Mark 10:17-22 - What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life? - October 14, 2018

The man who fell on his knees at Jesus’ feet seemed to have the perfect recipe for human happiness. Mark tells us he was wealthy. (Mark 10:22) Luke tells us that he was powerful, a ruler. (Luke 18:18) Matthew tells us that he was young. (Matthew 19:20, 22) (Incidentally, the fact that the Holy Spirit had this incident recorded in three of the four Gospels tells us that the lesson taught here is important and worth repeating.) Young, rich, and powerful. That’s what everyone wants because that’s what the world says will make us happy. His wealth and power were likely inherited, because in Jesus’ day you didn’t ordinarily acquire wealth and power at a young age unless you inherited it. And so, the young man’s question makes sense: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

 

This man has everything you could want in life but he still felt an emptiness, a hollowness, he knew he was lacking something. Something money couldn’t buy and power couldn’t grab. Do you know what it is? An answer to his own mortality; a cure for death. A way to make sense of the harsh reality that you may possess everything this world can offer – but you can’t take any of it with you. It’s no coincidence that what nagged at this young man’s heart nags at the heart of every human being. Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) We all have an inkling that there’s something more, something bigger than us, something beyond our five senses. Everyone understands, sooner or later, that even the best this world can offer eventually vanishes, like a breath of vapor on a cold day. And that’s what brought this rich, young ruler to his knees before Jesus.

 

Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees who were constantly trying to trip Jesus up, to trap him in his words – this man was sincere. He really wants to know – needs to know – how to get and be sure of eternal life. He has a notion – the same notion we all naturally have: do good. Do enough good and you will have eternal life. Good teacher he says, recognizing that Jesus himself is someone who seems to have an idea about eternal life and is certainly also a doer of good. Jesus throws his flattery back at him. Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone. Jesus means what he says: no one is good. Not one. (Romans 3:10) We are all born with original sin, which means that even the “good” things we do are tainted by sin. (Isaiah 64:6) Only God is pure, unadulterated good. To call Jesus “good,” you must first call him God.

 

But he’s not looking for God to save him at this point, he’s looking for the one, last, greatest thing he can do to inherit eternal life for himself. Do you see the contradiction? How do you inherit anything? Do you do something? Certainly, you might try to butter up a rich aunt or uncle – you might make sure to call them on their birthday and show up to every family gathering to ensure your place in the will. But in the end, an inheritance requires two things: 1) someone to freely decide to give you their stuff; and 2) that someone to die. No doubt this young man understood this because someone, presumably his father, had died and left him his fortune and position of power.

 

And yet, he’s still convinced that eternal life is something he can earn. What must I do? The question shapes Jesus’ answer. “Doing” is all about the Law. Ask Jesus a law question and you will get a law answer. You can’t make the Law into Gospel, into good news – even though many try. Jesus obliges him: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother. There is enough good in those commandments to keep anyone occupied for a lifetime.

 

Teacher…all these I have kept since I was a boy. Does his answer surprise you? Clearly he hadn’t heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or read Luther’s Small Catechism – because if he had, he would understand that murder, lust, theft, false witness, fraud, and insubordination live in every human heart. We all are guilty of all these things – even if we’ve never been convicted in a courtroom. Ignoring a neighbor in need is murder, and so is hatred and wishing someone dead. Adultery is a lustful look at anyone but your spouse. False witness is not just offered in the courtroom, it’s served up at the dinner table and spread on social media. Fraud is “forgetting” to scan an item at the self-checkout or filing a shady tax return. Honoring father and mother includes all other authorities, too – even if we don’t like them.

 

Jesus’ response is fascinating, isn’t it? Instead of showing this man the spiritual side of the Law, Mark says, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Yes, this is what love looks like. And, for someone who is blind to their sin and boldly speeding down the highway to hell, this is what love sounds like: One thing you lack…go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. Jesus aims right at the heart of this rich, young man. He looks into his heart the way only God can – and he sees a heart that is consumed with greed, enslaved by the idol of wealth. He sees someone who has failed to keep the 1st and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods. (Exodus 20:3)

 

Martin Luther explained the essence of the First Commandment like this: we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. An idol is anything and everything we fear, love or trust more than God. The scary thing is that an idol doesn’t have to be a statue or live in a temple; most idols are invisible, they live in our hearts. Are there any idols living in your heart? A good test for idols is to assess your anxiety level. Someone once said that anxiety is the liturgy, the service, the sacrifice we offer to our idols when they inevitably fail to deliver. We fear the loss of youth, we love our riches, we trust our power to control not only our lives but the lives of others as well. And when they fail, we worry, we get anxious. And, in the sharp reversal that always comes from idolatry, the blame ends up falling on us instead of the idols. We fear death and so we worship the idol that promises the cure named Youth or Health. It involves religious devotion to exercise, to eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones!), to following doctor’s orders without question. But no matter how devoted we are – our bodies always end up breaking down and we all end up getting sick. And who’s to blame: you are! You didn’t serve your idol with the right diet, enough exercise, etc. We love Money because money seems to be able to buy happiness. But then we realize that the more stuff we have the more problems come with it or that we never have enough money to get what we want. And whose fault is it? Money doesn’t take the blame. It’s you. You didn’t buy the right thing, save enough, work hard enough. One of the most prevalent idols in our world is named Power. We strive for power and when we have it we think we can control our lives and the lives of those around us. But then we try it. Especially as parents and grandparents, we try to use our power to convince our families to do the right thing; for example, making worship a priority. But they ignore our pleas. They stubbornly despise the means of grace. And Power says that the problem is that you weren’t persuasive, passionate or convincing enough. It leaves us anxious and filled with worry. It exposes the idol living in our hearts.

 

Jesus loved this young man. He wanted to give him the one thing he lacked. What did he lack? It was not obedience or poverty or humility. What he lacked was faith. What he was missing was Jesus. What got in the way was his wealth and his power. And so Jesus comes up with the only possible cure: give it all away. Live up to the true spirit of the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31) by giving your wealth to those who need it more than you do. And understand, Jesus wasn’t saying that if he did, he would have earned eternal life for himself. No, Jesus used specific law to show this man that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. He was trying to lead this man to repentance – the surgical method that God uses to cut idols out of our hearts – because then he would be ready for the real answer.

 

Did you catch the real answer? It’s easy to miss. It’s just two words: follow me. The young man did. All he heard was Jesus’ command to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor – another commandment, more law – this time, law he hadn’t and couldn’t keep. But because his heart was still captive to greed, he missed the answer. I doubt that anyone here doesn’t realize that there is more to life than youth, power and riches. But sometimes we still miss the answer to life’s most important question, don’t we? There are still things that get in the way of hearing and heeding Jesus’ invitation to follow him to eternal life. What is it for you? Your pride? Your stuff? Your sin? Your personal convenience? Your job? What would Jesus say to you? What would he tell you to get rid of? Don’t doubt that Jesus loves you just as much as he loved that young man – what would he see in your heart that prevents you from following him? It could be anything. Our hearts are perfectly capable of turning anything, any good gift from God, into an idol. Whatever it is, don’t wait, repent; because no idol is worth sacrificing eternal life for.

 

Mark ends by telling us that the young man went away sad. Did he hear and believe? Did he go home and do what Jesus said? Did he look at all his stuff and say, “This isn’t worth it” and give it all away? Did he eventually repent and come back to Jesus and follow him all the way to the cross and the tomb to receive the inheritance of eternal life? We don’t know. And that’s a good thing, because it forces us to step into that young man’s sandals and ask “what would I do?”

 

To be clear, the lesson is not that money is evil or that rich people can’t be saved. The point is that no one, not even rich, young, powerful people – can earn eternal life. What that young man hopefully realized what that it wasn’t really his wealth but his determination to earn his way into heaven that was preventing him from getting there. The real good news is that while we can’t earn eternal life – Jesus can and Jesus did – and he wants to give it to us for free. Jesus calls to us, just as he did to that young man, to follow him to the cross, to the tomb, to his resurrection to receive the gift of eternal life he has earned for us. He issued that invitation first to us in his Baptism and he does it daily through his Word. And remember that to follow Jesus does not mean to keep his rules, to follow his example, to ask what would Jesus do – and then do it. To follow Jesus means to trust that he has kept all the rules for you, that he has satisfied his Father’s demand for a perfectly good life, that he has suffered the punishment for your idolatry and greed so that you never will, that he died so that you might have eternal life.

 

In the end, the young man was so close to eternal life. He was right: eternal life is an inheritance. It can’t be earned, it can only be freely given. And an heir is exactly what God made you in baptism. (Romans 8:17) A down payment on your heavenly inheritance – Jesus’ own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins – are exactly what is distributed to you from this altar. (Matthew 26:17-29) The narrow path through this world of idols to eternal life is what is mapped out for you in the Word of God – whenever you hear it, read it and meditate on it. Don’t ask what you can or must do to earn eternal life, instead believe that it is yours by grace (a gift) through faith (not by your doing) for Jesus’ sake. And anything that gets in the way of you receiving it – no matter what it is – simply has to go. Compared to the riches of heaven Jesus died to earn for you no idol is worth serving for even a minute. Don’t take my word for it, just ask that sad young man – or even better, ask Jesus and then follow him to life. Amen.

Mark 10:2-16 - God's Will According to Jesus - October 7, 2018

In the book of James we are told that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. (James 1:17) This refers to all good gifts given to all people. He makes the sun shine, the rain fall, the crops grow (Matthew 5:45), he gives life, talents and skills and homes and jobs and health to all people. One of the greatest evidences that God loves all people is that he blesses indiscriminately – even those who reject him and deny his very existence. But there is a difference; and the difference lies in how people receive these blessings. The believer joyfully receives these gifts from God, uses them according to his will, and thanks him for his goodness. The unbeliever refuses to acknowledge the giver of the gift, treats God’s gifts like he has earned and deserved them, and looks for excuses to misuse and abuse them. This is especially true regarding two of God’s most foundational and precious gifts: Marriage and Children. Today we consider Jesus’ own words regarding God’s will for our families.

 

Mark tells us outright that the Pharisees had come to Jesus with the express purpose of testing him – tricking him into a contradictory or false statement. So we know from the outset that the question is not an honest one. They are hoping that Jesus will either fall on the “liberal” side of the question of divorce – allowing divorce at any time for any reason, or on the “conservative” side – allowing only infidelity as a reason for divorce. They ask: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? This is the kind of question that should always set off alarm bells – “is it lawful”? It’s as if they were saying: “Can I get away with this?” Why are you asking? Have you been looking for an excuse to dump your wife? Are you trying to justify your past behavior? Why would you ever ask such a thing?

 

Jesus sets a perfect example for us by going back to Scripture and answers their question with a question: what did Moses command you? Jesus left them with a lot of material to sift through. Moses wrote what we call the Pentateuch: the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Rather than giving them the answer, he challenges the Pharisees to consult their own Biblical knowledge and come up with the verse themselves. Many passages in the Pentateuch speak about marriage – which would they choose? Not surprisingly, they choose the loophole, the exception, the one verse that seemed to accommodate their hard, disobedient hearts. Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.

 

The Pharisees did what the devil leads many people to do: rip a passage out of context, twist its meaning, and misuse it to justify their own sinful desires. If you read Deuteronomy 24 closely, you see that Moses’ civil law did not legalize divorce – it prevented frivolous divorces and protected the rights of the innocent party (in those days, usually those of the wife). (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) Because if a man sent his wife away – society would automatically assume that she had committed adultery – Moses demanded that the husband provide a certificate stating the real reason – thereby offering her, if she was innocent, protection from being stigmatized and allowing her to freely remarry. Even this was not God’s will, Jesus says, it was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.

 

Jesus goes back to Genesis to explain God’s real intention and guidelines for his gift of marriage: at the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. Before the Fall; before there was sin; before Adam and Eve and their children had become self-absorbed, self-seeking, self-justifying rebels; before the concept of divorce even existed – God established these guidelines for his gift of marriage: one man, one woman, for life. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. Back to the original question. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No!!! They are one flesh joined by God himself and what God has done cannot be undone. Certainly, because of sin on the part of one or both spouses, divorce happens; because of neglect or abuse or infidelity; it may become a tragic and inevitable necessity; sin may shatter a marriage so completely that not even two baptized Christians can glue it back together – but it is never, ever, lawful. It is never, ever God’s will.  

 

That is how the Law of God always works. It never lets you off the hook. Even when it may appear to be accommodating, when it appears to offer a loophole for sinful desires – it loops right back around and strangles you. God’s law is perfect; there are no mistakes, no errors, no room for improvement. It will never provide excuses for ignoring his will, never provide comfort for those who break it, never provide justification for sinful behavior. It always kills. Always accuses. Always condemns.

 

The disciples were bothered by this, possibly feeling guilty themselves, and so they ask Jesus about this behind closed doors. But Jesus doesn’t back off. Instead, he presses even harder. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. Jesus, God’s only, holy, righteous Son, sews the last loophole shut. Getting a divorce with the intention of marrying someone else is nothing but adultery. A legal document doesn’t make it lawful in God’s eyes. Because his will in the Garden of Eden is still his will for people today: what God has joined together, let man not separate. We even make that part of our vows, right? “As long as we both shall live.” Not “as long as we both shall love,” “as long as we both are happy.” Death, not divorce, is the way God ends the union of husband and wife. Anything else is sinful.

 

Now some of us might think we’ve dodged a bullet in this sermon. “I’ve never been divorced,” “I’ve never remarried,” “I’ve never had an affair – in fact, right now at least, I’m pretty content in my marriage.” Before you imagine that the 6th commandment doesn’t apply to you, remember that Jesus also said I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28) Paul said wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. (Ephesians 5:22, 25) God also commanded, right at the very beginning of time, that according to his will a man will leave his father and mother – that is, a couple will make their commitment public and will fulfill any requirements of the government BEFORE they begin to live together as one flesh. (Genesis 2:24) No one here has obeyed the 6th commandment perfectly. Maybe now it’s beginning to sink in how terrifying God’s Law really is. Standing in front of God’s Law is like standing in a room where all the walls are closing in. God’s law is a hammer that crushes even the hardest of sinful hearts. (Jeremiah 23:29) It leaves no room for loopholes, excuses, or self-justification. By it, no one will be declared righteous…rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20) And so a secondary lesson is that we should not go around asking questions like is it lawful, because if you have to ask, you already know the answer, and the Law is not going to help you.

