Genesis 1:1 - I Believe that God Created Everything - June 10, 2018

Since the beginning of time, every generation has found it necessary to wrestle with certain fundamental, philosophical questions: 1) Where did I come from? 2) What is my purpose in life? 3) Where am I going? And because so many have tried and failed to find satisfactory answers to these questions – it is good for us to see that the problem isn’t that the answers are unknowable, it’s that the questions themselves are wrong. They imply that we are the center of the universe, that all that was, is, and will be revolves around us. The Apostles’ Creed (and the Word of God it is based on) invite us to ask better questions: 1) Who is God? 2) What is he like? 3) What can I expect of him? Because in order to find any explanation for our origin, for our purpose, and for our future we must find our place in God and his story. This morning, we will find ourselves in the true history of how God created everything that exists in 6 normal days using nothing but his Word. This is the only Biblical, rational, and meaningful explanation of who we are and where we came from.

 

1 בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew and English) You notice something right from the start: Scripture never “makes the case” for the existence of God. Unlike comic-book superheroes, he was never bitten by a radioactive spider or the result of a military experiment gone wrong. It simply assumes that he exists – and that, at one point in his infinite, timeless existence he created everything from nothing with only his Word. God spoke and in six days, everything from the farthest reaches of space to the deepest depths of the seas; from mountain peaks to cascading streams; from schools of salmon to herds of bison to the crown of his creation: man and woman – sprung from his lips into real, physical, material existence. That is what we mean when we confess “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”

 

It’s embarrassing to have to make this point, but it is necessary nonetheless: this is the only Biblical explanation for the origin and creation of everything. It’s embarrassing because historic Christianity (found in Apostles’ Creed) has never wavered in confessing God’s six day creation from nothing because book after book and prophet after prophet both assume and proclaim that God is the sole Creator of everything – and that nothing exists that wasn’t created by him in the first six days of history. It’s such a clear and prominent doctrine of Scripture that we might take it for granted that all Christians believe in God, the Creator.

 

The sad truth is that many, if not most, Christians no longer believe in the literal six-day creation account of Genesis. With the exception of a few conservative, confessional church bodies, all of the traditional mainline Protestant denominations tolerate or even accept the concept of theistic evolution. Theistic evolution is the belief that God set creation in motion, but used evolution to continue and complete it. Seeking to cozy up with the unbelieving world many have used this philosophical argument in an attempt to find an acceptable compromise between Biblical creation and the theory of evolution. For example, beginning on February 12, 2006, the 197th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, “Evolution Sunday” has been celebrated in churches around the world in which Christians are taught that they no longer have to choose between the Biblical account and the evolutionist theories of scientists – that Christians can in good conscience accept evolution. [1] Sadly, even more recently, leading voices in the LC-MS have cast doubt on the literal six-day creation and have opened the door to all varieties of interpreting the Genesis account. [2]

 

In view of this, we must ask: what does the Scripture say? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1) And on each of the succeeding days there was evening, and there was morning. (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31) While it is true that the Hebrew word used for “day” (yom) can mean a longer period of time, in Genesis 1, the Holy Spirit defines a day as the cycle of one evening and one morning: 24 hours. The Genesis account takes pains to record that God that God created trees and plants and animals – all according to their kinds (Genesis 1:12, 21, 24-25) – which clearly refutes the argument that single-cell organisms became fish which became birds which became land animals. You heard our Lord and Savior Jesus give his support to a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation by precisely quoting it in his defense of marriage. Finally, and most definitively, if God needed the evolution of species to finish his creation, that means that all things were not good (Genesis 1:31), and that God built death into his perfect creation which Scripture categorically denies. (Romans 5:12) Make no mistake, the only Biblical explanation of the origin of the world is that God created everything we see today from nothing with only his Word in six 24 hour days.  

 

But not only is this the only Biblical explanation of creation, it’s the only rational one as well. Don’t misunderstand, we’re not saying that we can prove that God created the world in six days using the scientific method. Our understanding of creation is still based on faith, not sight. (Hebrews 11:3) There are, admittedly, a number of questions that will remain unanswered on this side of heaven. (How could there be light without the sun? When did God create angels? How could Eve have come from a rib?) But we are saying that the Biblical explanation of an eternal, absolutely self-sufficient God who created the universe from nothing is far more rational than the absurd theory that this complex universe, with its never-changing laws, ever-changing seasons and incredible diversity is the result of a cosmic accident. The theory that evolution got started with an inexplicable “big bang” contradicts the very laws of science: that there was a result without a cause, a carefully crafted design without a designer, that complex order could come from absolute chaos.

 

Suppose that we invited one of the founding members to come up here and tell us a little bit about the history of this building. And suppose this person proceeded to tell us, in all seriousness, that many years ago this was nothing but an empty, dusty lot. Then one day, a tornado ripped through the area and when it was gone there was a church, complete with pulpit, altar, baptismal font, running water and electricity. We’d laugh that person out of town as a lunatic, as someone who needed to be committed to a mental institution. We know that these things do not happen. The very existence of this church tells us that there was an engineer who designed it and a construction crew who put it together. In the very same way, the design of creation (with its profound complexity) tells us that there is a Creator. (Hebrews 3:4)

 

Then how can so many people be convinced that everything sprang out of nothing without any cause or explanation? How can they say that mankind – who aren’t particularly fast, don’t have thick armor or sharp fangs, who need clothing and shelter to survive – how did relatively fragile creatures like us rise to the top of the evolutionary pyramid? How can they say that we are the knuckle dragging idiots for believing in an all-powerful Creator? Paul explained: 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 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-19, 21-22) Contrary to what most people simply accept as truth today, the theory of evolution does not represent the highest and most intelligent learning mankind is capable of; it represents plain, old, run-of-the-mill unbelief. It is the product of sinful minds that have rejected the one true God and have been drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness of unbelief by the god of this age. (2 Corinthians 4:4) No different from ancient peoples who worshipped sun gods or gods of the sea, instead of worshipping the One who created the laws of science, they worship science. They have exchanged the Creator for his creation. They have suppressed the truth by their unbelief. Ironically, those who teach and believe the theory of evolution are people of faith every bit as much as we are. The difference is that they have neither the eye-witness testimony of Scripture nor the laws of science to back up their theories. The only rational explanation of the origin of the world is the one found in God’s inerrant Word: that God created everything from nothing with only his Word in six 24 hour days.  

 

As tempting as it might be, this should not lead us to laugh at those who believe in evolution; it should, instead, fill us with pity for them. Because the sad fact is that if a person has rejected God as the Creator, he has also rejected God as his Savior – and the only destiny in store for those who reject God the Savior is a tortured, eternity in hell preceded by a completely purposeless and meaningless life on earth. Apart from God, life in this world is utterly meaningless.

 

And the fact that many people in our world feel that way is no accident. For decades now, teachers in our public schools have been telling children (your children) that they are the descendants of monkeys. They have pointed to a monkey picking fleas off of his partner and shoving them into his mouth and stated as undeniable fact: this is where you came from. This is why you are who you are. Find your purpose and meaning for life here in this cage – because for all intents and purposes, this is your god. And, not coincidentally, our nation is beginning to reap the fruits of sowing this evolutionary lie. If we come from the jungle – where the only law of the land is survival of the fittest – it should come as no surprise to us that women are murdering their unborn babies, children are shooting their classmates and teachers at school, and our nation is suffering the epidemics of drug addiction, depression, and suicide (just this week two celebrities who seemed to have it all ended their own lives). If a monkey is your god and the only possible purpose of your life is to survive – it’s really no surprise that many people see life as cheap and meaningless – because, according to evolution, we are accountable to no one but ourselves. Turn on the evening news and understand that this is what it looks like when God gives people over to the foolishness of their unbelief. It doesn’t lead to enlightenment and progress; it leads to death and destruction.

 

What a blessed contrast, what a glorious gift of God it is, then, to know and believe and trust that we are not the result of a scientific accident but the product of a wise, power, and gracious God! What a relief it is to acknowledge the clear evidence all around us and the voice of conscience within us that are perpetually proclaiming the existence and the glory of God! (Psalm 19:1) The Biblical record not only gives God his rightful place as the Creator of everything – it gives us a meaningful place in his vast universe.

 

It means that while God simply spoke galaxies and barn swallows and crude oil deposits into existence – he personally gathered up a handful of clay, breathed life into it, created it in his own image, gave it an immortal soul and called it Man. It means that we are not the descendants of monkeys bound to the laws of the jungle but works of art handcrafted by an almighty God and bound to his will. It means that we are not here to serve creation but that God ordered all of creation to serve for our good. And yes, this even gives meaning to all of the apparently meaningless parts of life, the parts that sin has corrupted and ruined. The fact that our bodies, minds, and hearts don’t work as intended has not escaped the attention of our ever-present Creator. He knows how we suffer. He knows how we hurt. He knows that eyes he commanded to see, ears he commanded to hear, bodies he commanded to reproduce don’t always work as commanded. He knows and in his compassion he became one of us in order to redeem, repair, and restore us. The Creator suffered the indignity of having his diaper changed by his own creature, of feeling hunger and sorrow and loneliness, of a natural world that storms and rages against humanity, of having his back whipped, his hands and feet pierced – and finally, he tasted most meaningless thing in this world: death. And he did it for us. He did it to redeem us from the corruption our sin had brought. He did it to guarantee that we and all who believe would one day get to experience the perfect body, perfect mind, and perfect creation he always intended for us. He did it so that we would have life and have it to the full! (John 10:10) Full of wonder at this awesome universe, full of love for our neighbor – who was also created and redeemed by God, full of praise for our Creator, full of hope for the eternity to come!

 

In the end, drawing us to trust and believe in him as not only our Creator but our Savior is why God made this universe so vast, so complex, so intricate, so beautiful. He created everything in six 24 hour days for us. It’s the only Biblical, rational, and meaningful explanation. So treasure your life, your body, your mind – they are God’s one-of-a-kind gift to you, cherish your neighbor as a fallen but fellow redeemed creature of God, wonder at the mysteries and marvels of nature – but above all praise and worship God your Creator and Savior! Amen.

 

[1] http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/news_syndication/article_060220creationism.shtml

[2] http://thedaystarjournal.com/the-scandal-of-the-lcms-mind/

Romans 10:5-13 - The Need for A Creed - June 3, 2018

If someone were to ask you “what do you believe?” What would you say? Obviously, context matters. If you’re talking about the weather or the Brewers or politics – you might give your opinion or a bit of information you gleaned from a news report. But if the context is regarding religion and salvation and God – what would you say? What do you believe? Why do you believe it? This isn’t just a question that some theoretical person may someday ask us, it’s about saving faith: it’s what God is looking for now and will be the basis for his judgment on the Last Day, when we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:10) Are you ready to stand judgment before your Holy Judge? Throughout this summer our aim will be to give you the confidence to stand before God and men and to give an answer to the question: what do you believe? We will do that by taking an in-depth look at what Luther called the “shortest and clearest statement of Christian faith”: the Apostles’ Creed. Today, the Apostle Paul will lead us to see why we need a creed; a creed and not (our) deeds, a creed in our hearts, a creed on our lips.

 

In many Christian circles today, “creed” has become a dirty word. In fact, they have composed their own anti-creed motto: “Deeds, not creeds.” Convinced that creeds only divide Christians and scare away prospective believers – these churches have abandoned the three ecumenical creeds that have been in use in Christendom for the better part of 2000 years, in favor of more “relevant” and “practical” teaching and preaching. And this has had a clear impact. If one is hesitant to confess the truth about God and what he has done, there’s really only one thing left to talk about: us. The inevitable result is that people are led to believe that they are saved by what they do. Is that true? Paul summarizes the argument: Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.” Are good deeds important? Yes, because God commands them. Can your good deeds save you? If you fear, love, and trust in God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40), if you can keep the 10 commandments perfectly, then yes, you can save yourself – and you don’t need a creed, you don’t need faith, you don’t need Jesus. There’s only one problem. Doing it. Every second of every minute of every day of your life.

 

Paul vividly illustrates the futility of trying to achieve the righteousness God demands through the Law: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). In other words, placing your trust for your salvation in your own good deeds is an attempt to create your own savior – or more precisely – it means turning yourself into your own god. This is precisely what Satan tempted Adam and Eve to do in the Garden of Eden. And, not coincidentally, this is what the “deeds, not creeds” crowd ends up encouraging people to be and do. Without explicitly denying the Gospel, the clear emphasis in far too many churches is on you; your effort, your contribution, your will-power, your decision, your dreams and destinies. But Paul didn’t mince words when he wrote the Galatians that 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) The door to heaven through the righteousness of the law has been slammed shut by our own inability to do it. The awful flip side of “the man who does these things will live by them” is “whoever does not do these things will die by them.”

 

We need a righteousness that doesn’t depend on us or our good deeds. Fortunately for us, this better righteousness also has a voice: What does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming. You don’t have to somehow go to heaven or descend into the abyss to find a savior because God did it for you: he sent Jesus from heaven to be born in human flesh, to live the perfect life you couldn’t, to suffer and die for your sins and then, after three days, God raised him from the dead to prove the he is the only Savior anyone will ever need. And what’s more, God made sure that this message could reach all people in every nation by inspiring men to write it all down in the Bible. The good news of Jesus, the record of the truly perfect deeds he did for you, the righteousness God demands from you, is as close to you as the Bible. And so, theoretically, we could say that the Bible is the only creed we need.

 

But, as good as that sounds, it is impractical for two reasons. First, ever since the Garden of Eden Satan has worked overtime to twist and distort and manipulate what God’s Word says; and second, most people don’t have the time, desire, or ability to read the entire Bible and properly interpret it. And that’s true in other areas of life too. For example, would you be able to recognize the symptoms of someone having a stroke? If you can remember F.A.S.T. you can: Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties = Time to call 911. Like the F.A.S.T. acronym, a creed is a simple summary of Biblical teaching which facilitates comprehension, enhances learning, and aids in memory. The Apostles’ Creed can be traced all the way back to the 3rd century, but creeds were a part of the Christian Church almost from the beginning. In fact, Paul records an early Christian creed right here in Romans 10: if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Notice that Paul doesn’t recite the 10 commandments and then say “if you do these things you will be saved.” No, he recites the identity and work of Jesus – and says, “if you confess and believe these things, you will be saved.” What things? That Jesus is Lord – that is, that Jesus is true God, the same God who created the universe, who rules and governs all things. This Jesus, this one true God, lived, suffered, and died – and then three days later, he rose again from the dead. We need this creed because we need to hear again and again and again that it is not our deeds but Jesus’ that offer the only sure path to salvation.  

 

This good news that God has single-handedly accomplished our salvation is accessible to anyone with a pulse in the Bible. But this good news doesn’t do anyone any good if it remains locked away in a book we’ve never taken the time to read, study and digest it personally. Paul goes on: For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified. Martin Luther once told a story about a theologian who met a coal miner and asked him the most basic of questions: “My good man, what do you believe?” “I believe what the Church believes.” “But what does the church believe?” “The church believes what I believe.” (What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, p. 469, par. 1384) Sadly, too many Christians still today possess nothing more than a coal miner’s faith. They were baptized and confirmed, they might even attend worship regularly, but they are biblically illiterate, they can hardly list the books of the Bible much less summarize what they contain and mean. They are sadly mistaken that just belonging to a Christian church is what saves you. That’s a big part of the reason for an extended sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed – so that you know what you believe and why. So that you are confident and convinced – in your own heart – this is what I believe – not just because the Church teaches it, but because this is what God himself has said in his Word. The goal of this series, then, is very simple: that you know who God is and what he has done to save you from your sins – because that very personal, very private, very intimate faith is the only way that anyone can stand before God on Judgment Day, justified, that is, declared “not guilty.”

