that our sins are forgiven and why we have the hope that we will live forever in heaven? After all, what kind of deity would God be if he was confined to the laws of nature, if he was bound to operate the exact same way as his creatures? Why would we worship a God with whom miracles are impossible? We shouldn’t and we don’t, we worship the God who sent Gabriel to Nazareth, the God who enabled a virgin to conceive and give birth, the God who left his home in heaven to become a man on this earth to suffer, die and rise again. We worship a God who can do the inconceivable, the irrational, the supernatural. We worship a God with whom nothing is impossible.

 

But that doesn’t stop Satan from planting doubts in our minds, does it? That doesn’t stop us from letting our eyes and thoughts linger on documentaries and books that come from a perspective that the virgin birth of Christ is a myth. That doesn’t stop us from thinking – well, yeah, my church teaches the virgin birth, but my church teaches a lot of things I don’t agree with. That doesn’t stop us from treating the miracle of the incarnation (God becoming man), which is a fundamental doctrine of Christian faith, as a cute story that is best left here at church where we are safely surrounded by other lunatics who week after week confess in the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.

 

We can try to rationalize our doubt: Mary herself didn’t believe it right away; Peter and John and Thomas – those very men who walked and talked with Jesus – didn’t always believe that he was God’s Son in human flesh. We can claim that if an angel appeared to us, then we would accept it. We can say that the virgin birth is a good Christmas story for children. But what we can’t do is ignore the truth as God sees it: to doubt the conception of Jesus Christ in the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit is doubting the character, power, and truthfulness of God, and thus is nothing other than unbelief.

 

We know John 3:16 by heart, but do we remember what follows in verse 18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. The Christian faith is not a buffet where you can choose what you like and pass by the things that sound ridiculous or unreasonable. (Revelation 22:18-19) It’s all or nothing. It’s faith in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, your Savior, or unbelief. It’s eternal life or eternal death. If Jesus was not conceived by the Holy Spirit, we are just wasting our time. Maybe you are thinking that believing the virgin birth is easy for some of the Christians sitting around you or the guy standing in the pulpit in front of you – it’s not. It goes beyond my reason just like it goes beyond yours. And that’s why even on Christmas we need to fall down before God and plead for forgiveness: Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)

 

And you know what the most amazing part about this impossible story is? It’s the most impossible thing of all to those who reject it. The miracle is that God chose the backwater town of Nazareth, he sent an angelic messenger to a teenage virgin named Mary, he humbled himself to be conceived in her womb, to be born in a barn, to live on this earth as a homeless person, to suffer, die and rise again – all for us. God did all of these impossible things because He knew you and I couldn’t believe in him perfectly. He knew we would doubt and therefore be guilty of unbelief; of breaking the first and most basic commandment: we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. God performed these miracles because his love wouldn’t let us suffer the eternal punishment for our unbelief. So he came to earth to suffer that punishment for us. This story is not a cute 2000 year old fairytale. This story is all about God’s love for you and for me. Is it irrational, inconceivable, impossible? Absolutely! It had to be. We couldn’t save ourselves, so God sent his Son to do it for us. What could be more irrational, impossible, and yet, more beautiful and necessary for sinners like us? And what could be more important this time of year than making sure we are ready to believe that God did the impossible to save us?

 

Now I could try to satisfy some of our curiosity by taking you through the Greek grammar of Luke 1:35. I could tell you that the Greek says that the Holy Spirit came over Mary like a shadow falling on the ground. But grammar does not create or strengthen faith. Only hearing the message creates and strengthens faith. Martin Luther said: Just how this (virgin birth) was done we will not nor can we search out, even if we study over it for a long time, we cannot get the right idea nor comprehend it. And who are we, that we dare to grasp such a high, divine work? We cannot even with our thought comprehend and grasp how a tree or fruit or a blade of grass grows out of the ground. [1]

 

If you still don’t understand how a virgin can conceive and give birth, that’s ok, neither did Mary, all she could manage was: I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said. We couldn’t put it any better ourselves, could we? That’s simple, trusting, childlike faith. Tonight we will hear again the Christmas story. It won’t make any sense, we won’t be able to prove it, we won’t try to explain it – but we will receive it and believe it with child-like faith that doesn’t ask silly questions. More than that, we will rejoice and give thanks for the miracles of Christmas: a virgin can give birth, God can become flesh, and we can believe it and be saved, because nothing is impossible with God. Amen.

 

[1] Wenzel, F.W. The Wenzel Commentary (Bemidji, MN: Arrow Printing 1986) p 20

Luke 2:6 - The Time Came - December 12, 2017

We are entering upon that time of year that many of us – especially the children – probably wish would never end. The lights, the cookies, the gifts under the tree, the time off from school and work, everyone is a little bit nicer and you get to see extended family members – who sometimes come bearing gifts, the anticipation of it all – if only it would never end. And in our attempt to make this time last, we begin the Christmas season earlier and earlier every year. Christmas decorations and Christmas sales have been happening since October. But no matter how early the Christmas season begins, it always ends. Time always moves on.

 

What would life be like without holidays like Christmas to look forward to? Just think of how much the passage of time dominates our thinking and our lives. Winter hasn’t even officially begun yet, and already many are looking forward to spring and summer. Each new day brings a time to wake up, a time to go to work and school, a time to eat, a time to play, a time to go to bed. If you ever feel that life is nothing more than an endless series of hours and days, deadlines and appointments – you’re not alone. Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, wrote about his experience with time: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh…a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,4,6,7,8) Those are the times our lifetimes are made of: happy times, sad times, exciting times, boring times, family times and lonely times, time to look ahead and time to look back.

 

Like it or not, we are bound by time – because that’s the way God created us. And while God created time to be a blessing, it can often feel like a curse. We long for and look forward to good times, prosperous times, vacations and reunions – but they seem to pass by in the blink of an eye. We dread hard times, sad times, stressful, hurtful, desperate times – because they seem to make time stand still. No matter how hard we try to make every moment meaningful, time often feels so meaningless.

 

But the children are telling us a story that makes all time meaningful; for in the Christmas story, the time came. (Luke 2:6) It came as a decree from the emperor requiring everyone to return to his hometown to be counted for tax purposes. For shepherds it was time to keep watch over the flocks at night, shivering in the cold, enduring the hours of darkness until morning’s first light. And for one special couple, Mary and Joseph, it was time to find a place – not just to rest for the night, but to deliver a baby, since there was no room at the inn. What a time that must have been!

 

All of that set the stage for one important time, the most important event in history. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born. (Luke 2:6) Since no one would have ever imagined who this baby was, God had to send his special messenger – an angel – to reveal the identity of this baby. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11) Another of God’s messengers – the Apostle Paul – explains why this baby was born on that special night long ago: when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5) This baby was God’s Son who was born to save us. But that only skims the surface. The Christmas story is so incredible, so powerful, so unparalleled that it’s not possible for us to capture the full meaning of it in one hour. That’s what your lifetime is for – to learn about that time, to know that time, to love that time, to live that time. Because whatever time comes in our lives, this time changes all of them.

 

Now, you might think that the only thing Christmas changes is the balance in your bank account. But when you look at time from God’s point of view, you see that Christmas changes everything. All of the different times we experience fall in the context of the four great events of human history. The first was creation. No one was there to observe it or record it, but God’s Word tells us that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) – everything from the stars in the sky to the orderly seasons to the dirt under our feet – by simply speaking them into existence. And, as each of us were conceived and born, we entered God’s creation and became citizens of his kingdom, subject to his rules, characters in the story he is writing. The second time was the Fall into sin, when Adam and Eve plunged God’s perfect creation into the darkness of sin and unbelief and death by disobeying the only command God had given them. If you ever wonder why our world – and your own heart and home – are so filled with violence and hatred, hostility and enmity – look no further than the fall into sin. The third time began when God’s Son became a baby in Mary’s womb and Mary’s arms. She named him Jesus, which means “Savior”, because he came to live for us, die for us, and rise for us – in other words, begin a new time, a new age that not only left a mark on history but changed the future. We were destined to live short, painful, meaningless lives in this world and spend eternity in hell. But Jesus was born to save us from that inevitable end and carry us safely through this life to his Father’s home in heaven. Which leads to the fourth and final time – not yet here but already on its way. It’s known by many names – Judgment Day, the Second Coming, Armageddon – but, no matter what we call it, it will mark the end of time as we know it. For all who believe in Jesus as their Savior, that day will begin an eternity of peace and joy (a Christmas time that never ends!) in heaven. For those who reject him, it will begin an eternity of desperation, pain, and torment in hell. Creation, the Fall, Redemption, and Judgment – those are the chapters in the timeline of God’s story. Believe that Jesus came to put you on the right side of HIStory, and you will realize why every minute, every second of life is meaningful.

 

That’s why, for millions of believers, Christmas is such a special time. It’s not really about the lights and decorations, the gifts and parties. Christmas marks the culmination of thousands of years of waiting and watching and hoping. Christmas means that God has kept the promise he first made in the Garden of Eden – to live for us in time so that we could live with him now – both in good and bad times – and forever.

 

 

And because the time came for God to become man to save us – now is the time for us to praise God. How do we praise the God who not only created and preserves us, but saved us and has prepared an eternity of peace and joy for us? We praise him by remembering that our time is not our own – all of our times are in his hands. (Psalm 31:15) We praise him for rescuing us from the sin that enslaved us – the destruction we do to ourselves and to others – by vowing to leave our sinful ways and instead live for the one who came to live and die for us. We praise him by rejoicing that because Jesus endured our pain and sorrow, our weakness and death – he can give us strength to face them and overcome them. We praise him by remaining watchful for his Second Coming – keeping our faith burning brightly by staying close to him in the places he promises to be present – the Word and Sacraments. We praise him by telling everyone we know and love that there is no time to waste in getting to know this baby who was born on that cold, dark night in Bethlehem. A baby who was born to live for us. A baby born to die for us. A baby born to rise for us. A Savior who will return, not as a helpless baby, but as the King of kings and Lord of lords.

 

Because one night long ago the time came for God to become man to save the world, now is the time for us to join with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and angels, and all believers of all times and places to praise and thank our gracious God. No matter what time it is, there is always time for that. Amen.

Jeremiah 6 / 1 Peter 2 / Mark 16 - Our Great Heritage: Lutheran Worship - December 3, 2017

I.                    The Historic Voice of the Church

 

New and novel. The latest tech and the most innovative ideas. That’s what our culture craves, right? The newest, more sure-fire diet plan. Cars that don’t need you, because they drive themselves. New medicines and medical procedures to enhance and extend life. Is that always true? When diet plans are reviewed by actual doctors, a shocking number are found to be ineffective or unhealthy. How comfortable would you be letting your car merge you onto the Beltline or drive you through the UW campus? How would you feel if your doctor walked into your room and said, “Well, we’ve never tried this before, but we’re pretty sure it’s going to work.”  If we are hesitant to place our health and safety in the hands of unproven technologies – how should we feel about the care of our immortal souls? Would you rather put your eternity in the care of something brand-new, that is constantly evolving or something that has been tested and proven over the course of hundreds of years? If you fall into the latter category, then you just might be a liturgical, confessional, Lutheran.

 

Did you know that Martin Luther never wanted his followers to call themselves Lutheran? He understood that if they did, they would be accused of being rebels rather than reformers and be labeled a faction rather than a continuation of the church founded by Christ and his apostles. He was right. Luther was frequently labeled a radical heretic by his critics – but that doesn’t mean their criticism was true. In 1524, Luther wrote “We teach nothing new. We teach what is old and what the apostles and all godly teachers have taught.” [1] Near the end of his life, Luther said “we can prove that our faith is not new and of unknown origin, but that it is the oldest faith of all, which began and continued from the beginning of the world.” [2] Luther never wanted to revolutionize the church. He wanted to reform it – by getting rid of the corruption and returning to the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)

 

But neither did Luther insist on tradition simply for tradition’s sake. When it came to reforming the worship service, Luther faced a choice: should he innovate or stick with the worship history had handed down? In a similar way, Israel was at a crossroads when God sent them the prophet Jeremiah. On one side stood the Lord and his prophet. The Lord had promised that Jerusalem would fall at the hand of the Babylonians. Jeremiah warned that the only way to spare their lives was to repent before God and surrender to the Babylonians. (Jeremiah 6:1-15) On the other side stood the false prophets. They preached a message of peace, even though God guaranteed there was no peace in their future. (Jeremiah 6:14) They tried to convince Judah’s leaders to ally themselves with other nations against the terrible Babylonians. Jeremiah pleaded with the Israelites to consider the past, to learn from their forefathers that the path to true rest is in heartfelt repentance and faith in God’s love: this is what the LORD says: stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But the ‘new’ innovative way of the false prophets would lead to nothing but death and destruction.

 

How does this apply to the way we worship today? For many years now there has been a ‘worship war’ in the Christian church. Some have asked “why do we insist on using an ancient liturgy, a hymnal, songs and confessions that are hundreds of years old – when the fastest growing churches have cast those aside in favor of something new and innovative?” One important reason is that the historic Christian liturgy has been proven to offer rest for struggling souls over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. When we read the poetry of King David; when we beat our chests with the tax collector, begging God for mercy; when we sing the hymns of angels; when we use the confession taught by the apostles; when we pray the words our Savior taught and listen to his institution of the Lord’s Supper; when we leave with the same blessing God gave the Israelites 3500 years ago – we don’t do it simply for the sake of tradition. We do it first as a way of recognizing that there is only one “holy Christian and apostolic church.” We don’t stand on our own but side by side with and on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us. With the prophets, apostles, and reformers we throw ourselves on God’s grace and place our trust in his unchanging Word. Like Luther, we appreciate that under God’s guiding hand, time has acted like a filter for Christian worship: it has removed the impurities and preserved the pure, life-giving Gospel.

 

And yet, we also acknowledge that the style and format of worship is adiaphora (neither commanded nor forbidden by God). [3] We don’t condemn those who choose to worship in a different way – as long as law and gospel are properly divided and the Sacraments are properly practiced. And when new hymns and new ways of worship are created that proclaim Christ and give God glory – we are open to implementing them. But until something better comes along, we are thankful to stand with the prophets, apostles, and reformers in worshipping our gracious God in a way that is tried and true; which has been tested by countless Christians before us who found rest for their souls in these words and hymns and songs that proclaim God’s grace and love for sinners. May God grant you that peace as we sing a song written by King David: Psalm 24.

 

II.                  The Participation of the Congregation

 

Do you consider coming to church more like going to a movie or going to meet friends for dinner? There’s a difference, right? When you go to a movie, you are a passive spectator. When you meet friends for dinner you are a participant in the meal, the conversation, the fellowship. Which situation better describes going to church? In 16th century Germany, it was more like going to a movie – if that movie was in a foreign language and you were promised that by simply showing up and paying for the ticket your sins would be forgiven. In Luther’s day, worship was conducted in Latin – a language that few average people understood; the songs were sung either by the priest or a choir of monks; and the only active participation expected from the congregation was that they drop their money into the offering plate. This didn’t happen by accident. It was (and is) part of Catholic doctrine that you don’t need to know or believe what you are doing – as long as you are going through the motions – because only the priest can speak for and to God on your behalf. At the very least, medieval worship was very condescending – in essence, people were told “you’re too stupid to understand any of this, so just shut up and listen.” But what really horrified Luther was 1) the elevation of the words of a man (the pope or priest) over the Word of God; 2) the teaching that faith didn’t matter as much as going through the motions; and 3) that only a priest or saint could go to God directly.