 

Is there any good news today? Yes! In Ephesians chapter 5, Paul quotes God’s institution of marriage from Genesis and applies it in a remarkable way: this is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32) This whole discussion about marriage is not, in the end, about us working to make our marriages perfect – it’s about the only perfect marriage: between Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ is the one who left his Father and mother at the cross – he was forsaken by his Father and gave his mother to John (Matthew 27:46; John 19:26-27) – to be united to us – through the blood and water that flowed from his head and hands and feet and side. (Ephesians 5:25-27) We could spend weeks studying marriage and tips and tricks for a successful marriage – but we won’t, because, in our hands, marriage cannot, ever, save us. But there is a marriage that does save. There is one union that cannot be broken – not by sin or death or divorce (Romans 8:39). It’s the marriage of Christ and his Church. Christ proposed to you in Baptism, when he sealed you with his name and his blood. In his holy supper he comes to you again and again and again to tell you how much he loves you – to the point of dying for you to forgive your sins. All of Scripture is his love song to you – assuring you that you are precious to him and that he is preparing a home for you in heaven. So if you fear God’s wrath over how you’ve handled marriage in the past, don’t look to the Law for justification – look to Christ. Bring all of your sins and abuses, all of your lust and hardness of heart – bring it here, lay it at Jesus’ feet and trust that he has taken it all away – leaving you without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:27)

 

Our Gospel ends with little children. That’s fitting since children always, always, always wind up getting hurt the most by the sin of divorce. Parents were bringing their children to Jesus so that he could bless them. But the disciples rebuked them – the parents – for bothering Jesus and for the noise, distraction, and (possibly) the mess their children were making. From the disciples’ perspective, what value did children have for Jesus and his kingdom? How could they support or advance his mission of achieving earthly power and glory? Still today some resent the presence of children in God’s house – seeing them as nothing more than a distraction, a nuisance, a drain on resources who need more time and effort than they are worth.

 

That’s not how Jesus sees them. He was indignant. He lashed out at his disciples: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Who would Jesus rebuke for keeping his children away from him today? Do we parents understand that they aren’t really our children, they belong to God – who has commanded us – especially us fathers – to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord? (Ephesians 6:4) More importantly, do we understand why Jesus commands us to bring his children to him? He loves them, he wants to feed them with his Word, forgive their sins, bless them and save them. Why would anyone want to prevent Jesus from doing so? Only someone whose heart is filled with unbelief that would look for loopholes, excuses and justification to keep children from Jesus.

 

And there’s a big, important lesson for us in those little, insignificant children. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. In this whole section, the only ones who Jesus doesn’t reprimand and scold, the only ones who he freely welcomes, the only ones who come to Jesus having nothing to offer – are the little children. Not the Pharisees. Not the disciples. The babies. They are the perfect picture of what it means to believe and receive the kingdom of God. Not because they’re sinless or “innocent” (they’re not, they’re born guilty – Psalm 51:5). It’s that they realize their helplessness, don’t presume to do or give anything to Jesus, and are content to receive everything as good gifts from him. Only when we give up all our attempts to please God by our own works – and stop searching for ways to justify ourselves – and instead, receive Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation like little children will God welcome us into his kingdom.

 

May we all be like little children. May we always recognize that God is the giver of every good thing, joyfully accept the gifts he gives us and use them according to his will. Especially his gifts of marriage and children. Amen.

Revelation 12:7-12 - The War Behind All Other Wars - September 30, 2018

Shortly before Jesus was betrayed, arrested and crucified, he described what the world would be like after he left and before he returns – the world we live in today. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Among other horrors, he predicted that wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6) will be omnipresent until he returns. And so, for all of the treaties and diplomacy and peace marches – the only world we know is a world at war. World War I claimed the lives of some 37 million people – and it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Only twenty years later, over 50 million people were killed in World War II. Since then the world has witnessed the horrors of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam, Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a war on terror that rages on all around us – from airports and grade schools to the internet. Jesus was right, ours is a world at war.

 

And that’s not even the worst of it. Some of the most bitter wars are those that rage in our homes and offices and families. Jesus warned us about those wars too! He said that the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). Have you felt the chill? Husbands and wives carry on civil wars behind closed doors. Children lead rebellions against their parents. Coworkers undermine each other until cubical walls begin to feel like the Berlin wall. And even here, in the church, the Shepherd’s sheep tear and claw at one another. And then there’s the battlefield that no one else can see. We try our best to hide it. We dress in our Sunday best and plaster a big smile on our faces and when someone asks “How are you?” We all answer “good” or “great.” But underneath the smiles, within the confines of our hearts, secret wars are raging. Secret wars with addiction, depression, doubt, anxiety, worry, sin and guilt and shame and fear – and sometimes even unbelief. These private, personal, hidden wars are perhaps the most painful, because they can drag on for a lifetime and we may think that no one knows, no one cares, and no one can help.

 

The fact is that behind every one of these wars stands a far greater war; the war that causes and incites all other wars. It is the war of heaven. The war between God and Satan which finds its battleground in our world, our homes and our hearts. We will not be able to understand or comprehend all those other wars unless we understand this one, the war behind all wars: the enemies, the allies, and the outcome.

 

The Apostle John serves as the battlefield reporter: And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back…the great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him…for the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down…but woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. Who is enemy number one today? Hassan Rouhani – the president of Iran? Vladimir Putin? Militant Islam? Crime or poverty or inequality or global warming? Republicans or Democrats? Who is our worst enemy? The Bible is clear: our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil. (Ephesians 6:12) Enemy number one is the devil.  

 

Is that always how we think of him? I know that no one reads newspapers anymore, but when we did, we could see the devil depicted quite regularly on the comic page. What did he look like? A creepy looking guy with horns wearing red pajamas and carrying a pitchfork, right? No someone you would take seriously – and that’s just what the devil wants. But don’t fall for it. Instead, listen to the Bible’s damning profile of this murderer, terrorist, and liar: the great dragon…that ancient serpent…the devil (which means “accuser”) Satan (which means “adversary”) who leads the whole world astray…and accuses [us] before God day and night. (If you’ve heard the slanderous accusations made against a certain Supreme Court nominee this past week, you have an idea of the nature of the devil’s work.) The devil is not some comical character, he is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) He wants you. He wants your soul. He is dead-set on destroying your marriage, your family, your faith. He knows he’s beaten, but is so blinded by rage that he wants to drag as many people to hell with him as he can.

 

This is the real war behind all other wars. He’s behind the war on the unborn that has been raging since 1973; he cackles with glee that over 60 million babies have never had the chance to hear the Gospel or be baptized. [1] (And make no mistake, anyone who thinks that the decision to murder is a woman’s choice has blood on their hands, too!) He’s behind every grade school, high school, and university teacher who sees our children – who believe in the Bible’s account of creation – as easy targets for mockery and humiliation. (And yet, we continue to send them out into public schools, like lambs to be slaughtered.) He’s behind every false doctrine that compromises God’s truth to be more compatible with modern culture. He’s behind every argument at home, hoping to plant a landmine that will blow up another marriage. Behind every pang of guilt and shame stands the devil pointing a long finger right at us: “See God! Look at him, look at her – look at what they’ve thought, said and done; they deserve hell, just like me!” Forget the red pajamas and the pitch fork. The devil and his demons are enemy number one – awful enemies, and awfully good at what they do.

 

The Good News is that God is even better at what he does. While nothing is more terrifying than considering the power and work of our enemies, there is nothing more comforting than hearing about our allies. And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven…Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them night and day has been hurled down.”

 

Our ally is no less than God himself. The Son of God went head to head with the devil and won, bringing salvation, power and authority to all who believe. As good as the devil is at tempting us to sin and then turning around and making us feel guilty for the very thing he led us to do – Jesus is even better at forgiving our sin and soothing our aching hearts with the good news that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) That’s salvation. If it seems like the devil has taken control the minds and hearts of Hollywood, Washington D.C., and American culture – rest assured that Christ is even better at ruling heaven and earth for the good of his people, for the good of the Church. (Ephesians 1:22-23) That’s almighty power. If the devil is good at leading unwitting and unwilling people to carry out his dirty work of spreading death and destruction, Jesus is even better at equipping and sending out his people with his Good News to accomplish his saving work. He says in Matthew: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-20) And we witnessed Christ bring all of his power and authority to bear as he brought another soul – the soul of Joseph Rudolph – out of the devil’s dominion and into his Kingdom through Holy Baptism.

 

I know it doesn’t seem like much…a few words and a handful of water. They certainly don’t seem like the preferred tools of war. But behind those words and that water stands the work of Christ – the special agent God sent to destroy the devil’s work. He won by appearing to suffer defeat. He lowered himself below the angels (Hebrews 2:7-9) to be born, disguised as in human flesh, in a barn in Bethlehem. He faced off against the devil in the wilderness where he suffered brutal temptations to doubt God’s goodness, to test God’s promises, to circumvent God’s plan – but remained perfect, undefeated. (Matthew 4:1-11) The devil summoned all the powers of hell, sending powerful politicians, faithless friends, and a traitorous disciple against God’s Son – but nothing could deter him from achieving his goal: paying for our sins by suffering and dying on the cross. To all the world it seemed as if the devil had won on Calvary: Jesus’ message had been rejected and his own people crucified him! But three days later Jesus turned the tables when he emerged from the grave alive! Through the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – our sins have been taken away; our death has been defeated; the devil’s power over us has been destroyed. He has been hurled from heaven along with all of his accusations against us.

 

And now that Christ has won the war, he sends his soldiers to help us wage our own battles with the enemy. They are the angelic armies of heaven led by the archangel Michael. Again, pop-culture has created the false image of angels as pudgy little kids wearing halos and carrying little bows and arrows with nothing better to do than lead people to fall in love. But don’t be fooled by the world’s spin. There’s good reason every time angels appear to people the very first thing they say is don’t be afraid. (Luke 1:30) The angels are holy, sinless creatures of God who shout his praises in heaven’s throne room. They served as God’s messengers at key points in salvation history (Christmas, Easter, Ascension). Angels are God’s Special Forces who protect his defenseless people – especially defenseless children like Joseph – from the devil’s physical and spiritual attacks. Specifically this morning we hear that when Jesus crushed the devil’s skull on the cross, Michael and his army hurled the devil and his demons out of heaven.

 

Which means that the outcome is sure. The devil is defeated. Listen again to heaven’s song of victory: They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. The blood of the Lamb has taken away our sin and broken the power of the devil. This is not to say that the devil hasn’t won some battles in our lives, that we each haven’t given surrendered to his temptations, that we all have plenty of skeletons in our closets. And to be perfectly honest, if the war was up to us, we would have lost our souls to hell a long time ago. But that’s exactly what cannot happen to us because of Christ. In him we have total forgiveness, full forgiveness, free forgiveness. Poured out on each one of us – like that handful of water on Joseph – through the blood of the Lamb. Let the devil do his worst, let him tempt and accuse us – because we have John’s words: my dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

 

As Jesus said in our Gospel (Luke 10:17-20), every time this good news is proclaimed, the devil’s power is broken and his pitiful little kingdom takes a pounding. Right here and right now the devil is being defeated yet again. Really? Yes! They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. That testimony is the Gospel. It is the good news of free forgiveness in Christ. There is no more powerful weapon in the universe – because faith comes from hearing this message, and where there is faith the devil is powerless. Faith is bulletproof body armor against every last one of the devil’s attacks. Every time a sinner is baptized – the devil loses a subject. Every time the Word is preached and taught – the devil’s lies are exposed. Every time you pray, read a devotion, forgive and receive forgiveness at home, the devil must flee with his tail between his legs. (James 4:7) Every prayer that we lay before God’s almighty throne and every hymn we sing of Jesus’ victory slams the gate of hell in the devil’s face.

 

Yes, our world is filled with wars – national, political, personal – but never forget that this is the war behind all other wars. As awful as the enemies are, our allies are all-powerful and the outcome is certain. Jesus has crushed the devil and Michael and his angelic armies continue to defend us so that even in this world of war we have nothing to fear – because in Christ we have salvation, victory and peace. Amen.  


[1] https://www.lifenews.com/2018/01/18/60069971-abortions-in-america-since-roe-v-wade-in-1973/

Mark 9:30-37 - Christianity Is Only for Losers - September 23, 2018

He launched the world’s first 24 hour cable news network: CNN. His net worth is over 2 billion dollars. In 1991, he was declared Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of fame, a book that made the New York Times best-sellers list and a World Series champion baseball team. He was fishing buddies with former president Jimmy Carter and dated movie star Jane Fonda. In the minds of many, Ted Turner represents the ideal of the successful, victorious life that many people spend their whole lives trying to achieve. But what is less known about Ted Turner is that as a child he dreamed of being a missionary – that is, until his little sister, Mary Jean, contracted a rare form of lupus at the age of ten which left her with brain damage and screaming in pain until the day she died. Turner directed his grief and anger at God and the Christian faith – which he claimed couldn’t give him satisfactory answers to why his “innocent” [1] sister had to suffer and die at such a young age. All of which led him to later make the comment that “Christianity is a religion for losers.” [2] Now, you might be tempted to bristle and resent Ted Turner’s low assessment of us and our faith. Don’t. Today our Lord teaches us to embrace Turner’s assessment and to go even a step further: to understand that Christianity is only for losers; the one who lost everything for us invites us to lose everything for him.

 

We meet the disciples in a moment when all their visions for glory, victory, and success seem to be coming together. They had just come down from the Mt. of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) where Jesus had given a glimpse of his divine glory to Peter, James, and John. It appears that the disciples saw this display of glory as a shadow of things to come: when Jesus marched into Jerusalem, kicked out the hated Romans, and began his rightful rule as Israel’s Messiah – with his twelve closest friends, of course, getting their share of the glory. But Jesus had a different plan in mind. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.