 

But this very personal, very private, very intimate faith never, ever stops at the heart. Paul concludes: It is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame. For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile – the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” One of the more frequent criticisms of the Apostles’ Creed is that it is not inspired, because it’s not found in the Bible. And that’s true. The precise words of the Creed are not inspired and no one claims that they are. But, the truths expressed by the Creed have been tested over the course of almost 17 centuries and have proven to be a true and clear summary of Biblical truth. Which is exactly the point. The Greek word translated “confess” is homologeo. Its basic meaning is “to say the same thing, to agree.” So, to confess the Christian faith is nothing more and nothing less than to say the same thing the Bible says, to agree with it. God has revealed everything he has done to save us in his Word and – as our other two lessons demonstrated – he expects and demands that we echo those truths back to him with our lips.  

 

And so, we need the Creed, and we need to regularly use the Creed for four primary reasons: 1) As we said earlier, it provides a simple summary of Biblical doctrine – so simple that a child can learn it and the Alzheimer’s patient can confess it. The creed gathers the many different doctrines that are contained in 66 books of the Bible and condenses them into one simple, brief confession. So that we can say in all seriousness, if you know the Creed, you know everything you need to know to be saved. 2) Having been in constant use by the Christian church for over 1600 years, the Creed is an important link to the past. It confirms that Christianity is not a man-made invention; it roots Christianity in actual history and links us to Peter and James and John and Paul – the very men who touched and talked to and witnessed the death and resurrection of Jesus. 3) It serves as a litmus test of truth. As a clear and bold confession, it does what Jesus said it would: it both unites and divides. It unites those who believe and confess the one, true, historic Christian faith and exposes those who deny it as heretics (which, incidentally, is what led to the formation of the creeds). And 4) Paul says everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But in the very next verse he asks an important question: how can they call on the one they have not believed in? (Romans 10:14) The world needs us to confess the creed so that they might know the one, true God, believe in him and be saved.

 

So what do you believe? The question is not “do you believe?” Everyone, from the suicide bomber to the avowed atheist, believe something. The key is what you believe. It marks the dividing line between heaven and hell. (Mark 16:16) The Bible is a Creed. It’s the written revelation of all that God has done to save us through Jesus Christ. The Apostles’ Creed is nothing more and nothing less than a summary of that good news. It’s a creed that we and all people need. A creed that is not about our woefully inadequate deeds but Jesus’ deeds for us. A creed that forms the basis for the faith that pulses in every believer’s heart. A creed that every last one of us – from the 2 year old to the 92 year old can confess with our lips to the glory and praise of our gracious God. May our study of the Apostles’ Creed deepen and enrich our faith in the one, true God so that we are not only confident to stand before his throne on the Last Day but that we are confident to give a clear, coherent confession of faith to anyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.    

John 3:1-15 - To Enter the Kingdom of the Triune God - May 27, 2018

It’s no secret that one of the hottest of the hot-button issues not only in our own nation but all across the world is immigration – legal and illegal. On one side of the issue are those who insist that all of the inhabitants of the world have the inherent right to come to the nation of their choosing and become citizens with all of its privileges and responsibilities – no questions asked. On the other side are those who are convinced that citizenship is a privilege which is only bestowed on those who have immigrated legally and have completed the necessary citizenship procedures. In short, is citizenship up to the individual or the state? While writing immigration policy is not the job of the church – it is remarkably similar to the issue presented in John 3: does a person enter the kingdom of God based on their own initiative, good work, or decision or is entrance into the Kingdom of God a gift that only he can give? Nicodemus and Jesus represent either side of the issue, and the conclusion is clear: to enter the Kingdom of God you must be born from above and you must look to Jesus.

 

Jesus was infamous for associating with the lower social classes, the rabble of Israelite society. But Nicodemus was not your average run-of-the-mill 1st century Jew. As a member of the Jewish ruling council, Nicodemus represented the very best of Jewish learning, religion, and pious living. Having witnessed Jesus’ miracles in Jerusalem, he came to him for a little rabbi to rabbi shoptalk. And, having learned through experience how to make friends and influence people, he began with that conversational necessity, flattery: rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these miraculous signs you are doing unless God is with him.

 

Jesus, on the other hand appears to not even hear Nicodemus, cuts through the small talk and gets right to the point: Amen, amen, I tell you: unless someone is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Poor Nicodemus. Probably expecting to have a pleasant conversation about the latest religious ideas of the day – he suddenly found himself drowning in the deep end of theology. He was lost. How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he? Unable to see beyond his own fallen reason, Nicodemus took Jesus to mean that a person must be physically “born again.” But that’s not what Jesus said or meant. The Greek word here (anothen) can mean “born again” – but, in context, it is clear that Jesus is not talking about doing something again, but being born anew, not from flesh but from spirit, not from a human mother but from God himself. (So much for all the “born again” talk one hears. The question shouldn’t be “are you born again?” but “are you born from above?”)

 

How is one born from above? Jesus explains: Amen, amen, I tell you: unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God! Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh. Whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. This is Baptism. Baptism is God’s work, not ours. And by bringing up Baptism and throwing out human will, desire and effort Jesus is taking direct aim at Nicodemus’ Pharisaical religion, the religion of works and choices and free will, the religion that is ours by nature. Up to this point Nicodemus had based his hope of salvation to his own decision to follow God, his own obedience to the Law, his own desire, his own efforts. Jesus rolls a hand grenade into Nicodemus’ religion: your works, your will, your desire and merit are all ruined by the fact that you inherited a corrupt, rotten, sinful nature from your parents. We can no more decide to enter God’s kingdom than we could decide when and where we were born. It’s not up to us. It’s not within our power or ability. All the power, will, and effort we have cannot bring us into God’s kingdom – because from the moment of conception we are dead in sin and dead to God.

 

Whether citizenship should be left up to the individual or the sovereign nation may be up for debate – but there’s no debating this: no one can enter God’s kingdom on their own, apart from the gracious working of God himself. Only God can do the choosing, the cleansing, the creating and sustaining of saving faith in human hearts. This is the miracle of conversion, the miracle God works in Baptism, a miracle beyond our understanding. Jesus concedes this fact in his comparison to the meteorological mystery of wind: do not be surprised when I tell you that you must be born from above. The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Just as we cannot see or completely understand where or why the wind comes and goes so we cannot understand where and when believers are made. Yes, Scripture does reveal the how – through the means of grace: the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – but as far as why some who are baptized fall away or why some hear the Gospel and believe it and others kick it to the curb, that remains hidden to us. What’s important is not the moment of conversion but the fact of conversion. But how can you know if you’ve been born from above? No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3) If you confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, the Spirit has converted you, you have been born from above, you are a child of God and a citizen of his kingdom. When and where – those remain hidden to us, beyond our understanding and control. But this we do know, it does not depend on our works, our effort, our will, or our feelings – it depends on God’s grace. To be saved, we must be born from above, of water and the Spirit.  

 

For proud, independent people like us, this is, without a doubt, a very humbling doctrine. It requires us to crucify our pride, our logic, our emotions – and submit ourselves completely to God’s will and Word. This is true not only when it comes to the mystery of conversion but also to the mystery we are celebrating today: the mystery of God himself. Nothing about God makes sense to us. Since creation 1+1+1=3. Jesus comes along and says that 1+1+1=1. He is three in one and one in three. There are three unique persons but one essence. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Spirit is God. But there is only one God. (Oh, and he’s eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere.) The doctrine of the Trinity makes rocket science look like child’s play.

 

Trinity Sunday is a dip in the doctrinal deep end, a reminder that God is bigger than our heads, far above our ability to reason and understand, that he defies every one of our efforts to put him into a tidy little, reasonable box. And it’s good for us to be confronted with the reality that we don’t really “get” God, no matter how long we have been believers. Why? Two reasons. First, it is undeniable evidence that God is not something that some ancient people invented, imagined, or otherwise “cooked up” to make themselves feel better. Secondly, with all of the mysticism and vague spiritualism in the church today – the idea that we can come to God in our own way at our own time – it’s important to realize that the only reason anyone knows anything about God is that he has chosen to reveal himself to us in the objective Words of Scripture and the historical person of Jesus Christ.

 

As far as we are concerned, Jesus is the centerpiece of the Trinity, the One on whom the spotlight of Scripture – and, therefore, our attention – is focused. No one has ever seen God, John wrote at the beginning of his Gospel, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18) This is where our Lutheran heritage is such a priceless blessing. Luther flat out refused to engage in philosophical speculations about God. He refused to go beyond what was written in Scripture – and he refused to deny or rationalize or cut out any doctrine that defies or disturbs or confuses human reason. He steadfastly refused to search for what he called the “hidden God” and was content to find God in the places he has revealed himself: in a manger, on a cross, not in an empty tomb – and today, in Word and Sacrament, all of which are open and accessible to anyone with eyes, ears and a pulse. In fact, without Jesus and without the Word, we wouldn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity or have anything definite at all to say about God.

 

And that’s why Jesus concludes: If I have told you earthly things (i.e., fallen human nature, the need for repentance and conversion from above) and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? (i.e., the two natures of Christ, the Trinity, redemption.) No one has ascended into heaven, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. Following in the stead of Martin Luther, John Calvin once commented that the human heart is an idol factory, grinding out one idol after another for us to pursue. (LW 18:9-10; Institutes 1:11:8) And they all have one thing in common; they look just like us, think like us, do what we want them to do, they affirm and cheerlead for us – even when we are engaged in wicked and self-serving behavior. They are gods that make sense to us; gods we can manipulate and bribe, who do what we want when we want.

 

There’s only one problem. Those gods aren’t real. They don’t live, think, speak, or act outside of our own heads. Most importantly, those gods cannot save. They aren’t the one, true God. The true God doesn’t make sense. The true God doesn’t bend to our will, he conforms us to his perfect will. The one, true God is not the product of human innovation and so he cannot be manipulated by our hands, our demands, our decisions or our emotions. He can’t be analyzed under a microscope, spotted with a telescope, or dug out of the deepest corners of your heart. On our own we could never find God. Which is why God sent Jesus. We cannot see God, but we can see Jesus. We cannot hear God speaking directly to our hearts, but we can hear Jesus speaking in his Word. We cannot grasp or touch the Trinity, but we can see and touch the water of Baptism and receive Jesus’ true body and blood in Holy Communion. Faith in a nebulous, generic higher power, faith in “a” god cannot save – that’s the faith of the demons and the damned in hell. (James 2:19) Only faith in the one who came from heaven only to be lifted up on a cross to die for our sins – can save us from being lost forever, can bring us into the Kingdom of the one, true God. You must see Jesus, not just as a miracle-working prophet from heaven, but God in human flesh. You must trust that he came to earth not only to reveal God to us, but to carry our sins to the cross to purify us before God, to punch our ticket into the Trinity’s kingdom. If you want to enter the Triune God’s kingdom – if you want to be saved – you must not look for Him in the stars, in your feelings, or in philosophical arguments. You must, instead, look only and always to Jesus.

 

I’ll confess – I don’t understand the Trinity. In fact, there’s not a single pastor who does – and don’t trust any who claim to. And that’s ok. Because God doesn’t command us to understand him, he commands us to believe and worship him. But even that is only possible when God has worked his miracle of conversion on our hearts. It begins with Baptism, our birth from above by water and the Spirit. It continues as God reveals to us through his Word and through his Son and Spirit. It will be a mystery we will enjoy and explore forever in heaven. For now, you don’t have to understand the Triune God to receive his gifts: to have your sins forgiven, to have the peace that passes all understanding, to praise and thank the one who gave himself to you and for you – simply believe it and receive it. God grant us the humility to confess and the gift of faith to believe in the mystery and majesty of the Holy Trinity. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.  

John 17:11b-19 - The Church's Secret Weapon - May 13, 2018

It’s Mother’s Day, and, mothers, the rest of us have a question for you: what’s your secret? How do you know exactly where everything is – from toys to clothes to car keys? Where do you find the energy to stay up all night with a sick child only to turn around and work all day? How do you manage to keep everyone’s – including your husbands – schedules straight and get everyone where they need to be? What’s your secret to handling ungrateful children, helpless husbands and a houseful of chores with charm and grace? How do you love us when we’re so unlovable? It’s a secret to the rest of us, because we know that without you, we are lost. So, whatever your secret is, mothers, thank you and happy Mother’s Day.

 

Motherhood is a wonderful mystery of God’s grace, but we are here to consider a far greater mystery: the mystery of the church’s survival. For 2000 years she has survived empires that have tried to outlaw her, officials who have persecuted her, and laws and policies written to discourage and disrupt her. She has survived heretics and immoral leaders and synodical splits and unions and reformations. Perhaps even more surprising, while science and history and literature and technology and medicine are changing by the minute, the historic Christian faith, the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3), has remained unchanged. What’s the secret to the Church’s longevity? What keeps the Church going in spite of every attempt of Satan and the world to wipe her off the face of the earth?

 

The answer is found in our lesson for this morning, in Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer – the prayer that Jesus spoke in the upper room on the night he was betrayed. Like a mother praying for her children, Jesus prays for us. The hidden power behind the Church’s longevity, the only reason that neither the kingdoms of this world nor the weakness of her members nor the very gates of Hell (Matthew 16:18) shall ever overcome her – is this prayer, the Church’s secret weapon, in which Jesus prays for our protection and our sanctification.

 

Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me – so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by the name you gave me. One principle that has been largely forgotten is that Jesus never intended the church to be a self-sufficient, independent institution – he didn’t die and rise and say “My job is done, here you guys take over.” He is still the head of the Church and we are still his children. Children who are helpless to defend ourselves; who need protection. And so Jesus prays that, when he is gone, his Father would protect us by the power of his name. What does that mean? What is God’s name? God’s name is everything that he has revealed about himself. It’s not only the titles that describe his nature and essence, but everything he has said and everything he has done. God’s name is synonymous with God’s Word. Jesus is asking his Father to use the power of his Word to protect his disciples.

 

How does God do this? It begins, in most cases, with Baptism. In Baptism God unites water and the Word and unites us to himself in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) Every time a sinner is baptized, God is answering Jesus’ prayer; he grants Jesus’ request to bring us – rebellious, stubborn children – under his protection. Once we have been baptized, Jesus’ prayer is that we would remain in that Baptismal grace, that we would remember that we have been united with his death and resurrection, that no matter how old and how smart we are – we will never think that we have outgrown our need for God’s guidance and protection. Through the Word God protects us, not from all danger and pain and tragedy (as we saw in Stephen’s example) but from the true enemies of our souls: pride and despair, false doctrine and immoral living, Satan’s lies and the world’s distractions – and keeps us in his name – the name he gave us at Baptism: redeemed child of God.

 

But that begs the question: what about Judas? What happened there? Did God’s protection fail? This verse has caused a lot of people a lot of trouble – so let’s take a closer look: None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. Two theological words help us understand what happened in Judas’ case: the antecedent and the consequent will of God. Even if these terms aren’t familiar, the concepts are. For example, at supper time my antecedent will – my primary desire – is that Levi would eat what we give him and then have dessert. But, should he refuse it, my consequent will is that he would not have any dessert. (Not my desire, but his choice.) God’s antecedent will is spelled out in 1 Timothy 2:6 – God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. God’s primary desire for all mankind is for them to be saved – through hearing and believing the Gospel. However, not all people hear or believe the Gospel (and sadly, some baptized believers abandon their faith) – and this is where God’s consequent will comes in. This is spelled out in John 3:18 – whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. When a person refuses to hear or rejects the Gospel, God’s consequent will is that that person be damned to hell for all eternity. Judas was doomed to destruction in the same sense that every unbeliever is: he rejected Jesus as his Savior and forfeited his forgiveness. While God did not want or cause Judas to reject Jesus, he knew it would happen, and so he had it recorded in Holy Scripture. (Psalm 41:9) This is a clear warning to anyone who thinks that there is no danger in rejecting Christ and his Word.