 

That horrified Luther because God’s Word says something much different: As you come to him, the living Stone you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. While in the OT God did mandate that the people of Israel could only approach him through a mediator – a priest – when Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world – the curtain of sin that separated us from God was torn in two. Jesus has opened the way to God – not just for priests, but for all believers. Part of our Lutheran heritage is that when you come to worship God in his house – you are an active participant. It’s not a device to keep you awake. It’s not a way to give these vocal chords a break. We don’t sing and speak and pray together because we have to. We do it because we can! Because Jesus’ blood has paved the road directly from you to your God. Luther put it this way: “Every baptized Christian is a priest already, not by appointment or ordination…but because Christ himself has begotten him as a priest and has given birth to him in baptism.” [4]

 

This aspect of congregational participation still separates Lutherans from the majority of Christian churches today. Strangely enough, much of what passes for worship today is very similar to worship in the medieval Catholic church. Only the preacher can possibly understand God’s Word and you need him to tell you what it means – because he has a special connection to God. The band on the stage praises God for you, and while you may be invited to join in, you don’t know the song, can’t see the notes – plus, if you were any good, you would be up on that stage with them! What you do (serving or giving offerings) is still more important than believing the Word of God. That’s not the way Peter or Luther saw it. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. You don’t need any mediator other than Jesus – whose blood has opened God’s throne room to you. No one stands between you and the body and blood your Savior shed for your forgiveness. We all participate in declaring the praise of the one who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. So please stand as we confess the one, true Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.

 

III.               The Predominance of the Gospel

 

What should be the main focus, the central objective of the church? Everyone has their own idea. There are those who think that the church should basically be a community service organization – like the Salvation Army. There are others who think that the church should be a legislative body – writing laws and enforcing morality. Still others want the church to be a divine babysitter – to provide daycare and recreational opportunities and singles mingles – because that’s what people want! The church, like our government, is the object of many “special interest” groups – who want it to do their bidding. Is there a problem with that? Yes. Because the church does not belong to you or me or any special interest group. The church belongs to God and Jesus is its only CEO. And he has given his church a very clear and simple mission.

 

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον “Preach the good news.” God instituted the government to rule and protect and punish. (Romans 13:1-7) God created the family to provide for our physical and emotional needs. (Ephesians 6:1-4; 1 Timothy 5:8) The church’s mission is to preach. Preach what? The good news. Is the good news the secret to a happy marriage or a healthy lifestyle or an early retirement? No. The good news is that God has made the unconditional offer to the world to forgive their sins and give them eternal life in heaven – based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s the good news Christ commissioned his church to proclaim to all creation. You may leave here without a better idea of how to make your life easier or your money grow – but God forbid you ever leave here without being told that Jesus Christ died for your sins. Because without that good news, nothing else matters. That’s why everything in our service – from the hymns, the liturgy, the sermon, to the church architecture (pulpit / altar / font) – centers on what God has done and is doing for us in Christ.

 

The medieval Catholic church – like many churches today – abandoned Christ’s commission by changing the emphasis from what God has done for us for what we must do for God. In other words, they have exchanged the law for the gospel. Luther was taught that he had to fast and pray and do penance and become a monk in order to please God. It drove him to the brink of despair. Many people today are being taught that they have to contribute 10% of their income and make a decision for Christ and change the world in order to please God. And it’s still driving them to the brink of despair. There’s no comfort or peace in do and don’t do. The only comfort we have before a holy God is that because of Jesus everything necessary to please God is DONE! Don’t misunderstand, the law has its role. The law shows us our sins, restrains wickedness, and serves as a moral compass in an obviously morally confused world. But its primary job is to serve the gospel – to make us despair of ever doing anything to earn God’s favor so that we place all of our trust in what Jesus has done for us.

So we pray for the government to wisely rule and govern. We equip and encourage families to provide for physical and emotional needs. And we demand that the church carry out her Lord’s commission: κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, preach the gospel. One of the most important tools to help us do that consistently is our heritage of Lutheran worship. Worship which respects and treasures the experience of the believers who have gone before us – who found rest for their souls in Word and Sacrament. Worship which invites every believer – from the 1 year old to the 100 year old – to participate because we are all priests in God’s eyes whose worship and praise he welcomes for Jesus’ sake. Worship which holds strong against the temptation to change the focus from what God has done for us in Christ (the Gospel) to what we must do for God (the Law). As we continue our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation – give thanks to God for the gift of Lutheran worship – and its focus on Christ crucified – and ask that he would preserve this precious heritage for generations to come. Amen.  

 

[1] Plass, What Luther Says, 861

[2] Plass, What Luther Says, 860

[3] Formula of Concord: Thorough Declaration, Art. 10:9

[4] Plass, What Luther Says, 1139

Matthew 25:1-13 - Are You Ready? - November 26, 2017

With Thanksgiving already in the rearview mirror, it’s the question on everyone’s mind: are you ready? Have you found room on your calendar for all of the work parties, family gatherings, and other social responsibilities? Is your home decorated and your car winterized? According to retail experts, if you haven’t started your Christmas shopping yet, you’re already late. How about this one: is your bank account ready to handle the additional stress you will put on it this season? We all know how embarrassing it is to be caught unprepared – which is why the next few weeks will take on a fevered pace as everyone tries to get everything done in time. But before you leave here to consider your readiness for Christmas, Jesus has an even more important question for you: are you ready for his return? Are you prepared to meet him when he returns to take the bride, his Church, to heaven forever? Just as we are taking stock of our readiness for Christmas, this morning, Jesus urges us to take stock of our readiness for his return. Are you ready? Appearances can be deceiving. Some things cannot be shared. And when Jesus gets here, it will be too late.

 

As we have discovered over the past few weeks, considering the mysteries of Judgment Day and eternity is not the easiest thing for us – because this world is all we know. That’s why Jesus describes it using parables – earthly stories with heavenly meanings – like the one before us, the parable of the ten virgins. It’s a wedding story. A Jewish wedding in Jesus’ day was quite a bit different from what we are used to. Once the couple had made their public promises to one another, they were, to the world and God, married. However, even though they were technically married, the couple wouldn’t begin living together (and wouldn’t consummate the marriage) until the groom had prepared a home for his wife – which could take weeks or months. When everything was ready, the groom would travel to his bride’s home to gather her up and take her back to the home he had prepared for her and they would kick off their marriage with a huge banquet for their family and friends.

 

This Jewish wedding ritual forms the background of Jesus’ parable: At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. In the earthly story, the virgins are the bridal attendants who would accompany the bride and groom to their new home. But who are they spiritually speaking? Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven; that is, not the dwelling place of angels and saints in God’s presence – but God’s rule among people on this earth. In other words, the virgins represent the visible Christian church – the church as we can see it. In the parable, there’s no difference between the wise and foolish. All ten are wearing appropriate attire, they all have their lamps, they are all waiting for the groom. And so it is in the visible church. All members of the visible church confess their faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, all claim to believe what the Bible teaches, all express their hope of heaven – or else, by definition, they wouldn’t be Christians. Jesus’ parable isn’t about Muslims or atheists or the “nones” who have no time for God. He’s talking about those who consider themselves Christians. He’s talking to us.

 

But, just as in many areas of life, appearances can be deceiving. Jesus goes on. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The folly of the five consisted in the fact that they took their lamps – which in those days were probably long poles with cloth wrapped around the end which would be doused with oil and lit – but no extra oil. The wisdom of the wise lay in the fact that they were thinking ahead, they had prepared for any delay in the grooms arrival, the brought extra oil. The moral of the earthly story is basic common sense: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

 

But what about the spiritual meaning, the meaning for us? We know from the context that Jesus is talking about Christians being prepared for his return, so we should ask: everything being equal, what separates wise Christians from their foolish counterparts? It can’t be good works, because on the surface they all looked the same. Since we can’t see this difference with our eyes, we have to ask: on the Last Day what will separate the sheep from the goats; the saved from the damned? Jesus said it himself: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) Faith is what makes the difference. Where does faith come from? Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17) So the oil is the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace – the sin-cleansing power he exerts through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – which ignites the flame of faith in human hearts. (2 Timothy 1:6) If we were to use one word, the oil is God’s grace. The wise, then, are those who not only bear the external marks of Christianity – the baptismal and confirmation certificates, the church membership – but also eagerly and faithfully invite the Holy Spirit to perform his work on their hearts, to fill their hearts and lives with the grace that creates and sustains saving faith. Unlike those who believe that if you are baptized and confirmed you are all set; wise Christians make the effort to grow in grace and faith, to do what Paul described in Philippians: work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13) So are you ready for your Savior to return? Does your Christianity go more than skin deep? Appearances can be deceiving.

 

Especially when there is a delay. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. On a side note, Jesus reveals here that he knows our reality. Jesus knows that all Christians – the foolish and the wise – will sooner or later fall asleep. Practically speaking, this means that instead of daily asking “Lord, will today be the day?” we get wrapped up in day-to-day life. And who of us wouldn’t confess that we haven’t spent every waking moment waiting for the Lord? Jesus is not telling us to quit our jobs and withdraw from society to stare at the sky; his point is that as we go about our daily lives every decision we make, every priority we set, how we spend our time and money will be shaped by the fact that Jesus will return. (One example: parents, if you are planning to make a fat, bearded man in a red suit (with his naughty and nice lists) part of your children’s Christmas – what are you teaching them about grace – or work righteousness?)

 

Because just as Christmas is most definitely right around the corner; Jesus is definitely coming. At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied,’ there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ As Peter reminded us last week: the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:10) When much of the world is wrapped up in the blanket of false security, when mankind’s preoccupation with satisfying his own sinful desires is at its greatest, when we least expect it – that’s when Jesus will come. And in that moment the distinction between the wise and foolish will become clear. The foolish will scurry around trying to find oil for their lamps while the wise will calmly refuel theirs. While the wise virgins’ refusal to share oil in the parable may seem mean, in the spiritual realm the foolish virgin’s request amounts to an impossibility. Saving faith is a personal possession. It can’t be shared. No, we’re not talking about evangelism – we always can and should share the Gospel message. The point here is that saving faith cannot be transfused from one individual to another. I cannot believe for you; nor you for your children, etc.

 

This hits home in some very emotionally charged occasions. A terrible tragedy occurs in the life of a friend – a lukewarm Christian who believes that since he comes to church on Christmas and Easter he is right with God. Until tragedy strikes – his wife dies suddenly. He cannot find comfort or consolation. He comes to you for help. You remind him of God’s providence and promises and power. He won’t see it, won’t believe it, he blames God. He says, “if only I could have faith like you.” Give me some of your oil. The daughter of one of the most respected families in the congregation is unexpectedly killed in a car accident just as she was beginning her career in a city across the country. According to her family, she still believed in Jesus as her Savior (they even made sure she packed her catechism!!). But in reality – and in spite of the encouragement she had received from her parents, pastor and church – her secular university education had convinced her that the Bible is just a man-made book, she had moved in with her boyfriend, and had not attended worship or received the Sacrament since she was confirmed. The family begs for a Christian funeral. Give her/us some of your oil. Save her from her carelessness and neglect. Grant us the assurance that she is safe with Jesus in heaven. No.

 

Why? That’s sounds horribly loveless! How dare you refuse to give these people the comfort they deserve! Isn’t that how many people react? But what comfort was there for the foolish virgins? What comfort can be given to the family of one who has thrown their faith away? Blaming the church for refusing to give a Christian funeral to an unbeliever is tantamount to blaming the groom – Jesus – for locking the door on the foolish virgins. Jesus is not the problem. He is standing at the door knocking. If anyone finds themselves unprepared to meet death or meet him – with hearts empty of grace and faith – they have no one to blame but themselves. There are some things you cannot share – and saving faith is one of them.

 

Jesus concludes this wedding story: While they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ When death arrives on our doorstep, when Jesus returns – it’s too late to go out and buy oil, too late to scramble for God’s grace, too late for anyone to come and perform spiritual CPR on your dead heart. When Jesus returns he’s not going to check your baptismal or confirmation certificate, he’s not going to ask to see the church directory – he will either know you or he won’t. Jesus knows those who confess their sins to him and beg for mercy. (John 6:37) Jesus knows those who sit at his feet and soak up his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. (Mark 3:31-35) Jesus knows those who accept his invitation to receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of their sins. (1 Corinthians 11:26) Jesus knows those who have invited him into their homes through daily devotion, Bible study and prayer. (John 14:23-24) Does Jesus know you? Now is the time to consider that question, because when he comes to take his bride, the church, to the marriage feast in heaven, it will be too late to go out and buy the oil of his grace.

 

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. It might seem like we are ending the church year on a sour note. There is a sense of urgency, there is a warning against complacency. But don’t forget what we’re waiting for: it’s the wedding feast of the Lamb! We are waiting for the consummation of everything Christ our Savior has promised us – we’re waiting for him to gather us up and take us to the home he has prepared for us in paradise. If we’re thinking: “how dare Jesus peer into my heart and question my readiness” – we’ve missed the point. We should be thinking: “who wouldn’t want to do be eagerly waiting and properly prepared for that day?” What bride wouldn’t want to recall again and again the day her fiancé proposed to her – for Christians that day was Good Friday, when Jesus surrendered himself to death on a cross, declaring once and for all his undying commitment to us? Who wouldn’t want to gaze attentively at the engagement ring he gave each of us – the day called us by name in the Sacrament of Baptism? Who wouldn’t want to sample the fare that will be available at heaven’s eternal banquet by regularly receiving the Lord’s Supper? Who wouldn’t want to daily read and cherish the love letter Jesus himself composed and compiled in the Bible – in which we hear the extremes he went to find us in the gutter of sin, clean us up, give us the proper clothes, and do everything to prepare us for eternal life in his Father’s house? Who wouldn’t want to be ready and waiting when he returns? Only a fool!! Only a fool would reject the unlimited opportunities Jesus gives to fill our hearts full of the oil of his grace.

 

So, are you ready? As you consider that question, don’t think of it as one more thing on your to-do list. It’s not. It’s all about what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for you. He wants to make you ready. He wants to wash your sins away in confession and absolution. He wants to give you a regular taste of heaven – making your heart long for the real thing. He wants you to be certain that he knows you by name and has a place in heaven reserved just for you. Don’t be foolish. Let him do his work. Amen.  

2 Peter 3:3-14 - The Day of the Lord Will Come - November 19, 2017

Agree or disagree: all people – believer and non-believer alike – believe that the world as we know it will eventually come to an end. From the threat of enemies outside our borders to the cultural rot within our nation to movies and TV shows depicting a zombie apocalypse to warnings from economists that the financial markets could come crashing down to the global warming alarmists with their doomsday predictions – it seems that we can all agree that this world will come to an end. But how? When? Why? There is no consensus on these answers – not even among Christians. Which is a sad commentary on the state of American Christianity – because God has answered those questions for us in his Word. Not only does the Bible tell us when, how and why this world will end, it tells us how to prepare for it. Today the Apostle Peter assures us that the Day of the Lord will Come; in the Lord’s time, with destruction for the ungodly, but salvation for the faithful.