 

The disciples didn’t get it and they were afraid to even ask him about it. Why? Well, if they asked him to explain and he confirmed that he was going to die, they would have to give up their dreams of power and glory. And it’s hard to blame them, isn’t it? They gave up their livelihoods and their lives to follow Jesus. He seemed like the real deal, the long-promised Messiah – he looked like a winner. He had the teaching and the miracles to back him up. He was so popular that they had to go to the backwoods of Galilee to get away from the crowds. Jesus’ whole campaign seemed to be growing and gaining momentum: the deaf hear, the mute speak, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, demons are cast out, the dead are raised. (Matthew 11:5-6) Jesus seemed to be a walking, talking, miracle-working definition of greatness. But then he goes and starts talking about crazy things: being handed over, killed and rising from the dead. This was not the talk of a winner. This is not what you would expect to hear from the Messiah who ought to be preparing to rule as Israel’s king. It was so unexpected and so irrational that the disciples try their best to ignore it. Besides, they had better things to talk about – things like which of them would be chief of staff in Jesus’ cabinet.

 

Why such blindness and deafness to Jesus’ mission and message? Why, after Jesus had told them a second time that when he went to Jerusalem it wasn’t to be crowned but to be crucified, did they still not believe it? Because that’s how they were wired. In fact, that’s how we are all wired. We are wired from birth to desire and strive for success and power and glory. It doesn’t take children long to understand that school isn’t as much about learning as it is defining who is tallest, fastest and most popular. It’s why there are no high school awards for the least likely to succeed and no trophies for least valuable player. It’s why we give our children the best opportunities, the best education, the best of everything – because we expect that when we do, they will be successful. (Even though experience teaches otherwise.) The entire Christian faith revolves around Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) and yet, more often than not, and especially when trials and troubles come, we don’t want to hear about a Jesus who died for our sins and rose again for our salvation – we want a Jesus of power and glory; who can fix our problems with a word, who can heal us, give us glory – now, make us winners – now. But that’s not the Gospel. That’s what Ted Turner didn’t understand. It’s why the Gospel doesn’t appeal to those who think they deserve to be winners. Who wants to wake up on Sunday morning to come to church only to confess that you’re a poor, miserable, wretched loser in need of forgiveness? (That’s why it’s no surprise that the most popular religions and corrupted forms of Christianity are based on winning, not losing; on a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross.)

 

But the cross, suffering and death are precisely Jesus’ mission and message. Not power but weakness. Not a crown but a cross. Not glory in winning, but glory in losing – losing it all in order to gain it all: losing his life in order to save ours. Jesus certainly could have walked into Jerusalem and – with twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53) – have crushed the Roman occupiers and assumed the throne. He certainly could have caused his enemies to suffer the same fate that they had planned for him – he proved his power in the Garden of Gethsemane. (John 18:5-6) Jesus could have stayed in heaven where he ruled all things at his Father’s right hand – he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being born as the child of a teenage peasant, he didn’t have to suffer the perpetual attacks of Satan and the hostility of the very people he came to save, he didn’t have to be a homeless wanderer on this earth for 33 years, he didn’t have to willingly walk directly from the mountain where he demonstrated his glory to a hill outside Jerusalem where he would be stripped naked, nailed to a cross and killed. Actually, he did. Because we were born losers in God’s eyes. Because God created us to love him and serve others – and what we love most is ourselves and having others serve us. Because heaven is reserved only for those who win in God’s eyes – those who are perfectly obedient, perfectly trusting, perfectly loving – and we were disqualified from birth. Because we were the ones who deserved to lose our souls forever in hell, Jesus took our place, he became a loser for us, he submitted to his Father’s plan that required him to lose everything – in order to save us.

 

And now, the world’s biggest loser invites us to imitate his example. He gathers his proud, glory-seeking disciples around him and says: If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. Notice, Jesus doesn’t crush their ambition to be the greatest in his kingdom – but he does blow up their idea of greatness. Rather than defining greatness as having the most people serve you, Jesus defines the greatest as those who serve the most. To punctuate his point he picks up a child. “You want to be great in my kingdom? Here. Get off your high horses, step down from your imaginary thrones, bend down and serve this child – because when you do, you will not only be receiving me, but the one – my Father – who sent me.”

 

I’m not sure that the full impact of this action resonates in the 21st century. Today, we tend to idolize childhood, we glamorize it, and prolong it. This is a children’s world – and the rest of us are just living in it. Children need to be coddled, listened to, understood, encouraged to make their own decisions, to be spoiled and pampered and shielded from disappointment. If they don’t like supper, we make them something they do like. If their team doesn’t win, they still get a ribbon. If little Stevie decides he wants to be a Suzy – who are we to argue? But it wasn’t always that way – especially not in Jesus’ day. Children had no rights or privileges, they were under the absolute authority of their fathers. They were seen as a drain on the family resources and couldn’t grow up quickly enough to be married off – for a girl; or put to work – for a boy.

 

Which is why it would have been so shocking to the disciples that Jesus not only acknowledged a good-for-nothing little child – but even pick him up and use him as an object lesson. Jesus is saying that if you want to be great in my kingdom – you must bend over and receive me just like you would receive this – for all practical purposes “useless” – little child. The only way to receive me is to receive me not as the world’s greatest winner – who promises nothing but glory and success to his followers; but as God’s Son who was born in a dirty manger, as a man of sorrows and a cross, as a servant who dies to save his enemies. Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? You must humble yourself and believe that the Jesus you need most is not a glorious, empowering, spiritual guru – but a lowly servant who suffered and died for your sins.

 

Do you see the relationship between welcoming Jesus like a little child and serving little children – in other words, the relationship between faith and love? You must first become nothing and throw yourself fully on God’s grace in Christ – forget everything you’ve done, contributed, earned, deserved and instead cry out “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” and fall into his loving arms. Because only when you’ve come to the realization that Jesus lost everything to save a loser like you – can you understand how the last can be first and the greatest in God’s kingdom are the servants.

 

Perhaps a few examples would be helpful. Greatness in God’s eyes in found in those little acts of love that no one notices. Greatness is found in the mother whose work around the house is only noticed when it’s not done. Greatness is found in a father who takes the time to teach his children not only to ride a bike and throw a football, but to thank God for their food, to read the Bible with them, to pray with them. It’s found in parents who lose career advancement and new cars and breathtaking vacations to give their children a full-time Christian education. Greatness is found in grandparents who demonstrate in word and action that greatness is not defined by personal achievement but by humble service. Greatness is found in people quietly contributing – without any expectation of public recognition – to build a place for God’s Word to be taught to people they don’t know and may never meet. Greatness is found in visiting those who are sick and suffering. Greatness is found in acknowledging and befriending the “losers” at work and school. Greatness is found in seeing something that needs to be done – and doing it; instead of running to tell someone else to take care of it. In short, greatness is found in doing the things that the world would say makes you a loser.

 

The concrete evidence that this is greatness in God’s eyes becomes clear when we remember that one day all people will experience the greatest loss of all. The sad fact is that our lives end much the same way they began. We become children again – not really very useful and completely dependent on others. No matter how great we once were, no matter how much wealth we accumulated, how many degrees we earned, how many awards or memorials were given to our honor, no matter how many people we lead or employed – we once again become helpless, relatively useless children. Even the first must become last, eventually. And while most people try their hardest to avoid it, that’s exactly what Christians are aiming for: we are aiming for death, to lose our life, to follow the biggest loser of all – Jesus – through the grave to resurrection to true, eternal, never-ending victory in heaven.

 

And so when you hear someone like Ted Turner call you a loser, don’t get offended, don’t get defensive, don’t get angry. Instead, thank him. Thank him for the reminder that Christianity is only for losers. We trust and follow Jesus Christ who lost everything for us – and who invites us to lose everything for him. Welcome that little child of Bethlehem with child-like faith and seek out the “children” you can serve in this world. That’s winning in God’s eyes. Amen.  


[1] Psalm 51:5 teaches that all people are sinful, not innocent, from conception

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/17/us/ted-turner-profile/index.html

1 Corinthians 3:10-15 - Keep Building - September 16, 2018

Back then, a gallon of gas cost just over a dollar. The average home cost just over $150,000. Titanic won Best Picture and became the first movie to gross $1 billion. The “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty to planting bombs and sowing terror throughout the country. Bill Clinton became just the second President in history to be impeached. And last, but not least, a little company with the funny name of “google” was founded in Menlo Park, California. In the midst of it all, in one little corner of Wisconsin, God was busy working on something that didn’t generate national headlines, that didn’t make the cover of TIME, that went unnoticed by all but a handful of people. On September 13, 1998, God led a small group of Christians – 15 or so – to a grade school gym, to the very first worship service of Risen Savior Lutheran Church. A lot has changed in 20 years, but one thing – the most important thing – has not: God is still working here to lead desperate sinners to saving faith in Christ, he is still building his church – and through the Apostle Paul he encourages us to keep building, on the proper foundation, with the proper materials.

 

Paul is generally considered to be the most prolific and productive of the Apostles. He wrote 13 books of the NT and established over a dozen churches. His letters detail how he suffered beatings, imprisonment, riots (2 Corinthians 6:4-10), how he was whipped, stoned, and shipwrecked; how he endured sleepless nights and starvation for the sake of the Gospel. (2 Corinthians 11:23-29) Humanly speaking, no one deserves more credit for establishing and spreading the church than Paul. And yet, who does Paul give the credit to? By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. Paul recognized that it was only the result of God’s grace that he was privileged to suffer, strive, and sweat to establish the Gospel throughout the ancient world. Paul no doubt remembered that before Jesus knocked him off his feet on the road to Damascus he was no Christian hero, he was a murderer of Christians (Acts 9) – and even worse, his self-righteous spirit was earning him an eternity in hell. But Jesus turned his life around – turning him from someone who trusted his own works to someone who trusted God’s grace; from someone who persecuted the Gospel to the greatest Christian missionary in history. Paul knew full well that it was only God’s grace that gave him a role in building the Church and to suffer and sacrifice for the Gospel.

 

The question is: do we always realize that? On an occasion like this, it’s so tempting to imagine that this congregation is built on our hard work, our offerings, our effort. We each have an ego, and we like to stroke that ego by coming up with a pretty impressive list of all that we’ve done for God and the church. “This church wouldn’t be here if I didn’t leave the comfort of my home church and start worshipping in a gym; the bills wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t frequently and generously open up my wallet; there would be a lot more empty seats if I hadn’t chosen this church out of all the available options; this place wouldn’t still be standing if it wasn’t for the time I’ve spent mowing, shoveling, cleaning, organizing, baking, teaching, preaching, giving, praying, etc.”

 

The truth is, if it wasn’t for the grace of God, not only would we not have the privilege of doing those things, we too would be on the fast track to hell. Because for all of the offerings we have given cheerfully and generously, how often have we given only reluctantly or only the leftovers? For all of the time we have spent here listening to the Gospel, how much more time have we wasted chasing after worldly pleasure? For the many times we have boldly confessed the Christian faith within the safety of these walls, how often have we kept silent when given the opportunity to speak the truth or, even worse, have denied the truth? In spite of all that Paul did and accomplished for the Church, he called himself the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:16) and less than the least of all God’s people (Ephesians 3:8) Can we confess anything less? If even our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) – to say nothing of our sins – what business do we have claiming any credit for establishing, sustaining or growing Risen Savior? For us and for Paul, it is only by God’s grace that we are privileged to participate in the building of the Church. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

 

But if we don’t get the credit for building Risen Savior, who does? For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Long before we were ever born, long before Paul had ever stepped foot in Corinth, Jesus Christ laid the foundation of the Church by his life, death and resurrection. The Church is not built on our blood, sweat and tears, but on the tears Jesus shed as he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4), on the sweat that poured from Jesus’ face as the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6), on the blood that spilled from his side as he gave up his life to pay for our sins. Most of all, the Church is firmly founded on the fact that Jesus rose from the grave – hard evidence that our sins are paid for, that we are right with God. There is only one foundation for the Christian Church – that is, Christ himself.

 

Perhaps that seems obvious. We just sang “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” (CW 538) But the fact that Paul had to write these words proves that this is not obvious to everyone. The danger is not really trying to replace the foundation of Jesus Christ – obviously, if a church stops confessing Christ, it has ceased to be the Church. The real danger trying to establish another, a second foundation alongside Jesus. This happens whenever people fail to trust that the Word will accomplish exactly what God promised it would (Isaiah 55:10-11) and substitute their own wisdom and reason, whenever we think that the Gospel needs some dressing up or modification or some special marketing campaign to make it attractive – as if anything we could offer is better than the free forgiveness of sins.

 

Which is why we aren’t celebrating our 20th anniversary by acknowledging the human effort that went into establishing Risen Savior (even though it was significant), but by thanking God that the church is not built on or by us. We thank him for planning our salvation even before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4); for making and keeping his promise to send a Savior from sin; for using men like Paul to spread this good news throughout the ancient world; for giving us parents and grandparents who brought us to be baptized and fed at Jesus’ feet; for pastors like Dan Sims, Oliver Lindholm and Nathan Fager who faithfully preached nothing more and nothing less than the Word of God; and, most of all, for the Holy Spirit who sanctifies all of our imperfect efforts and to this day attaches the power of salvation to simple things like water, bread, wine and the Word. (Romans 1:16) If this church was built on our own effort or ingenuity, it would have crumbled long ago. It’s a testimony to God’s grace that even as the past two decades have seen our nation, many of our nation’s churches, and even many of our family and friends walk away from Christ – God has kept Risen Savior grounded on the only foundation that can withstand the storms of sin and Satan: Christ crucified.