 

Jesus goes on with a happier thought: I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. Jesus spoke this prayer so that his disciples could hear it with their own ears. Why? Because he knew that once the world had murdered him, it would direct it’s hatred at Jesus’ disciples. He knew that the world’s constant attacks can suck the joy out of our hearts, stifle our hope and suffocate our faith. We could spend all day considering examples of the world’s hatred, but Martin Luther provided a good summary: “It is the devil’s custom to hate the works of the Lord. He’s hostile to whatever God holds dear: the church, marriage, government. He’d like to have [promiscuity] and uncleanness, for if he does, he knows very well that people will no longer trouble themselves about God.” (AE 54:422) The church, marriage, government – are they under attack? Why? Because these institutions are silent reminders that we are not independent, free individuals – that we are accountable to God. We who confess and defend and uphold these institutions are living reminders to the world that there is a God to whom they are accountable. That is why the world hated Jesus and why it hates us. But there is good news: I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33) The church’s secret weapon is her Savior’s prayer for protection – the world can hate us, mock us, persecute us, it can even kill us, but it cannot rob us of the name given to us in Baptism: redeemed child of God. This truth is our joy in this joyless world.

 

Now, common sense dictates that if someone hates you, you run away from them. But, contrary to reason Jesus does NOT tell us to run away from the world and isolate ourselves in monasteries or communes. He continues: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one (better: evil). They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Jesus wants us to live, work, go to school, shop, travel, get married and raise children – and everything else we do – in this world. But while we are in the world we are not to be of the world. We are in the world but we do not think, talk, or live like the world. The world is all about self: self-advancement, self-preservation, self-glorification. The world lusts after power, wealth, beauty and popularity. The world craves instant gratification. The mothers of this world only want their children to be happy and healthy and successful. The world doesn’t care who it has to walk over to get to the top. The world denies the existence of absolute, objective right and wrong; its highest principle is: if it feels good, do it!

 

But baptized believers have been sanctified (set apart) from the world. Believers put the needs of others before their own. Believers strive for contentment, purity, honesty, love, and peace. Believers don’t live for this life – they long for eternal life. Believers pray for their enemies and trust the Lord’s justice. Believing mothers want their children to be safe and healthy – but above all they want them to know and believe in Christ. Believers find objective, absolute right and wrong in the unchanging will of God. The believer’s ruling principle is: God’s will is always right, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it is countercultural, even when it hurts. That is what God has made us in Christ – and that is what we are to be.

 

If only it were that simple. We don’t like to stick out. We want to fit in. Being in the world we are tempted to just go along with the world. So often we feel like the Psalm writer: I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills…this is what the wicked are like – always carefree, they increase in wealth. (Psalm 73:3-5, 12) And sometimes, if we’re honest (like we were at the beginning of the service) we actually want to blend into the world, we want to take the easy road, we give in to the world’s seductions and Satan’s lies. Left to ourselves, we – and the Church – would be swallowed up by the world.

 

Which is why our Savior prayed: Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself that they too may be truly sanctified. The Father has given us his secret weapon to keep us separate from the world: his Word. Through the Word God leads us to see how sick and depraved the ways of the world are – and how sick and depraved we are when we go along with it. Through the Law God leads us to do the one thing the world will never do: repent and beg for forgiveness. And in the Gospel he gives us what we ask for. In fact, providing us with forgiveness, righteousness, and purity was what Jesus was about to do even as he was praying for us. He was determined to sanctify himself by going to the cross, not only to defeat the devil and the world, but to defeat, to crucify the sinful flesh that lives inside each of us. We are forgiven, we are free, we are set apart from this world because of Christ. Paul writes: we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:4) We often think of sanctification as something that we must do. But that’s not how Jesus describes it here. Through Baptism Christ has sanctified us – set us apart from the unbelieving world; and through the Word God continues to keep us separate by leading us to repent of our sins, to believe the good news that our sins are forgiven, and to see that the ways of the world do not lead to happiness and peace but to separation from God forever. We are in the world, but we are not of it any more than Jesus was. Grounded in the Word, the Church continues to stand out from the world as a living witness to God’s power and love – not by our own efforts or ingenuity, but by the power of our Savior’s prayer for our sanctification.

 

To some it may seem like a secret, a mystery how the church has survived this long in a hostile world, but it’s really no secret at all, is it? The Church survives because Jesus prayed and continues to pray for her. On the night before he suffered and died to save us from our sins, Jesus wasn’t thinking about himself, he was thinking about us. He prayed for us. He asked his almighty Father to use his almighty Word to protect and set us apart from this wicked world. And because that Word will stand forever (1 Peter 1:25), the Church – and we – will survive and thrive throughout time and eternity. Your Risen Savior guarantees it. Amen.

 

1 John 4:1-11 - Authentic Christianity - May 6, 2018

True or False: it’s impossible to tell whether a person is a Christian or not just by looking and listening to them. For example, can you tell which of your coworkers are Christian by how they work or talk? Family or friends? More importantly, is it possible to distinguish a right teaching (orthodox) church from a heterodox church (one that mixes falsehood in with the truth) just by sight and sound? What would you look for? An engaging pastor? Warm, welcoming people? Tasty snacks? Social groups or activities that catch your interest? Is there any way to really know if a church is truly Christian or is just putting on a show? We might say that true Christianity is marked by faith in Christ – and faith is invisible – and that would be correct – but not completely. Faith is invisible, but fruits of faith are very visible – and today the Apostle John reveals the marks of Authentic Christianity. Authentic Christianity practices proper discernment, confesses the incarnate Christ, and demonstrates God-like love.

 

The challenges facing John’s readers are eerily similar to the challenges we face today. The ravenous wolves – the false teachers – that Jesus had warned about had arrived. (Matthew 7:15) These false teachers taught the heresy that would later be known as Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that Jesus was merely the human son of Joseph and Mary and that at his baptism the Holy Spirit descended on him, equipping him with “super-powers” to do miracles, but left before Jesus’ death on the cross. Their conclusion is that it was only a man who died on the cross – thus denying that Jesus’ blood had the power to wash away the sin of the world. The practical result was that these teachers did not point people to Jesus and the written Word as the way to God, they instead pointed people inside themselves to find a mystical, secret “knowledge” of God within. While claiming to be Christian, these false prophets had cut the heart out of Christianity. If Jesus was not true God from conception through death and resurrection to all eternity – our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. Sadly, this gnostic spirit is still alive and well in our own day.

 

Because of these real and present dangers, John encourages every Christian (not just pastors) to be discerning, to be critical, to test anyone and everyone who claims to come from God. Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. Lutherans are sometimes charged with having an over-the-top passion for pure doctrine. On the Christian landscape we are sometimes best known for what we don’t do: we don’t pray, worship, cooperate in educational or evangelistic endeavors, offer communion, or open our pulpits to those outside our fellowship – even if they are Christian. We caution our members against joining clubs or groups that tolerate false doctrine, reading books written by false teachers, watching movies that give a false portrayal of true Christianity, listening to shallow and Christless Christian pop music. And that position is sometimes regarded as judgmental, intolerant, and hateful. I’ve heard two explanations as to why we should be more tolerant and open-minded of false doctrine: 1) Naiveté: “They are good, kind people, they mean well even if their teaching is false.” 2) Arrogance: “We know what we believe, so if we or our children are involved with false doctrine or unchristian organizations – it’s ok, because we can separate truth from falsehood.”

 

Would you willingly feed your family food laced with poison? Would you take a medication that will make you feel better now but will in the long run kill you? Would you put diesel fuel in your gasoline engine saying “ah, close enough”? Of course not. We take great care in testing, in practicing discernment in many areas of life – especially in things that can harm our health, our finances, and our families. So why are we so often so careless, so gullible, and so arrogant when it comes to the most precious thing of all – the health and salvation of our souls? John does not tell us to practice discernment so that we can boast about being the best, purest Christians. He doesn’t tell us to test everything and everyone that claims to be from God because he wants us to be intolerant bullies. He tells us to practice discernment because the devil is real, he really wants to drag us away from God, he really wants us to burn forever in hell with him – and false doctrine is his most powerful weapon. False doctrine is not something to play around with – it can and will kill faith. Authentic Christianity is not marked by minimizing Biblical truth for the sake of growing the church, or getting along with everyone or gaining the praise of the world. Authentic Christianity is marked by being even more careful about what we consume and believe spiritually than we are in what we put into our bodies. Authentic Christians are discerning Christians.  

 

But how can we know? There are so many teachers and teachings out there that claim to be from God that it can feel overwhelming: This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. Those who point out and condemn false teaching are often accused of judging hearts. It is a sin to judge a person’s heart (1 Corinthians 4:5) – but that’s not what John tells us to do. We are not told to judge anyone’s heart but their confession – what they say or write – especially what they say or write about Jesus. Lots of people talk about Jesus these days – Jesus is on the radio, the internet, in politics, you may even have a pair of men in suits stop by your house to allegedly talk about Jesus. In every case, John says, listen carefully to what they say about who Jesus is. Many people and many churches will speak very highly of Jesus as a good man and fine teacher and excellent example of pious living – but they would not confess the Nicene Creed with us and mean it.

 

For example, Muslims acknowledge Jesus. They say that he was a great prophet. But they won’t acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh – meaning that he is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose again. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons will use much of the same language we use to speak about Jesus – but they strip those words of all meaning. They don’t believe that Jesus is true God or confess the Trinity. Those who deny Christ are fairly easy to pick out. The far greater challenge is that there are many Christian churches that do not necessarily deny Christ but do not clearly and regularly confess his deity and atonement either. They will talk about Jesus and sing about being saved but rarely, if ever, define who Jesus was and what he saved us from. Authentic Christianity doesn’t consist of believing the best about everyone and every church that claims to be Christian. It doesn’t mean naïvely assuming that they probably mean what we do when they call Jesus the Son of God. Authentic Christians and authentic Christian churches will be clear and explicit about confessing that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate and that he died to save us from our sins. Anyone who does not clearly confess the truth about Jesus deity and atonement is not filled with the Holy Spirit but with the spirit of the antichrist.

 

That’s all very serious and perhaps even frightening. But John has an interlude of comfort: You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. John says that whoever listens to him and the other apostles is from God – those who listen to anyone else are not. Isn’t that a bit arrogant? How can John say that he and the other apostles are bearers of truth – and that everyone else comes from the prince of this world, the devil? (John 12:31) At the beginning of this letter John wrote: that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have look at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1-2) In other words, John holds up Jesus as his credential. He and the other apostles can be trusted because they saw, touched, listened to, and were sent out by the Son of God. The comfort for us here is that practicing discernment doesn’t have to be a complicated, overwhelming task that only trained theologians can do, it’s as simple as comparing everything to the Apostles’ teaching summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Anyone who has cast aside the teaching of the Apostles – who does not clearly confess the incarnate Christ and his atoning sacrifice – in favor of something else is speaking from the spirit of falsehood.

 

And there’s one final mark of Authentic Christianity: dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. Love is the final distinguishing characteristic of authentic Christianity. But this is not love as the world defines it. The world is filled with people who love those who love them. Politicians, actors, athletes – they all love their fans, right? But Jesus said if you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? (Matthew 5:46) John is not speaking about loving those who love you – he’s talking about agape love, self-sacrificing love, love for those who may not love you, who may even seem to be unlovable. And he narrows the scope of this love to fellow believers – love one another. This might be one of the most visible marks distinguishing between authentic and false Christianity. It’s fairly easy for a group of people to get together to carry out some act of community service. Handing out meals around the holidays, donating to a food pantry, picking up trash on the side of the highway – you don’t need genuine agape love to be able to do those things. (Prison inmates pick up trash and serve meals!) And yet, if you were to ask many churches for evidence of their authenticity – they would point to those works of service; while at the same time they don’t love each other enough to instruct and catechize the young, encourage the downtrodden, discipline the straying, and hold the hand of the sick and dying.

 

“But, we won’t grow, we won’t be attractive unless the world knows how much we love it” – goes the counter-argument. But that’s not how Jesus sees it. Jesus tells us how we draw the world in: By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:35) We are to be Good Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37) to our worldly neighbors – but we are to love one another. Now, it’s kind of interesting that John doesn’t really give us a list of who and how to love, does he? There’s no instruction manual. The title of his letter is not “Ten Easy Steps to Loving Others.”

 

But he does something even better; he directs us to love’s source: This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. John doesn’t turn us inside to look for direction and motivation in how to love one another – no, he points us to the God who loved us first. The God who didn’t just see our miserable condition, our laziness in discerning truth from falsehood, our hesitancy to confess the truth about Christ, our lovelessness towards one another and send a card with “thinking of you” or “good luck” written inside. No, God did something about it. He sent Jesus to perfectly discern and expose false teaching, to fearlessly identify himself as God in flesh, to never fail to love his own – as our perfect substitute. He sent Jesus to die in our place precisely because we were ugly, unlovable, helpless sinners who couldn’t do a thing to help ourselves. God loved and Christ died for us, for sinners – that’s true agape love. The more we all learn about God’s love for us in Christ, the more we will be motivated and guided to love one another.

 

In the end, Authentic Christianity isn’t really about the pastor, the denomination, or the visible acts of love; it’s all about Christ. In contrast to the heretics who pointed people inside themselves – John has been pointing us to Christ. Authentic Christians want to follow Christ alone – and so they are discerning, they test the spirits of all who claim to be from God. Authentic Christians treasure who Christ is and what he did for them – and so they boldly confess that he is the incarnate Son of God who died to save us from our sins. Authentic Christians have first been loved by Christ and his love overflows into love for one another. When Christ and his teaching remains at the center of everything we think, say, and do – then we can know we are authentically Christian. Amen.   

Acts 16:6-16 - God Grows His Kingdom - April 29, 2018

The Kingdom of God – its nature and power and purpose – is, and has almost always been, a very misunderstood doctrine. In Jesus’ day, under the awful leadership of the Pharisees and Sadducees, many Israelites associated God’s Kingdom with political liberty and economic prosperity so that many were looking for a Messiah whose primary job was to free them and their land from Roman rule. Many today still think of the Kingdom of God in purely earthly terms. This view is seen very crassly in the “Evangelical Right’s” determination to enforce Biblical morality and make America a “Christian” nation again through the power of legislation and law. But this view can also be found in subtle ways in otherwise faithful churches when the emphasis shifts from God and his Word to strategies, numbers, money, influence, personalities or buildings. All efforts to define or describe God’s Kingdom in visible, measurable terms are bound to be misleading because Jesus said: the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:20-21) Christ is risen and he is ruling the universe for the good of his church, but his rule today is largely invisible because he rules in our hearts by his Word. That being said, we can see the fruits, the results of our Risen Savior’s work. Today we get to see an example of God growing his kingdom and his power to direct the mission, to open hearts to believe and respond.

 

We meet the Apostle Paul on his second missionary journey. He has just finished visiting the congregations he established on his first journey and having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia is looking for new, untouched fields in which to sow the seed of the Gospel. Little did Paul realize, but God was about to use him to expand his kingdom to a brand new continent: during the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia (part of modern-day Greece) standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia.

 

Founded by Philip of Macedon (best known as the father of Alexander the Great) Philippi was a major trading center and enjoyed the privileges of being a Roman colony – meaning that its inhabitants possessed the rights of Roman citizens; they were represented in the Roman government, they lived under Roman law, and enjoyed the protection of the Roman military. Paul and his companions, Silas, Timothy, and Luke (Acts 15:40; 16:3, 10) stayed there for several days. God had commanded Paul to go first to the Jews (Acts 13:46) and so Paul’s custom was to find the local synagogue and start his evangelical work there. But, lacking the 10 male Jews necessary to form a synagogue, there was none in Philippi. [1] So on the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. Why would Paul expect to find believing Jews near a river on the Sabbath? Basic logic. The ceremonial washings prescribed in the OT required lots of water, and so faithful believers regularly gathered near water. [2] While there weren’t enough male Jews to form a synagogue, there were faithful women. And Paul took this opportunity to preach the Gospel of Christ to them. (Hardly the portrait of a male chauvinist that Paul is often made out to be today.)