 

First of all, (of first importance!) you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” Despite the universal consensus that this world of ours will end; for 2000 years now people have laughed at the idea that the world will end – not because of global warming or world war III – but because Jesus will return in judgment. In Peter’s day, these scoffers reasoned that because people were still dying (roughly 30 years after Jesus’ ascension) just as they had before, nothing had changed. From what they could tell, everything had always gone on the same way – so what was the point of believing in Jesus and looking for his return? Today, people still use their fallen reason to argue against Jesus’ coming in Judgment. And, they think they have found proof in the un-scientific theory of evolution. This world is millions of years old, they argue, and for millions of years things have progressed, evolved according to basic, universal principles. Simple organisms evolve into complex creatures. The weak die and the strong survive according to the law of the jungle. Society and civilization are progressing in an upward, positive direction. And now they claim that with the advances of medicine and technology – given enough time and money – we are on our way to defeating death itself. Things are getting better. Things are going along just as they always have. And so there’s no reason to feel accountable to an invisible God, no reason to fear his judgment, no reason to look for Jesus’ second coming. So live free! Be happy! Do whatever makes you feel good!

 

In a culture that has fallen for this lie hook, line, and sinker – it can feel like a heroic struggle to hold to the truth of the Bible in spite of our unbelieving society. That may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. We hold fast to Scripture not only in spite of these scoffers, but because of them. How can pseudo-science and an ungodly society build our certainty? Because they are doing exactly what Peter predicted they would do! By laughing at the Bible’s prophecies of the end, they are proving them to be true. Whenever Stephen Hawking or Bill Nye or Bill Maher get up on their pedestal to mock your trust in Scripture, thank them, for they are validating the truth of God’s promises.

 

But it’s not that easy, is it? There’s a part of us that is strongly attached to this life and this world and wants to hold onto it as long as we can. Our own fallen reason wants to agree with them because the facts don’t lie. It has been 2000 years since Jesus closed his Revelation to John with the promise yes, I am coming soon. (John 22:20) 2000 years is a long time. Many generations have lived and died without seeing the fulfillment of that promise, and, in many ways, life is going on just as it always has. Are we just clinging to a delusion? A myth? If Jesus was going to return in judgment, wouldn’t it have happened already? Doesn’t the fact that we’re still here prove that Jesus is a liar?

 

Peter has the answer to that argument: do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. God doesn’t perceive time the way we do. That shouldn’t surprise us. We don’t even agree on our perception of time, do we? For children, Christmas seems likes its ages away. For the rest of us, it’s coming up far too quickly. Some of you might think that a 25 minute sermon seems like an eternity; if you are nodding off, it might seem like the blink of an eye. The point is that we should not be concerned that Christ has forgotten his promise. To him, a thousand years is no different than a day. Luther tried to describe this distinction. He said that we look at time like we like at a tall tree, we cannot see both ends at the same time. But God looks at the same tree perpendicularly; he sees all of it, from beginning to end at the same time. To God, Adam and the last person to be born exist in an unchanging present. (LW 30:195) So, while from our human perspective 2000 years seems like a long time, to an eternal God it is no more than a day. No matter what the scoffers say, Peter says, Jesus – who is himself the eternal God – did not lie when he said he would come soon. The day of the Lord will come – in his good time.

 

Whether that day is 1 or 1 thousand years away, there is no question that it will bring terrible, unexpected destruction. Peter writes: the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. The Apostle Paul concurs: now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)

 

Jesus will return and it will mean destruction for this world and all its wickedness – the Bible could not be clearer. So why don’t people believe it? Why do so many live as if this life is all there is? They deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. People don’t believe that Judgment is coming because they don’t believe God’s Word. They don’t want to believe that from beginning to end – not only this world but their lives hang by the thread of God’s Word and God’s command. Here is the great danger of evolution. Not only does it deny God’s creation of this world, it denies God’s judgment and destruction of this world. There can be no reconciling evolution with Christianity. It makes sense that people who believe this world is millions of years old and will continue for millions of years would have no concern about greater, eternal spiritual things. But if we believe this world was created and sustained by the Word of God, then we must believe that one day God will end it – because he has promised it.

 

If you’re ever tempted to doubt that just consider God’s track record. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. Peter is saying that the Flood (Genesis 6-8) is a picture of Judgment Day. Jesus himself explains: as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39) You may think the Flood story is only for children. But we all need to be reminded of it regularly. Why? Because so often we live as though this world is going to go on forever. We get so caught up in day-to-day life that we forget how important it is to be prepared for the end. The strange thing is that we don’t do this when it comes to other potentially dangerous situations. As winter approaches, I’d be willing to bet that we are all getting our shovels and snow blowers back in working order, changing furnace filters, getting our heavier sweaters and jackets out of the closet – in short, preparing for the coming cold weather. When we know something potentially destructive or dangerous is imminent, we try our best to be ready.

 

Do we have the same attitude toward Judgment Day? If we really believe it when we confess every week that [Christ] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead (Nicene Creed) – and that it could be any moment – shouldn’t we be preparing for it? The good news is that Peter says the very reason God is delaying his judgment is so that we can get ready, so that we might be prepared. He says: the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. God never intended that the crown of his creation – mankind – should be destroyed along with the world. But just because God didn’t intend it doesn’t mean that he won’t fulfill his threat. Those who are found by Jesus still covered in sin-tattered clothes with hearts full of unbelief will be destroyed, they will perish forever in hell.

 

But God, in love, has provided a way out: repentance. An encouragement to live in constant readiness by daily repentance – turning from sin and turning to God – is how Peter closes: Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. This is the heart of Christianity, isn’t it? God didn’t give us the Bible to teach us how to live in this world or so that we might have our best life now. The Bible’s main purpose is to prepare us to stand in judgment before a holy God. How can we be found spotless, blameless, and at peace by Jesus when he returns? – is the question the Bible revolves around. Answering this question, providing comfort and certainty regarding this question is why our central focus here is not community service or practical life-advice, but is always on the Gospel in Word and Sacraments. It’s why we make teaching the next generation the eternal truths of God our highest priority; it’s why we are working to expand our facility – to give more and more sinners comfort and certainty regarding Christ’s return; and it’s why work tirelessly to call those who have strayed to repentance. Judgment Day is coming and all who are found dead in their sin and unbelief will be destroyed by fire along with this world.

 

But by God’s grace we know how we can be found spotless, blameless and at peace with our Judge – because God has revealed that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) We know that God himself began our life of repentance when he drowned our sinful nature and raised us to new life in Baptism. We know that Jesus came into this world to take our place, to stand in God’s Judgment, to be convicted and condemned to hell so that we might be acquitted and invited into eternal life. To be driven ever deeper into the good news that our Judge is none other than our Savior is why we gather week after week, year after year – however long it takes for Jesus to return – to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, so that when he does he might find us spotless, blameless, and at peace with him. Today especially, as you receive the body and blood your Savior shed for you on the cross, remember it’s twofold purpose: to point you back for comfort and certainty to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross; and to point you ahead to his second coming in glory and judgment. As Paul wrote: whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26) So while some reject the reality of Jesus’ return in Judgment – and most are too distracted to care – you are ready and waiting for that day, because it is the day of your salvation. It’s the day when Jesus will finally save you from this world of sorrow and take you to heaven where there will be no more death or mourning or pain.

 

So let the scoffers scoff; their mocking is only proof the Day of the Lord will come. Or better yet, let them repent. Because the day of the Lord is coming, in the Lord’s time, with destruction for the ungodly, with salvation for the faithful. Come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.  

Matthew 24:15-28 - When the End Is Near - November 11, 2017

If you’ve done any amount of traveling, you’ve no doubt seen and maybe even stopped at a scenic overlook. Often these overlooks – no matter what they are overlooking, a waterfall, canyon, river, or mountain – contain informational signs or plaques which tell you what you are looking at, its history and detailed descriptions. These plaques are particularly valuable when you are planning a more involved visit to the place you are overlooking. They help you make sense of what you are seeing. And that’s very much what Jesus is doing for us in Matthew 24. He’s preparing us for his second coming. He tells us what to expect; the signs and signals that the end is near. He depicts the destruction of Jerusalem as a call to prepare for the end of time. When the end is near, Our Savior says, flee, pray, and beware.

 

Jesus spoke these words on Tuesday of Holy Week. Matthew tells us that Jesus was walking past the Temple with his disciples and telling them that at the right time, the Temple would be utterly destroyed, to the point that not even one stone will be left standing on another. (Matthew 24:1-2) Curious, the disciples asked when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3) Jesus warns them that false prophets, wars, famines, persecution, growing wickedness, and the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world will be signs that the end is near. In the verses before us, Jesus tells his disciples how they should react when they see the end approaching.

 

So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Earlier we heard Daniel’s prophecy about this abomination that causes desolation. But what is it? An abomination is a ‘detestable thing’ which defiles a holy place and causes it to be abandoned. In spiritual terms, this means the loss of true worship of God. This happened twice in Israel’s history. The first was when the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple, slaughtering pigs in the holy place and turning the temple into a brothel. But the event that better matches Jesus’ description is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD. When the Roman legions, led by General Titus, surrounded Jerusalem, bringing destruction and depravity like that which had never been seen (and never will be seen again). Jerusalem was besieged for 4 years. Titus used starvation as an effective battle tactic. Parents turned into cannibals, eating their own children. The Roman historian Tacitus estimates that half a million Jews died at the hands of the Romans. And when Jerusalem fell, Titus razed it to the ground, leaving not even one stone of the Temple standing. The Temple worship God had instituted for his chosen nation, Israel, was ended forever. (For proof, just see how the Islamic Temple Mount stands on the site of the Temple of God.)

 

What should the disciples do when they see and hear the approach of the Roman army? Run for their lives! Flee to the mountains. The unbelieving Jews, who imagined that a Messiah would arise who would protect the holy city from any and all Gentile invaders, would foolishly ignore Jesus’ advice. They would foolishly stay to face starvation and death based on a lie. But many Christians followed Jesus’ advice. They fled across the Jordan River to a place in the hills called Pella. There they were safe from harm overlooking the smoking ruins of Jerusalem.

 

They had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, ready to leave everything behind. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Understandably, for pregnant women and nursing mothers escape would be difficult if not impossible. Jesus’ heart breaks for these poor women and children. A horrific detail of history is that Roman soldiers showed no pity on pregnant mothers, chasing them down, assaulting and killing them.

 

Therefore, before that happened, they were to pray. Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. Why? Snow and ice are not regular occurrences in most of Israel. But winter rains caused rivers to flood and become impassable. On the Sabbath Day the gates of the city were shut and locked and observant Jews were limited to traveling no more than ¾ of a mile – not nearly enough to escape the swords of the Romans. They were to pray, then, that nothing would hinder their flight to safety.

 

And Jesus closes his guidance to his 1st century disciples with a caution to be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. In trying and troubling times, people – even those who aren’t normally religious – seek out spiritual guidance. (For example, churches were full the Sunday after 9/11.) And, that longing for comfort also makes people especially vulnerable to the deceptions of false prophets. Jesus warns his disciples not to believe these fakes. Even though they may be able to perform great signs and miracles, the disciples were to hold fast to the one, true Christ, who proved himself to be God’s Son and the Savior not only by his great miracles and powerful preaching, not only by fulfilling every last promise of Scripture, but fully and finally by his resurrection from the dead. For the first century disciples, Jesus’ message was clear: the end of Israel, the end of Temple worship, the end of life as you know it is coming. When you see the signs, when the Roman army is approaching, don’t hesitate, flee; pray that nothing, not the season, not the OT Sabbath laws restrict you; and don’t be deceived by the false Christs, they cannot save you. Trust me and my Word and your life will be spared.

 

But what’s the message for us? What does the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD have to do with Christians in America in 2017? How can we even be sure that Jesus is talking about his Second Coming? Jesus tells us so himself in verse 27: for as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is clearly referring to a future event beyond the destruction of Jerusalem. Something no one on earth will be able to escape – his Second Coming in Judgment. The fact that Jesus’ prediction about Jerusalem came true in 70 AD is proof that he will return again – and, that his return is imminent. The signs are all there: wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, famines and earthquakes, increasing wickedness and persecution of believers. But what about the abomination that causes desolation?

 

Listen again to Paul’s description: Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God…The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. Do we see anything today that matches Paul’s description? One who opposes the true God, sets himself up in God’s temple (the church), proclaims himself to be God and is accompanied by counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders? Martin Luther’s confession in the Smalcald Articles of 1537 still stand: This teaching shows forcefully that the pope is the true Endchrist or Antichrist. He has exalted himself above and opposed himself against Christ. For he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power…Even the Turks [Muslims] do not do this. They take bodily tribute and obedience from Christians, but they allow whoever wishes to believe in Christ. The pope, however, bans this faith. He says that to be saved a person must obey him. (SA IV, 10-12) For 500 years the Lutheran Church has identified the Roman Catholic pope as the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ for two reasons. First, he directs sinners to their own works (or the works of saints) for salvation instead of the completed work of Christ. And, secondly, because the pope urges faith in himself, his word, his declarations in place of and instead of the Word of God. While there are certainly other antichrists in this world – those who claim to be Christ or proclaim a false Christ – none is so clearly positioned in God’s church on earth, proclaims himself to be the way to salvation, and displays the work of Satan in counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders. So yes, the abomination that causes desolation is here.

 

Which means that all the signs are here. The end is near. What should we do? Flee! Run and don’t look back. But to where can we flee? What mountain can shelter us from the wrath God will pour out on this wicked world? Psalm 121 tells us: I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2) The only shelter from the awful tide God’s wrath is the fortress of God’s grace. As more and more people merge onto the wide road that leads to hell; as more and more of our friends and neighbors, more and more of our own families, run away from Christ; as we hear about impending wars and church shootings; as our city and nation grow increasingly wicked and godless – run away and run to God. Take shelter in his Word and Sacraments. Run to Jesus. Hide yourself in his wounds – the nail marks in his hands, the spear hole in his side – because they are the proof that he has satisfied God’s wrath for you, in your place. Find your shelter in God’s mercy – today, see his mercy in warning us that things are going to get very bad before Christ’s return. And know that is a warning of love. When the end is near, flee to Jesus, his Word, his Sacrament, his sacrifice. Only he can shelter you on the great and terrible day of the Lord.

 

And pray. Pray that nothing would hinder your flight. Today we aren’t hindered by wintry weather or Sabbath laws, so what might hinder our flight to Christ, his blood and righteousness? Unbelieving family members who reject God’s truth to go their own ways pull us away from our Savior. Materialism, immorality, and earthly distractions draw us away from Christ. Pray that nothing; not your job, your children, your hopes and dreams, your wealth and health and logic keep you from running to God and his Word for shelter. Remember your Savior’s loving warning to keep your priorities straight: what good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26) Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. (Matthew 6:33) God promises to provide everything else you need for life in this world – even if Jesus doesn’t return for another 2000 years. Flee to Jesus and pray that nothing would hinder your flight.

 

And, finally, be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. Before the fall of Jerusalem, many rose up claiming to be the Messiah, who could lead them to victory over their Roman enemies. Perhaps today the danger is not as much people claiming to be Christ but teachers who proclaim a false Christ. Those who proclaim Christ as simply one option among many or merely a good example or a therapist or a wish granting genie or a cuddly teddy bear who isn’t really serious about sin are false prophets. Do not believe [them]. This, Christ’s command, is why we don’t shy away from identifying the pope as the antichrist even though it might be offensive to some. Christ’s command is why we not only proclaim the truth but expose and refute false teaching. They and their lies must be exposed because they are so seductive that even the elect can fall under their spell for a time. Beware of the lies that are out there. The one true Christ is not gay-affirming, does not condone lifestyles that are contrary to his will, does not promise believers health and wealth and happiness, and his objective is not to be your buddy or your life coach. The one true Christ left heaven to come to this earth to spill his blood on a cross to pay for your sins against a holy God. He came to be your Savior. Don’t be deceived. Beware of false teachers and false teachings. How? Compare everything, everything, you read, see, and hear to the written Word of God.