 

Speaking of storms, I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures and video of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Florence on North and South Carolina. Cars and homes and entire communities were all swept away by the wind and waves. It’s interesting, though, that when the waters finally recede, for the most part, the foundations will still be standing. Why? Because the foundation was built of solid, indestructible concrete while the structure above was built of cheaper and lighter 2x4’s, drywall and plaster. Paul uses a similar image in describing the church: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. Even though Paul doesn’t define these different materials, we immediately notice that they fall into two groups: three that are non-combustible (they don’t burn up in fire), and three that are combustible. People living in the 1st century would have appreciated Paul’s illustration. When a fire swept through an ancient city, the only thing left standing might be a temple or palace built of costly stones, gold and silver. We get the point, right? As we build on the foundation of Christ, we have a choice: build with proper, precious materials that will last or build with the easy, cheap materials that won’t. While there may seem to be no visible difference between churches that build with precious materials and those that build with worthless ones (it might even seem like those that build with worthless materials grow bigger, faster), Paul says that one day it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

 

Paul’s words should be a wake-up call to every church – even ours. Satan is always tempting us to build with materials other than those God has given us. There’s always the temptation to think that if we just provide the services and programs that people in our community want: day care, rent assistance, children’s programs, marriage and financial workshops – that then we can slip the Gospel in without them even noticing and the church will really grow. But not only is that deceptive and manipulative (and therefore incompatible with the Gospel – 2 Corinthians 4:2), but Jesus and the Apostles regularly told people that they would not provide for their bodily needs, but what they could give them was far more important: the forgiveness of sins. (John 6:27; Acts 3:6) We might be tempted to modify the more controversial teachings of the Bible to make them fit contemporary society – the roles of men and women, gender identity and sexuality, closed communion, fellowship – but Revelation 22 warns if anyone takes words away from this book…God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city. (Revelation 22:19) We may be tempted to think that it’s the persuasiveness of the pastor, the friendliness of the people, or the quality of the snacks that converts unbelievers – but Scripture is clear that faith comes from hearing the message. (Romans 10:17)

 

The church is not founded on or by us, nor is it built by our wisdom, methods or strategies. The Church is founded on Christ and still today the only proper materials to build on that foundation are what we call the “means of grace.” To the credit of those who were members back in 2010, they decided to place those building blocks front and center in the very design of the church. The pulpit where the Word is proclaimed, the altar where the body and blood of Christ are distributed, the font where sinners become saints – those are the priceless building materials that Christ uses to build his Church. No, they’re not as flashy or exciting as a superstar pastor or a professional praise band, it takes far more effort and patience to use them than the latest, greatest marketing scheme, and many in our world have absolutely no use for them - but it is only through these means that God shines his truth in this dark world, creates and strengthens faith, and makes new and stronger believers. Let us never take them for granted. Let us never abandon them for any poor imitations that promises quicker results or seems to be more acceptable to the world – because the true test is not whether what we teach and do grows the church now, but whether it will stand up to the fire of God’s judgment on the Last Day. Remember that 20 years ago Risen Savior started in a grade school gym by 15 people with little more than a Bible, some water, some bread and wine and Christ’s promise that where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) – and that when we look around today, we see evidence that by God’s grace the proper building materials – the Word and Sacraments – do work.

 

It’s been 20 years since Risen Savior’s first worship service, and a lot has changed. Hundreds of homes have replaced corn fields. A beautiful, permanent sanctuary has replaced worship in a gym. 15 members has grown to almost 150. We have more children who want to learn about Jesus than we have room to teach them. Only eight years after building a church, an expansion is already in the works. Founding members have died and been transferred to heaven and new ones have become children of God right before our eyes. A lot has changed. But the most important things have not. By God’s grace Risen Savior is still standing on the only foundation laid by God himself: Jesus Christ. Even in our ever-changing world God has preserved here the pure teaching of his Word and the Sacraments – the only building materials that will stand the tests of time and Judgment. In our Risen Savior we have a solid foundation and building materials that will stand the test of time and eternity. May God in his grace lead us to keep building on the proper foundation with the proper materials for the next 20 years. Amen.    

1 Peter 1:3-5 - Eternal Life, Guaranteed - September 9, 2018

If you were to stop in a Christian book store (if any still exist) or browse any number of online book sellers on the topic of the resurrection of the body or the life everlasting – you would find hundreds of books claiming to tell you everything you ever wanted to know. There are books that explain what it feels like to die and to experience the presence and glory of God – from those who have allegedly had near-death experiences. There are books that describe what God, what the angels, and what heaven itself looks like. There are books that talk about if and how you will be able to recognize Abraham and Moses and even great uncle Charlie. When it comes to the Last Day, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting – there is no shortage of books that claim to explain, define, and describe what it’s like down to the smallest detail. The funny thing is, the Bible is NOT one of them. Now certainly, the Bible gives descriptions of heaven: as a royal banquet (Luke 13), a mansion with many rooms (John 14), the saints gathered around the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 14), the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). But on the whole, the Bible makes it clear that God is more concerned with leading us to know and believe that through Christ eternal life is ours than he is about satisfying our thirst for details. Today the Apostle Peter assures us that even if we don’t know exactly what heaven will be like, it is guaranteed to us by God. A proven, permanent and powerful guarantee.

 

Peter originally wrote this letter to people a lot like us – in verse 1 he addressed it to God’s elect, strangers in the world. (1:1) He wrote this letter to Christians living in societies that were at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to Christianity. Much like today, the hostility wasn’t necessarily physical violence (although it did happen) but more along the lines of social harassment. Their faith was openly mocked and made fun of. They were alienated and bullied by their coworkers, friends, and sometimes even their own families. They were living in a world that loved darkness instead of the light (John 3:19), where the love of most had grown cold (Matthew 24:12), where people were not ashamed of their immoral behavior but paraded it about in broad daylight. Peter knew that the temptation was very real for these Christians to question whether holding onto this faith was really worth it; when the unbelieving world seemed happy and successful and believers were losing their jobs, their friends, and even their families. So right away in this letter, Peter reinforces their faith and restores their hope – not by promising them that life in this world would get better, but by assuring them that their eternal future is secure.

 

To be clear, left to ourselves, we would have no eternal future. In fact, when we were born, we were utterly hopeless. We were born into a world that had fallen under the curse of sin and death (Genesis 3); from our first breath we were doomed to die (1 Corinthians 2:22) and destined to spend all eternity separated from God in hell (Romans 2:6-8; Colossians 3:5-6). That’s why, when these Christians were struggling with persecution and trials of faith, Peter doesn’t point them to themselves or their works or their strength – instead, he points them to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

 

What has God done? In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He has given life to the lifeless and hope to the hopeless. He has given us a new birth – in contrast to our natural birth – into a living hope. How did this new birth take place? Peter says later in this chapter: you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23) And later on in the book baptism now saves you...not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. (1 Peter 3:21) Through the Word and through Baptism God gives us a new birth into his family, into the Christian faith, into a living hope for eternal life.

 

But it’s the basis for this living hope that sets Christianity apart. Because, in one way or another, nearly every human – and every religion – cling to some kind of hope for the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, modern-day Jews and Buddhists and Muslims – all teach about life after death. Even the unbelieving world has hope, right? Hope that the right combination of diet and exercise can prevent death; hope for a cure for cancer, a pill that can reverse aging, etc. (Which is not surprising, because Solomon wrote: [God] has set eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)) But without exception, these religions teach that eternal life depends on whether you have earned it or not. Jews believe that circumcision and obedience to the law will earn them a happy eternity; Muslims base it on following the 5 pillars of the Koran; Hindus base it on whether you had good or bad karma during your lifetime. These are not living hopes, they are dead hopes. And on the Day of Judgment these will prove to be false hopes, hopes that lead only to destruction. Because Jesus will judge them according to the standard they demand: those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:29) [1]

 

In contrast, the living hope of Christianity is not based on us at all. It is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Our hope is living because our Savior is living. Our hope is true because it is grounded in the historical, verifiable fact that Jesus died on a cross just outside of Jerusalem and three days later rose again, leaving an empty grave. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, therefore, is the basis, the ground, the assurance and foundation for our living hope of eternal life. Because he lives, we too shall live. (John 14:19; 15:26) Our hope for eternal life is guaranteed; proven in the empty tomb.

 

But what is this eternal life? Peter describes it as an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade away – kept in heaven for you. An inheritance is what is distributed when a person dies. The heirs often place a lot of hope in receiving an inheritance – hope that it will get them out of debt or give them a better life. But what often ends up happening? Disputes between family members break out, lawyers get involved, property and possessions lose value, and a good portion of whatever is left goes to the government in taxes. Even if you have the prospect of receiving a large inheritance from a relative – there’s always the chance that you will never see it, or will only see a portion of it. But the same is not true of our heavenly inheritance. It is already ours by faith in Christ, but we don’t possess it yet because God is keeping it safe in a place where no thieves or moths or decay – not even the IRS – can get at it. And knowing this makes our hope for it all the greater, because if it comes from our heavenly Father, we know it’s good. So good, that the Bible (unlike all those books of Christian fiction) only describes it by telling us what it is not. Unlike earthly wealth, it is not subject to destruction, it will not succumb to the polluting influence of sin, and time won’t decrease its value. John adds that there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. (Revelation 21:4) God has promised us an eternal inheritance that’s so good we can’t even imagine it – but we do know that it is unlike anything in this world: it is permanent, kept safely in heaven for us.

 

The only question that remains is: in a spiritually dangerous world, will we get there to enjoy it? Peter also answers this question: [you] through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. The devil and the world want nothing more than to rob us of our hope of eternal life. The devil whispers: “If God really had good plans for you, he wouldn’t let you suffer like this, he wouldn’t have let you lose your job, he wouldn’t have let cancer kill your husband or wife or child – you can’t trust his Word or promises.” The world is constantly holding out the false promise that we can – with enough time, money, ingenuity – create paradise on earth – so we don’t need the one God offers. No one can take our eternal life from us – but we can certainly forfeit it if we doubt God’s Word and his love or make the mistake of spending all our time, effort, and energy storing up treasures here on earth instead of storing up treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-21)

 

But God has even taken our weakness into account. The One who guards our inheritance for us also guards us for our inheritance. The Greek word for “shielded” pictures a ring of protection. Imagine the secret service surrounding the president or the FBI providing protective custody. How does God shield us from the deceptions and false hopes of the world and the devil? Through faith. How can faith, which so often seems to us to be a fickle and intangible thing be the instrument God uses to shield us until the day of salvation? Because the very nature of faith is that it is not something we do; it is trust in what God has done. Faith is the opposite of works (Romans 3:28), it is trust in the work of Jesus. Paul describes the power of faith in Ephesians 6: take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. (Ephesians 6:16)

 

Let’s be clear: this is not our personal faith. Our personal faith is always weak, always imperfect, always liable to being misinformed and misguided. This is THE Christian faith, the body of doctrine that God has revealed in his Word. This is the Gospel, the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. (Romans 1:16) This is the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3) The sum total of what God has revealed in the Bible is our shield. This is the faith taught by Jesus and the prophets and apostles. This is the faith in which we were baptized, instructed and confirmed. And as such, this provides a fitting end for our series on the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is the shortest and simplest summary of the Christian faith – the shield the Church has developed over the centuries to fend off the lies of the devil and the world. We need this Creed because this Creed simply and faithfully points us away from ourselves and what we have done to God, who he is and what he has done for us. I pray that over the past several months we have met our three objectives in studying this basic Christian creed: 1) That you know even better what you believe and why you believe it; 2) that you may be better 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 3) that you may be equipped to identify, mark, and avoid false teaching and false teachers. Learn this faith, love this faith, cling to this faith, keep running back to this faith because through this faith God has guaranteed to shield you with his almighty power until your salvation is revealed.

 

There are many today who have no use or need for something as basic and ancient as the Apostles’ Creed. They claim that what we need in the 21st century is religion that is relevant and relational and about us. The truth is that if even .01% of our salvation is up to us – we will be lost. That’s why we need the Creed. The Creed is not about us, it’s about the one, true Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is the only sure and trustworthy object of our faith and source of our hope. (1 Peter 1:21) He guarantees that this life is not all there is, that death is not the end. He has proven it by raising Jesus from the dead. He guarantees its permanence: keeping our inheritance in heaven far from all destruction and decay. His power shields us from Satan’s attacks through the one, true, Christian faith. May God’s guarantee give us peace in life and fearless in death. Amen.

 

 

[1] With the understanding, of course, that apart from faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

Psalm 130 - The Forgiveness of Sins - September 2, 2018

Labor Day is the ultimate American holiday, isn’t it? We get Monday off – and who doesn’t hate Mondays? We get a long weekend, and who doesn’t love weekends? And unlike other holidays, we aren’t obligated to give the credit and honor to something or someone else – it’s not a celebration of those who have died in service to our country or a president’s birthday. In fact, that may be what we like best about this holiday. What does it celebrate? The American worker. We get to celebrate our favorite people in the world: us! Surely we have earned and deserved a long weekend and a Monday off of work. But even though it is Labor Day weekend, we are gathered in God’s House today not to celebrate something we have earned and deserve – but something we have not earned and do not deserve, and yet, something we need far more than a day off of work: the forgiveness of sins. Today we will see why we need it, how God grants it, and how we receive it.

 

The author of Psalm 130 was drowning in the depths of despair. He was wallowing in hopelessness and fully recognized that he was helpless to help himself. In contrast to many who seek to strike a bargain with God or ask only for the strength to help themselves out of trouble – all this author could ask was that God hear him: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. Why is he feeling this way? If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? Everyone knows that all is not right in this life – not only in the world out there but right in here: in our own hearts and minds. We may give it all sorts of different labels – despair, shame, discontentment, depression – but what we are really feeling is the guilt that is the result of our sins. Guilt is more than just a feeling. The Hebrew word translated “sins” literally means “deeds which incur guilt.” Guilt is a liability, an obligation. It is a debt that must be paid. And the debt that any and every sin incurs is death. (Romans 6:23) Because there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-23), everyone feels this guilt. Because guilt is universal so are the attempts to find solutions to make the guilt go away. One common solution goes like this: it’s when you break the rules, break the law that you incur a debt and feel guilt – so, if you just get rid of the rules you can get rid of the source of your guilt, right?