 

How did this all happen? How did Paul happen to be on a riverbank on the Sabbath talking to a group of women about Jesus? How had the Gospel come – for the very first time – to the continent of Europe, a revolutionary event which not only brought Christianity to Italy, Germany, and Britain, but eventually to America and through the centuries to our ears and hearts? Luke is clear: it wasn’t their brilliant planning or strategizing – Paul and his companions had not planned to come to Philippi, it all happened by God’s power and direction. This is also a concrete example of the doctrine of election. Lydia, and the other women there who received and believed the good news of Christ had been chosen by God to believe and be saved before the creation of the world (Romans 8:29-30) – and God followed through by sending them a former Christian-killing Pharisee (Acts 8:1) to preach the Gospel to create saving faith in their hearts. Paul may have been the instrument, but God was clearly directing the mission.

 

God is still the one responsible for building and directing the work in his kingdom – and he still does it in what may seem like unlikely or coincidental ways. While God’s hand in our lives may not be as obvious as a vision in the night – it is no less true that God is guiding every step of our lives. You are alive because God knit you together in your mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:13) You live in America – not Iran or North Korea – because God determined that this was where he wanted you to live. (Acts 17:26) You heard and believed the Gospel because God chose you to believe and be saved before the creation of the world. (Ephesians 1:4-5) You went to the schools you went to, met your spouse, own the home you own, and have the job you have – all because God planned and directed it down to the smallest detail. Christians sometimes torture themselves, wondering if they’ve made the right decisions regarding those or other important things – and so the first thing this story teaches us is to trust that even though many things are out of our control – God is in control and if he doesn’t want something to happen, it won’t.

 

As you look to the past – I pray that you can see God’s hand in your life and that the Spirit would bless you with the faith to trust that the same will be true tomorrow and next year. We can’t say much with certainty about the future, but our Savior’s resurrection proves that God’s will is always done. And as God puts you exactly where he wants you exactly when he wants – there’s one thing you can be sure of: he’s put you there to bear fruit. This does not mean that we all have to be Paul. We are NOT all missionaries like he was. Most pastors today are not even missionaries in the same sense that Paul was. If you work in an office setting – for example – God does not expect you to preach about sin and grace to every customer or client you deal with. But he does, nonetheless give you the grace and strength to bear fruits, results of your faith – through which he can open hearts to inquire about the Gospel. He may do it through your diligent work ethic, through your refusal to participate in office gossip and politics, through your distinctly Christian worldview, through the activities you allow your child to participate in (and those you don’t), even through your brilliant observation that school shootings and sexual assault are not the result of guns or gender inequality – but the result of sinful hearts that are always evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5) Those may not seem like earth-shaking “kingdom-growing” events – but then again, neither was Paul sitting down with a small group of women next to a river. Just like Paul, we may be uncertain about many things in life – but we can be certain that God is directing things and he is growing his kingdom in our own hearts and in this world.

 

That’s the broad sketch. Now let’s get to some specifics. How does God get his mission accomplished? One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. By all indications, Lydia was a proselyte – a Greek convert to Judaism. She had heard and believed the Old Testament Scriptures – along with its promises of a Savior. But she hadn’t yet heard that the promised Savior had come. Her faith was incomplete. And how did God remedy that situation? Paul spoke about Jesus and the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.

 

Again, Luke makes it very clear that it was not Paul’s savvy, strategy, or skill that created faith in Lydia’s heart – but the power of the Holy Spirit working through the simple Gospel message. Paul’s confidence – and our confidence – is not in ourselves but in the Word. As he later wrote to the Romans: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17) It’s always been important, but especially in these days of misguided ideas of God’s kingdom and church growth, to understand that the only instrument God uses to grow his kingdom is the Word. The Kingdom of God isn’t built by beautiful buildings, powerful preachers (which Paul himself admits he was not (2 Corinthians 10:10)), emotional, professionally produced worship services, awesome children’s programs, clever marketing strategies or campaigns to feed the hungry and house the homeless.

 

God builds his kingdom with the Gospel. And if that doesn’t seem like a powerful or efficient tool, just consider it. God’s one and only Son left his place in heaven to become one of us. For thirty-three years he lived in this world, dealt with danger and temptation and betrayal – and through it all he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:15) Jesus was wrongfully accused, charged and sentenced to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, and three days later he rose again. But the real power of that message is what it means for us. God now credits Jesus’ perfect, righteous, flawless life to our account. Every last one of our sins from the last week, last year, and last decade have been washed away in the flood of Jesus’ precious blood. Through faith in Jesus we receive forgiveness, the assurance that our lives are in God’s hands now, and the guarantee of life eternal. Churches and kingdoms and movements have risen and fallen, but this message has survived and thrived despite persecution and corruption and the every one of Satan’s attacks for thousands of years. This is the message of salvation that God uses to build his kingdom in human hearts like ours. This is the message that opens hearts to believe and changes lives forever.

 

And, whenever God has opened a heart to believe in Christ, he also opens that heart to respond to his grace. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. Now, it might be tempting to focus on Lydia’s hospitality as her primary response to the Gospel. It’s not. The first and primary fruit of her faith was her desire to be baptized. Paul may have echoed Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) Lydia wanted to enter God’s kingdom. She wanted to be baptized. She wanted to receive all the gifts God had promised through that precious sacrament. And she didn’t just want those blessings for herself, she wanted them for her entire household.

 

When we think of our fruits of faith I think we typically think first of the offerings, the time, the energy, the effort we give for God and his Church. And while those are fruits of faith, they are not the first or most important fruit. The most important fruit – the fruit without which Jesus says there will be no other fruit – is a desire to remain in Jesus (John 15:4) by hearing and receiving the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Think of it this way: unbelievers can donate their money and time to worthy causes, they can be kind and compassionate and responsible and hospitable – often to a greater degree than many believers. But only believers want to be baptized and have their children baptized, want to receive the Lord’s Supper, and want to make it a daily and weekly priority to spend time in God’s Word. And we see in the example of Lydia that if that fruit is present – then other fruit will come. Practically speaking, if we remain in Jesus and he remains in us through the Word, then we won’t have to worry about having enough money to pay the bills, volunteers to clean the church or cut the grass, or finding leaders who are dedicated to serving in God’s kingdom – Jesus promises that those will come as naturally and inevitably as an apple tree produces apples (Luke 6:43-45) – and all according to his direction. That’s how God established his kingdom 2000 years ago by bringing Paul to Europe to a woman named Lydia who believed and responded to the Gospel message (later, the Philippian church that began in Lydia’s household became one of Paul’s primary supporters (Philippians 4:10-20)) – that’s how God continues to grow his kingdom today.

 

Many people are depressed and distressed about the state of the Christian church in America. We aren’t. God is growing his kingdom, he’s saving more people each and every day. He chooses the direction, he opens hearts to believe and respond through the power of his Gospel. We are sure of this because Christ is risen. And so our prayer is not one of desperation or despair, but of confidence: Lord, let your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Sanhedrin.1?lang=bi

[2] Kistemaker, Acts, p. 589

John 10:11-18 - Understand Your Relationship With Jesus: It's Not You, It's Him - April 22, 2018

How would you describe or define your relationship with Jesus? We might say: he’s my Savior, my Lord, my God – which are all true and accurate. But those things say more about Jesus than our relationship to him, don’t they? He’s Savior, Lord, and God whether I hate him or love him. You may or may not know that having a personal, intimate relationship with God and with Jesus is a hot (and convoluted) topic in Christian circles today. Some say that the average person can’t possibly have a personal relationship with God – he’s a mysterious, distant being – and so you must go to a spiritual guru, a modern day “prophet,” a pope or a saint who can mediate on your behalf. Some say that having a relationship with Jesus is an indefinable, mystical thing – and you know it when you feel it in your gut and tickling your spine. Some modern Christian music describes our relationship with Jesus in almost romantic terms; as if Jesus wants to snuggle up with you on the couch to watch a movie with a big bowl of popcorn. There’s a lot of confusion about how we can actually define our relationship to him. In a way that’s not surprising, given that today we can’t see him, touch him, or talk to him face to face. But it doesn’t have to be a mystery, because Jesus himself has defined our relationship in terms even a child can understand: a shepherd and his sheep. It might not be a good thing to hear in the context of any other relationship, but it is good news when Jesus tells us “trust me: it’s not you, it’s me.” We are his possession, which he purchased with his own life, and we are led by his voice.

 

In the context of John’s Gospel, this “Good Shepherd” section appears on the heels of a confrontation between our Lord and the Pharisees. Jesus had healed a man who had been blind from birth. The Pharisees investigated this miracle. They were jealous and angry that Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath Day and demanded that he expose Jesus as a sinner. He is an honest witness. He says the only thing he can: One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see! (John 9:25) They insulted him and excommunicated him. Jesus responds by clarifying the distinction between faithful spiritual leaders and their unfaithful counterparts.

 

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd – a statement by which he equates himself with the LORD of Psalm 23. He is saying that we should think of our relationship to him in terms of a shepherd and sheep. As our shepherd, Jesus lives with us; he is with us round the clock; he is, for all intents and purposes, one of us. The sheep know him and he knows each of his sheep by name. Unlike the cowboys you see on old Westerns, who drive their cattle from behind with fear and terror, Jesus goes in front of us, leading us, facing any danger or any enemy for us. Like sheep, we follow him because we trust that he cares more about us than he cares about himself. We trust that he won’t lead us anywhere that would lead to eternal death and destruction. This means that we will even follow him down paths that are unpopular with the world, that make us emotionally or rationally uncomfortable, that may be painful – because we trust that he knows best. Is there any more comforting image of Jesus and us than this? This image is comforting to toddlers at bedtime, to young people who feel like they are lost or simply wandering through life, to those who are sick or suffering and those who know they are standing on the brink of death. Jesus says that this relationship is as intimate as that between him and his Father: I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. When you’re hurting, sick, scared, alone, and even when you intentionally stray into sin – Jesus knows. He knows and he loves you anyway. He loves you even when you’re unlovable, even when all you want to do is run away from him. Because you belong to him, you are his possession. It’s no surprise that this picture Jesus paints is one of the most prominent and popular among Christians.

 

But it does force us to acknowledge something our sinful nature doesn’t want to admit: we are sheep. Jesus calls us sheep, and being called a sheep is never a flattering thing. Sheep are stubborn, self-centered, high maintenance creatures who require 24/7 care or they will die. Sheep are defenseless. They aren’t fast enough to run away from danger, they don’t have sharp teeth or claws, their white wool provides no camouflage, and (if you’ve ever been around sheep) they sound like a bad imitation of a sheep. Having grown up in South Dakota, I learned that many farmers and ranchers despise sheep, because left to themselves they will mindlessly mow down every blade of grass in a field – not only destroying the field but starving themselves. Sheep are foolish and stupid.  

 

Like it or not, that’s what Jesus calls us. He calls us sheep. He’s saying that left alone, we would destroy ourselves and others. We foolishly stray into dangerous places and situations. We eat (read, watch, and listen to) things that poison our faith. We bicker and argue with one another and we stubbornly insist on having things our way. We even claim that we don’t need a shepherd, that we are just fine on our own – ignorant of the fact that the lone sheep is the devil’s ideal target, that on our own we are as good as dead. (Would any one of us say that he’s wrong?) And in order to have a relationship with Jesus, we must own this fact. And, practically speaking, we do own this fact when we confess our sins, when we admit that we are as good as dead without Jesus.

 

Because taking care of stupid, defenseless sheep like us is dirty, thankless, tiresome work, many false shepherds appear who are not faithful caretakers. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. The hired hand doesn’t really know the sheep and doesn’t really care for them. He’s just in it for the power, the prestige or the money. When danger comes he abandons the flock. In the context of John’s Gospel, Jesus was calling the Pharisees “hired hands.” Instead of guiding, leading and feeding God’s flock, they pointed people to their own obedience to the law, their own good works for comfort. They assaulted the flock with manmade rules and regulations – effectively teaching them that they needed to save themselves. And then they fleeced the flock, living the good life while the flock starved.

 

You don’t have to look too far to see “hired hands” today. They can tell people how they should live and give advice for self-improvement and they write NY Times top ten best sellers and are happy to take your money so that they can drive (or fly) around in luxury – but don’t bother calling if you get sick or lose your job or have a falling out with your spouse – they are far too important and busy to worry about the problems of little lambs like you. Hired hands today will seek out the path of least resistance in their preaching, teaching and practice. Instead of preaching the truth no matter how controversial it may be; instead of pointing out and defending the flock against the deathtraps of sin and false doctrine, they modify their doctrine and practice to accommodate the world’s ever-changing appetite, to scratch itching ears. (2 Timothy 4:3) The hired hand’s highest priority is being popular and well-liked. Instead of faithfully using the only tools that God has given him – the Law and the Gospel – the hired hand uses his own wisdom and manmade philosophies and strategies to increase the size of the flock – (because they believe the flock belongs to them, not to Christ). The hired hand won’t personally instruct the young or comfort the sick and dying – and when his members stray through neglect of the Word or ungodly living, he won’t admonish or discipline. His only interest is in attracting fat, fluffy sheep that can benefit him personally. He will simply let the lost sheep wander all the way to hell.

 

But Jesus is different. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus doesn’t demand your life and livelihood from you, he gives his life for you. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep…the reason the Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. Our relationship to Jesus is not based on who we are, how worthy we are, how well we behave or how firmly we believe. The basis of our relationship to the Good Shepherd is not about us, it’s about him. He laid down his life for us – the stupid, disobedient, self-centered, high maintenance flock. In a world that is filled with hundreds of different religious philosophies and teachers – this is what sets Jesus apart. Jesus’ primary mission and message is not about telling us what to do or how to live. Jesus’ mission and message was to suffer, die and rise again for sheep were not following him, for those who hated him, for those who were by nature his bitter enemies.

 

And that was the plan all along. Jesus says this command I received from my Father. God’s will was that his one and only Son would take human flesh (become a sheep), live in perfect obedience to the Law, suffer and die for the sins of the world, and then, three days later, take his life up again – rise from the dead. You will never find another shepherd like him. This is one relationship that doesn’t depend on your feelings or efforts. The basis for your relationship to him is not your faith, your confession, your good works or your commitment. You are Jesus’ little lamb because he died for you. The relationship is not built on you, it’s built on Christ’s life, death and resurrection – and that’s good news, because that foundation will never change.  

 

So the nature of our relationship to Jesus, in his own words, is one of sheep to a shepherd – we are his possession, the basis is the fact that he laid down his life for us and took it up again in accordance with his Father’s plan and command – but we all know that there are many people in this world who do not see Jesus as their shepherd, people for whom he died and yet who reject his sacrifice as foolish or unnecessary. So, the final question is: how is this relationship created, nurtured and sustained? Jesus clarifies this as well: I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen (a reference to non-Jews; Gentiles). I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

 

A healthy, vibrant, living relationship with Jesus begins and ends with his voice: the living and enduring Word of God. (John 6:63; 1 Peter 1:23-25) The Word is the rod and staff with which he guides and chastens and comforts us. This means that if you are not hearing the Savior’s voice, if you or anyone you know is not hearing, reading, and meditating on the Word of God – your relationship with Jesus will die. Naturally, this is offensive to sheep who think that they know best and who want to take the credit for building their relationship with Jesus. We all know people who claim to have a relationship with Jesus because they call themselves Christian or because they belong to a Christian church or because they speak to Jesus in prayer. But that’s not the way it works – with sheep or with Christians. Sheep don’t choose their shepherd, the shepherd chooses his sheep. (John 15:16) Sheep who ignore or neglect or reject the voice of the shepherd cannot have a relationship with him. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he is leading the way to heaven with his voice in Word and Sacrament – but when he turns around on Judgment Day only those who listened to and followed his voice will be able to enter the gate.