 

Why? Why the urgency? For as lightning that comes from the east is visible in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. No one knows the day or the hour – and when Jesus arrives it will be too late. The signs are all here. Christ will return and it could be today. Should we be afraid? No! Because Christ has warned us and Christ has prepared us. The end is near: flee to his Word and take shelter in his forgiveness, pray that nothing would hinder you, and beware of false teachings and teachers. And when you see the signs, look forward to your Savior’s second coming – because he is bringing the day of your redemption. Amen.

Romans 4:1-5 - Hold On to Your Lutheran "Loneliness" - October 29, 2017

What does it mean to be Lutheran? Since this is the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, you may find yourself in a situation where someone who is aware of the anniversary – perhaps because they saw the Luther documentary on PBS – may turn that question on you: what does it mean to be Lutheran? There are some standard, stereotypical answers to that question. Being Lutheran means that you can’t have Bible class without coffee and snacks and if you’re going to have a meal, it’s going to be a potluck. Or, Lutherans are those folks who only sing a song if it was written by a German, is at least 100 years old, and can be played on an organ. Maybe Lutherans are known as the teaching church. Now those things may be true – but that’s not really what it means to be Lutheran. What does it mean? Well, if you can remember one word, the word engraved on the cornerstone of this building – the word “sola”– you have a pretty good start in explaining what it means to be Lutheran.

 

“Sola” means alone. To be Lutheran means to be alone – in a sense, lonely. That concept goes all the way back to Martin Luther’s day. In his commentary on Galatians of 1535 Luther wrote: “Victory over sin and death does not come by the works of the Law or by our will; therefore it comes by Jesus Christ alone. Here we are perfectly willing to have ourselves called “solarii” by our opponents, who do not understand anything of Paul’s argument. You who are to be consolers of consciences that are afflicted, should teach this doctrine diligently, study it continually, and defend it vigorously against the abominations of the papists, Jews, Turks, and all the rest.” [1] Luther’s opponents meant it to be derogatory to call him an “aloneist.” Luther wore it as a badge of honor. But that’s not why it’s important – not because Luther said it and stood for it. It’s not important because these principles are 500 years old. But because the doctrines of Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone are the pillars of salvation revealed by God himself. 500 years later we are still holding onto our Lutheran loneliness because those “sola’s” remain the foundation of our salvation.

 

I.                    Sola Scriptura

 

We find a summary of these principles in the Word of God before us. What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? What matter? If you page back to Romans 3, you see that Paul has been discussing the matter of justification. I know that’s a big theological word that often makes people’s eyes gloss over but it is the central doctrine of Scripture and the Christian faith. To be justified means to be “declared righteous” or “not guilty” in God’s courtroom. So you can feel free to tune out if you want. This is only important if you think you’re ever going to die and have to stand before a righteous God to be judged either “not guilty” of your sins and invited to make your home in heaven or “guilty” and damned to spend eternity paying for your sins in hell. That’s what justification is all about. Does that matter? Nothing matters more than justification before God.

 

Here’s how the Apostle Paul explained justification in Romans 3: There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) How do guilty sinners find acquittal in the courtroom of a holy God? Paul uses Abraham as his case study. He almost had to. The Jews of his day tended to point to Abraham as proof that people are justified by works. At first glance, they seem to have a point. We know that God asked Abraham to do many hard things in his life. He commanded him to leave his home for an unknown land, and Abraham got up and went. (Genesis 12) After 25 years in that land – 25 years of no children even though God had promised Abraham a son – God gave him a son named Isaac. (Genesis 21) But then God commanded Abraham to sacrifice that son…and Abraham was ready to do it! (Genesis 22) So the Jews thought and taught that if anyone was ever justified by works, it was Abraham.

 

So Paul asks what shall we say that Abraham discovered in this matter of justification? Pay close attention to how Paul answers this question: what does the Scripture say? Sola scriptura. Paul doesn’t say “well, this is how I feel about it” or “this is what my rabbi told me.” No, Paul asks what does the Scripture say? And this isn’t an anomaly, either. 60 times in the 16 chapters of Romans Paul goes back to the OT and cites the Scriptures as the basis for his teaching. This was Paul’s default policy. Scripture and Scripture alone formed the foundation of Paul’s life and teaching.

 

And yet, within 1500 years, this foundation had been swept aside and replaced in the Roman Catholic Church. What did they replace it with? The traditions of the church fathers, the decisions of councils and the decrees of popes. All took precedence over the Word of God. That’s what made Luther so upset. That’s why he posted the 95 theses. And that’s why, when he was commanded to recant, to take back his writings on threat of death Luther said “unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures…I cannot and will not take back anything. Here I stand. God help me.” What does Scripture say is the only question that matters! And yet, once again, we live in a time where people are not ready and willing to ask that question. Instead, many stake their lives and eternities on questions like: “what do I feel?” or “what is popular and politically correct?” or “what can I do to be saved?” And, if people can be led to even consider Scripture, the question is often not “what does the Scripture say?” but “what does Scripture say to you?” As if the Word of God is a piece of clay that we are free to mold however you want; as if the almighty, all-powerful God needs our brilliance to give his Word meaning. And that’s why so many people are leaving the church today. “The church says that Scripture is open to many different interpretations and the most important thing is that you feel good and follow your heart. What do I need the church for? I’m just going to stay home, listen to my heart and follow where it leads.” There is no worse place to go for comfort and certainty. The prophet Jeremiah wrote: the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. (Jeremiah 17:9) Or, others say “Scripture is a good place to start, but it’s not enough.” You need to go to the latest and greatest self-appointed prophet who has had a vision directly from God. Do you know what God’s true prophet, Isaiah, said about those people? 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) Isaiah and Paul agree: What does the Scripture say?

And this is not just important for me as a pastor or the WELS as a church body – Scripture alone is of vital importance for you in your daily life. Why? Because you know how life goes. Some days you wake up and you feel pretty good about yourself and imagine that God must be impressed with you and that you don’t really need Jesus or his blood and righteousness. What does the Scripture say? There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Don’t you dare stand there with the Pharisee and say God I thank you I am not like other [people] (Luke 18:11) because you are! You are a sinner in God’s sight. And then there are other days on the roller coaster of life when you wake up and can’t even look at yourself in the mirror. When you think “What a worthless creature I am, for the filthy thoughts that have floated through my mind, for the loveless words and actions I have done to the people I should love most. There is no way that God could love me.” Those too are the times when we need to reject our feelings and instead ask what does the Scripture say? And when you do, you find a gracious God who 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)

 

What does the Scripture say? It’s not, what does the Supreme Court or Hollywood say? What does the latest survey say? What does the WELS or Luther say? The only question that matters is: what does the Scripture say? Sola Scriptura. That’s what it means to be Lutheran.

 

II.                  Sola Gratia

 

So, what does the Scripture say? What did Abraham learn about being justified before God? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. We could stop right there, couldn’t we? How was Abraham justified? God simply gave it to him by grace alone. There he was, a decrepit old man with a decrepit old wife who had no reasonable hope of ever having children. But God showed him the stars in the sky and said so shall your offspring be. (Genesis 15:5) And so Abraham did the unreasonable, the illogical thing: he believed God’s promise.

 

What did Abraham believe? He believed that among that blanket of stars was not only the son God would give Abraham, there was another son, God’s only begotten Son. The one God had promised already to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden who would come and crush the power of Satan and free those who had been held in slavery by the fear of sin and death. Abraham believed. And that faith is always a gift of God’s grace. Oh, there are always people who claim that we are born into this world with free will. That the decision to believe is within our power. It’s not. Why not? What does the Scripture say? The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:7-8) We do not have free will in spiritual matters. We are slaves of sin and Satan. By nature, we are not God’s friends, we are his enemies. The fact that we believe is only and always the result of God’s grace, his undeserved love, as Paul told the Ephesians: it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)  

 

Again, we could stop there. Being Lutheran means being saved by God’s grace alone. But Paul has more to say about the glory and mystery of God’s grace. To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. Did you hear what kind of God we have? One who justifies, who declares not guilty – not the good, not those who try their best – but the wicked. Now we would say that’s not fair. If that were to happen in a court of law in our country there would be mobs in the streets protesting. But the justification of the wicked is exactly what happens in God’s courtroom. How? How can a just God acquit the guilty? Because Jesus Christ died for the sins of the wicked. Remember Paul’s definition of justification: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) That’s how we, we who were born into this world without true fear of God and true faith in God in our hearts. Who hated God’s law and despised his Gospel as foolishness are justified. It’s by grace. Justification comes from God, not from us. And that doesn’t end – even after we’ve come to faith. Because there is still an unbeliever living inside of us – who hates God and his will. We still sin daily with our hands and lips and hearts. We are still wicked; but God still justifies the wicked. That’s why we always begin with the confession of sins and absolution – so that we can leave here every single Sunday like that tax collector – justified before God. From beginning to end, from first breath to last, justification is only and always by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

 

This is important not just because Luther rediscovered it 500 years ago. This is important not just for me as a pastor and the WELS as a church body. This is vitally important for you. Because we are, once again, living in a time that despises God’s grace. People are still determined to please God by their own works like that Pharisee in the temple. Doubt that? Open up the obituary section in the newspaper. Listen to a funeral eulogy or sermon. “Oh, this was the greatest guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He worked hard and loved his family. And now he’s in heaven because that’s what good guys like him deserve.” But what does the Scripture say? 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 3:10-11) Only by the grace of God, only by throwing ourselves down before God’s throne and begging for his mercy – mercy he has gladly shown by sending Jesus to suffer our punishment and purchase our freedom is anyone saved. Saved by grace alone – that’s what it means to be Lutheran.

 

 

 

III.               Sola Fide

 

Feeling lonely yet? We’ve come to the third of our solas, Sola Fide. Faith alone. We’ve already covered the fact that faith is always and only a gift of God and not the product of our own will or decision. But Paul has more to say about how salvation comes through faith alone. Abraham believed God, and it was credited it him as righteousness. Remember what Abraham believed. Not only did he believe that God would give him a son, not only did he believe that God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, but he also believed that one of those descendants would be the promised Savior who would do what Abraham couldn’t do, what no one could do – live a perfectly obedient, righteous life. Abraham knew that he couldn’t do that because he hadn’t done that.

 

We typically think of Abraham as a great hero of faith – and he was, but he was not a hero of obedience. Joshua tells us that before God called Abraham, he worshiped idols. (Joshua 24:2) On two separate occasions, Abraham lied about his wife’s identity – calling her his sister. (Genesis 12:10-20; 20) And in Genesis 16, Abraham colluded with Sarah to speed up God’s timeline by sleeping with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. (Genesis 16) The record of Scripture proves that Abraham was not righteous by his works.

 

But what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That word, credited, comes from the accounting world. Paul is giving us a glimpse into heaven’s accounting department – God’s record books. The name of every person ever born is there. And there’s a column that reads DEBTS. We owe God perfect obedience, a life completely free from sin. And no one has paid in full listed by their name in that category. Not that people haven’t tried. The Pharisee certainly did. But he didn’t succeed. Jesus says he went home from church just as sinful as he came. Scripture makes it undeniably clear that we cannot achieve the righteousness God demands on our own.

 

Paul uses an everyday picture to illustrate how faith works: Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. Abraham looked ahead and trusted that the Savior God promised to send would do what he could not – pay for his sins and live a perfectly obedient life. And God credited Jesus’ perfect righteousness to Abraham’s account – so that next to his name it read paid in full. And that’s how it still works today. When the Holy Spirit leads us to take hold of the message that Jesus died for the sins of the world – and that I’m part of that world; when we can say with Martin Luther “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not” [2] - by that faith, by claiming Jesus’ righteousness as your own, God writes next to your name too: paid in full. That’s why faith alone saves us. Not because it’s a good work. Not because it’s the one thing we have to do to be saved. But because it clings to Christ and claims his righteousness as our own.

 

That’s why the doctrine of faith alone is so important. That’s why we demand pure doctrine in our churches and why we emphasize teaching and preaching over socializing and community service; it’s not doctrine for doctrine’s sake, it’s doctrine for salvation’s sake – for the sake of lost, despairing sinners. Faith drives us outside of ourselves and our own feelings: “am I good enough?”, “do I feel like heaven is mine?”, “do I believe strongly enough?” Sola fide says: “It’s not about you. It’s about what Christ has done for you on the cross!” What you feel in your heart will change every day. But what Jesus accomplished on that cross 2000 years ago will never change. It’s claiming Christ’s righteousness as your own through faith – that’s the only way you can be certain that you stand justified, acquitted in God’s courtroom.

 

So what does it mean to be Lutheran? It’s not about old German hymns or the jello at potlucks. Being Lutheran means being certain that we stand before God justified, not guilty, holy, and righteous just as he demands. How? By being lonely. Sola scriptura. Sola gratia. Sola fide. Hold onto your Lutheran “loneliness”. Here Paul stood. Here Luther stood. Here we stand. God help us. Amen.

 

 

 

[1] LW 26:138

[2] http://www.azquotes.com/quote/823690

Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-16 - Faith Alone - October 22, 2017

A sermon about faith may, at first, seem out of place in 2017. We are living in the least religious era in American history, where people, especially young people, are leaving churches in droves. How can we discuss faith when more people than ever are convinced that faith is an unnecessary relic of the past? Well, those who argue that faith is unnecessary in this day and age don’t really know what they’re talking about. When you set your alarm clock last night, you had faith that it would go off in the morning. When you turned the key in the ignition this morning, you had faith that the engine would start. I just read this morning that even as young people are leaving churches, interest in the occult and astrology (horoscopes etc.) is growing. That takes faith. Even atheists, even though they would never admit it, have faith – they believe, without a shred of evidence, that there is no God. Everyone believes something. So the question is not really whether faith is relevant in 2017 – it is as much as ever. The question is what distinguishes genuine, Christian faith – the only faith that can save – from the rest. Hebrews 11 answers the big questions about genuine, saving faith: what is faith? Faith in what? Faith for what?

 

The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to abandon their Christian faith and return to the Judaism of their forefathers because of persecution. These believers were living in a world where Judaism was legalized and tolerated but Christianity, the new kid on the “religious” block, was viewed with suspicion and, under Emperor Nero, was widely persecuted. The temptation, then, was to abandon faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in favor of the old, “safe” ways of Judaism – circumcision, the sacrifices, the Sabbaths and festivals, kosher diet, etc. They were tempted to abandon their faith in a Savior they couldn’t see for traditions and ceremonies they could. The author’s goal in chapter 11, then, is to show these wavering believers that leaving the Christian faith was not a return to the religion of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – but a desertion of them. This chapter emphasizes that the way of salvation has only ever been through faith in God’s promises.

 

So what is faith? H. L. Mencken, a 20th century American journalist wrote that “faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” [1] Faith has been mocked as a blind leap in the dark, a rejection of scientific fact, or a fuzzy feeling that you get in your stomach. Even Christians can have a false understanding of faith. Some do it by equating faith to behavior. If you do good things – live a clean life, work hard, obey the Golden Rule, attend church, donate your time and money – many equate that to having faith. Others have faith in faith, thinking “it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you really believe it.” And still others see faith as a way to bribe God for his blessings. They have fallen for the televangelist heresy that “if you truly believe, you will be able to name and claim great worldly riches and success for yourself.” There are many false definitions of faith – but only one that comes from the Holy Spirit himself: now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. What is faith? Faith is the conviction that things we cannot see or prove are true and reliable. But doesn’t that just prove that faith is a blind leap into the unknown? Not at all! Faith is not a blind hope or empty feeling. Faith sees God’s promises – printed in black and white in his Word – and holds onto them in spite of any external, visible circumstances.