 

Let’s use a modern example to test this theory. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws forbidding gay marriage are unconstitutional – giving gay couples throughout the country the civil right to marry. A segment of society had seemingly succeeded in getting God’s will declared unconstitutional. They hoped that by removing a law from the books the guilt would be removed from their hearts. Did it work? Numerous studies have shown [1] that LGBTQ individuals are more likely to report high levels of depression, more likely to have attempted suicide, and are more likely to use illegal drugs than the rest of the population. You might be able to convince the Supreme Court that God’s will is unconstitutional – but you can’t remove the guilt that sins against the 6th commandment incur. That’s just one example of the real, root problem: we know something is wrong but we misidentify the cause – and so we will never find the solution.

 

That’s why we need Psalms like this one to wake us up to the truth. This psalm has a long and prominent history in Christianity. Its nickname is “De Profundis” – a Latin phrase that means “out of the depths” (from verse 1). In contrast to the Oprah’s and Dr. Phil’s of the world – who argue that the problem is out there and the solution is within us; through His Word, God leads us to see that the problem isn’t out there and the solution isn’t in here; the problem is in here and the solution must lie outside of us. What the world needs today more than anything else is an accurate understanding of sin – that’s it’s not something that can be removed by Supreme Court decision or executive order or any number of good works. And it does appear that God is leading the world, as it faces the consequences of its own contradictory and self-destructive delusions, to think more seriously about it. If we really want to serve the world, we need to be ready with answers from God’s Word when the world comes crawling to us wondering why their solutions to guilt don’t work – so that we can then lead them to the one, truly effective cure.

 

But it’s not just the world that needs Psalms like this one. We, the Church, need it too. We need it to lead us to a deeper consciousness of our sin. We need to be jarred out of our easy-going complacency that takes forgiveness for granted, that treats absolution and Communion as something I can take a vacation from in the summer; that figures the Church ought to be doing something more productive than administering Baptism and Communion. We need to see ourselves as God sees us – not in comparison to others, not according to the measure of our nation’s laws – but measured against God’s demand to be perfect. (Matthew 5:48) We need to remember that we are saints in God’s eyes but we still sin daily; so that the guilt that we feel is real. God really is angry at us for our sins. He is serious about his threat to punish sinners in hell forever. Because only when we fully recognize how broken and helpless our condition is will we thirst and hunger for the cure.

 

What is that cure? Human ingenuity is great – and our ability as a race to do and invent all sorts of things to better and extend life is amazing. But all human skill and ingenuity have failed to provide a cure for sin and guilt. Some exert themselves to the breaking point trying to do enough good to make up for the evil they have done – but no amount of good can remove one ounce of bad. Others try to distract themselves from their guilt with busy, active lives or try to drown it in substances – but when the weekend is over, when morning comes, the guilt remains. Luther and his fellow monks starved themselves, beat themselves, slept on cold stone floors and prayed for days on end hoping to atone for their sins – and yet Luther could find no peace for his conscience. [2] The world has prescribed therapy sessions and therapy dogs, diet and exercise, stimulants and depressants and everything in between to remove guilt and make you feel better – but none of it works. Because there is only one cure for sin: forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? There was once a little boy who asked his mother to explain how God can forgive sins. She responded by asking him to bring her his etch-a-sketch that she knew he had been playing with the day before. Finding nothing on it, she asked her son what had happened to the writing. He explained that he had flicked the switch to wipe it clean. “But where is the writing?” she asked. “I don’t know,” replied the boy, “I wiped it out, it is gone.” Perhaps that’s all that can be said – as far as our real understanding goes – concerning forgiveness. [3] We confess to believe it, not understand it. It is a truth to be accepted because God says it, not because we can see it, feel it, or prove it. But of the fact that with [God] there is forgiveness, there can be no doubt. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. (Psalm 103:12) I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34) If you feel the weight and guilt of your sin, don’t turn to yourself, or your works; don’t look to therapy or prescriptions or substances; don’t compare yourself to others or lobby for the Supreme Court to declare God’s will unconstitutional. Look to the only one who has the cure for sin and guilt: our gracious God.   

 

But the fact that God forgives still doesn’t answer the question: how? Unfortunately, many believe and teach today that God is kind of like a lazy old man who doesn’t really mean what he says; that he kind of just winks and nods and “poof” your sins are gone. This is a bloodless, Christless, crossless, false form of Christianity. Where this false gospel is proclaimed the cross is replaced with a movie screen and the altar and baptismal font (where forgiveness is objectively distributed) is replaced with a praise band (to make you feel good). But the Bible is clear, God does not just turn a blind eye to sin; he must punish it. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. (Isaiah 13:11) God’s demand for justice had to be satisfied – or else he would not be God. But because the God of justice is also the God of love (1 John 4:16), he found a way. God sent his only Son, Jesus, to take our place, to be our substitute, to pay our debt, to suffer the punishment we deserved with his own suffering and death. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) Jesus was the atoning sacrifice – the payment price – for our sins. God is a forgiving God, that is true – but he could only forgive us if someone else suffered the punishment we deserved. Therefore, in Christ and his cross, both God’s justice and his love are found. He got the justice we deserved. We get the love he deserved. That is how a holy and just God grants us forgiveness.

 

The final question is: how do we receive forgiveness? God loved the world (John 3:16), Jesus paid for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2), God wants all the world to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and, as Paul said, all have been justified freely by his grace. (Romans 3:24) And yet Scripture is equally clear that not all people will receive the forgiveness Jesus won and therefore not all will be saved. (Mark 16:16) Now, you might expect that now is when we are told what we must do to achieve forgiveness. You would be wrong. The Apostles’ Creed is all about what God does for us – and that’s true even here. In order for us to receive forgiveness, the Holy Spirit must do three things for us and in us.  

 

First, he must show us our need. The person who doesn’t know he is sick will never seek out a cure. We must be convicted by God’s Law so that we know what sin is and that according to it, we are sinners. It doesn’t do us any good to say “All people are sinners.” We must be brought by God to acknowledge “I am a sinner.” Once we are aware of our sin, God both invites and commands us to confess it. (1 John 1:9; James 5:16) As we’ve stated before, this is difficult for proud humans like us. But there’s no other way. King David tried to do it. He tried to swallow and stifle and pen up his sin in his heart – but it only made things worse. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me. (Psalm 32:3-4) Pride sealed David’s lips; but as long as he kept quiet he could find no peace, because there can be no forgiveness apart from confession of sin. [4] But that all changed when David confessed the truth: then I acknowledged my sin to you…I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)

 

We must know our sins and confess them – but that’s only half the story. The Holy Spirit must also lead us to believe that God is truly willing and able to forgive us. Faith, and faith alone, receives forgiveness. With Paul we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) We are justified – we receive the forgiveness Jesus won for us – by faith alone. But faith is not a good work that we do to merit forgiveness, it is merely a hand that grasps the forgiveness God gives. Faith is never a blind leap – faith always clings to something objective and concrete. So where can we find concrete, objective proof that we are forgiven? Not through prayer, mystically, or through our feelings but in Absolution, in Baptism, in Holy Communion. Thank God for giving us such sure and objective assurance that our sins are forgiven. You don’t have to feel it, see it, earn it or sense it – all you can do is hear it, receive it, and believe it. So don’t skip too quickly over this article next time you confess the Apostles’ Creed – instead, understand your desperate need for forgiveness, trust that God is willing to forgive you, and believe that Jesus has purchased your forgiveness with his blood. Amen.  

 

[1] https://cola.unh.edu/sites/cola.unh.edu/files/student-journals/P12_Schaaff.pdf; https://lgbtihealth.org.au/statistics/; https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/2016/lgb-media-data-summary.pdf;

[2] LW 27:13

[3] The Hebrew term for forgiveness in Psalm 130:4, salah, is used in Scripture only of God – never does this word refer to people forgiving each other. The very terminology seems to say that we cannot really understand God’s forgiveness of our sins.

[4] This is still a very common problem: people wanting forgiveness without a confession of sin. People want their lifestyle affirmed, their guilt taken away without admitting that what they are doing is sinful. And liberal churches give them the false assurance that they have it. This is a terrible abuse of the Gospel and offers nothing but a false security to sinners.

Ephesians 5:25-27 - The Communion of Saints - August 26, 2018

When you boil it down, the Apostles’ Creed is basically a short list of Biblical facts; things that God has done, things that are true regardless of whether anyone believes them or not. But these facts do not save anyone unless they believe them…thus the I believe part of the confession. While the 1st and 2nd articles are composed of things the Father and Son have done – things it is only possible to accept by faith because we weren’t there to see them; the 3rd article presents the work and activity of the Holy Spirit in our world and in our midst right here and now. Why, then, do we say we believe these things – and not that we see them? Because quite often, the facts seem to stand in stark contrast to that which we do see. Take the phrase before us this morning: the communion of saints. Based on the inspired Word of God we believe that there are living saints who are in perfect communion with God and with one another. Be honest: is that what you saw in the mirror this morning? Is that what you see when you look around? But what is a saint? How does one become a saint? What is a communion and how do you get it? Those questions will focus our attention this morning.

 

While much of the doctrinal language of Scripture has been lost to modern culture as a result of biblical illiteracy and the dumbing down of education (how many people can properly define justification or grace?) the word and concept of “saint” has survived. The world has its saints. They are idolized at awards shows. They are memorialized with a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. They have hospital wings and schools named after them. And, usually, they all have one thing in common: they’re dead. (Senator McCain joined these ranks overnight.)

 

That’s because our society in general has a very Roman Catholic understanding of “saint”-hood. A Catholic dictionary gives this definition of a “saint”: in the strict sense saints are those who distinguish themselves by heroic virtue during life…the Church’s official recognition of sanctity implies that the persons are now in heavenly glory. [1] In Catholic thought, saints are those who locked themselves away in cold, lonely monasteries/nunneries and devoted themselves to long hours of prayer; who waged war against the enemies of Christ and died trying; who denied themselves and faced persecution and disease to help others; who lived humble, self-sacrificing, moral, upright lives. This is the standard conception of what it means to be a saint. And, like all good errors, this one survives because it is half-true. If we who have been saved from the fires of hell by Christ are compelled by his love to live for him now (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) – then many of those things ought to characterize our lives too, right? We ought to be people who forget ourselves to serve others, who suffer persecution and pain as we carry our own crosses, who deny the desires of the flesh in order to follow the will of God, who are determined to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:2)

 

And so, while we thank God for protecting us from the faith-killing errors of worshipping and praying to the saints (a related Roman Catholic heresy) – we might ask ourselves whether the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. That we don’t love the good and virtuous as much as we ought to. That rather than cherish and admire those who give of their time, their energy, their gifts to support the church and serve others – and strive to follow their example; we abuse their generosity by expecting it. It’s a sad commentary if we still pay lip-service to the Biblical principles of faithfulness and humility and self-sacrifice – but in practice, we operate with the worldly attitude that actually pride ourselves on how little we can do and still get by, on how quickly we can accomplish tasks rather than their quality, that we often ask “how can the church serve me?” instead of “how can I serve the church?” Diligence, faithfulness, hard work, self-sacrifice and service to others are fruits of the Spirit that we should all strive for. (Galatians 5:22-23) May it never be said among us: “well, I can’t do anything to be saved – so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” If we have ever justified our lack of effort in our commitments to our God, our spouses, children, families, jobs, or Christ’s church by the truth that we are saved by grace and not by our works, we need to repent; to call it what it is: sin – and rejoice that Jesus worked tirelessly to save us from those sins.

 

And yet, as natural as the Catholic definition of a “saint” is, it’s not the meaning of the word as it is used in the Creed or, more importantly, in Scripture. In the Bible, a saint is not a person who lives an especially holy life nor does it refer exclusively to dead people – it is rather applied to all who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. The Greek word for saint is hagios, which doesn’t refer to what a person does as much as what a person is. The basic meaning is “set apart.” [2] How are natural born sinners set apart from their sin? Paul tells us: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

 

In contrast to the view that only a few exceptional – and dead – individuals are saints, Paul says that the entire church – from the 5 year old to the 85 year old – is holy, is a saint in God’s eyes. This is not because of who they are or what they have done – but, rather, because of what has been done to them. The reality is that when Christ found us, we were not holy, we were not without stain or wrinkle or blemish, there was nothing remotely saintly about us. We were, instead, infected with sin from head to toe and covered in the filth of our own dirty thoughts, words and actions. To use the vivid picture from the OT – we were not spotless brides but trashy, unfaithful, adulterous prostitutes. [3] And no amount of scrubbing or doing of good works could change that. But Jesus took our impurity, our filth, our sin upon himself and suffered God’s wrath on the cross to pay for it. He exchanged our rags for his righteousness through the Sacrament of holy Baptism – the washing with water through the word. Baptism is the fact on which your sainthood stands. Every time we begin worship in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, every time we see the sign of the cross, every time we see the font, every time we receive our Savior’s body and blood in Communion – we are reminded of what God gave us in baptism: that Christ has died to make us holy, to cleanse us from every sin, to dress us in his robe of righteous so that a holy God might see us as saints, “holy ones”. And the goal of his redeeming work – and the Holy Spirit’s work of applying it to us individually – is that when he returns, we would be ready and waiting for him to come and take us to his home to be united with him forever. Those are the facts. So next time you look in the mirror, don’t believe what your eyes tell you; believe what God tells you: you are a saint, holy and set apart from sin and from this world.