 

The Good News is that he has already bought every single human soul with his precious blood and he is still inviting one and all to come to him for rest. He is still proclaiming that a relationship with him is not based on our decision, desire, or effort (because that would make it uncertain) – but on his perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. He is still sending out faithful under-shepherds to proclaim this good news to all people, who will seek out the strays to bring them back, who will point out and condemn false teaching, and who will preach and teach the truth regardless of how many people it angers or offends. He is still leading us through the dark valley of this world to the green pastures of heaven. He is still risen and is still the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us and we are still his weak, foolish, defenseless – and yes, oftentimes stupid – sheep. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. Amen.

Luke 24:36-49 - See the Power of the Word - April 15, 2018

It’s only been 2 weeks since we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord – the historical and theological foundation of the Christian faith – and yet, for many the joy and enthusiasm and conviction have already faded. For some, even some who worshipped right here, the attitude is one of apathy: Christ is risen – so what? For others it’s: Christ is risen – now what? It’s completely understandable if these weeks feel like something of a letdown after the buildup of Lent, the drama of Holy Week, and the joy of Easter Sunday. Christ is risen and Easter was great but now we’re back to the humdrum of life. Has Easter made any difference at all? If you’ve ever had doubts or fears or sadness or a sense of meaninglessness in life – you’re not alone. On that first Easter evening the disciples were gathered in a locked room – and they’re experiencing their own letdown after the drama of their Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. The fledgling Christian church was gathered in this room and it was leaderless and purposeless, bordering on hopeless – had the Church died along with Christ? What were they supposed to do now? Jesus had promised before he died: I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you (John 14:18) – and he kept that promise then and he keeps it today. Jesus shows us exactly where to look for continued joy, faith and courage – even in these cold, gloomy days after Easter. He tells us to find him in his powerful Word.

 

While the disciples in that room had seen the empty tomb and heard from those who had seen the resurrected Lord, there was still a lot of uncertainty as to what, exactly, had happened. Jesus’ body was not in the tomb, but what did that mean? Was he a spirit? A ghost? Were those who had seen him mistaken? Was he simply living on in their hearts in some mystical way? As a careful historian and physician, Luke took great care to record the evidence – we might even say “scientific” evidence – of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In his Gospel Luke links Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to something that only living, breathing human beings need: food.

 

Just a few verses earlier, Luke records Jesus’ appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They didn’t recognize him until he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. (Luke 24:30) Having realized that Jesus was not dead but risen, they rushed back to Jerusalem to give their report to the rest of the disciples. While they were all comparing notes about what they had seen and heard Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” This was a common Jewish greeting in those days (Hebrew shalom) but coming from Jesus, this was more than just a greeting. Jesus distilled the entire Gospel – and spelled out the lasting impact of his suffering, death, and resurrection – in one word. Sin has been paid for once and for all. Guilt is wiped away. God and man have been reconciled. Satan is crushed. Death is defeated. The grave can’t hold us. Our loved ones who died in faith are living in heaven. You will be reunited with them. Nothing in all the world can separate us from God’s love. Add it all up and you get peace.

 

But the disciples weren’t buying it yet. They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. But this was no ghost. Jesus showed them the nail marks in his hands and feet which mark him as the same man who was nailed to the cross on Calvary. John adds we have heard…we have seen…and our hands have touched. (1 John 1:1) He is touchable. He is real. He has bones and flesh and blood. And there’s more. This real, touchable, flesh and blood Jesus also has a stomach. He asks for something to eat. I don’t read a lot of ghost stories – but I’ve never heard one where the ghost eats your dinner. But Jesus did. Not because he needed food in his glorified state but to give indisputable evidence that he had risen from the dead with a real, human body.

 

But then Jesus takes things in a direction we wouldn’t expect. Having proven that he is the real, living, breathing, resurrected Savior, Jesus actually directed the disciples’ attention away from himself, his own physical presence among them: He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Why would Jesus rehearse the prophecies of Scripture and his fulfillment of them at this point? Why does he go back to Scripture written hundreds and thousands of years earlier when he’s standing right in front of them? Because he knows something they don’t: he won’t be physically present with them much longer. In only 40 days he will return to his Father’s side in heaven. And when that happened the disciples would need more than their own fickle memories to rest their faith on. They would need solid, documented, incorruptible evidence. More than that, Jesus knew that millions of people would be born after his Ascension, people who would never see him with their own eyes – like us – and that we would need a solid, unchanging foundation for faith. And so in one breath Jesus establishes two important truths for us: 1) He confirms the validity of the Old Testament as God’s own Word and clarifies that its message from Genesis to Malachi is about him and his work of redemption; and 2) he authorizes these disciples to be his witnesses, to be the authors of the NT books which would form the foundation for the Church until the end of time.

 

But none of this would have mattered if Jesus hadn’t opened their minds to see and believe it. Jesus wasn’t telling the disciples anything they hadn’t heard before. They knew the OT, they had heard Jesus’ preaching, they had seen his suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection with their own eyes. But they still didn’t believe that it all had to happen according to God’s plan of salvation. That tells us something. It tells us that you can know all the facts and still not believe. You can know the Bible by heart and still not trust that it is really good news for you. For believing Christians, this concept may seem strange, but it’s actually our default setting. We were all born spiritually blind by sin and close-minded to the truth. (2 Corinthians 4:4) We are born into this world with the delusion that we are independent, self-sufficient gods. We think our word, our opinions, our feelings carry the day. We imagine that we’re the masters of our own destiny. Worst of all we are wired to believe that we can save ourselves (test it: ask any non-Christian how a person gets to heaven). And we would remain deluded and damned unless God did something about it.

 

Thankfully, he did and he does. In the exact same way that Jesus opened the minds of those first disciples. In the third article of the creed we confess: “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” This is so important: reason and logic and emotional, persuasive arguments – even the miracle of someone rising from the dead (Luke 16:31) – don’t create saving faith. We are so completely dead and blind that God himself must open our minds to believe the things that are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14) The Bible is a closed book without God’s gift of faith, and God himself provides the solution: faith comes from hearing the message. (Romans 10:17) That’s why Jesus didn’t just leave us with a book but sent out apostles to give eyewitness testimony, pastors to preach, teachers to teach, parents and friends to instruct and encourage, and Baptism and a Supper to receive.

 

Now, some say that preaching and teaching Scripture is not enough, that it’s just a story – and you can’t find God in a story. They’re half right. The Bible is the story of God’s efforts to save a broken world – but that’s not all it is. It is the power of God for salvation. (Romans 1:16) It is living and active. (Hebrews 4:12) It carries God’s guarantee to achieve the purpose for which [he] sent it. (Isaiah 55:11) It’s the only thing that can pry open closed minds and bring forgiveness and life to dead, unbelieving hearts. The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is history. That’s true. But his history is our only hope for forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and an eternity in heaven. Can all of those blessings come from something as humble as the Gospel? Think of how you came to faith. Maybe your parents who had you baptized as a baby and gave you the priceless gift of a Christian education. Maybe a coworker, neighbor or friend invited you to a Bible study. Maybe you don’t even know why you woke up one Sunday morning and came to church. But whatever the case, we all have one thing in common – someone told us the simple facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, God opened our minds through the power of the Word.

 

And it all started in the most unlikely of circumstances: a locked room full of fearful, doubting, disbelieving disciples. Having opened the disciples’ minds, Jesus also opened their mouths. The rest of the NT records that the disciples did what Jesus commanded, they testified to what they had seen and heard – beginning in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the world. According to tradition John carried the Gospel to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Greece. Thomas preached in India. Philip taught in Armenia. Paul carried the Gospel to Rome and perhaps to Spain. And, by God’s grace, the Gospel has been passed down from them through 2000 years to us.

 

Now it’s our turn. Now we, too, are witnesses of the Risen Lord. I don’t know about you, but – as the result of the church Growth movement of the past several decades – witnessing is often narrowly defined as knocking on the doors of perfect strangers, having an uncomfortable conversation, and trying to persuade someone to believe something they don’t care about. While I am not saying that door-to-door evangelism is wrong, the fact is that we don’t have a single example of that method in the NT. We do see God arranging circumstances so that his witnesses were in the right place at the right time – think of Philip and the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40) or Paul and the man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9). We see disciples witnessing to friends and parents teaching children. When they were put on trial they testified to the facts. When you read about how the Gospel spread in the early days of the Church, you don’t see any carefully crafted marketing strategies or pitches, you see people – flesh and blood humans like us – simply and calmly explaining the facts of Scripture. Most importantly, the job of a witness is not to convince anyone of anything – only God can do that. We are not salesmen, we are witnesses. Our job is simply to be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15). And if you can recite the creeds, you know the facts and reasons. Jesus suffered. Jesus died. Jesus rose. He was handed over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25) And you’ve seen him in the Old and New Testaments. You’ve received him in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You’ve heard his message of forgiveness. You have the peace and hope he died to win for you. That’s it. That’s witnessing. And growing in our knowledge and love of that good news and sharing it with others is what Jesus has commanded us to do.

 

So, whenever you think “Christ is risen…now what?” Remember these words of your risen and living Savior. He has not left us without guidance, direction and comfort. He has made us who we are and told what we are to be busy doing. This confused, blind, postmodern world doesn’t need slick marketing schemes, foolish promises of better health or wealth, or one more program to squeeze into already busy schedules. It only needs one thing: it needs Jesus. It needs the One with the wounds and words of salvation. The One who swallowed up death like he swallowed that broiled fish. The One about whom the Scriptures testify. The world needs to hear the Word, repentance and forgiveness of sins, law and gospel. And whenever you doubt that or doubt it’s power, just remember that you are living evidence that it has the power to do exactly what Jesus promised. May God continue to open our minds and our mouths with his powerful Word. Amen.  

1 Corinthians 15:12-26 - The Resurrection of the Dead - April 1, 2018

Even in this age of “fake news”, there is one day above all others that is notorious for being filled with falsehood and deception. A day when even otherwise honest people turn into con artists, liars and deceivers. A day that causes some people to take offense and get angry and others to laugh and rejoice. And no, I’m not talking about April Fool’s Day, I’m talking about Easter – the day on which we celebrate the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This day, perhaps more than any other, divides the world in two. There are those who base their life and faith on the fact that 2000 years ago Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…on the third day he rose again from the dead. There are others who argue that these facts are just an example of fake news. They claim that the resurrection is a myth perpetrated by stupid and gullible people. And they conclude that because Jesus didn’t rise no one else will either. When you die, that’s it. Game over. The question is: which side are you on? Eternity hangs on the answer. Today we will consider the Resurrection of the Dead as a matter of fact and a matter of faith.

 

Let’s start with one fact we would probably rather avoid: the fact of death. Have you noticed that even in our hyper politicized society where no one can agree on anything, we can all still agree on the fact of death? Amidst the recent spree of terror and shootings and bombings – and the resulting shouting matches about what should be done to prevent them – I have yet to hear anyone say “The victims are not dead.” We can argue about cause and effect, about everything before and after it, but death is undeniable. And Paul tells us why, very matter-of-factly: in Adam all die. We are all descendants of Adam. We all inherited his sinful nature. We all act out on this sinful nature: disobeying God, hurting, hating, lying, slandering, lusting and coveting – and so, we have all earned the wages of sin: death. (Romans 3:23) It’s said that death and taxes are the only certainties in life. But taxes can be evaded and tax laws changed. Death alone is unavoidable and absolute. It is the last enemy to be destroyed.

 

Death is the reason we are here today. In fact, the certainty of death is ultimately the only reason to be a Christian. Practically, this means that if someone comes to Christianity seeking a guaranteed solution for anything other than death, they’re in the wrong place. If someone comes to Christianity hoping to become happier and healthier, they would be better off going to see a doctor or therapist. If someone hopes that becoming Christian will help them become wealthy, their time would be better spent with a financial advisor. If people think the Church ought to be enacting laws and writing policies to make our nation a better, safer place, they would have better success lobbying a congressman. Not only because Jesus never promised to make anyone healthy or happy or rich or make this world a better, safer place – but because how healthy, happy, rich, and safe can you possibly be if you’re dead? Death is why we are here – or, more accurately, the death of death, the resurrection of the dead.

 

We are here because of the simple fact that Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross by the command of Pontius Pilate as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world and then rose to life again three days later. This is the fact around which all other facts revolve. Jesus’ resurrection is the fulcrum around which all human history pivots and finds its ultimate meaning. It is a fact of history as much as World War II or 9/11. The tomb of Jesus is empty. The body of Jesus is risen and living. It’s simply a matter of fact.

 

Like all facts, this one has verified evidence and eyewitness testimony. 1) First, not only did God, through his prophets, lay out in stunning detail the final hours of Jesus’ life – down to the very words he spoke from the cross (Psalm 22:1) – but through King David God also promised that Christ would never see decay, because he would rise again. (Psalm 16:10) And God has an unbroken track record of keeping all of his promises. 2) Second, the tomb that had been sealed on Saturday (Matthew 27:66) was empty before the angels rolled the stone away early Sunday morning. (Matthew 28:2) The burial linens were neatly folded, (John 20:7) and the guards had to be bribed to spread the lie that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body – because they knew that the disciples hadn’t been anywhere near the tomb. (Matthew 28:11-15) 3) Jesus was seen in the flesh by Mary Magdalene, Peter and the other Apostles, by a highly skeptical Thomas, by two disciples on the road to Emmaus, by seven disciples who ate a breakfast of fish with him, by over 500 disciples at one time, by James and by Paul himself on the road to Damascus. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

 

There are those who allege that these were delusional idiots who only imagined they saw the risen Lord. But the facts tell a different story. By all accounts, these were sane, sober, rational eyewitnesses. Perhaps the strongest proof is that many of them didn’t believe it until they saw it with their own eyes – even though Jesus had told them repeatedly that this would happen. (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) Additionally, these people, humanly speaking, had nothing to gain from testifying that Jesus had risen from the dead and everything to lose. Not only did they lose their membership in the local synagogue and their status in society, but many of them lost their lives. And people don’t die for something they know to be a lie.

 

4) The civil and religious authorities of the time, Pontius Pilate and the chief priests, were very invested in making sure that Jesus stayed dead three days after they had killed him. They all wanted to protect their status and power by wiping out Christianity in its fledgling stage. They had the means, the time, and the authority to produce the corpse of Jesus and parade it through the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday night or Monday morning. But they didn’t. Why not? There was no corpse. Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he said. (Matthew 28:6)

 

But, playing devil’s advocate, what if this is all just a fake news story? Some sick April Fool’s joke? A delusion, a fantasy, a myth? Does it matter? Sadly, some supposedly “Christian” teachers – including those who were opposing Paul in Corinth – say that it doesn’t matter if Jesus actually rose from the dead or not. They say that he is still an inspirational figure, that his teachings are still relevant and help us lead meaningful lives. Some will even say that Jesus can give you your best life now even if he was a miserable failure at accomplishing the one thing he had come to do: defeat death. Most insidious of all is the idea that it doesn’t matter if Jesus actually rose or not, it only matters if you believe he did – kind of like the Easter bunny or Santa Claus. So does it matter?