 

The author gives an example two verses later: by faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. No one was there to see what happened in the very beginning, when everything that we see around us was made from nothing. (see Job 38:4) There is no YouTube video that can show us what happened on the first six days of this universe – but because the only one who was there – God himself – tells us that he created everything in six normal days with nothing but his Word, we believe it. That’s faith. It’s not blind. Not a denial of the facts. It’s certainty regarding things we cannot see or prove – like creation – simply because God says so.

 

In the verses we skipped, the author lists some of the heroes of Genesis which prove that saving faith is nothing other than taking God at his Word. There’s Abel, whose sacrifice was accepted by God because he combined it with faith in the promised Savior. Enoch, one of only two humans who didn’t experience death, was commended as one who pleased God because he trusted God’s promises. Noah, who built a ship on dry ground, in spite of the ridicule and criticism of his neighbors, because he believed that God would make good on his threat to send a flood. Abraham, who followed God’s command to leave his home for an unknown destination and believed that his wife, Sarah, would give birth even though she was old and infertile. In each case, these people are immortalized in Scripture – and in that way, commended by God – simply because they took God at his Word in spite of uncertain or dangerous circumstances.

 

He then summarizes what we can learn from these people: all these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance. What did these people die without receiving? The Savior. And yet, they believed God’s promise anyway. Abel knew that his sacrifice could not pay for any of his sins, but he trusted that the sacrifice God had promised would pay for all of them. (Hebrews 10:10) Noah, whom God saved by the water of the flood, was never baptized in Jesus’ name – but through faith in the coming Savior his sins were washed away nonetheless. And Abraham – who we will hear more about next week – trusted that God would keep his promise to preserve the line of the Savior through him even though, in terms of fertility, he was as good as dead. (Hebrews 11:12) None of them knew the specific details of how God would keep his promise – how Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead. None of them could have made the full, detailed confession of faith that we can, but they trusted that if God promised to send a Savior, he would. And this was what they clung to in spite of dangerous, uncertain, and frightening circumstances.

 

 

And, even though we are separated from those believers by thousands of years, saving faith today is no different: it’s still conviction in God’s Word regarding things we haven’t seen. We haven’t seen the paternity test that proves that Jesus was not conceived by a human father, but we trust the explanation the angel Gabriel gave to Mary: the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…for nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:35, 37) We haven’t seen the video footage that confirmed the sinlessness of Jesus’ life, but our faith is grounded on the testimony of Scripture – like that found in Hebrews 4: we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) No science experiment can measure the cleansing power of Baptism, but when Jesus – who had just risen from the dead – says whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16) we take him at his Word. Our hearts and hands and memories are still scarred with sins of the past, but when God says that as far as the east is from the west, so far he has removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12) – we don’t argue, we believe. And, even though it’s been 2000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven, we look – with eyes of faith – for this same Jesus…to come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11) Faith is what? Conviction, certainty. In what? God’s unbreakable, unshakeable Word.

 

Faith for what? Many Christians don’t believe big enough. They are merely looking for worldly peace and prosperity or temporary happiness or the answer to a specific prayer. The problem is that you can search the Scriptures and you won’t find any promises about those things. So what has God promised? What are we hoping for? They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Abraham’s admission that he was an alien and stranger came as he was looking to purchase a grave for his wife, Sarah, who had passed away. (Genesis 23:4) Isn’t that what faith is all about? Being able to look death and judgment in the eye with confidence and even joy? There’s certainly no lack of things that try to rattle or divert our faith in God’s promise of eternal life. The world mocks our faith in eternal life as a philosophical narcotic that makes life bearable. Our rational flesh tempts us to chase after the security this world offers – an exercise routine, a diet, an insurance plan or wealth to try to keep death away. And Satan, the accuser, is ever-present, to dredge up the past, to haunt us with guilt and shame, to remind us that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath for our sins. And the temptation is so strong in those moments to give in, to give up, to despair and allow the ugly realities we can see with these eyes to overcome the realities God has promised.

 

But just as faith pierces through the veil of sin to see the cross of Christ where all sin – every last one of them – was paid for; just as faith pierces through the darkness of the future, clinging to God’s promise never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5); just as faith sees how frail and fickle this world and everything in it is, so that instead of storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, we store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20); so faith’s vision can even see through the black hole of death. Faith looks beyond the borders of this world to a better country – a heavenly one. Faith doesn’t look to preserve and extend this life at all costs, it longs for eternal citizenship in the city God has prepared. How? How can we be sure of something that is hidden in the future, how can we be certain of something we, do not see? Faith alone, given by grace alone, grounded in Scripture alone. Faith doesn’t care if this world mocks and ridicules us. It responds with Paul: let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:4) Faith clings to Christ’s cross – where he paid our admission price into heaven; and his empty tomb – which is a living testimony to his promise: because I live, you also will live. (John 14:19) Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see – focused on Christ alone, grounded in Scripture alone, given by grace alone – that’s saving faith. Faith is not a feeling, it’s a conviction; it’s not based on what I see or feel, but in what God has promised in his Word; it’s not a hope for a better, longer or happier life in this world, it’s the assurance that we will live forever in a much better place – the city of our God.

 

Our Reformation heritage – the one we have freely received, the one we will freely pass on – is that we are justified, saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, found in Scripture alone. What is saving faith? Martin Luther wrote: when faith performs its proper office, it looks to absolutely nothing except Jesus Christ, the Son of God, given for the sins of the whole world. It does not look at love, does not say: What have I done? Which sins have I committed? What have I merited? It rather says: What has Christ done? What has He merited? [2] What is faith? Faith in what? Faith for what? Faith is certainty in God’s promise of eternal life for Christ’s sake. May God grant us such as faith as this. Amen.  

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/4690-faith-may-be-defined-briefly-as-an-illogical-belief-in

[2] Plass, What Luther Says, 1482

Ephesians 2:1-10 - How Grace Works - October 15, 2017

Grace, alongside the other two solas of the Reformation, Scripture and faith, is one of the fundamental, foundational concepts in Christian vocabulary and life. If asked what grace is, I’m confident all of us could answer without hesitation: “grace is God’s undeserved love.” We love to hear about grace, to talk about grace, to sing about grace. But grace might be one of those things that is almost too familiar to us. We may take it for granted. We may be able to define it, but can we explain it? Could we explain what it means to be saved by grace alone? Could we explain how grace works? The sad truth is that many Christians do not really understand grace. Many believe that when it comes to salvation – we must play an active role in achieving it. In Luther’s day, it consisted of performing acts of penance or buying indulgences; today, it’s making a decision for Christ or feeling God in your heart. In many places, grace has taken a backseat to your own feelings, your own determination, your own decision, your own good works. Restoring the proper, Biblical understanding of grace was one of the main reasons Luther nailed 95 theses to the Castle Church door 500 years ago. As part of the heritage we have received, then, we should know how grace works. And there is no better place to go for an explanation of grace than Ephesians chapter 2, where Paul explains grace with this outline: we were…but God…you have been…and now you are.

 

One reason many Christians may begin to take God’s grace for granted is that it’s so easy to forget what we were apart from it. That forgetfulness apparently applied to the Christians living in Ephesus. So Paul reminded them – and, he reminds us of the unpleasant truth: you were dead. What we were apart from God’s grace is not a pretty picture. These days we keep death at a distance; death lives in sterile hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes. We try to pretend like death doesn’t really exist. But what Paul is picturing here is a stinking, rotting corpse. Powerless. Lifeless. Worthless. Dead. That’s how we were born – how all humanity has entered this world since the Fall into sin. Oh, sure, we were talking and walking; eating and drinking; working and sleeping. But through it all we were spiritual zombies, powerless to do anything good, helpless to save ourselves, dead to God.  

 

Paul goes on to describe how this spiritual deadness manifested itself in our lives: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked when you followed the ways of this present world. This present world is society as it is aligned against God. There are four currents or philosophies in society that are distinctly ungodly and anti-Christian. The first is secularism – the delusion that anything in life can be separated from God and his will; second is amoralism – the indifference to or denial of the existence of moral absolutes; third is materialism – a strong focus on the things of this world, to the exclusion of spiritual, heavenly things; and the fourth is an ahistorical approach to life – a lack of interest or even downright hostility toward history and tradition. These ungodly influences pervade every aspect of the unbelieving world. If you need proof just turn on the television or jump onto social media and see what comes out. When you do, remember that that’s what you were: dead like this world; dead to God.

 

It gets worse: you were following the ruler of the domain of the air, the spirit now at work in the people who disobey. Who sets the agenda for the unbelieving world? The prince of darkness himself, Satan. Twice during his ministry Jesus identified the devil as the prince of this world. (John 12:31; 14:30) The devil, whose sole objective is to ensure that as many souls as possible spend eternity with him in hell will stop at nothing to distort God’s Word, obstruct God’s will and deceive God’s people – is pulling the strings on this unbelieving world. And we were under his authority and influence. Slaves of Satan, we were dead to God.

 

And those external influences found an ally right in our own hearts. Formerly, we all lived among them in the passions of our sinful flesh, as we carried out the desires of the sinful flesh and its thoughts. As if our situation wasn’t bad enough, Paul reminds us that we were utterly depraved. We were not only slaves of Satan, we were slaves to our own godless passions and desires. Instead of living for God and loving our neighbor we lived for and loved only ourselves. Even the good desires God gave us became twisted and perverted. Hunger became gluttony. The desire for rest became laziness. Sexual desires twisted into lust. The desire for social connections turned us into self-important, self-seeking narcissists. Martin Luther described the dual nature of the total depravity we were born into: it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a total lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is a propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness. [1] The result of this – of following the ways of this world, of serving Satan as lord, of hating good and loving evil is that like all the others, we were by nature objects of God’s wrath. The world likes to believe that newborn babies are good and pure and innocent – and that it’s only society that makes people evil. Paul sets the record straight. We were not good. Not innocent. Not even neutral. Wicked, enslaved, dead, objects of wrath – that’s what we were. And left to ourselves we had nothing to look forward to but a miserable life on earth and an eternity of punishment in hell.

 

Thank God for verse 4. Thank God for one of the shortest yet most important words in the whole Bible. The word “but.” But God, because he is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses. The one thing – the only thing – that changed our status before God is God; his grace; his undeserved love. God saw how hopeless we were, he had pity on us in our lost condition, and he resolved to do something about it. God decided to give salvation away to a world of sinners for free, but that decision came at the cost of his most precious possession. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) God loved. God gave. God saved. That’s grace. Grace dripped from everything Jesus said and did during his lifetime. He didn’t seek out the proud and powerful, he went to the lost and sick and suffering. He didn’t tell stories about sinners who did their best and tried their hardest to win God’s love. He told stories like the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) which demonstrates that citizenship in God’s kingdom is not a matter of working or earning, but a matter of God’s grace, freely given. It was grace and grace alone that led Jesus to stretch out his hands on a cruel cross, forgive those who put him there, spill his blood and become the sole object, the sole target of God’s wrath in the place of wretched, depraved, spiritually useless sinners like us. We were dead. But God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead. That’s how grace works.

 

“I get that” many people say, “and I – unlike so many people – believe it. Don’t I get some credit for that?” Let’s test that against Scripture: Indeed, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. According to Paul, who gets the credit for the faith in your heart? That’s right, God. The Biblical practice of infant baptism is a visible demonstration of this invisible truth. No infant begs his parents to be baptized. No infant strolls up here and commits himself or herself to Christ. Infants are totally, utterly passive recipients of God’s life-giving grace. What if you weren’t baptized as an infant? What if you were old enough to decide to be born again or can still remember when you made the decision to commit your life to God? It doesn’t matter. Dead, depraved sinners cannot create faith. Paul told the Corinthians: no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3) Expecting depraved, dead sinners to make a decision for Christ is about as foolish as walking down the street to the cemetery to find help for your yardwork. It’s impossible. It’s only yours by God’s grace. Because you were dead…but God made you alive…and even the faith that pulses in your heart is a gift of God’s grace.

 

But making us alive and creating faith in our hearts were not the end in themselves, they are the means through which God accomplishes something far greater: He also raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. He did this so that, in the coming ages, he might demonstrate the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Do you ever struggle with the concept that you have been saved? Doesn’t it seem better to say that we will be saved? How can Paul say that we are already saved, already residents of heaven, already seated with Christ? It certainly doesn’t feel that way, does it? This evil world, our own words and actions, the certainty of death – those are clear and present realities. But being raised with Christ and seated with him in heaven? Those feel like something distant, something that we may get some day when we die. How can Paul say that we are already seated with Christ? Here our reason must keep silent and faith must take over. God is timeless, and sometimes he speaks of things which will happen as if they had already happened. In God’s eyes, you are alive – forever. In God’s eyes, Christ’s sacrifice washed away every sin you have ever committed and every sin you ever will commit. In God’s eyes, you are already seated with Christ in heaven’s glory. How can Paul be so sure? Grace alone! Just as Christ’s work and your conversion were only the result of God’s grace, so your salvation is only the product of God’s grace. That makes it sure and certain. That means that nothing, nothing in this world, no power of hell, not even your own sin can stop God from carrying out what he resolved to do: save your soul! That’s grace. You were dead…but God made you alive…you have been saved!

 

But what about now? Grace alone may explain my past and my future. But what about my present. Can’t we take a little credit for the good things we do now? I mean, God didn’t wake up, get the kids ready, and drive to church this morning. God didn’t write the check and lick the envelope and put it in the offering plate. I did that, right? Paul concludes: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Many Christians – and I would argue, many Lutherans cling to a mistaken idea that they deserve some credit for the good things they do here and now. What’s wrong with that? Why can’t we boast about the good things we do here and now? Because we are God’s workmanship. We are God’s creation, his masterpiece. His grace not only made us, it flows through us. Just like a work of art brings credit to the artist and a highway bridge gives glory to its designing engineer, so our good works bring glory to the God who made us. We are nothing more and nothing less than demonstrations of God’s skill, trophies of his grace. And should we have any doubt, Paul says that God prepared these good works in advance so that we would walk in them. I think of you mothers – God put you in that place and blessed you with that child just so you could give him glory by changing diaper after diaper. Or you employees – God planned and prepared that job for you and gave you the education and talents and abilities necessary so that tomorrow you could give him glory by doing whatever it is you do. All of you who contributed and will contribute to Building Our Great Heritage – all of it, your income, your saving, your desire, your generosity, this opportunity – they’re all the result of God creating you, saving you, and equipping you to be and do what he created you to do. So if we’re going to say anything about our good works, what should we say? I was dead…but God made me alive…so that I could and would do the good works he prepared in advance for me to do!