 

On the whole, that may be the easier half of the equation to accept: that we as individuals have been made holy by Jesus. But we also confess that there is such a thing as a communion of saints. The word communion comes from the Greek word koinonia (1 Corinthians 10:16) meaning “participating in” or “fellowship.” the Apostle Paul describes the common union that exists between all who have been cleansed by Christ, as symbolized by the Sacrament of Holy Communion: Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10:17) Martin Luther, always wanting to explain theological truths in terms that even children could understand, actually preferred to use the term “holy congregation.” This was how he explained it in the Large Catechism: “I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ [Ephesians 1:22]. This group is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with many different gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms [Ephesians 4:5-8, 11]. I am also a part and member of this same group, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses [Romans 8:17]. I am brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Spirit through having heard and continuing to hear God’s Word [Galatians 3:1-2], which is the beginning of entering it.” [4]

 

A related term, community, is a popular notion today. There are community organizers, online communities, communities defined by every letter of the alphabet, and even community churches. These exist because people long to belong, long for social connections, long for common union and fellowship with other people. And that’s not by accident. That’s how God created us. Remember the only thing that wasn’t completely, perfectly good on the 6th day of creation? The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18) God designed us to be social creatures, to have unity and fellowship both with himself and with other people. The evidence of this inborn desire is everywhere. (Ironically, though, every time the world fabricates a “community” it ends up dividing people rather than uniting them!)

 

But there are several important differences between the communion of saints and the poor imitations fabricated by the world. 1) First and foremost, membership in the communion of saints is not voluntary – not that it is forced on anyone, but that no one joins it by their own free choice. Recall our lesson from Acts, where the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47) You may choose to be a democrat or choose to join a fitness club – but the Lord added you to the communion of saints. 2) Christian communion doesn’t depend on our level of commitment or effort. Worldly communities depend on the passion and dedication of its members to survive. Our communion depends solely on the work of the Holy Spirit. For example, while there were many divisions in the Corinthian congregation, Paul still refers to them as the church of Godthose sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. (1 Corinthians 1:2) The bond we have in the Spirit exists even if we disagree, in spite of the fact that we may have different tastes in music or different opinions in worldly matters. As long as we gather around the Word and Sacraments – through which God joins us to himself, we will have communion with each other. Apart from those means, our fellowship will disintegrate. 3) The bond we have – because it is created by the Holy Spirit – cannot be broken or destroyed by outside forces. Think of how regularly the Church has been persecuted from the days of the apostles up to today – and yet because we are bound together by Christ and Christ rules all things in heaven for the good of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23) not even the devil himself can disrupt our communion. (The only way a person leaves this communion is by deliberately cutting themselves off from Christ and the means of grace through impenitence or unbelief. Thus: excommunication.) 4) Finally, unlike any other association we may enter into in this life – be it citizenship in a nation, a branch of the military, a family, or even marriage – the communion we have with others who are in Christ is not ended by death or even by the end of the world. The people we stand shoulder to shoulder with as we receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins are the very people we will see and worship the Lamb with throughout all eternity in heaven. (Revelation 7:14)

 

So let us cherish this communion that the Holy Spirit has created among us through Christ. Let us find our common union, not in our social standing or outward appearance or mere friendship, but in the Word and at the altar, where each of us come as ragged, unworthy sinners, but leave dressed in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Let us rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) because we all belong to one body, and whatever happens to one of us affects us all. Let us gather regularly to strengthen our fellowship with each other by confessing our sins and being forgiven, by receiving the body and blood of Christ, by helping, encouraging, instructing – and yes, sometimes even admonishing each other – because the day of Judgment is fast approaching. (Hebrews 10:25) We may not see it with our eyes, but we are saints, cleansed in Baptism with the cleansing blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit has gathered us into the body of Christ, into intimate communion with one another. May God lead us to not only believe and confess these facts, but to work diligently to be what Christ has made us: the communion of saints. Amen.  

 

[1] https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/dictionary/index.cfm?id=36247

[2] See Romans 1:7; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1

[3] See the book of Hosea

[4] LC Article III, par. 51

Matthew 16:13-18 - The Holy Christian Church - August 19, 2018

Among the many ways Scripture describes the relationship of believers to Jesus (nation, flock, building, etc.) perhaps the most helpful for us today is that of a human body. Jesus is the head and believers are the body, the church. (Colossians 1:18) This picture emphasizes how intimate and inseparable the bond is between Christ and the Church: you won’t ever find one without the other. And yet, Satan has made it his mission to do just that: separate the head from the body. That he has been successful is evident when people say: “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t believe in the Church.” “I’m spiritual, but not religious, so I don’t go to church.” “Why would I go to church, it’s full of hypocrites and sinners?” “I worship Jesus on the golf course, at the lake, in bed…that’s my church.” “I believe in my own way, I don’t need a church to tell me who and what and how to believe.” Can a person be a Christian without the church? Can a church be the church without Christ? Those are complicated questions, but we will find answers to them in asking more basic questions: what is the church? Who established it? Where is it? How does it survive and grow?

 

What is the church? Ask five people and you will probably get five different answers. We commonly speak of the church as a building. Sometimes we speak of a denomination as the church. Catholics, especially, like to consider their denomination the Church. Many today consider the church to be a community service group that primarily exists to make the world a better place. Finally, and frighteningly prevalent today are groups that calls themselves churches but are really cults – groups who follow a human leader instead of Christ. So what is the proper, Biblical definition of the Church? When Jesus said I will build my church, he used the Greek word ecclesia. Ecclesia means “called out.” The Church is the grand total of those who have been “called out” of this unbelieving world into God’s family. And so properly speaking, the Christian church is all people, everywhere and of all time, who confess and believe what Peter confessed in our text, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

 

The answer to the next question, then, is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Who established the church? God’s only Son did, when he came into this world to live the perfect life we never could, died to pay for our sins against God’s holy law, and rose again victorious over sin, death, and the devil. Jesus Christ, then, is the one who established the Church by his life, death and resurrection. Jesus, who he is and what he’s done, is the rock on which the church is built. Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Corinthians: no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11) And so, in contrast to the opinions of those who regard the Church as an man-made invention, a community service organization, or a dying relic of the past that we don’t really need in the 21st century – the Church is God’s institution, founded and established by Christ, built and formed when the Holy Spirit brings sinners like us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. So even though church buildings and denominations and pastors come and go, Christ’s Church will stand forever, and not even the gates of hell will overcome it because it is built on a foundation that cannot be changed, torn down or destroyed: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

 

Because there is only one foundation, there is only one Church, undivided by time or testament, by distance or denomination. Jesus said on this rock I will build my church, not churches. Naturally, this raises some questions – and perhaps even doubts – in our minds. What about those believers who have died and gone to heaven? The Church transcends the boundaries between heaven and earth. We refer to the Church on earth as the Church Militant – because it is still engaged in spiritual warfare with the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh (Ephesians 6:10; 1 Peter 5:8-9); and the Church in heaven as the Church Triumphant – because it consists of those who have completed their warfare and are now resting in glory. (Revelation 2:10; 4:4; 7:9) But because both groups are bound by faith in Jesus – believers, living and dead, belong to one Church. What about Old Testament believers, those who died before Jesus’ birth? Weren’t they Jewish, not Christian? What about Abraham, Moses, David? It’s really simple when you think about it – what was the basis for their faith? God’s promise to send a Savior. (Romans 4:3; Hebrews 11:2) They too trusted the promised Savior’s work of redemption and so they too were and are members of the one Christian Church.

 

What about today, when there are more denominations (and non-denominations) than it’s possible to count? Remember, who belongs to the Holy Christian Church? All who believe in Jesus as their Savior. Are there true believers in Baptist, Catholic, Charismatic and non-denominational churches? Wherever the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered, there will be believers. (Don’t you dare leave here saying that pastor said that only Lutherans will be in heaven!) But here we need to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church. The invisible (or hidden) church is the true Christian Church, consisting only of believers. All visible churches contain both believers and unbelievers (what we would call hypocrites). While they may belong to a local congregation, they don’t belong to the Holy Christian Church. In the Holy Christian Church there are no denominations, no divisions, no disunity – there are only those who belong to God through faith in Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul explained the foundation of the church’s unity in greater detail in our second lesson: make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)

 

It’s important to understand that unity is something Christ gives us through the Holy Spirit, not something we need to work for. Thus Paul’s encouragement to make every effort to keep that unity. We do truly desire that all who are already united by invisible faith in Christ would be united in external, visible fellowship. Ah, but someone will say (and you might be thinking) “but you Lutherans don’t allow other Christians to receive Communion, you don’t worship or pray with Baptists or Catholics, you don’t work together in community service or mission projects with community Bible churches – how can you claim to desire unity?” Well, believe it or not, the practice of closed communion and refusing to join in prayer, worship and other Gospel-related activities until doctrinal agreement has been established is, in fact, the only way to safeguard the unity that is ours in Christ. It’s the devil would like us to believe that the only thing that’s important is that we all appear to get along – and that doctrine and practice don’t really matter.

Consider just a few doctrines and how they all tie directly back to the basic confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Many churches no longer demand agreement that God created everything in six normal days using nothing but his Word. But if God is not our Creator, we are not accountable to him and there is no need for a Savior like Jesus. How could we pray or worship with people who deny the First Article? Others reject Jesus’ virgin birth, his miracles and his resurrection. But if Jesus was not sinless, all-powerful and victorious over death – how can he be anyone’s Savior? Many churches today teach that the bread and wine of Communion are only symbols of Jesus’ body and blood because that’s the only explanation that makes sense. But that denies Jesus’ clear and simple words: this is my body…this is my blood. (Matthew 26:26, 28) How can we claim unity with people who deny Jesus’ words? Every doctrine of Scripture is intimately connected to the confession that Christ is the Son of God. And so, preserving unity doesn’t mean ignoring doctrinal differences, it guarding the only unity that matters: unity based on the Word. (John 17:17) We mean it when we confess that all who believe in Jesus as Savior will be in heaven one day – whether they are Baptist, Catholic, non-denominational or Lutheran today. But we must recognize that it is not faithfulness to the Word that brings about division; it is false doctrine that brings about division. We will not join in fellowship with those who teach and preach falsely now – because doing so reveals a lack of love for Scripture, a lack of love for those who are erring, and, most importantly, a lack of love for Christ, who said: [teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:20) The Church is one. It is united in Christ – his Word and work. And that is a unity worth fighting for.

 

The final question is: how (or who) is responsible for gathering, growing, building the Church? While I would argue that this, too, should be obvious, there is much confusion regarding who is responsible for building the Church. Many, probably most American Christians, believe and teach that it is up to us to gather the Church. That if people are going to come to Jesus, believe, and be saved, we have to persuade (or trick) them to come in the door and then convince them to believe in this Jesus guy. This thinking does not come from Scripture, it comes from the world of business, where marketing gimmicks and emotional and psychological manipulation are the norm in persuading people to purchase products and services. Not only is it impossible for human beings to create faith (1 Corinthians 12:3 and here, where Jesus told Peter that this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven!); but Jesus says point blank I will build my church. The Church is not our church. It’s not our job to establish it, grow it or build it. The Church belongs to Christ, her head. He establishes it. He unites it. He grows it. He says that no one comes to him unless the Father draws him. (John 6:44) He sends out apostles and prophets and pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13), he sends the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith (John 14:15-21), he has given no other tools but the Word and Sacraments to grow and sustain his Church.

 

Now someone might say, “but those marketing gimmicks work, just look at the biggest mega-churches in our country!” And we don’t deny that human methods are effective in getting people in the door of visible churches. But our purpose is not to bring people into the visible church, it is to make disciples of Jesus, members of his Church. (Matthew 28:19) The only way to enter Christ’s Church is through conversion – the total 180 degree change of heart and life. Only the Holy Spirit can bring this conversion about. And the Holy Spirit only works through the means of grace: the Law and Gospel. Only the law of God is sharp enough to pierce the hard hearts of people to bring about repentance. (Hebrews 4:12) And only the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) Wherever and whenever these tools are put to work, they get results – God promises it! (Isaiah 55:10-11) The Christian Church can never fail, but visible churches can fail, in fact, visible churches will fail if they try to substitute these divinely appointed means for principles taken from the world of business, for their own clever ideas, their own methods and means. Christ will build his church. Our job is simply to BE the church, be the body of Christ: pastors should preach, teachers should teach, parents should raise their children to fear and love the Lord, husbands and wives should love each other, whatever God has given us each to do tomorrow morning, we should do to his glory and we should all hear the Word diligently and receive the Sacrament regularly. Because that is what it means to be a member of the Christian Church. (1 Corinthians 12) Let us be busy carrying out the tasks our Lord has given us as his body. Let him worry about growing the Church he established and united with his blood.

 

When Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus replied I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. We believe in the Holy Christian Church. Satan works tirelessly to separate Christ from the church and the church from Christ. He knows that cut off from the head, the body will die. But Jesus has promised that Satan will never succeed. And that’s because the Church is not a human invention, based and gathered around human opinion, and grown by human innovation. The Church is established by Christ, united in Christ, and built by Christ. You want to find the Church? Don’t look at the building, the people, the pastor, the snacks….Look for Christ. Look for his Word and Sacrament and there you will find the Church – and, more importantly, there you will find forgiveness for your sins, protection from the devil, and salvation for your soul. May Christ keep us safe in the ark of his Church militant until he takes us home to join the Church triumphant. Amen.  

Ephesians 4:22-24 - The Holy Spirit's Work: Sanctification - August 5, 2018

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) The central doctrine of Scripture and the foundational doctrine of Christianity is justification by grace through faith. Because this is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls and without which no one will be saved, we emphasize this Gospel each and every week. But there’s a side-effect to emphasizing Christ’s work for us over and against our own works: we are sometimes accused of ignoring or forbidding good works and Christian living. (AC XX: 1) Luther and the later Lutheran confessors faced this accusation – and we still do to this day. But the accusation is baseless. We do teach, instruct, and admonish believers to lead holy lives and do good works. We do confess that good works are necessary – but with the important distinction that they are necessary not for salvation, but as a necessary fruit of the salvation that is already ours. With that distinction in mind, the apostle Paul leads us to consider our Christian lives of sanctification, beginning, middle and end.

 

In contrast to his other letters – which were written to correct specific errors or heresies – Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written to lead the Christians in Ephesus to a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s gracious plan for them. He highlights important doctrines like election (Ephesians 1:4), original sin (Ephesians 2:1), conversion (Ephesians 2:8-9) – and the nature and essence of the Christian church (Ephesians 2:11-3:13). Then, in the second half of his letter, Paul shifts his focus from what God has done for us in Christ to what God is doing in us through Christ. He connects justification to sanctification, stating that saved people are changed people. Saved people are new people. Saved people are sanctified people – that is, they are set apart in their thoughts, words, and actions from the ungodly, unbelieving world and for God.