The Apostle Paul seems to think so. Paul says that if Jesus hasn’t been raised, Jesus’ life is not an inspiring story and his teachings are not worth the paper they’re written on and it’s not only futile but blasphemous to place your trust in him. There’s an alternative set of facts if Christ isn’t risen: if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

 

If Christ has not been raised: 1) you shouldn’t waste your time reading or believing the Bible – because it’s not true. 2) If Christ isn’t raised, then God lied through his prophets, Jesus was raving lunatic, the apostles were liars, and every Christian preacher for the last two thousand years – including the one standing in front of you – are liars who have blasphemed God and deserve to be ignored, if not run out of town. 3) If Christ hasn’t been raised, your faith is futile and you are delusional. You are wasting your time being here this morning and every other Sunday morning, your prayers are not heard or answered by anyone, and you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re right with God because Jesus’ death paid for nothing and you’re still guilty for all the evil you’ve thought, said, and done. 4) If Christ hasn’t been raised, then we are all back to square one when it comes to God. We need to find some other way to reach him. And we need to start paying for our own sins because there is no mercy, no forgiveness, no grace if Christ is not raised from the dead. 5) If Christ hasn’t been raised, then the people you loved who have died believing in him are lost forever. Hold on to your memories of them because that’s all you’re ever going to have. (You might also reconsider spending large sums of money on funerals – because there’s no closure or peace to be found in them.) If Christ hasn’t been raised then we have no reason to believe that there is anything resembling physical life beyond death. Without Christ’s empty tomb – it’s just as valid to believe that all dogs go to heaven or we will be reincarnated as monarchs. If Christ hasn’t been raised, Paul himself suggests that we should leave here right now, eat, drink and be merry – because one day, we will all die. (1 Corinthians 15:32)

 

But (the most beautiful three letter word in the English language) the historical, verifiable, undeniable, glorious fact is that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. And this fact is the foundation of our faith. 1) Because Christ is risen we believe that every single word and promise in the Bible is true, from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus testified to the truthfulness of Scripture (John 17:17) and it would be foolish to do anything other than believe the words of one who has defeated death.

 

2) Because Christ is risen we believe that we have been justified – that is, declared not guilty, completely innocent and acceptable before God. [Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25) and because [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2) we know beyond all doubt that every last one of our sins has been paid for in full by the precious blood of God.

 

3) Because Christ is raised from the dead, we believe that we too will rise from death. Jesus is the firstfruits – he’s the down payment, the proof that all who fall asleep in faith in him will rise just like him. One empty grave on Easter morning is the proof that God will empty every grave on the Last Day – including yours and mine.

 

4) Because Christ is risen, we believe that there is real, bodily, physical life after death. We don’t just go on as spirits or memories or energy. We rise with bodies to live with God and all the other saints forever. Because of sin, these bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God, they are not suited for eternal life. They wear out, get sick, break down. But, Paul says that these bodies are like seeds; they are planted dead only to rise from the ground to new and vibrant life: the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

 

5) Because Christ is risen, we believe that those who have died in faith are living with Christ now in paradise. We do not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13) because we believe that in heaven there will be a grand reunion of all believers – from Adam to Abraham to Paul to our own loved ones God has called home. This truth alone can give us peace and joy and a smile even through the tears of grief at the loss of a loved one.

 

6) Because Christ is raised from the dead, we know exactly where we and this world are headed. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. We are born to die, this is true. But in Christ, we die to live. This is true too, because Christ is risen. As for this world: The end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. When Jesus returns, Satan and his work will be destroyed. One and all will bow before the throne of our Lord Jesus Christ. And death, our last and greatest enemy, will be swallowed up in victory once and for all!

 

We believe this, and we are sure of this, and we come here week after week to profess and confess this, and we are willing to stake our hearts and souls and lives and our eternities on this – because of one simple, glorious, undeniable fact: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

 

John 12:1-19 - How Will We Receive Him? - March 25, 2018

Everyone loves a good homecoming, right? From football games welcoming alumni back to campus to family and friends welcoming their warrior home from a tour of duty – we love to throw a party when distant friends or family come home. Recently, McFarland had a unique homecoming of its own: welcoming back Olympic curling champion Matt Hamilton. This is merely anecdotal on my part, but I understand that when Matt returned to town he was greeted at not one but two different local restaurants. And – this is merely a guess – but I’m guessing that Matt didn’t have to buy his own food and drinks that night. It’s an unwritten rule, right? You welcome home loved ones and heroes by giving them food and drink and gifts.

 

Almost 2000 years ago, our Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the final time. And the rule held true for him – people gathered to welcome the Son of David (Matthew 1:1) to the city of David (2 Samuel 5:9-10) with a food and gifts, praise and palms. While we don’t expect Jesus to ride through those doors on a donkey today, he is here with us as certainly as he was in Jerusalem long ago. We have his Word on it: where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) Jesus still comes to us – not only on festivals like Palm Sunday, but daily and weekly through Word and Sacrament. How will we receive him?

 

The first people to welcome Jesus as he came home to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world were his friends in Bethany – a little town only a few miles from Jerusalem. Mark tells us that this meal was hosted by Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3) – presumably one of the many who was cured by Jesus’ healing power. Also present were Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. This was a pleasant, friendly Sabbath day gathering – not so much different from what you and I might experience next Sunday afternoon.

 

The first observation we should make is so obvious that we might miss it: Jesus was welcome in his disciples’ home. We want the same to be said of our homes, too, right? Maybe we have a plaque or doormat with the verse from Joshua as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD (Joshua 24:15) or the common table prayer come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. It’s easy to hang those signs and speak those words, but is Jesus always welcome in our homes and hearts? Are mealtime prayers and devotions a regular routine or are we too busy to thank Jesus for providing food and drink day after day? Would Jesus be proud to join in our dinner table conversations because they are sprinkled with love and grace, or would he ask to be excused from hearing gossip and slander? If Jesus were to make an unexpected visit, would he be proud to find a well-used copy of the Bible – his Word – or would he have to search for it on a dusty shelf somewhere, unused? When Jesus invites us to leave our homes and come to his to receive his gifts of forgiveness, guidance, and his Sacrament – do we eagerly accept or drag our feet, searching for any excuse to decline? This week, his invitation is loud and clear: Jesus will offer his body and blood to you for the forgiveness of your sins on Thursday and give his life for yours on Friday. Will you be there to receive him?

 

While everyone in Bethany honored Jesus’ presence, one in particular recognized Jesus’ real purpose in coming to Jerusalem with a precious gift. Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” At first glance, we might be tempted to agree with Judas. The money could have done significant good for those in need. Was this a waste of money? Jesus made it clear that in his eyes, it was not. It was a visible expression of Mary’s invisible faith. She had sat at Jesus’ feet, listened to his teaching, and firmly believed that he was entering Jerusalem to die for her sins; and she confessed that faith by anointing him with perfume (which amounted to beginning the burial process). No gift, no good work – in her mind – could be too expensive to show her gratitude for what Jesus would do for her. So, while Judas’ objection might seem sensible, it was actually just cover for a wicked heart. He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. The love of money had taken possession of Judas; it had replaced Jesus as his master. (It was immediately after this meal that Judas sought out Jesus’ enemies and agreed to betray him for thirty silver coins. (Mark 14:10-11))

 

After we have given Jesus and his Word priority in our homes and hearts, it is only natural that we would want to thank and praise him with our gifts – as a visible sign of invisible faith. No, it doesn’t reveal our faith to Jesus – he can read our hearts. (John 2:25) No, it doesn’t reveal our faith to other members or the pastor – they don’t know what we give. Your offerings, instead, tell you something about the state of your faith. Do my offerings show that I recognize that everything I have belongs to God, that I believe that Jesus gave up the riches of heaven and became poor to make me rich (2 Corinthians 8:9), and that I trust that the God who did not spare his own Son (Romans 8:32) will graciously give me everything I need for body and life? What does the offering you will place in the plate this morning tell you about the place Jesus has in your heart?

 

Mary and Judas represent opposite ends of the spectrum. Besides being a thief, Judas represents the attitude that says offerings are basically a necessary evil. If something needs to be done or purchased, if the budget needs to be met, then I guess I’ll put in my portion to get it done. (Kind of like how we feel about taxes – I’ll pay what I owe and not a penny more!) Doesn’t that attitude betray a greedy, misguided heart – that I’m going to hold on to every penny (acting like it’s mine, not God’s) until it’s ripped out of by hands by necessity? The truth is that our motivation to give is not keeping the lights on and the bills paid but to thank and praise the one who gave everything for us and to us. Like Mary, we give not because Jesus needs us to – he’s the king of the universe, we can’t give him anything he doesn’t already own. We give because we need to. If we aren’t giving cheerfully, generously, and regularly – the problem is not with our offerings, the problem is with our hearts, our faith and our priorities. Jesus, our King, gave up the riches of heaven, and came to Jerusalem to suffer and die for your sins. Today, he still comes to us personally through his Word and Sacrament to present us with the gifts of forgiveness and salvation he paid for with his blood. How will we receive him?

I don’t know about you, but until recently I didn’t know there were so many avid fans of curling. But last month, they came out of the woodwork, didn’t they? I’d never seen USA Curling apparel – and then it was everywhere: gas stations, grocery stores – even right here at church. Whether every one of them is truly a fan of curling – and can tell you what a skip or the hog line are [1] – is impossible to say. But when Matt and company brought home the gold, they weren’t afraid to make their fan hood known proudly and publicly.

 

That close knit group in Bethany weren’t the only ones to honor Jesus’ arrival on the doorstep of Jerusalem, the crowds of pilgrims who had gathered for the Passover celebration (according to Josephus around 2 million [2]) threw a homecoming parade for him as he entered Jerusalem to die. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” The words which the Savior’s welcoming party sang were words they knew very well. These were refrains from Psalm 118 which they recited as they traveled to Jerusalem and then again as they ate the Passover. The words fit the occasion perfectly. Hosanna means “save us!” And with the refrains of blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and blessed is the King of Israel the crowd was testifying that Jesus was the chosen one of God, the Christ, their King – who had come to do just that.

 

But if you look a little bit closer, you will see three different reactions. There were the Pharisees, who shook their heads in hatred and envy for the warm welcome Jesus was receiving. There were those who were perhaps swept up the moment and shouted along with everyone else: hosanna…blessed is the King of Israel – but really didn’t believe it, as evidenced by the fact that only a few days later they were shouting for Jesus’ crucifixion. (John 19:6) And there were those who truly believed that Jesus had come as their king to suffer and die to save them from their sins.

 

Wherever and whenever Jesus comes – even right here – he always receives a mixed reception. (He guarantees it: see Matthew 10:34.) By God’s grace, there are those who warmly welcome him into their hearts as the Son of God who had come to bleed and die to save them. But right next to them there are hypocrites. They get swept up in singing and rejoicing – but don’t really believe any of it, as proven by the fact that they walk out those doors just to crucify Jesus all over again by their faithless, godless living. And then there are always those who simply shake their heads in hatred and unbelief. They have no use for Jesus or the forgiveness he comes to bring. At first, these differences are invisible. But eventually, the heart reveals itself; faith or unbelief makes always makes itself evident in a clear, public way. (Luke 6:43-45)

 

For we who believe that Jesus comes to bless and save us, to wash away our sins and open the gates of eternal life – the faith that is hidden in our hearts will always reveal itself in a public confession – in fact, God’s Word demands it. (Romans 10:9) I’m not suggesting that we go and march down Main Street waving palm branches and chanting Bible verses to impress our neighbors. There was a time and a place for that – 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. Today we make our public confession about Jesus when we gather here regularly around his Word and Sacraments. When good things happen to us we don’t chalk it up to good luck or hard work – we recognize that all good things come from Christ. When times of trial and tragedy come our first reaction is not to turn to friends, family or government – we turn to God in prayer. (Psalm 50:15) When guilt or stress or worry overwhelm us we don’t numb it with substances or dull it with distractions – we lay our burdens at the feet of our King. One important way we make our confession in these days when people are terrified by school shootings and package bombs, is to confess calmly and confidently: no matter what happens, King Jesus is in control, he has brought us peace by purchasing eternal life for us and promises that his legions of angels are protecting us. (Psalm 91:11) King Jesus has come, he came to die for you, to rise for you, to live to guide and protect you. How will you receive him?

 

Whether you watched and cheered and bought a USA curling T-shirt or not - does not, in the end, matter. But, how we receive King Jesus now will impact us, not only now but eternally. One day, every knee will bow before him. (Philippians 2:9-11) Only those who bow and believe and confess his glory as a humble King who came to die for us now will share in his glory when he comes with his angelic armies to judge the world. (Matthew 10:32-33) King Jesus is coming. He’s come to lay down his life for your sins and take it up to open the gate to heaven. Welcome him with your praise, your devotion, your offerings, your confession – but most of all receive him with a heart overflowing with faith. Amen.

 

[1] http://www.curling.ca/about-the-sport-of-curling/getting-started-in-curling/glossary-of-curling-terms/

[2] Stott, John The Message of John p. 180

Mark 10:32-45 - Greatness in God's Kingdom - March 18, 2018

Our Lord Jesus lived on this earth for 33 years. For 33 years Jesus walked and talked, lived and learned, kept his Father’s will perfectly in and through many of the difficult situations we face on a daily basis. And yet, we don’t know anything about most of Jesus’ life. In fact, one third of all the chapters in the four Gospels – 29 of 89 – focus on just one week in Jesus’ life, the last one. That tells us something, doesn’t it? It’s like the Holy Spirit has sent up a flare to tell us that these things are important, learn, study, meditate on these things! That’s what Lent is all about – a close examination of Jesus’ last days, last words and works on earth. Without doubt, the most important lesson we can learn in Lent is that Jesus has truly paid for all of our sin, the death we earned, the hell we deserved by his suffering and death on the cross. But there are other things we need to learn too, and one very important lesson – which we need to learn over and over again – is the one taught in the verses before us: the way to true greatness in God’s kingdom is through service.

 

Just before our text, Jesus had promised his disciples that everyone who sacrifices for his sake will receive a hundred times what they lost in this life and in the life to come. (Mark 10:28-31) In no uncertain terms, Jesus promised tremendous glory and greatness to every last one of his disciples. Here’s his plan to get there: We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise. Betrayal and condemnation, mockery and spit, flogging and death. Does that sound like a roadmap to greatness? Is that what guidance counselors have in mind when they tell high school students to follow their dreams? Will people pound on the door to get a job with that description? Are those the types of things you read in an obituary? Not. A. Chance.

 

That’s not what the apostles’ had in mind when they thought about the road the success and glory, either. James and John – two of Jesus’ inner circle – had a request for Jesus before he entered Jerusalem: let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory. Assuming that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to begin his glorious reign on earth, they wanted to reserve their places in his cabinet. They wanted positions of power and authority – including authority over their fellow apostles. Now that sounds more like it, right? No matter what area of life we might consider – business, politics, athletics, even in the church and home – true greatness means having power over other people, being able to bend them to our will, make them serve us. (cf. walkouts, protests, hashtags, etc.) Jesus recognized how the world works: You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.

 

But then he throws a curveball: Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. According to Jesus, if you want to become great – you must become small. If you want to become a person of power and authority – then you must become a slave, a servant. This is another Christian paradox: a seemingly nonsensical statement. It only makes sense in the light of the Christ and his cross.

 

When Jesus predicted his imminent suffering and death, he referred to himself as the Son of Man. This was an Old Testament title for the Messiah – the Christ, the one anointed by God to save the world. The prophet Daniel gives us a glimpse of the Son of Man: in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all people, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14) Jesus’ own life is a lesson in contrasts. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is absolutely sovereign. His kingdom will never end. Everything and everyone in the universe is under him. And yet he humbled himself, he became a servant. He washed his disciples’ feet, he endured betrayal and denial and suffering and death.