 

Grace. We know that word. We sing that word. We love that word. But do we know how grace really works? Now we do. You were dead…but God made you alive with Christ…you have been saved…which means you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works. How does grace work? Martin Luther put it best: Grace works alone! Grace works in spite of us, to remake us, to save us, to make us into God’s masterpieces, designed and equipped to do the good works he has prepared for us to do. We are saved by grace alone! And that means that our salvation is certain. To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

[1] LW 25:299

1 Peter 1:23-25 - Our Great Heritage: Scripture Alone - October 8, 2017

Ever since Adam and Eve stood over the grave of their son Abel – who had been ruthlessly murdered by Cain, his own brother – I imagine that parents and grandparents of every generation have asked the timeless question: “what is this world coming to?” Maybe it’s because I am now a parent myself, but doesn’t it seem like now is a pretty fitting time to ask that question? Consider some of the more recent events in our nation. It seems like a distant memory already, but it was only in July that Burlington, WI suffered some of the worst flooding in its history – destroying countless homes and forever changing people’s lives. Then came the hurricanes, one after another after another. Harvey, Irma, Maria, and now, Nate. On Sunday, September 24th, a gunman charged into a Christian church near Nashville, Tennessee, killing one worshiper and wounding seven others – a story you may not have heard about because it did not receive much media coverage. And last Sunday evening a gunman opened fire on a country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, killing 58 and injuring over 500 – the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. “What is this world coming to?” – inspires a variety of practical questions: How do we deal with terribly tragic events in our world and lives? How do we explain them to our children? How do we cope with the fact that death stands outside our front door? What can we hold onto in a world where it seems you can’t really trust anyone or anything? Peter has answers for us this morning. He reminds us that in a dying world we have the dependable Word.

 

Maybe the first question is: how can we presume to have answers to these questions while the best and brightest minds in our nation seem so clueless and powerless? Whenever a tragedy happens, the discussions and potential solutions always seem to be the same: more gun laws or fewer gun laws, more mental health screening and more background checks, better warning systems or cutting our carbon footprint – and then there’s the endless, pointless debate over why people do evil things. There’s no shortage of discussion regarding the problems the world faces, but there is a definite shortage of answers. And, for the unbelieving world, that’s all you can expect. Paul told the Romans why we cannot and should not expect the unbelieving world to ever solve the problems caused by sin: although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools. (Romans 1:21-22) The unbelieving world can neither understand nor solve the problem of evil in the world because it neither knows the one, true God nor believes his Word. What makes us any different? What makes us any more qualified to discuss evil in our world? The difference is not that we are more intelligent or better informed than our unbelieving neighbors.

 

The difference, Peter says, is that we were born again. We were given new life and a living faith, our eyes were opened, not by returning to the womb but, through the living and enduring word of God. How can we say with certainty that the source of evil is not a gun or a carbon footprint or a mental disorder? How can we say with certainty that the world is not getting better but much, much worse? How can we claim to have answers when the rest of the world only has questions? Because God has revealed the truth to us in his Word. And, unlike the seed of sin that we pass down to our children, the seed of God’s Word is imperishable – it doesn’t die. It keeps working day after day, century after century, inviting, forgiving, sanctifying, disciplining, justifying, informing and guiding us through a sin-sick world on the narrow path to heaven. It tells us where evil comes from: out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:19) It tells us why creation rises up against mankind in hurricanes and storms: because those who live in it are wicked. (Jeremiah 12:4) The Word of God convicts all of us as sinners worthy only of God’s wrath: there is no one righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10); but promises salvation for all through the blood of Christ: he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) The living and enduring Word of God not only guides us through this life, it removes our fear of death: because although the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23) We can state those things with certainty because they are God’s own unbreakable, unshakeable truth. That is the heritage we have received. By God’s grace we have come to believe and trust that God’s Word is the only dependable thing in this dying world.

 

But it’s so easy to lose our focus and trust in that simple, yet powerful and effective and eternal Word, isn’t it? Our world is one big sin city, filled with flashing lights and people to see, places to visit, and things to do. Perhaps Las Vegas is the perfect example of how Satan wants us to see life. The Eiffel Tower and Midtown Manhattan and an Egyptian pyramid rise out of nowhere. Fantastic fountains and brilliant attractions light up the desert floor. Towering hotels, monuments to mankind’s strength and ingenuity, reach up to heaven. Almost anything your heart desires lays at your fingertips. And, best of all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! All of it is a shrine which leads mankind to worship its favorite idol: itself. All of it tempts us to say: “wow, it’s amazing what man can do!”

 

Until it’s not amazing anymore. Until the prophetic words of Isaiah are once again proven to be true of everything mankind is and does: all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of field; the grass withers and the flowers fall. Peter reminds us of the reality that beneath all the glitz and glamour, beneath the fantasy and splendor lies sin and death. The hotels that tower over the strip are only façades that will eventually crumble and fall. Underneath the light shows and fountains prostitutes and drug dealers carry out their ugly business; the performers and entertainers – rich and famous one second, are used up and thrown away the next. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragic event like the one that happened last Sunday to shock people back to the reality: it’s not amazing what people can do…more often than not it’s horrible and wicked and evil. Which serves to prove Peter’s point: this world is dying.

 

And it’s not just happening in faraway places like Las Vegas and Puerto Rico. It’s happening right here. I’m dying. You’re dying. Every new gray hair – or every hair lost; every new wrinkle and every new ache; every trip to the doctor’s office and the pharmacy; every bruise and sprain that takes longer to heal than the last one – all are a reminder of who we really are. I may fool myself into thinking that I’m strong and tough like the grass in the field; I may believe that I’m a glorious, beautiful flower – but the reality is that from the moment of my birth, I’ve been dying. And so are you. And we’re all dying for the same reason. What we see in the mirror and hear from the doctor are only symptoms. For the true diagnosis we must look deeply into the mirror of God’s holy law. There we see that God doesn’t expect us to compare ourselves to the terrorists and mass murderers of the world – he demands that we compare ourselves to him. Be holy. (set apart) (1 Peter 1:16) I’m not holy. Be perfect. (spotless) (Matthew 5:48) I’m not perfect. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37) But my loyalty is torn in a million different directions.  Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:38) But I have spent all my love on myself. And so, just like every generation that has gone before us, we will die. For dust you are and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:19)

 

And the same is true of almost everything that we work so hard to pass on to our children. The best habits and behaviors that we can instill in them are often forgotten the moment they move out of the house. Inheritances and estates are poorly managed, stolen and lost. Even the best education cannot guarantee a secure future. We can try to provide the best life possible for our children, but the fact remains that they too face a future that ends in a cold, dark grave. So what can we pass on, what can we pray for, what can we work for that will make a difference, that will not rot and decay and end in death and destruction?

 

The word of the Lord stands forever. There is a heritage we can pass on that will not die, will not perish, will not end in death and destruction. The Word of the Lord stands firm – just as it has since the very beginning – from generation to generation. Scripture has served as our dependable guide through this dark world – and Scripture alone will guide our children long after we are gone. (Psalm 119:105) Scripture alone will teach our children that life’s biggest problem is not out there – it’s not the guns or hurricanes or political polarization; it’s in here – it’s the sin-sick heart beating in all of our chests. The next generation will learn from the created world that there is a God and that he is obviously much bigger, wiser, and more powerful than they are – and their consciences will tell them that they are accountable to him. But Scripture alone can tell them that God is a compassionate Father who loved them so much that he sent his Son to die for them. The bathroom mirror will sooner or later tell them that they are dying too. But Scripture alone reveals both the source and solution to death: the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57) Social media will inform our children of tragic stories and evil individuals. But Scripture alone will tell them that their most important battle is not against climate change or heavenly armed gunmen but against sin and the Satanic forces of hell. (Ephesians 6:12) These truths: the truths of sin and grace, of good and evil, of heaven and hell, of salvation in Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed in Scripture alone – these are eternal, these will never pass away. These truths have guarded and guided and sustained generations of believers before us and they will continue to guide each generation safely through this dying world to the safety of heaven.

 

Allow us to demonstrate how this works. In Matthew 24, Jesus himself answers the question: “what is this world coming to?” Many will come in my name, claiming, “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other…because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold. (Matthew 24:4-14) What do you tell your children? Jesus told us that this would happen, and he said see to it that you are not alarmed. (Matthew 24:6) What do these things mean? Even so, when you see all these things, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, right at the door. (Matthew 24:33) What do we cling to? Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35) How do we cope with the grim reality that we and this world are dying? Scripture alone assures us that although this world is coming to an end, neither death nor life…neither the present nor the future…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)

 

Scripture alone tells us who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Scripture alone can make sense of this senseless, violent, evil world. Scripture alone tells us that the God who is our Judge is also our Savior. Scripture alone tells us that God sent his Son to suffer and die for a world of sinners. Scripture alone will endure long after you and I and whatever we plan or build withers and blows away like the grass of the field. Scripture alone is our dependable guide through this dying world to eternal life with God in heaven. And this is the word that was preached to you - this is the heritage we have received and will pass on to the next generation. Because no matter what happens in this dying world, the word of the Lord stands forever. Amen.

Matthew 18:21-35 - The Framework of Forgiveness - October 1, 2017

What would you say is THE defining characteristic of a Christian? Most of the world’s false religions have a certain ritual, a certain wardrobe, or at the very least, a certain behavior that distinguishes them. Buddhist monks wear dull orange robes; orthodox Jews wear yarmulkes and black suits and don’t trim their sideburns or ever order a side of bacon; Muslim men bow toward Mecca five times a day and insist that women wear hijabs – or suicide vests, depending on the occasion; Mormons have their special underwear, called the temple garment, which sets them apart. But what do we have? Besides a guy wearing a funny black robe, we don’t seem to have much that sets us apart from the rest of the world. But appearances can be deceiving. The human eye cannot see what sets Christians apart from the rest of the world. Instead, as Jesus explains in the parable before us, being Christian isn’t primarily defined by what you wear or what you do or what you eat, Christians are defined by what they have received. Today, Jesus kicks open the door of heaven for us by establishing the framework of forgiveness – teaching us that before God Christians are first forgiven, then forgiving.

 

Matthew 18 contains one of our Savior’s fullest and most memorable sermons about God’s grace and his earnest desire to seek and to save the lost. Having been personally chosen, called and forgiven by the Savior himself, Peter was certainly familiar with forgiveness, but he could not rid his mind of the thought that forgiveness – in some respect – is earned or deserved, and therefore must have limits and may be forfeited and lost. Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? To be fair, Peter thought he was being generous. The Rabbis – the teachers and preachers – of his time taught that a person could be forgiven at most, three times. After that, they were out of luck. Jesus was not like the rabbis of the time. I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or, according to another reading of the Greek, seventy times seven: 490 times). Either way, Jesus’ point is that forgiveness is not a numbers game – it’s the limitless gift of a gracious God.

 

To illustrate, Jesus told a very pointed parable about a king, his kingdom, and his servants. I won’t retell the story, but a few themes deserve emphasis. First, just as that servant didn’t live in an isolated bubble, free to do whatever he pleased, we are not truly independent. We are servants in God’s kingdom, accountable to him for all we do and think and say. And, just like that king, God is free to call us in to settle our accounts with him at any time. This isn’t a reference to Judgment Day. This is any day we hear or feel the weight of our sin and guilt; this happens every time we come here and are invited to confess before God and one another, every time a parent asks their child “what did you do?”, whenever God allows tragedy or turmoil or trouble to come into our lives – times which force us to reflect on our lives, our hearts, our eternities. Our forefathers had a phrase for this very important aspect of the framework of forgiveness. They said that our entire existence is coram Deo, a Latin phrase meaning, before, or in the presence of God. The first thing that sets Christianity apart from the world’s false religions is that it isn’t primarily lived for the world to see and praise (or ridicule), it’s lived before God, under his all-seeing eyes, before his judgment seat.

 

Secondly, this parable shows us how we stack up when God audits our lives according to his law. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. In 1st century Jerusalem, a denarius was the pay for a day’s work. A talent was roughly 6000 denarii. The average worker would have to work 60,000,000 days to pay off a debt of 10,000 talents. This is not your home mortgage; this is the national debt. This was an unpayable obligation.

 

Who could possibly run up that level of debt? As subjects accountable to God we fall under the rule of his law. He expects us to be perfect, holy, according to his standards – nothing more and nothing less. Goodness, kindness, patience, mercy, generosity – those are not good works that go over and above our duty to God; they are the fundamental rules for life in God’s kingdom. And, James explains God’s grading scale: whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10) Our debt of sin before God is unpayable – not only because it is an amount beyond comprehension, but because nothing we can do, not even the best thing, can wipe away even one sin. Oh, we may try, like that servant, to negotiate with God. Be patient with me…and I will pay back everything. No. He couldn’t and wouldn’t. “God, I’ll try harder tomorrow.” “God, I’ll get my act together when I’m married, when the kids are grown, when I’m retired…tomorrow, next week, next year...” “God, just be patient, and I will pay back good for all the bad I’ve done.” “God, just wait till Sunday, I’ll go to your house, I’ll give my offering – I’ll make everything right.” Bargaining doesn’t work. All the work, all the money in the world, all the good works and all the promises we may make cannot pay off even a single cent of the debt we owe God. And those that die with a debt to God will pay for it forever in the debtor’s prison of hell.

 

That’s what we deserve from God. But what do we get? The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. I hope you never get tired of hearing this good news. When it comes to your debt of sin, God doesn’t want your promises, he doesn’t want your commitment, he doesn’t want your best effort and intentions. God is not interested in negotiating. The Christian life is not a debt repayment plan full of new obligations. Because what God wants to give us is the one thing we would never expect and never think to ask for – he wants to forgive us, to pay our debt for us. God wanted to do that for you so badly that he didn’t even wait for you to ask for it. Long before you and I were born God came and spoke through the prophet Isaiah: 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) While our hands and hearts and lips were still taking out loans on God’s patience, still busy piling up a debt of sin that we could never repay – that’s when God had compassion and sent his Son to pay the debt we had earned. Paul writes while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) That’s when Jesus determined to climb Mt. Calvary carrying not just our debt, but the debt of all the sinners in the world. And, that’s when, to remove all doubt, he shouted with his dying breath it is finished (John 19:30) – to declare that humanity’s debt to God has been paid in full – once and for all.

 

That is THE defining characteristic of the Christian. We stand before God not clothed in holy underwear or our personal sacrifices or most sincere commitments – we stand before him as confessed and convicted debtors…who have had forgiveness and salvation handed to us. More than we ever hoped, more than we would have ever dared to ask for, God has taken away our sin and credited us with Christ’s sinless, debtless life. Yes, we are debtors before God, there is no denying that. But what sets Christians apart is that we are forgiven debtors. That is the invisible, timeless seal of faith that links us with Abraham and David and Jeremiah and Peter and James and John and Paul. That is the single characteristic that unites us as people of all different ages and backgrounds and economic levels. In a nation that has been divided again this past week, this time on the basis of whether you stand, sit, kneel, or lock arms during a football game, the framework of God’s forgiveness levels the playing field. Before him we are all kneeling. Before him we are all beggars. As Paul told the Romans: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) Before God the only thing we can possibly do is beg for mercy. (It’s no coincidence that the phrase Lord, have mercy, is the most repeated line in the liturgy) But, in Christ, we are forgiven beggars.

 

Forgiven. That’s the defining characteristic of the Christian. But it doesn’t end there. Forgiven Christians are forgiving Christians. You heard what the unmerciful, wicked servant did with his master’s pity – he went out and found a fellow servant who owed him what amounted to pocket change, grabbed him up, choked him out, and had him thrown into prison. This forgiven servant forfeited his master’s forgiveness. And if we ever imagine that we can expect to receive God’s forgiveness while at the same time holding onto a grudge against a fellow believer, Jesus states categorically that unforgiving sinners are unforgiven sinners: in anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. There’s only one place for unforgiving people – and it’s not heaven.