 

While justification is a change in status before God – sanctification is a change of life before God. Where does this change of life begin? Sanctification begins with God; it is rooted in justification – with God’s free and unconditional declaration that we are “not-guilty” in his sight for Jesus’ sake. Very much like creation – where God created everything out of nothing with only his Word – justification is God declaring us to be what we are not. By nature we are spiritually dead, unable to please God or enter eternal life. But because God credits Jesus’ perfect life to our account and has punished him for our sins on the cross – we now are what we were not: we are justified, forgiven, and eligible for eternal life in heaven. God – completely out of grace – has changed our status in his eyes: from enemy to child, from damned to saved. This changed status only becomes ours through faith in Jesus. But the Holy Spirit’s work doesn’t end with changing our status before God. He also changes our heart, our character, our attitudes and lives here and now.

 

Understanding that sanctification is the work of God the Holy Spirit keeps us from confusing it with mere moralizing and behavior modification. From self-help books and diet and exercise plans to interventions and prison sentences – the world is filled with programs and methods intended to change behavior. While there may be some outward similarities between sanctification and man-made reformation – there is one huge difference: the motivation. People are motivated to diet and exercise to enhance and extend their lives. Would-be criminals don’t commit crimes because out of fear of punishment. Unfortunately, many churches are filled with a false “gospel” that consists of nothing more than teaching you how to change and better your life. But none of these are Christian sanctification. They may change behavior, but because this change does not spring from faith in Jesus – this behavior does not please God. (Hebrews 11:6) It’s like putting lipstick on a pig – the outward appearance is changed, but the heart is untouched. The work of the Holy Spirit is not simply behavioral modification; his work is heart transformation. And so true Christian sanctification doesn’t begin with the law, but with the Gospel – by the Spirit renewing and transforming our hearts through his gift of faith in Jesus.

 

Only when God has already given us new life through the Gospel, are we able to grow in sanctified living – in growing daily to be more obedient to God and more like Christ. This is the process Paul describes in our text: you were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self. Paul describes sanctification in terms of clothing – taking off the old and putting on the new.

 

The first part involves scraping away our old self, the old Adam, the sinful character we were born with. Paul says that this old self is being corrupted by its deceitful desires. He’s saying that our nature is so corrupted by sin that we are actually drawn to the things that lead to our own destruction. The prime example of this took place in the Garden of Eden when Satan led Eve to believe that eating the forbidden fruit would be good for her. In reality, it led to death – not only for them, but for all mankind. And that’s still how the sinful nature works. Prodded by Satan, we are deceived into believing that evil, wicked, and harmful things are actually good. God’s law serves to diagnose and expose these deceitful desires – so that they can be removed. The old self leads us to seek happiness and contentment in money, in our possessions, in our spouses, our families, in our own strength or potential or future. But these things can never lead to happiness or contentment, which is why God forbids trusting them in the 1st commandment. We have a natural tendency to put our experience, our feelings, our reason on the same level, or even above Scripture. But because going our way leads to death (Proverbs 14:12), God forbids placing anything above his Word in the 2nd commandment. By nature we believe that if we want to go to heaven we must earn it, which is why God commands that we take time regularly to stop, to rest, to listen to his Word which tells us that there is nothing we must or can do to save ourselves. The devil leads us to believe that any and all authority over us is a bad thing, but because the only result of rebellion against God-given authority in marriage, in the home, in the church, in the state is chaos – God protects the authority of his representatives in the 4th commandment. Putting off the old man consists of looking deeply into the mirror of God’s holy law to see which of our attitudes, desires and behaviors are contrary to his will – taking them off like stinking, filthy clothing and laying them at the foot of Jesus’ cross in repentance.

 

But that’s only half the story. Paul not only says that we should put of the old, but also put on the new self. Just like it’s not good to take off your dirty, filthy clothes and remain naked – so the old, sinful nature is to be replaced by the new man created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. In his explanations to each of the commandments, Luther does an excellent job of balancing the taking off of the old and the putting on of the new. Instead of despising and neglecting God’s Word and becoming so busy that we don’t have time for it, we will gladly hear and learn it. Instead of pushing the limits of disrespect and dishonor for God’s representatives, we will honor, serve, and obey them and give them love and respect. Instead of merely refraining from hatred and murder, we will help and befriend them in every bodily need. Not only will believers put off the evil of sexual immorality, homosexuality, divorce, and living together outside of marriage – but they will hold marriage in high regard and husbands and wives will love and honor each other. As a redeemed child of God, not only will I not covet anything I should not want to have, I will do all I can to help my neighbor keep his property and possessions.

 

Our sinful nature cannot stand this. “You mean, not only do I have to avoid what is evil – I have to actively do what is good?” Yes! And to put it bluntly, THIS MEANS WAR. It is never easy to do the opposite of what feels and seems right. It is never easy to give up a habit. Living a Christian life means saying “no” to the most important person in the world: me. Make no mistake, Christian sanctification is not as easy as taking off a dirty shirt and putting on a clean one. Paul refers to sanctification as crucifixion (Galatians 6:14) and death (Romans 6:11). This is why Christians are called soldiers and the Christian life a battle. We are called, not to surrender to sin – as if Jesus died so that we could go on sinning (Romans 6:1-2) – but to fight against it. While it’s easy enough to talk about sanctification in here, while it’s easy to decry the evils of society and the world, while it’s relatively easy to leave God’s house with every intention of amending our sinful lives – the real battle takes place out there, in our homes, our jobs, our marriages, our families, our hearts. If the faith we confess in here is genuine, it will reveal itself out there in changed lives; lives of obedience to God and love for others. (James 2:14-26) So each of us must ask ourselves: how’s my battle going? Is the new man winning? Or has the old self again taken control?

 

Where do we find the strength for such a fierce, intense, personal, daily battle? Remember our Savior’s promise from the Gospel lesson: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit (John 15:5). If you are tired and worn out from the fight; if you feel like you’ve chalked up more losses than victories – you’re in the right place. This is where the Holy Spirit brings us rest and relief from the war. This is where we are refreshed with the good news that our salvation doesn’t – ever – depend on us, but on Christ. This is where Jesus himself reaches down from heaven with his own body and blood to strengthen and nourish us with the forgiveness of sins. When you are feeling weak and worn out and beaten – that’s especially when you need to receive this sacrament. Martin Luther had a very vivid way of describing the role of Communion in our sanctification: “To give a simple illustration of what takes place in this eating: it is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful, mortal men makes spiritual, holy, living men.” [1] Staying connected to Christ in Word and Sacrament is the secret to sanctified living – remain in him and you will bear much fruit, you will grow in sanctified, Christian living.

 

One question remains: what is the end, the goal of this sanctification, this renewal, this battle? There are two ditches of false doctrine we must stay out of. One the one hand, some contend that if you believe in Jesus you don’t have to put forth any effort toward holy living, since you’re saved by grace anyway. This is antinomianism – the teaching that the law has no role in the believer’s life. But Jesus didn’t die so that we could go on sinning, he died to separate us from sin and ungodliness. (Romans 6:1-4) The other ditch is call perfectionism – the teaching that it is possible for the believer – if you just try hard enough – can stop sinning completely in this life. This too is a lie. Unlike justification, which is done, finished, completed once and for all by Christ for us; sanctification is an unfinished, imperfect process. One that won’t end until we die. The only end of our fight is death. But, in death, comes the blessed release from this life of war. In death, God destroys the sinful flesh forever. He burns away every last shred of the sinful nature – and raises us back to life as new people, truly perfect people. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5) Only then will we finally be what God has declared us to be in Christ. So there’s a tension: perfection is not possible in this life; not as long as the sinful nature is hanging on us like dirty, stinking clothes. But perfection is, nonetheless, our goal. Not to become perfect in God’s eyes, but because God has already declared us perfect in Christ.

 

The war is won, but the battle rages on. This is life for we who are both sinners and saints. In Jesus, we are declared holy in God’s sight. That’s the beginning of sanctification. In Jesus, we strive to become holy in our everyday lives. That’s the middle. One day, God will take us out of this world and make us what he always intended us to be: perfect and holy forever. That is the end. As you go back out those doors to engage in another week of battle, remember that you don’t go alone: he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6) Amen.

 

[1] LW 37:101

1 Corinthians 12:3 - The Holy Spirit's Work - July 29, 2018

We are 2/3’s of the way through our summer-long study of the basic confession of the Christian faith: the Apostles’ Creed. We have plumbed the depths of Scripture and discovered anew that the Father is our Creator and Preserver and that the Son is our Redeemer and Lord. We have also discovered that this confession is, at the same time, objective and subjective. On the one hand, the truths presented in the Apostle’s Creed are completely outside of us – things that God has done, is doing, and will do. The truths we confess in the Creed are not subject to our opinions or feelings, are not up for debate, will never need to be revised or updated to match the ever-changing tastes of the world. They were true before we were born and will be true long after we die – whether we believe them or not. On the other hand, we begin each article with the very personal, very subjective words I believe. The question is: how do these objective, unchanging truths become our personal confession – the foundation on which we live and die? Enter the third person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. His work is to make objective truth our subjective possession; to make THE Christian faith my Christian faith. We will consider the necessity of this work and the process of this work.

 

In the minds of many, the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to dispense supernatural spiritual gifts: the ability to speak in tongues or perform miracles or receive dreams and visions directly from God. Apparently, this view of the Holy Spirit’s work had infected the Christian congregation in Corinth. Among the many issues that had divided the congregation was the false opinion that if a person was a genuine believer, if he had really received the gift of the Spirit – the evidence would be the possession of some special, supernatural “gift” of the Spirit. On the other side, if someone didn’t appear to have any special ability to heal or prophesy, he was considered a 2nd class believer – if a believer at all. (If you are at all familiar with the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, then you know that this pressure on cultivating supernatural “spiritual” gifts is still present. The really scary thing is that Scripture warns us to beware that signs and wonders performed apart from the Gospel of Christ crucified do not come from the Holy Spirit but from the devil. (John 16:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12)) While Paul will spend the next three chapters of his letter to the Christians in Corinth correcting this false view of spirituality and placing the gifts of the Spirit into their proper place – that is, for service in the body of Christ – that’s not where he starts, because the primary gift the Holy Spirit can give is not a heightened spiritual sensitivity or unique abilities, but the one gift that is absolutely necessary for salvation: faith in Jesus Christ. No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God (in contrast to the spirit of an idol/devil) says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

 

When we say that faith is necessary for salvation, we have to be careful to walk the narrow Biblical road. We have to stay out of the ditches on either side. We don’t mean that Jesus’ work was somehow lacking or deficient – that faith needs to be added to make it effective. Jesus’ work was both perfect and complete. His holy life is perfectly adequate to cloak sinners of every age with the robe of righteousness God demands and his blood is the only payment necessary and able to satisfy God’s wrath over sin. Jesus is the only Savior we or anyone else will ever need. He has done everything necessary. Nothing more is needed; nothing less will do.

 

But in stating Jesus has done it all for all people, we need to be careful not to swerve into the ditch on the other side of the road: that because Jesus died for the world, all the world will be saved. There is only one way to receive everything Jesus died to win us: through faith. With Paul we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) Which is why the Gospels are littered with calls to repent and believe. (Mark 1:15; Matthew 3:2; 4:17) Which is why when a poor jailer cried out to Paul: what must I do to be saved? Paul didn’t say, nothing, you have nothing to worry about, but believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. (Acts 16:30-31) Which is why Jesus laid out the simple rule by which he will judge all humanity on the Last Day: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)

 

But that still leaves us with some important and sometimes problematic questions: if Jesus died for all, why are some damned? If Jesus died for me, but I need to believe it, don’t I get some credit? If all I need to do is believe, what do we need the Holy Spirit for? Be warned, the answers to these questions are highly offensive. If the world would get wind of this teaching, it would probably try to destroy us on social media. Our reason and our pride and our emotions will not like it, which is why we must subject our pride, our reason, our feelings, and the world’s opinions – to the written Word of God. Christ alone won salvation for all people by his life and death; this gift becomes ours through faith alone. But this final piece of the puzzle – faith – is not something we can do or take credit for. We are not born with it. It is not a skill that we can be trained and encouraged to cultivate. It is not a product we can purchase with any amount of money. Faith is not the result of a rational or willful decision. We are not born spiritually neutral; equally capable of accepting or rejecting Christ. We are born unbelievers. We are born blind, deaf, dumb, and dead to God. We are Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones by nature. On this point – a point that is revolting to our pride and reason and emotions – Scripture is painstakingly clear. Paul wrote earlier in this letter: the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14) In Romans he writes: the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:7-8) This is why we confess with Luther: I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. This is not an easy confession. Many deny it. Others try to downplay or twist it. But we confess it, boldly, because it is the clear teaching of Scripture.