 

The world doesn’t see any greatness there; the world sees only disgrace and embarrassment. But if we are to have any hope at all of heaven, we must see the greatness in Jesus’ humility. In yet another paradox, Jesus was great because he became nothing, because he became a servant. Think about how we praise Jesus in our creeds and hymns. We praise him for leaving heaven, being born of a virgin, living in poverty; for being criminally convicted, cruelly mocked, beaten and crucified, dying and being buried. That’s kind of strange, isn’t it? Our world doesn’t normally celebrate failure. Convicted criminals aren’t typically made into celebrities – although there are exceptions. History won’t remember the 63 NCAA teams that end their seasons with a loss. Until recently, children didn’t get ribbons just for participating. And yet Jesus’ greatness lies in what the world considers failure. We don’t praise him for crushing his enemies but for allowing himself to be arrested and crucified by them. We can’t praise him for ascending the throne of heaven until we thank him for being raised up on a cross. Our joy and our peace with God weren’t purchased with the crown on his head but by the holes in his hands and feet and side. Humanly speaking, we praise for being a loser; a failure, a servant, a victim, a criminal, for being condemned and damned to hell. Why? Why did he fail at life? Because we were losers. We had failed God in every conceivable way. We had gone our own way like stupid sheep. We had earned God’s death sentence. And the only way for Jesus to redeem unredeemable sinners like us was to become our servant – to take our sins, our shame, our guilt, our death and hell and make it his own. Jesus achieved greatness for us, not by ruling in power and glory but by giving himself up as our sacrificial servant. And, that was the plan all along: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

 

Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath we had earned and was baptized with the hell we deserved – to redeem us from sin, death and hell. He served us so that we might live with him in heaven’s glory forever. But now he invites us to share in his cup and his baptism, to follow his path to greatness – a path of humility, sacrifice, and service to others. He calls us together and says “you know how the world out there does things and what it values and how it defines greatness? That’s not the way it going to be with you.” Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. Just as our Savior’s true greatness was hidden – so if we really want to be great in God’s kingdom, we must accept the fact that it will be hidden in humility, it won’t – generally speaking – get you accolades and honors, it won’t make you famous or popular, it won’t, quite often, look or feel great. Just as it was for Christ, so it is for us: greatness in God’s kingdom doesn’t come through being served but through service to others.

 

So what does this greatness look like, practically speaking? It means, quite simply, turning the world upside down. Let’s start right here: in the church. Greatness in the church doesn’t come from simply holding some office or position, from getting your name in the bulletin or receiving the gratitude of others. For council and choir members, for the organist and pastor, for Sunday school teachers and volunteers, for anyone and every one of us – greatness isn’t found in being recognized and honored. It’s found in serving others, often in ways that are hidden from view, hidden in humility. Greatness consists of attending meetings and planning budgets, changing lightbulbs and cutting grass, teaching children and counting offerings and setting up tables and serving snacks and cleaning toilets. God sees greatness in Christians who do what needs to be done to support the gospel ministry without being asked. On a deeper level, greatness in God’s kingdom means carrying out the humble – but all important – tasks of holding each other accountable, carrying each other’s burdens, and praying for one another.

 

But God’s Kingdom extends far beyond those doors. In God’s eyes, greatness in the workplace doesn’t consist of getting awards and promotions and prime parking spots and a round of applause when you retire. No, God sees greatness in fixing other people’s mistakes and in tackling the jobs no one else wants and making others look good in the boss’s eyes. While the world sees retirement as the day you’re done following someone else’s orders, Christians see it as the time they are free to serve in ways they never could before.

 

In our homes. It’s easy to feel great on your wedding day – when others are praising you and bringing you gifts and working hard to make the day perfect for you. Mothers and fathers, it’s pretty great when you’re in the hospital room being waited on hand and foot by nurses with an endless stream of family and friends congratulating you on your new bundle of joy. But that’s not where God sees greatness. No, God sees greatness in changing diapers and washing dishes, in meal-time devotions and prayers before bed, in patient instruction and firm discipline. God sees greatness in parents and grandparents who model Christian values and Christian priorities in an ungodly world, in husbands and wives who may bicker and argue but who always forgive and ask for forgiveness, in parents who figure out a way (even though it may cramp your style or schedule or career path or wallet) to give God’s children a full-time Christian education – because no other gift you can give them will pay eternal dividends. And let’s be honest: none of those things will get you any awards or public recognition. These things don’t fit the world’s idea of dreaming big and achieving fame and fortune. In fact, some people you know will scoff and laugh and tell you that you’re doing life wrong. But you won’t care – because you know that your heavenly Father sees and rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:4); that greatness in God’s kingdom doesn’t come from being served, but from serving; not from living life your way but following in Christ’s footsteps; not from being praised and recognized but in giving all praise and glory to God.

 

Because just as our Savior achieved greatness for us by serving us with his suffering and death, so our path to greatness in God’s kingdom lies in our willingness serve instead of being served. For us, as for Christ, picking up and carrying the cross of humility and service is the only route that leads to the crown of glory in heaven. God help us all to seek and find true, lasting greatness in God’s kingdom. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.     

Numbers 21:4-9 - God Gives Us What We Need, When We Need It - March 11, 2018

We live in a free-market, capitalistic society where we are free to expect and demand what we want when we want it (and complain if we don’t get it). Want a hamburger? Go to Burger King and you can “have it your way.” With just a couple clicks Amazon can get you anything from a year’s supply of toilet paper to an 80 inch TV and have it delivered to your doorstep in two days or less. No more driving to Blockbuster for a movie – you can watch what you want, when you want On Demand. And, if you happen to really want some big ticket item that you really can’t afford – no problem, they’ve got a credit card they would love to get your name on. Why do businesses bend over backwards like this? Because business is beholden to consumers and that’s what consumers want.

 

In the world of business, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. That’s capitalism. The problem appears when the principles of free-market capitalism are applied to Christianity, to our relationship with God. The temptation is there – and is fed by much of American Christianity – to believe that God is beholden to us and our wants, to think of God as a divine butler – a heavenly Amazon.com – who better give us what we want, when we want it – or we can just take our business elsewhere. But God loves us too much to give us what we want, when we want it. He promises something even better: he gives us what we need, when we need it.

 

We meet up with the Israelites near the end of their wandering in the wilderness. They were about to step into the land God had promised to their fathers 40 years earlier after he had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. They were so close they could almost taste it. Once they had passed through the nation of Edom, they would be home – in a land flowing with milk and honey. There was only one problem: Edom refused to let them pass. And so the Israelites had to turn around, go back where they came from and take an over 200 mile detour to the Promised Land. We can understand their impatience, we get frustrated when we have to take a 10 mile detour in a car. But the Israelites were on foot, in a barren desert, numbering around 2 million people of all ages in all conditions of life, carrying everything they owned on their backs, after having already spent 4 decades wandering the wilderness. 

 

This was not what the Israelites wanted when they wanted it. So they filed a complaint “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” God and Moses must have felt like parents on a family vacation. It never takes long for the griping to begin, does it? “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” Then it’s, “These sandwiches you packed are gross, why can’t we stop at McDonalds.” Tensions rise when “Are we there yet?” becomes “If we don’t get there soon, I’m going to die.” And then the last straw, that final act of rebellion – kicking the back of your seat! Spoiled brats, that’s what the Israelites were behaving like.

 

You detest this miserable food? You mean this food that God rains down from heaven day after day, food that you don’t have to work or pay for, food that you simply have to pick up and eat? That food you don’t deserve to eat, that’s the food you detest? Is there anything else you would like to complain about? How about your clothing – maybe it’s time for a fashion update? (Nehemiah tells us that even after 40 years of walking the clothing and shoes of the Israelites did not wear out.) (Nehemiah 9:21) You dare complain about being rescued from Egypt? Do you remember what went on there? Your parents were driven to death producing bricks and their baby boys were put to death. Would you really prefer that to the freedom and security of walking with God to a land of your own?

 

Who would grumble and complain about such undeserved gifts and blessings? It would be like a person today whining that their house is not big enough, their car not new enough, their clothes not fashionable enough, their food not delectable enough, the government not effective enough, their children not obedient enough, the weather not warm enough, or their bodies not healthy enough. Certainly we would never complain like the Israelites, would we? Unfortunately, we too are often more proficient at itemizing our grievances than counting our blessings. “But it’s my right to complain.” No. It’s not. Not if we actually believe the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We confess with Luther in his explanation to the first article that clothing and shoes, food and drink, property and home, spouse and children…and all [we] own, and all [we] need to keep our bodies and lives are not things we are entitled to but gifts from our gracious God. Which means that every time we complain about any of those things we are no better than the Israelites, no better than kids kicking the back of the car seat, in fact, no better than unbelievers.

 

Wait, what? Yes, griping and complaining are not the hallmarks of faith but unbelief – because it is a denial and rejection of God’s promise to provide everything we need. (James 1:17) Complaining about what God has or hasn’t given us is a serious sin because it alleges that God doesn’t know what is best for us, or, even, that his goal is not to bless and save us but harm us. Make no mistake: it is a nothing less than rebellion to think that we know better than God. This is the sin that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden (Genesis 3:24), got Jonah swallowed by a fish (Jonah 1:17), that led to the Israelites’ 40 year wandering in the first place (Numbers 14), the kind of sin that if left unchecked, leads to eternal death in hell. God is good and gracious and gives us every gift we need for our bodies and lives – but if we grow so fixated on the gifts that we forget the giver, then we need something else; namely, discipline.

 

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. Like the parent who turns around in their seat and says “Quit your crying or I will…give you something to cry about” God turned to the Israelites – in love – and told them with snakes “I’m going to give you something to cry about because you need a wakeup call. You need to remember who’s in charge here. You need to remember that your real problem is not lack of variety in your diet but your depraved hearts.” These lethal snakes forced the Israelites to reflect on themselves and their behavior. They realized how faithless and ungrateful they have been. And, when they realized that the only thing they truly deserved was a painful death, they were quick to change their tune: the people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” God’s discipline administered through venomous snakes accomplished his purpose: it brought about a change of heart, a confession of sin, true, heartfelt repentance.

“So, pastor, you’re saying that when some struggle, some sorrow, some pain or problem comes into my life – I should see it as God’s way of leading me to examine myself, of disciplining me in order to lead me to repentance and cry out to him for help?” Yes. When we cry into our 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets about how unfair life is, God might well respond by giving us something to really cry about. If we complain about conditions at work, he might give us a pink slip. If we grumble about not having enough money, he might let the car break down. If we gripe about our good-for nothing relatives, he may take them away. If we gripe about aches and pains, he might send us to the ER. Now, this is not to say that every hardship we face is directly tied to a specific complaint. (Read the book of Job.) But, when we fall into the unbelief of complaining about God’s gifts to us, he loves us enough to give us something to really cry about with a healthy dose of discipline. Why? Because sometimes pain is the only sermon that gets our attention. C.S. Lewis wrote: “We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” [1] Through his loving discipline God helps see that our biggest problem is our lost and depraved condition as sinners; and how we must join the Israelites in the simple, excuse free, confession that we [have] sinned against the LORD. And if God uses painful, unpleasant discipline to bring about that goal, we shouldn’t get angry, we should endure hardship as discipline recognizing that God is treating [us] like sons trusting that [He] disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. (Hebrews 12:1, 10)

 

And the good news is that when God drives us to repentance, he always answers our cries for mercy – and always in the way that is best for us: The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. Did you notice that even here, God didn’t give the Israelites what they wanted? They wanted the snakes taken away. Instead, God gave them another snake, a bronze snake on a pole. This had to seem like utter foolishness to the Israelites. How could looking at a bronze snake save them? It couldn’t. That was the point. It was not the bronze snake that saved them, it was the promise God attached to it. And so, it took faith in God’s Word for those who were writhing in pain to look at that snake on the pole, but if they believed and looked, God saved their lives. A renewed and strengthened faith in God’s promises is what the Israelites needed most and through his gifts, his discipline, and his salvation – God gave them exactly what they needed, right when they needed it.

 

So where’s the snake on a pole we should look at when God’s discipline has brought us to our knees? It’s right here. It’s the water of Baptism. The bread and wine of Holy Communion. The absolution spoken and the Gospel read and the Word of God applied. But still today, many doubt and say: “How can tap water save?” “How can bread and wine grant forgiveness of sins?” “How can words written and read guarantee eternal life?” The simple answer is: they don’t. Neither the snake, nor the water, nor the bread and wine, nor the word on the page has any power to save on their own. But, administered by Christ’s command and connected to God’s Word – these become the powerful and effective (and only) means of salvation.

 

That’s how it has to be because - when you see the water of Baptism, receive the bread and wine of Communion, hear the Word of God read and preached, and when those Israelites looked at that snake in the desert – God really wants you to see something greater with eyes of faith. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15) We can’t help but see ourselves and our Savior in this story, can we? 1) Just like the Israelites, we are all infected with the deadly poison of sin injected by the devil – a poison that without treatment, will result in eternal death. 2) In both cases there is only one cure: faith in God’s promise. 3) Just as there was no poison in that bronze snake, so there was no sin in Jesus, and yet he sucked the poison of sin out of our souls, bled and died for it on the cross 4) And, in both cases, the cure is immediate and complete. The moment the Israelites looked to the bronze snake with faith in God’s promise – they were healed. The moment anyone comes to faith in Jesus – they are saved, period. Today, this applies to Briar. Today, God saved Briar from the eternal death his sins deserve. Briar needed salvation and God gave him exactly what he needed most. And in the end, that is what we – and all people – need most.

 

What you want, when you want it might be the way of our capitalistic system, it might even be our own desire – but God loves us too much to give us what we want – so he gives us what we need. He gives us the good gifts we need to sustain our bodies and lives on earth. When we forget that, when we grumble and complain, he disciplines us with the goal of leading us to repentance. And, when we call out to him for help, he never fails to give us what we need most: forgiveness, life and salvation through Christ crucified. Look to him and live. Amen.

 

[1] C. S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 90-91.

Hebrews 10:28-31 - Why Teach the Doctrine of Hell? - March 4, 2018

Looking at today’s sermon theme, you might be thinking that you walked into the wrong church – or maybe the wrong century – this morning. Eternal damnation in hell is a doctrine that has all but disappeared from Christian preaching in 21st century America. (I would be willing to bet that some of us have never heard a sermon focused on the reality and severity of hell.) Why? There are three main reasons. First, this is not the kind of thing that would seem to appeal to unchurched people. We’re told that unchurched people don’t want to hear about a God who punishes sin and unbelief with eternal death in hell. Our response is: of course not! No unbeliever is going to want to hear about hell because, by definition, no unbeliever thinks that he or she deserves to go there. That conviction is only worked by the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Law – which includes the threat of eternal punishment in hell.

 

Secondly, the subject of hell is one which even we – believers – don’t really like to think about or talk about. Even if we know that in Christ we are absolutely certain that we will escape the punishment of hell, we do not like to think about it too much or too long because we have friends and relatives who have rejected Jesus and we cannot bear the thought that if they remain faithless will go to hell. And the result is that we tend to downplay or ignore or, sometimes, outright deny the reality of hell.

 

The last obstacle may come as a surprise to you: hell is not a topic that Christian pastors relish discussing and applying. Think about the oncologist who must tell a patient that they have stage four cancer and only has days or weeks to live. Compare that to telling a person who has rejected Christ and the salvation he offers – that the only future he or she has to look forward to is punishment that never ends. And yet, in spite of these obstacles, it is important that we hear what God’s Word has to say about hell. Why? Because so many deny it, because it is Biblical fact, and because it reveals, better than anything else, our need for a Savior.

 

It is especially important for us to teach about hell in our time because so many people deny it. This wouldn’t be so troubling if it were only godless unbelievers denying the existence of hell. When we learn, for example, that Thomas Jefferson said that a God who would condemn people to hell would be a monster and not a God, that hardly surprises us, because Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. When Unitarians say that hell is what we experience when we are suffering from depression or loneliness or lovelessness on earth, that doesn’t shock us because Unitarians are not Christians. [1] When Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that those who die in unbelief will face an unending eternity of pain and torment and instead say that unbelievers will simply be annihilated [2] this does not surprise us either because Jehovah’s Witnesses are not Christians.