 

The inevitable and absolutely necessary product of being forgiven is the willingness to forgive others. Easier said than done, right? As we hold the keys of Christ’s kingdom in our hands, we might believe that using the binding key – the law – to show a fellow brother or sister their sin is the more difficult key to use. That is, until someone hurts us…deeply, painfully, repeatedly. Then we are tempted to stand with Peter and believe that forgiveness needs to have some limits; that repeated sins don’t deserve repeated forgiveness. And do you know what? That’s exactly right. No sin and no sinner deserves forgiveness. Whatever sin or sinner you may think of…the constantly nagging wife, the husband who loves his job more than his family; the boss who takes all your hard work for granted; the child who won’t listen to a word of advice and guidance and rebuke – who seems bound and determined to make all the same mistakes you made growing up – even though you try your best to show them a better way; the sibling who expects to get their fair share of the inheritance but is coincidentally unreachable when it comes time take care of mom or dad’s things; the fellow member who seems to be talkative and friendly with everyone but you; the pastor who doesn’t seem to appreciate all the time and effort it takes to play the organ or clean the church or put out snacks every week – none of them, in any way, deserve forgiveness. And that’s the point. Forgiveness is never deserved. If it were, it wouldn’t be forgiveness.

 

That’s how it works in God’s kingdom. Forgiveness cannot be earned and often, it’s not even asked for. It is based, not on the worthiness of the recipient, but on the compassion of the giver. God’s grace in Christ is the only thing that caused him to forgive us. God’s grace in Christ is the only thing that can possibly motivate us to forgive others – not because they deserve it, not because they earned it, not because they can pay us back – but because they can’t. As Paul said, we are imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1) who are kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

 

If you think that imitating God is a tall order, you’re right! At the same time, don’t make the mistake of letting emotions get in the way. Forgiveness, according to Christ himself, is not a feeling; it is a conscious, deliberate decision that only a forgiven Christian can make. The heart is simply not a trustworthy compass. Jeremiah writes that the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9) Just as our hearts may sometimes deceive us into thinking we are not forgiven; they can frequently lead us to think that we can’t be forgiving. That’s because the sinful nature will never want to be forgiven or forgiving. Your heart may never completely heal from that time your spouse was unfaithful to you, but you can still forgive them – meaning that you won’t try to get revenge in the courtroom or in your comments to the kids. You may never be able to wipe from your memory the abuse you suffered in the past – but neither will you expect the abuser to make it up to you – because they can’t. Your child may never ask for forgiveness and may even say that they don’t want your forgiveness – but that won’t stop you from wanting to give it. In some relationships, you may have to say “I forgive you” for the same sin day after day after day for weeks and months and years (77 or 490 times or more) – but you will say it. How? Why? Because that’s how God has forgiven you! And if you ever think you’ve run out of patience and love and pity – run back to the cross, step up to the supper the Lord has prepared for you, hear yet again – yes, even after the sins you have committed this week (which are probably the same sins as last week, and the one before) – go in peace, your sins are forgiven. Forgiven before God, that’s the only way to be forgiving before God.

 

So, no; no special wardrobe, special ritual, no special diet for us – because we’re citizens of God’s kingdom. Before him we are defined by being first forgiven and then, forgiving. Amen.    

Jeremiah 15:15-21 - God Doesn't Give Us What We Deserve - September 17, 2017

Our world is consumed by the idea of justice and equality – the idea that everyone deserves the exact same treatment, benefits, outcomes etc. in every area of life. Whether it’s wage equality, gender equality, marriage equality, or equality in employment and housing and opportunity – our world believes that life ought to be absolutely fair, that people should get what they deserve. And when someone thinks they’ve been treated unfairly, they aren’t afraid to let you know – this weekend’s riots in St. Louis serve once again serve as sad proof. Fairness also plays a huge role in how people relate to God. Whether it’s the Hindu concept of karma, the secular superstition of “paying it forward” or “what goes around comes around”, or even a misapplication of the Christian concept that a man ought to reap what he sows (Galatians 6:7) – it’s human nature to believe that we should get what we deserve: good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. Is that true? Should we get what we deserve? Through the prophet Jeremiah, God answers that question for us, telling us that he doesn’t give us what we deserve; a reason to repent and a reason to rejoice.

 

The prophet Jeremiah clearly thought he deserved better for his service as God’s spokesman to the people of Israel. Given the circumstances, we might be tempted to agree with him. The 10 northern tribes of Israel had already been defeated and carried away by the Assyrians (as punishment for their rebellion and idolatry) – and the southern kingdom, Judah, was quickly following suit. The message God had given Jeremiah to proclaim, then, was not the kind you see emblazoned on posters at Christian book stores. He was called to tell the remaining Israelites that God had run out of patience with their unbelief and punishment was on the horizon: Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the LORD says: “‘Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity.’” (Jeremiah 15:1-2)

 

Is it any surprise that no one wanted to hear that sermon? Is it any surprise that everyone in Israel – from the lowly slave to the king –ridiculed Jeremiah, blamed him for their troubles, refused to associate with him, and even threatened his life? And yet, in spite of the persecution and the threats, Jeremiah remained faithful. He continued to preach a difficult message to an even more difficult people. It’s easy to understand why Jeremiah thought he deserved better, why he thought it wasn’t fair that he was being blamed for steadfastly preaching God’s message. And, Jeremiah sets an example we can all imitate by knowing where to take his pain and sorrow: you understand, O LORD; remember me and care for me. Avenge me on my persecutors. You are long-suffering – do not take me away; think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.

 

If Jeremiah had stopped there, we could say “Amen.” But Jeremiah didn’t stop. He went on: When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty. Notice that, at least at first, Jeremiah found joy in preaching God’s message. That may seem strange: he really found joy in being a minister of doom and gloom? Yes. Not because it was easy or because it brought Jeremiah fame and glory, but because it was God’s Word which brings sinners to repentance. I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Jeremiah had isolated himself from his society because he hated the rebellion, immorality, and idolatry that contaminated Israel. He was angry at Israel’s faithlessness. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails? Did you notice the two problems with Jeremiah’s complaint? Where does he base his demand for justice? In his faithfulness; his commitment to the Word, his refusal to join Israel’s pagan partying – in short, Jeremiah based his demand for justice in all the good things he had done for God. And then, who does he blame for his hardship? Not himself, for being lazy or apathetic in his ministry. He doesn’t blame the rebellious people to whom he was called to minister, a people who had betrayed the one true God and turned to idols. No, Jeremiah blames God, accusing him of a bait and switch, of promising an easy and pleasant ministry and then failing to follow through.  

 

Jeremiah had fallen into the trap of delusional self-righteousness. Unfortunately, it’s a trap any believer can fall into. “I’ve been a good Christian, a faithful spouse, parent, employee, I’ve been a generous giver and a willing volunteer, Lord; I deserve better!” That kind of complaint, that kind of demand for justice from God is so easy, isn’t it? And that’s because while we are often slow to recognize our ungodly attitudes, our selfish behaviors, our pet sins – we are often blind to our failures; we are quick to come up with a list of all the good things we do for God: attending worship even when the weather is nice and I could be doing something else, cleaning the church, cutting the grass, bringing snacks and flowers, bringing my child to Sunday school and coming to Bible Class, maybe even serving as an elected leader, not to mention my daily devotions, my commitment to my spouse and family, my diligent work ethic, my better than average behavior and clean language, and we could easily go on. And Satan is always right there with his pom-poms cheering us on – “Yeah, you’re one of the good ones, you’ve done a lot for God, he owes you big-time.”

 

But it doesn’t always seem that God gets the memo. People we love suffer tragedy, get sick, and die. Financial peace and security always seem just out of reach. Rather than honor and respect from coworkers and family and even fellow members, we feel like our faithfulness and hard work either go unnoticed or receive only criticism. Living a quiet, moral, Godly life doesn’t get us lots of friends and fans – just as often it gets us “unfriended” and ridiculed. Christian marriages are not perfect because neither spouse is perfect. Christian parents can do all they can to raise their children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord – and grieve when those same children wander away from their Savior. And, let’s be honest, even the church is not some utopian dream – with a pastor and members who are confessed and convicted sinners – there’s bound to be conflict and trouble. And sometimes we feel like we’ve reached the end of our rope; we’re ready to give up; the cross is heavy and we want nothing more than to set it down and give up the fight. We turn to God with outstretched hands and say: “what gives, God? I’m doing my best for you and all you give me back is pain and hardship? I deserve better!”

Jeremiah wasn’t the first believer to think that way, and he wasn’t the last. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. Do you want to know the truth? Do you want to hear what we really deserve? Isaiah tells us: All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6) Paul adds: 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 become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12); and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) The truth is that none of us has lived a life that meets, much less surpasses God’s expectations; we don’t deserve a reward from God for what we’ve done. The only thing we truly deserve to hear is: depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41) Beware of demanding that God give you what you deserve – because he will give it to those who demand it.

 

Whenever a believer is stuck in the rut of deluded self-righteousness and self-pity – they need to be shocked back to reality. And in a calm but firm way, that’s what God did for Jeremiah: If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman. Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them. How did God respond to Jeremiah’s woe-is-me attitude? He didn’t even dignify Jeremiah’s complaint with a direct response. He didn’t say, “You’re right, Jeremiah, you do deserve better, I apologize.” He didn’t promise to take all of the trouble out of Jeremiah’s life nor did he lift the curtain of divine providence to show Jeremiah why all this hardship was happening to him. No, God slaps Jeremiah in the face with the word “repent.” “Stop questioning my wisdom, stop inflating your own goodness, turn to me, listen to my voice, serve me, grab hold of my promises, and forget about yourself.” With all of his complaining and self-pity, Jeremiah had become just like the rebellious and idolatrous Israelites he was supposed to be ministering to. But in his grace, God turned (“repented” him) Jeremiah from his sin and restored him. He cleansed Jeremiah’s lips of his worthless complaints and gave him worthy words. In that final verse, with the word redeem, God was pointing Jeremiah ahead 700 years to Jesus, who would pay the price for his sins of doubt and complaining, who would buy him back from the punishment in hell he deserved. In his call to repentance, God promised to give Jeremiah the opposite of what he deserved: forgiveness of sins, peace, and eternal life.  

 

We too have received what we don’t deserve. When we stray, we don’t deserve to have God send his representatives into our lives to shock us back to reality – but God does it because he loves us too much to let us wander all the way to hell. When we complain about God’s justice, he would be absolutely justified in sending a bolt of lightning to vaporize us. And yet, God doesn’t. Paul explained why: he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Timothy 3:9) Most importantly, we don’t deserve to be forgiven, cleansed, and restored – but that’s what makes God’s grace, grace – we don’t deserve it. As Paul wrote in Romans: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) (If we want to talk about inequality and unfairness – the place to start and end – is with the cross of Christ.) We don’t deserve to look forward to eternal life – but because Jesus wore a crown of thorns on the throne of the cross, we can be certain that we will wear the crown of life. We don’t even deserve to serve God, to take up our cross and suffer for the sake of following Jesus. We don’t deserve to receive the criticism, ridicule, pain and hardship that come from bearing the name of Christ, but God in his mercy gives us this privilege.

 

All of which means that the lesson Jeremiah learned 2700 years ago still applies to today: God never promises that following Jesus in this world of sin will be easy and pain free – in fact, Jesus tells us just the opposite, he says that following him will mean carrying a cross, not lounging in a La-Z Boy. (Matthew 16:24) But as we struggle, he does promise to fortify us, he promises to make us bronze walls – he promises to stand behind his Word – both law and gospel – and through it he will give us the strength to stand firm against everything Satan and the world can throw at us. And, even when we aren’t firm, even when we fall, Jesus promises to come to us in his Word and in his body and blood in His Supper to pick us up and put us back on our feet. He promises that even our greatest enemies can’t hurt us because He has defeated them once and for all. And, in the end, God promises that the struggle of this life is only temporary – it will end. And even though we may be bruised and broken, even though every one of us will have to admit that nothing we have done meets God’s perfect standard, God will cover us with his Son’s perfect life, he will leave our sins buried and forgotten in Jesus’ tomb, he will welcome us into paradise with open arms and say well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:21) The promise God made to Jeremiah still stands for repentant believers: I will save you from the hands of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the cruel. When the going gets tough, when the cross gets heavy, find relief and a reason to rejoice in the fact that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us so much more!

 

In a world that doesn’t really know what it is asking for when it demands absolute justice – we give thanks today that God doesn’t give us what we deserve. When delusional self-righteousness tempts you to believe that you deserve better for your service to Christ, give it what it deserves – put it to death through repentance – and because of Jesus, rejoice that the Lord gives us so much more than we deserve. The Christian life isn’t fair. Thank God! Amen.   

Revelation 7:1-8 - The Church Will Stand Forever - September 10, 2017

Revelation is almost always considered to be one of the most challenging of the books in the Bible. Humans don’t like leaving difficulties unresolved, and so many have sought to resolve the challenge of Revelation in one of two ways: 1) some all but ignore it and the realities it contains – angels and demons, God vs. Satan, heaven and hell, death and judgment – in favor of a Christianity focused exclusively on here and now – so you can be happy, healthy and prosperous in this life. 2) Others have taken the book of Revelation as a challenge to use their imaginations to formulate their own solutions – as if God were saying “here’s a riddle for you, solve it however you want.” Revelation is challenging. It takes time and effort to correctly understand its fantastic language and vivid symbolism. But God did not give us this book so that we would ignore it or make up our own meanings for it; no, God gave us this book for our comfort, to show us what is happening in the world now and what will happen before the end of the world. The challenge for us then, is to closely examine the text to see what God is telling us and, if any part is unclear, to search the rest of Scripture for clarity and illumination.  Revelation might seem complex, but its message is very simple: Jesus wins! And the vision before us this morning shows us what that means for the Church. It means that the Church will stand forever; safe from harm and complete in number.

 

Many false interpretations of this section are rooted in the very first words: after this I saw. Revelation 6 described Judgment Day – and all its horror for unbelievers – using the familiar imagery of the 4 horsemen. The four horsemen are the messengers God sends to bring war, famine, and death on earth. But it would be a mistake to read chapter 7 as the next in a series of events. Revelation, like much of Scripture, does not follow chronological order. As a whole Revelation is a grand portrait of the entire New Testament era (the time between Jesus’ first and second coming) so that, while chapter 6 focused on the terrible calamities God will unleash on his enemies, chapter 7 reveals what will happen to God’s people.

 

John saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. While we know that our spherical planet does not have literal corners, we still refer to the four corners of the planet as a way of talking about the whole. So, as the angels are standing at the four corners of the earth, they are guarding the entire planet, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Given the two hurricanes that have struck the continental US in the past two weeks, we know the destructive power of wind. This is the only mention of these winds in Revelation, but elsewhere in Scripture, like Jeremiah 49, it becomes clear that these are apocalyptic, world-destroying winds. (Jeremiah 49:36) When these winds blow, they will wipe out everything on earth – down to the last tree, destroying this fallen creation in preparation for the new heaven and new earth God will create for his people. (Revelation 21:1)

 

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused incredible destruction, but still God’s angels are holding the worst back because something else must happen first. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Why do you put a seal on something? Well, parents, now that school has resumed I imagine you have grown tired of placing your children’s seal on their books, bags, lunchboxes and clothing. In this case, their seal is their name. It marks ownership. It lets everyone know who this item belongs to. “Marking” or “sealing” is commonplace in our world. When Joel was born, one of the first things the nurse did was wrap a nametag around his ankle – sealing him as “baby Janke.” Ranchers brand their cattle, etc. We mark things to show possession and ownership.