 

But what ought to shock and disturb us is that the doctrine of hell is under attack by people who claim to be Christian and insist that they believe the Bible. For the better part of 2000 years all Christians – whether Lutheran or Protestant or Catholic – were in agreement all who die in unbelief go to hell, that hell is forever, and that hell is unending torment. But, in recent years, this has changed. A 2015 Pew Research Council survey showed that while 85% of Christians in America believe in the existence of heaven, only 70% believe in the existence of hell. [3] How is this possible? Well, like most heresies, it starts with those who should know better, the leaders of the church. One example is Clark Pinnock, a prominent Evangelical theologian who wrote “Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die.” [4] This was not some cult leader making this assertion. This was a respected and influential Bible teacher in Evangelical circles. Chances are you may even know some people who agree with him.

 

How do they come to this conclusion? Many so-called Christians find it difficult to believe in hell because they say that God is love (1 John 4:8), and a loving God – according to them – would never punish anyone forever in hell (except maybe Hitler). So they use their own reason and emotions to fabricate their own theories of what will happen to unbelievers when they die. Some say that there is a hell, but that the suffering in hell will finally come to an end and eventually everyone will wind up in heaven. Others say that hell is non-existent and that all those people who do not go to heaven will simply be annihilated – that is, they will simply pass out of existence. But the worst heresy of all is the doctrine of universalism – that hell is just an empty threat and that all people, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe about Jesus, will immediately go to heaven when they die.

 

The only problem with their theories is that the Bible, the only source and standard for Christian doctrine and life, states unequivocally that hell is real and that it is a place where there is horrible, unending punishment. In this section of Hebrews the author is warning his wavering readers to not be deceived: anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

 

The author is arguing from the lesser to the greater. If God demanded that those who rejected his Word and will in the Old Testament be executed without appeal and without mercy on the basis of two or three witnesses – what do you think God will do to those who grind his Son under their feet like a bug, who blaspheme the blood he shed for forgiveness, who despise the Word and Sacrament – the only instruments the Holy Spirit uses to create and sustain faith? Every parent understands this. You may get used to the fact that your children will disobey your rules – but when they reject and despise your gifts? That’s something else entirely. Do not be deceived; if God mercilessly punished lawbreakers with death in the Old Testament, you can be sure that the punishment will be far worse for those who reject his grace.

 

And Scripture reveals exactly what this worse punishment is. Already in the OT, Isaiah wrote those who rebelled against me…will be loathsome to all mankind…their worm will not die, nor their fire be quenched. (Isaiah 66:24) Jesus told his disciples: do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28) In his description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus tells unbelievers depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41), and the book of Revelation says that the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. (Revelation 14:11) Hell is real no matter what percentage of people believe it. It is a permanent separation from God’s goodness and love, it is unimaginable torment, and the worst part is that it will never end. We must teach the reality of hell, then, not just because so many deny it, but because the Bible clearly, repeatedly, and forcefully teaches it.

 

And there’s one final reason to clearly teach and preach the doctrine of hell: because it reveals our need for a Savior. One of the most powerful and dangerous human impulses is the impulse to minimize, rationalize, and downplay the severity of sin. That’s why we come up with phrases like “little white lies” and “I know it’s a sin but it’s not hurting anyone.” In relation to hell, the impulse to justify ourselves leads many to underestimate the punishment sin earns. It’s the idea that I can pay for my own sin – whether that means making amends or giving to charity or paying the fine or suffering whatever temporary consequence is required. It’s the satanic lie that no sin is so bad that I can’t pay for it sooner or later. (You see this attitude regularly in public figures who are exposed for their evil deeds. Their gut reaction is to try to pay off their victim or give thousands of dollars to some non-profit or spend some time paying the price in a rehab center.)

 

If that’s true, if sin is something that can be wiped off the books by a few years of disgrace or by donations to charity or by spending a few years in prison, then God is a liar because sin is not as bad as he says it is – not to mention: Jesus didn’t have to suffer and die and we are just wasting our time here. But if, as the Bible says, sin is something that earns God’s righteous wrath, if it brings suffering that does not end, then it is obviously something that we cannot afford to treat it lightly – either in our own lives or in the lives of other people, especially people we love. God is just, he will punish sin. If we refuse to confess our sins and lay them on Jesus and trust that he suffered hell so that we never would – then we are telling God that we demand to suffer the full punishment our sins deserve. And it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

 

It is important for us to teach this doctrine of hell and the severity of sin, especially during this Lenten season, because it helps us understand what an amazing, precious, priceless gift of God it is to know that we have a Savior from sin. The author mentioned the blood of Jesus by which we are sanctified – that is, made holy. If the first part of faith is the confession that we deserve nothing from God but eternal death in hell – then the other half is trusting that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2) Jesus by his holy life kept God’s will perfectly for you. Jesus, by his death, paid the wages of sin for you. And Jesus, by being forsaken on the cross by God, suffered the punishment of hell – so that you never will.

 

So why do we, who believe that, need to hear a sermon about hell? Because some of us have heard that good news thousands of times. We may have heard it so often that we take it for granted, that it doesn’t really have any impact on us anymore, that we think nothing of skipping an opportunity to hear God’s absolution and receive the body and blood Jesus shed to spare us from hell’s punishment. But if we would always remember what a dreadful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God, if we would never forget that the sins we commit every day earn us God’s eternal punishment, we would never grow tired of hearing the good news that God his Son into this world to die for us so that we might have eternal life instead of eternal punishment in hell. The doctrine of hell is a terrifying truth. But only when we realize that hell is what we deserve will we understand the stakes of Christianity. This is not just about making friends or having a good time or having a positive impact on the community. The stakes in everything we do – from evangelism to education to discipline – are eternal life and eternal death.

 

That’s why, even though it might make us squirm and may seem like a doctrine that was left behind with the fire and brimstone preaching of past eras, it is still important to teach this doctrine faithfully, not only to defend God’s people from being led astray by those who deny it; not only because the Bible clearly teaches it; not only because it reveals our desperate need for a Savior from sin; but especially because it will help us appreciate so much more during this Lenten season what God’s Son did for us and saved us from by his suffering and death on the cross. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.unitarian.org.uk/pages/frequently-asked-questions-faq

[2] https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/what-is-hell/

[3] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/10/most-americans-believe-in-heaven-and-hell/

[4] https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/160513-theology-hell-history-christianity/    

Romans 5:1-11 - The Paradox of Lent: Joy in Suffering - February 25, 2018

Lent is perhaps the most challenging and rewarding season in the Christian church year. Not just because it focuses our attention on Christ and him crucified, but because it forces us to confront some of Christianity’s most difficult paradoxes. What’s a paradox? A paradox is statement that seems contradictory but is nonetheless true. Jesus presented a paradox when he declared whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:35) You must lose your life to save it? This would be nonsense coming from anyone but Christ – who lost his life only to take it up again 3 days later! Authentic Christianity – as defined by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount – is filled with paradoxes: the poor will inherit the riches of heaven, only those who mourn will be comforted, and it is a blessing to be persecuted. (Matthew 5:3-4, 11) But perhaps the most difficult paradox Lent presents is the one before us this morning: finding joy in suffering. It seems to be foolish and nonsensical. But in the season of Lent, nothing could be truer for Christ and for Christians. Christ’s suffering produced peace and our suffering produces hope.

 

In the years following the conclusion of WWI, many people thought – and said – that they had witnessed the war to end all wars. They imagined that future generations would learn from the death, depravity and violence and never repeat the same mistakes. They believed that the Treaty of Versailles would establish a peace that would last. Time has a way of dashing fickle human hope, doesn’t it? Two decades later, the world was once again at war. Today armed conflicts and violent revolutions carry on all around the world. Terrorism – both foreign and domestic – are a constant concern. Right here in Madison the lack of peace is demonstrated every day in the news. Shootings and robberies and road rage. Even more sobering, we often don’t even have to look outside of our own homes to find the absence of peace. This universal lack of peace, as bad as it is, is only symptomatic of a deeper problem: the lack of peace between God and man. Sin separates us from God. It earns us his wrath. It makes us hostile to God and God hostile to us. And we were helpless to do anything about it. But Paul says that God did something about it: therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

With the word “justified” Paul takes us into a courtroom. God’s courtroom. A courtroom where we are the defendants – whether we like it or not. The charges against us fall into 10 categories: failure to fear, love and trust in God above all things; failure to pray, praise and give thanks; failure to gladly hear and learn the Word of God; failure to honor and obey those in authority; failure to help and befriend those in need; failure to lead a pure and decent life; failure to take words and actions in the kindest possible way; failure to be content. We know – and God knows – that we are guilty as charged. But then something shocking happens. The judge slams down his gavel and declares that we are innocent of all charges, that our records have been expunged, that we are free to go. If such a thing were to happen today, there would be outrage and cries of injustice and marches in the streets. How is this possible?

 

Paul’s “therefore” points back to chapter 4 which tells us how this is possible: [Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Romans 4:25) Here’s that paradox thing again. Because Jesus endured the exact opposite of peace: a cruel and bitter death on a cross – we now have peace with God. It may seem contradictory, but it was the only way. And Paul tells us why a few verses later: you see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

 

What does this mean? Have you heard the name Aaron Feis? I bet most of you know the name Nikolas Cruz. Cruz was the young man who shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida a week and a half ago. Aaron Feis was an assistant football coach and security guard at the same school and when Cruz came rampaging down the hall, Feis threw himself in front of a group of students, saving them from death but dying in the process. Feis made the ultimate sacrifice – he gave up his own life to save others. That kind of heroic, selfless sacrifice is rare in our world. But as heroic and selfless as Aaron Feis was, he didn’t do what Christ did. Feis sacrificed himself for innocent students. Christ sacrificed himself for powerless, ungodly, sinners. Christ did the equivalent of taking a bullet – not for innocent students, but for Nikolas Cruz. Christ didn’t die for his friends, but his enemies.

 

And the result is that through faith in him, we have peace with God. This is not the peace that our world dreams about. This is not the end of school shootings, it’s not the end of sexual abuse by powerful men; it’s not a peace that can be achieved by getting rid of guns or urging love and tolerance. Standing justified before God does not mean that we will always feel “at peace” or have peace in our hearts and homes. This peace is far better. This an objective peace – a peace that exists outside of us. It means that – regardless of what is happening in our lives – our relationship with God has been changed: instead of being his enemies, we are now his friends, his children.  

 

And the devil simply cannot tolerate this. He works tirelessly to make us doubt God’s gift; to make us believe we are somehow responsible for our justification. One of his more sinister methods is to make us wonder and worry about dying in sin – that is, dying or having Jesus return in judgment at the very moment where you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing. What happens if we don’t have time to repent and be forgiven? Will you go to hell? That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? The reality is that we will be sinning when Jesus returns or we die. Sinful desires pass through our minds at the speed of thought. Sinful words, actions and attitudes are perpetual part of our lives. But Paul grants us comfort and the assurance that peace with God isn’t something we have and lose as often as we sin and repent. He says: we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. The wonderful reality is that peace with God is not something that we get today and lose tomorrow. The peace Christ died to win for us has changed our status before God forever. Wait, aren’t we still sinners? Yes. This is another paradox of Christianity. Luther summarized this paradox with the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator – a Christian is “simultaneously righteous and a sinner.” [1] Yes, we are always sinning, but through faith Christ’s righteousness always covers us. Where sin increased, grace increased all the more. (Romans 5:20) So that, while Lent is certainly a time for serious self-examination and repentance, it is also a time to rejoice. Rejoice in Christ’s suffering because through it he produced peace with God. Peace for sinners. Peace for you. Peace forever.

 

That’s all good news, but if we stopped there we might leave with a skewed view of the Christian life. A view that, unfortunately, many Christians actually hold. It’s the view and the expectation that because Christ has established peace with God that we will experience peace in our lives here and now. That’s not true. That’s a distortion and cheapening of the Gospel. The second – and perhaps more difficult – paradox Paul presents is the paradox of finding joy in the reality of our suffering.

 

And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Rejoicing in Christ’s suffering is one thing – his suffering is over, he is now reigning in heaven’s glory – but rejoicing in my suffering? That’s something else entirely, right? In fact, isn’t it when we are suffering that we are most tempted to doubt God’s love, to believe that Christ’s suffering was all for nothing – most tempted to give up our hope in God and hope for heaven? How can suffering possibly lead to joy and hope?

 

The first question is: what kind of suffering is Paul talking about? Simply any and all suffering that come as a result of being believers living in a sinful world controlled by Satan. This includes the persecution, ridicule, and animosity we face at work, from friends, from the world because we are Christians. This includes the challenges, sacrifices, and effort we choose to make only because we are Christians. (For example: choosing to pass on a job promotion that would mean working Sunday mornings or as parents, adopting a more humble lifestyle (maybe living on one instead of two incomes) in order to be able to give our children a full-time Christian education.) Suffering includes the problems that are part of the normal human condition: sadness, loneliness, weakness, sickness and death. And, as Jacob showed in our first lesson (Genesis 28:10-17), it even includes the suffering we bring on ourselves by our own disobedience and lack of faith. We suffer all of these things because, while Christ has already won our salvation – we are not in heaven yet. And yet, even in suffering, Paul says that we rejoice.

 

Why? Because we know where the road of suffering starts and where it ends. It starts with hope – the hope of the glory of God. In the life of a Christian, suffering leads to perseverance. Perseverance is the quality of bearing up under adversity. Perseverance leads to character. The picture behind character comes from the testing of metals by refining them with fire. Character is formed only through testing, trials, pressure. And, when we have been put through the wringer and come out the other side, what is the result? Paul comes full circle: an even greater hope for heaven. The PyeongChang Olympics have wrapped up – but Paul likens the life of the Christian to the life of an Olympic athlete. For four years those athletes trained, dieted, and sacrificed. They disciplined their bodies and their minds. Why? The hope of Olympic gold. Hope is where their training began and where it ended. The Christian life begins with justification, the gift of God in Christ that guarantees our “not-guilty” status in his courtroom. And then, as we pass through the trials and troubles of life God strengthens us in that hope by showing us, in sometimes painful ways, that this world is not all it’s cracked up to be; by creating in us a longing for something better; by increasing our hope for the glory of heaven.

 

And, unlike the hope of the majority of Olympic athletes, this hope does not disappoint. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Jesus has already done the hardest thing – he has reconciled us – God’s enemies – to God. In Paul’s eyes, then, nothing could be easier than bringing those who already stand before God not guilty through this life and through the Last Judgment to the glory of heaven. That hope is why we can do the unthinkable: rejoice even in our sufferings.

 

Is it hard to understand? Is it hard to believe when our suffering seems especially bitter and meaningless? Yes. That’s why we need Lent this year and every year. That’s why we need to see and understand that we are following in the footsteps of our Savior – footsteps that lead through suffering and death to a resurrection to glory. The cross was necessary for him because only his suffering could purchase our forgiveness and produce peace with God. The cross is necessary for us because only suffering trains and refines our hope – not for a better life now – but for the full and permanent glory of heaven. First the cross, then the crown for Christ and for us. Yes, this is one of Lent’s most difficult paradoxes. But this is the paradox that guarantees and sustains your hope of heaven. Amen.  

 

[1] LW 25:336 (On Romans 7) “Now notice what I said above, that the saints at the same time as they are righteous are also sinners; righteous because they believe in Christ, whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them, but sinners because they do not fulfill the Law, are not without concupiscence, and are like sick men under the care of a physician; they are sick in fact but healthy in hope and in the fact that they are beginning to be healthy, that is, they are “being healed.” They are people for whom the worst possible thing is the presumption that they are healthy, because they suffer a worse relapse.”

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