 

And that’s precisely what the angel is doing. He’s not marking books or cattle but human beings with the seal of the living God. Here’s where the symbolism comes in. We know that God does not literally come to mark us with a stamp or barcode or, thankfully, sear us with a cattle brand. But God does, nonetheless, mark us as his very own. We were privileged to witness this sealing once again this morning. Clara Mae received the sign of the cross on her head and heart to mark her, seal her, as a redeemed child of God – a child who has been washed free from sin and given a new life of faith in the waters of Baptism. God, in his grace, has chosen the simple, unremarkable tools of water and the Word to adopt us and seal us as his children. And because God is the one working in Baptism, because it is sealed with his Word and his Promise – nothing and no one can take that away from you. No financial struggle or natural disaster, no unexpected tragedy or chronic disease – can remove God’s seal. Even if the worst should happen, even if someone were to take your life, even if they were to take your life because you are one of God’s servants – the only result is that you would get to the safety of heaven even quicker.

 

This might sound like a stretch, but in fact it harmonizes perfectly with the rest of Scripture. This “safety seal” is exactly what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel lesson. Jesus promised that nothing could ever destroy the Church because the Church is not built on sinful humans like Peter, you or me; not on false ideas of who Jesus was and is – but on the real, historical Jesus: God’s Son and the promised Savior. He laid the church’s foundation by his perfect life and his innocent death. His mission was to achieve salvation for a world of sinners and Easter’s empty tomb proves that he has accomplished this mission. His finished work of salvation is the bedrock on which the Church stands – and nothing will be able to overcome it.

 

God’s seal guarantees that though hurricanes may blow and nations may bang the drums of war, though terrorists scheme and godless governments try to stifle the gospel message, though the past is filled with guilt and the future is dark with uncertainty – God controls it all for the good of his servants. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant removed,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 54:10) Satan and our sinful flesh tempt us to doubt this, they lead us to question if we are really safe – because after all, the seal is something we cannot see or touch. And that’s why we need to go to the one place we can see it. We see it in the pages of Scripture where Paul declares that God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.” (2 Timothy 2:19) We see it when we step to the Lord’s Table to receive our Savior’s body and blood, the seal of forgiveness that we can touch and taste. Whenever the sign of the cross is made we are taken back to the moment of our own adoption – our Baptism – and reminded that God will never break his Word. No, we cannot see God’s seal and quite often the uncertainty of life makes us doubt if it’s even real. But every time we hear the declaration of God’s full and free forgiveness, every time we receive his Sacrament, every time we hear his Gospel, every time we leave here with his blessing – the Holy Spirit is testifying that because we are sealed as God’s servants, we are safe from harm.

 

And now things get really interesting: Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. There are two popular misinterpretations of this passage. The first, taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses, is the teaching that 144,000 believers who have received a special “anointing” will go to heaven to be with Christ, all other believers will experience a second-tier paradise on earth, and unbelievers will simply cease to exist. The second, which is sadly spread by many Christians who teach the false doctrine of Dispensationalism, is that when Jesus returns he will call a literal 144,000 Jews from the tribes of Israel to be sealed for salvation. Now, could God do those things? Could he decide to take 144,000 specially “anointed” believers or take 144,000 Jews to be with him in heaven? Certainly. He’s God. But that’s not the question. The question is whether that is what God intends to say here.

 

Remember, much of Revelation is symbolic – so that we will always get into trouble if we try to read it literalistically. The tribes and numbers here are symbols of something larger and greater. How do we know? Well, no other listing of the literal, historical twelve tribes of Israel in the entire Bible lists them in this fashion. (see 1 Chronicles 2:1-2; Genesis 35:23-26) Two of the original 12 tribes – Dan and Ephraim – are missing, replaced by Levi and Joseph. Also, the tribes all varied in size (see Numbers 1 & 2), so for precisely 12,000 faithful believers to be found in each tribe would be a remarkable coincidence. And yet, even those are not conclusive for us. No, our conclusion that this cannot mean that a literal 144,000 will be saved, Jewish or otherwise, comes in the verse that follows our text, where John writes: after this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9) 144,000 symbolizes the great multitude that no one could count, emphasizing that everyone God elected to salvation will, in fact, be saved. (122 (# of the church) x 103 (# of completeness) = 144,000.) When we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture we see that this is not a literal picture of historical Israel but a symbolic picture of the entire Church on earth – those who belong to God not by virtue of ethnicity but through faith in Christ. (see Romans 9:8)

 

The most important question, then, is: how do I know that I belong to that number, sealed as God’s servant, safe and sound in Christ’s church. With the 10 commandments still ringing in our ears, we know that we don’t deserve to be counted in this number. Since our Baptisms we have broken God’s commandments more times than we can count, we have turned our backs on his Word and Sacraments, we have rejected his will for our lives. If we were to ask those closest to us if our faith is evident in our lives, we would be ashamed at the answer. If we were asked if we live every day confident that God will keep us safe from all harm, we would have to confess that the dangers and temptations of the world have shaken our confidence. If it’s up to us, we could never be certain that we will be counted among God’s sealed and saved saints on the Last Day. Thank God that our lives, our performance, even our faith are not the foundation of salvation. Christ is. His death washes away every last one of our sins. His perfect life is the white robe of holiness that covers us. His promises and power keep us safe in this life and will carry us to the next. The number of believers is complete, not because of anything we have done – but because of what Christ has done for us. How appropriate it is, then, that the world-wide symbol of the Christian Church is not a gold coin or a hammer and sickle or any pledge or promise we might make – but the cross. (Which, appropriately enough, is the same seal (Hebrew letter taw) that that was placed on the faithful in Ezekiel 9.) The cross where Christ paid for the sins of the world is what makes us certain that we are counted among God’s chosen saints. The cross of Christ, who lives and reigns with his Father ruling all things for the benefit of the Church (Ephesians 1:22), is what guarantees that God’s church will stand forever, will be complete in number – and that not a single one of his saints will be forgotten.

 

Revelation can be a difficult book – if you try to impose your own meaning on it or if you expect it to say something different from the rest of the Bible. It doesn’t. Revelation resounds with the exact same message the rest of the Bible does: it tells us that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It tells us that the Christian Church is built on the rock-solid foundation of his life, death, and resurrection. It tells us that those who have been sealed as God’s servants through faith are safe from all harm and that not one of them will be missed by our all-seeing, all-knowing God. It tells us that Christ’s bride, the church, will stand forever – and not even the gates of hell can overcome it. Amen.  

Exodus 20:1-2, 5-6 - God Means What He Says - September 3, 2017

Whenever a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey strikes, there are always those who claim that if they had only been warned they could have been better prepared and they would have been able to spare themselves pain and loss. With Hurricane Harvey, I’m not sure those complaints have any validity. Even those of us living thousands of miles from southeastern Texas heard the alerts and warnings about this storm. Those who heard the advisories to prepare for the worst (maybe even evacuate their homes), and yet ignored them, have no one but themselves to blame. In a similar way, there is a day of reckoning coming for all mankind; one that will make Hurricane Harvey seem like a light drizzle. Jesus described it in vivid detail in our Gospel lesson. Judgment Day will come swiftly, without warning and its effects will be universal and eternal. But that doesn’t mean that God leaves us unprepared. Today we close our study of the 10 commandments with what Luther labeled the Conclusion (even though it is actually an addendum to the 1st commandment). In these verses God reveals that he means what he says. He’s jealous, He will punish, and he’s merciful.

 

You might think that the Israelites didn’t need this warning. After all, Israel was encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai; a mountain that had been shrouded in the smoke of God’s glory; a mountain that shook with thunder and flashed with lightning; a mountain, so holy that anyone who touched it was to be executed on the spot (Exodus 19:12-13). I suppose it was somewhat similar to standing on Galveston Island as Harvey approached: you didn’t need a government warning to tell you this was serious. And yet, what did the Israelites do while Moses was on that mountain with the LORD? Under Aaron’s leadership they fashioned a calf out of gold and worshiped it as the one who had rescued them from Egypt (Exodus 32). That is the awful power of unbelief. Unbelief is the foolish, unreasonable, outrageous denial of the clear and obvious truth that God does exist and we are accountable to him. The power of unbelief to deceive is why we also need this warning. Especially today, especially for us, because we live in a post-modern world where we’re told that words don’t mean anything, truth is a relative, subjective thing, and God and his will can be whatever you want them to be. In this Conclusion, God is telling the world that he means what he says, he is serious about his commandments, so that when he returns in judgment no one will be able to say “if only I had known better.”

 

The first thing God wants to make crystal clear is his claim on our hearts and souls and lives: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. You know Oprah Winfrey? Talk show host, author, cult leader? Oprah couldn’t stand the thought of a jealous God. She claims that it is what turned her off from orthodox Christianity. Here’s what she said: “I looked around and thought, “why would God be jealous? What does that even mean?” And I’m looking at the people in the church…and I started wondering how many of these people – including myself – would be led to do whatever this preacher said. That’s when I started exploring taking God out of the box, out of the pew. And eventually I got to where I was able to see God in other people and in all things – in graciousness and kindness and generosity and the spirit of things.” [1] Oprah rejected the one true God in favor of her own fabrication. In an effort to be charitable, maybe Oprah was never really taught the truths of Scripture. More likely, however, is that she is working with the wrong definition of jealousy. English speakers often confuse “jealousy” and “envy.” Envy is a sinful desire for something that doesn’t belong to you. Jealousy is a strong desire for something that is your possession. God is fiercely jealous of his position and possessions – which includes everything. And with God, jealousy is not just a feeling, it is an action. It is his activity in conquering everything and everyone who opposes his will and his zeal for all people to recognize and believe in him as the only true God, the only Judge of mankind, and the only Savior of sinners.

 

Parents get this. Parents are notoriously jealous of who and how their children are raised and disciplined and taught and fed. Rightfully so. God has given parents – and no one else – the responsibility and privilege to raise their children in line with his will. The love, the jealousy that parents feel toward their children is a good, God-pleasing desire. And parents are right to be angry with anyone who presumes to step in and take their place, subverting their authority and changing their rules.

 

So how should God feel when his creatures reject his authority and subvert his rule? Think of the love and care that went into creating a perfect universe – from the finely tuned physics that allow for a total eclipse of the sun to the delicate handiwork of stitching together a fetus in the womb. Think of the price God paid for us in handing his own Son over to death for us. That’s really what Oprah – and those like her – don’t understand. It’s not really that they don’t like God’s authority or Law, it’s that they don’t believe the Gospel. We are not our own, we were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) We belong to God and God’s jealousy, his deep desire for us to fear, love and trust in him above all things is actually an expression of his love. God loves us so much that he refuses to let anyone or anything else take his place in our hearts. He loves us so much that he denies anyone the right to change or nullify his commandments, which protect his gifts to us and our neighbor. God is serious. He means what he says. He is jealous of you. He created you. He saved you. He wants you to be with him forever in heaven. And he doesn’t want anything to separate you from his love.

 

And yet, every time we let something else become the authority in our lives – be it our own reason or emotions or the godless culture around us; every time we follow another set of rules – be it the law of tolerance or political correctness; every time we disobey or contradict a commandment of God – we are rejecting God’s legal claim on us and rebelling against his good and perfect will. Sadly, much of the visible Christian church has taken that path, has compromised God’s Word, distorted God’s will, and has turned God into an unserious, wish granting genie. And we all know people who have bought into that false view of God. They are those who say, “I’ll take God’s Word seriously later, when I have life figured out”; “the God I believe in would never send anyone to hell”; “I think I have God’s favor because I try really hard to be a good person”; or “I think God understands when I impenitently and intentionally disobey his will.”

 

God himself tells a much different story: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. Contrary to what Oprah and those like her want to believe, God is serious about his commandments – and he will punish those who break them. We may object: “but it’s not fair that God would punish children for their parents’ sins!” And that would be true (Ezekiel 18:20 – The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.) if that’s what God said. God didn’t say that. He said he will punish the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. The point is that successive generations tend to follow in the sins they have learned from their parents – especially the sin of unbelief. Parents, grandparents – God is talking to us. God is certifying here that the apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe you are willing to risk God’s judgment over your own sins – but what about the souls of your children? God is serious. He will punish sin. Time and again in history, God followed through on his threats. God drowned the world in a flood to rid it of the filth of sin in the time of Noah. (Genesis 6-8) God’s fury burned the people of Sodom and Gomorrah alive for their sexual immorality and unbelief. (Genesis 19) He sent his chosen people, Israel, into exile as punishment for their idolatry and rebellion. (2 Kings 25) In Revelation 21 Jesus makes it clear that God still means what he says about sin and punishment: the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. (Revelation 21:8) There are those who think that proclaiming and practicing God’s unforgiving Law is harsh and unloving and might scare people away from church. They are dead wrong. Better to be disciplined here and now – to be shown your sin and brought to repentance – than to spend eternity burning in hell. God means it when he threatens punishment for sin. He’s not playing around. The LORD your God is a jealous God who will punish sin.

 

God’s Law is terrifying. It makes us tremble at the thought of breaking even the smallest of the commandments. Is that what God wants? Does he want us to fear his anger? Yes. Fear of punishment is the curb God uses to keep us from hurting ourselves and others. But there is another side to God’s jealousy – the side which shows us that God is so jealous of us that he was unwilling to let us suffer the punishment we deserve. And remember, God’s jealousy is never just an attitude or hopeful dream; it’s an action: showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (There are two Hebrew words translated “love” in this verse. The first is better translated “mercy” or “undeserved love.” Showing “mercy” to a thousand generations…) For all the guilt we feel for not taking God’s commandments seriously, the times we have rejected God’s authority in our lives, the times we not only sinned but led others to follow our example – here’s the good news: God’s mercy is greater. God’s mercy doesn’t just take away some of our guilt, rebellion and sin – it covers us completely, like Hurricane Harvey covered Houston. Consider God’s own description: to a thousand generations. If a generation is 20 or 30 years, the world has not yet reached a thousand generations and perhaps never will – that’s how great God’s mercy is. Paul distilled this relationship between God’s wrath and his mercy in his letter to the Romans: the law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)

 

Sinful human reason rejects this. Human reason refuses to allow justice and mercy to exist simultaneously. Human reason argues that either our sin isn’t really that bad or that God’s mercy is conditioned on something we must do. But the Conclusion makes it clear that God is both just and merciful at the same time. How is that possible? How does that make any sense? There’s only one way this makes sense: viewing it through Christ and his cross. On Calvary God demonstrated that his wrath and his threats are real. On the cross Jesus experienced ever last ounce of God’s righteous anger and the full horror of hell. God’s punishment is real. Where is his mercy? You and I weren’t there; we weren’t the ones stripped and whipped and nailed to a tree and forced to burn in the lake of fire like we deserved. God punished his Son in our place. That’s mercy, that’s undeserved love. God’s wrath is certainly great, but because Jesus drained every last drop of it, God’s mercy is even greater. King Solomon put it this way because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23) If you ever doubt that God means what he says, look to the cross. There you see real jealousy, real punishment, and real mercy.

 

Today we leave our study of the 10 commandments, but don’t let them ever leave your heart and mind. For in them you see the pulsing heart of God. You see his holiness, his perfect will, his desire to protect the good gifts he has given you. You also see how terribly short we have fallen. But when God’s commandments have led us to the goal of repentance, then we are ready for the Gospel to point us to our Savior. God means what he says. He is jealous. He will punish. And he’s merciful. So take God at his Word and trust that for Jesus’ sake you will hear these glorious words when he returns: come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (Matthew 25:34) Amen.

 

[1] http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/oprah-gets-interviewed-by-o-readers