 

Our spiritual deadness, our inability to come to faith on our own is something we accept based on Scripture alone. But once we accept it, it becomes fairly easy to see the evidence. Consider how many people witnessed Jesus’ miracles in the 1st century – and were able to see the empty tomb for themselves – but still rejected him. Consider how many really smart and talented people there are in our world, and how hard they will work for money and power and fame – for the best this world can offer – but how few of them spend even a moment trying to achieve the greatest treasure of all: eternal life! (Matthew 13:44-46) Consider how even Christians, even those who have been baptized and instructed and have confessed Jesus as their Lord continue to play with the fire of sin in their lives; call Jesus their friend and yet continue to dance with the devil; who claim to be a child of the light and yet are perpetually walking in darkness. (And then consider how difficult it is to lead them to see their sins, repent, and believe!) (1 John 1:6) Or, most humbling of all, consider how often our faith is weak; how often we know what God’s will is – and yet do the opposite; how often we struggle to accept the clear truth of Scripture. Yes, even in we who have been made alive by the Spirit, the evidence that we are, by nature, spiritually dead remains. All of which is proof positive that Paul is right when he states: no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

 

In other words, apart from the Holy Spirit, the salvation Jesus purchased for us with his blood is about as valuable to us as a check for a million dollars – with our name on it – lying on the surface of the moon; as valuable as a beautiful piece of artwork is to a blind man; or as a cure for cancer is to a dead person. Apart from the Holy Spirit, all the riches of heaven, all the gifts that Christ suffered and died to win are useless to us, because we are blind to their value, ignorant of their existence and powerless to make them our own. This is why the work of the Holy Spirit is an absolute necessity. This is why Jesus even had to tell the disciples he taught personally that after he had died and rose he would send the Spirit of truth…[to] guide [them] into all truth. (John 16:13) While anyone can pick up the Bible and read it; anyone can walk through those doors sit down and listen – no one can believe a word of it apart from the Holy Spirit. But the good news is that with him, anyone, even a newborn infant, even the most violent persecutor of Christians (Paul), even someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, even we can believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

 

But no less obscure to us than the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work is how he does it, his process. What would you say the first step in coming to faith is? Parents deciding to have their child baptized? Choosing to pick up the Bible and read it? Someone raising their hand and deciding to invite Jesus into their hearts? No. If faith is God’s gift (Ephesians 2:8-9), the first step in creating faith is God’s desire to give it! In order for anyone to come to faith, God must invite him, call him. It’s popular these days to think that we are responsible for making believers, but consider Bible history; how it’s never the story of people seeking out God; it’s always the story of God seeking out and calling people. From finding Adam and Eve hiding in the trees and promising them a Savior, to Noah’s proclamation of the Law and Gospel to the wicked world in the time of the Flood (Genesis 6) to Ezekiel declaring that God’s will is not that people would reject him and be damned but turn to him and be saved (Ezekiel 18:32) – God has been sounding the siren call to repent and believe his promises throughout human history.

 

And – except for rare circumstances (Abraham – Genesis 12; Moses – Exodus 3) – he issues this call mediately, that is, through human spokesmen, through his Word and Sacrament – and not immediately or directly from heaven. Sending men and women to proclaim the good news of the Gospel is the Holy Spirit’s work, too. He continues to send messengers to every corner of the planet to invite sinners to repent and believe. Jesus gives us a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit’s work in this regard in his parable of the great banquet – where all are invited, but while the rich and powerful reject the invitation, the poor and needy gratefully accept. (Luke 14:15-24) And because God is responsible for extending this invitation there can be no doubt (and on the Last Day there will be no excuse) that the invitation has been extended to all to believe and be saved.

 

Wherever the call of the Gospel is found (whether in a worship service or a hospital room), the Holy Spirit is there to make that call powerful and effective. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who hears the Gospel believes it. Two things are true wherever and whenever the gospel is proclaimed. Some will always hate it and reject it, but by God’s grace, some will believe it. Scripture refers to this spark of faith as enlightenment: an awaking to the knowledge that we are sinners worthy only of God’s wrath – and trust that Jesus came into this world to save unworthy sinners like us. And this enlightenment is only and always due to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, sparking the light of faith in formerly dead hearts. Through his call to faith, through enlightening individual human hearts with faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit sanctifies and gathers his church and preserves it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith until he takes us home. These topics will be the focus of our sermons through the end of this series.

 

It is enough for us today to understand Paul’s simple words today: no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. God’s plan of salvation was always perfect and Jesus’ work in accomplishing our redemption is complete. But no one could benefit from those gifts if not for the power and work of the Holy Spirit. May we in humility recognize our desperate need for his powerful work and appreciate his process for creating saving faith. Above all, let us rejoice that the Holy Spirit has called and enlightened us to believe that Jesus is not only the Savior, he is my Savior. Amen.  

Titus 2:1-14 - He Has Redeemed Me - July 22, 2018

For several weeks, we have been studying in considerable detail the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Only one question remains: why? There must have been a good reason for the Son of God to leave his thrown in heaven, be born and live in this ugly, broken world, and offer himself up to be crucified at the hands of wicked men. And there was. In the Creed the “why” is contained in two little words: “our Lord.” Martin Luther offers a beautiful and brief explanation: all this he did that I should be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: Jesus gave himself to redeem us from wickedness, for himself, that we might be eager to do what is good.

 

Titus was a Greek convert to Christianity who had become Paul’s right hand man after he and Barnabas went their separate ways. (Acts 15:40) Having brought the Gospel to the island of Crete sometime after he was released from his first imprisonment in Rome, Paul left Titus on the island to organize the churches, train and appoint pastors (1:5), silence false teachers (1:10-11), and, above all, teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. (Titus 2:1) This involved three things: 1) convicting people of their sins; 2) pointing them to their Savior from sin; and 3) giving instruction in Christian living. And verse 14 contains a summary of that sound doctrine and answers the question: why did Jesus die for us? Jesus Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

 

It’s no secret that for decades now, church membership and attendance in our country has been declining. This has been especially true among the millennial generation (roughly those age 18-35). [1] We’ve even experienced this right here at Risen Savior, where much of the membership business our congregation has handled over the past several years has involved releasing, removing or disciplining young people who were baptized and confirmed, but now have no interest in attending worship, listening to the Word, or receiving the Sacrament. While there are dozens of theories as to why this is happening, the reality is that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Each individual has their own reasons for abandoning their faith and there’s plenty of blame to be shared by them, their parents, pastor and the church at large. That being said, there is one fairly obvious and fairly common reason people leave the church. One that people don’t seem to like to admit or talk about. This reason is that while many are willing to accept Jesus as Savior – gladly receiving his forgiveness and the eternal life he promises – they refuse to accept him as Lord. While they want the benefits of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – they are unwilling to change and amend their lives to serve him. And this is more than just a theory concerning shrinking numbers of church members – this strikes right at the heart of the Gospel. Why did Jesus die for us? Did he die so that we could go on living as we did before?

 

No! Paul writes Jesus Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness. The Greek is literally “from all lawlessness.” Christ bled and died to redeem us from a life of lawlessness, of disobedience to God’s will and rebellion against his commands. The question we must ask ourselves is: has Christ’s sacrifice had its desired effect on our hearts and tongues and lives? If we were to audit how we spend our time, money, and energy every week would the results confirm Jesus’ lordship in my life or would it expose the idols of myself, my job, my family, my pleasure? As Christian men and women do we cherish and uphold the distinct roles God has given us, or do we resent and arrogantly think that we are so enlightened that we know better than our Creator? As Christian parents look ahead to sending their children to school this fall – some for the first time – have we really placed the priority on their spiritual growth well-being, or has God’s will for his children been sacrificed on the altar of our own convenience? Does the way we dress, the way we joke, the things we watch and the websites we visit testify that we honor God’s gifts and rules for sex and marriage or that our hearts are ruled by passionate lust? (1 Thessalonians 4:5) Do we trust God’s promise to provide our daily bread enough to be generous in giving to the work of his Kingdom or do we effectively steal from him by giving only the leftovers? (Malachi 3:8) If God were listening to our conversations in the car, at the dinner table, right here within these walls – and he is – does he hear speech that builds others up or tears them down? To put it simply, does my life match my confession: is Jesus the Lord of my life? Because, let’s be honest, if Jesus’ sacrifice hasn’t had any impact on our lives – then what did he die for? There is no middle ground; either Jesus is your Savior and your Lord or he’s neither. Either he is the Lord of your life, or something else is. No one can serve two masters. (Matthew 6:24) If you, like me, must confess that too often I have rejected Jesus as Lord and replaced him with something else, then join me in heartfelt repentance – and then rejoice that Jesus has paid for those and every other sin and has given himself to purify us as his own people.

 

That concept takes us back to the Old Testament, when – out of all the nations of the world – God chose the children of Abraham; the nation of Israel. (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 14:2) God took great care to ensure that his chosen people were pure and set apart from the world for himself. And he did it, in large part, through the ceremonial laws – laws that dictated what the Israelites could eat and wear, how they must cleanse themselves and their homes, and how they must worship. These laws served as a hedge or wall around Israel – keeping them pure and distinct from the unbelieving world as God’s chosen people.

 

But Jesus did not come a new law-giver (John 1:17), to set us apart with a list of do’s and don’ts. He came to purify us once and for all with his own blood. (1 John 1:7, 9) Having received that gift of purification through Baptism (Titus 3:5-7), through Holy Communion, and through the Word, we belong to Christ – not by virtue of obedience, but by virtue of having our sins forgiven. In Israel, God changed them from the outside in. In the NT Church, Christ changes us from the inside out.

 

Which leads to an issue that may be troubling some of us right now: do I really belong to Christ – even if my life doesn’t always show it? Is he still my Savior even if I don’t always serve him as Lord? The good news, the comfort we have is that we don’t belong to Christ because of what we do, we belong to him because of what he’s done for us! It’s not something we need to work toward; it’s what we already are! In his Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther gave a beautifully brief summary of what it means to belong to Christ, to be a member of his Church: Thank God, today a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd (John 10:11-16). [2] Belonging to Christ doesn’t rely on what we do for him – it rests on what he wants to do and give to us. Belonging to Christ means listening to what Christ says. (John 8:47) That’s how he rules in our hearts and works in our lives so that we might be his people, living in his kingdom now and forever in heaven.

 

Because when Christ is ruling in our hearts through his Word and Sacrament, then we will be the people he died to make us: people who are eager to do what is good. In our severely morally challenged society, “good” can be hard to define. “Love” and “tolerance” are used as excuses for all sorts of wicked behaviors. The devil has been especially successful at corrupting God’s institutions of marriage, family, church and government so that everything has been turned upside down. As redeemed children of God, we have an advantage over the rest of the world in that we have the law and the gospel. Not only do we have and know God, our Creator’s, perfect and unchanging will (the law), but the grace and love he demonstrated in sending Christ (the gospel) motivates and empowers us to do it.

 

Paul gives brief, insightful, and amazingly relevant guidance to help Christians in all stages of life know what is good. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Older men, you to be the leaders and examples the rest of the church looks to. You should be sensible and sober, not easily shaken and not liable to overreaction, and especially to be “sound” or healthy in three areas: 1) in faith – trusting God; 2) in love – serving others; and 3) in endurance – understanding that God uses both the ups and downs of life for the good of believers. (Romans 8:28) (Illustration: like ballast in a ship.)

 

His guidance to older and younger women is weaved together: likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Older women, you too are leaders and examples in the church. Therefore, Paul says that you should be dignified – living in a way fitting for believers, to avoid wasting their time with gossip and drunkenness – and any other selfish leisure activities, in order that you may be teachers – not only of children but of younger women; encouraging and instructing them how to build and maintain distinctly Christian marriages, families and homes – which is the good that younger women should be eager to do. (Is there any more practical, relevant guidance than this? In a time when being a wife, a mother, a homemaker is maligned as being one step above slavery, Paul is saying that being a wife, a mother, a homemaker is a noble task! And let’s be clear, Paul is not forbidding women to work outside the home. But he is saying that when a Christian woman chooses to get married and chooses to have children – building and maintaining a Christian home is to be their top priority. A Christian woman’s role is not to be determined by godless society, but by the Lord who created and redeemed her.)

 

Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. Do young men only get one sentence because that’s the limit of their attention span? No. But for young men who are filled with energy and ambition and testosterone and strength and desire; who can build cities or tear them down; who can save lives or take them; who can cherish women or abuse them; who can raise children or abandon them; who can be the church’s greatest resource or her greatest weakness – Paul’s advice is all-important: keep your tongue and your desires and all of your body parts under the control of your converted mind that is ruled by Christ.

 

Next, Paul turns to young pastor Titus, and, by way of application, to all pastors: In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned. Pastors are to be examples not only to young men, but to the entire congregation. They are to be pure in their motives (not wanting to become wealthy or famous), they are to speak and act in a manner that demonstrates the serious nature of the spiritual things they are called to proclaim, and when they speak, they are to proclaim the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of God.

 

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted. In a world that is constantly trying to pit employees against their employers, Christian employees are to be hardworking, obedient, respectful and honest. Why? So that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. We are not all called to be prophets in the workplace. But, hard work, respect, obedience and honesty will speak volumes to the unbelieving world around us – perhaps even drawing them to see and trust Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

 

None of the guidance Paul gives here is easy to do or follow. It is countercultural to our godless world and it chafes against our own sinful nature that wants to be in total control. It means completely surrendering ourselves, our desires, and our lives to Christ. It means making him Lord. But how could we give anything less than everything we are and have to the one who gave himself for us? Jesus died to redeem us from all wickedness, to purify us as his own people, people who are eager to do what he defines as good. May his boundless love for us lead us to always live for him. Amen.

 

 

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/12/millennials-increasingly-are-driving-growth-of-nones/ - in which Pew reports that 35% of Millennials are religiously “unaffiliated”

[2] SA XII:2

1 Peter 3:18-20 - He Descended Into Hell - July 15, 2018

For more than 1500 years the Christian Church has confessed: I believe…[Jesus Christ] descended into hell. Many of us have been repeating these words weekly, if not daily, for decades. But when is the last time we actually thought about what these words mean? Do we know? Would we be able to explain if someone asked? Do we care? Or do we simply rattle off these words because they’re put in front of us? If we are less than confident about the significance of our Lord’s descent into hell, there are probably two reasons for it: 1) this doctrine is taught in only two places in the Bible (1 Peter 3:18-20; Colossians 2:15), and 2) there are many divergent opinions and interpretations regarding what it means. Because there is so much confusion about it, and because it marks our Savior’s transition from his state of humiliation to his state of exaltation, this morning we are going to do something we don’t do very often, we will consider Jesus’ descent into hell; what it means according to Scripture and what it means for us.

 

Context is always important, and understanding the context here definitely enriches our understanding of this relatively unknown doctrine. Peter wrote this letter to Christians who were being tempted to abandon the faith because they were facing hardship. Like so many believers, they apparently thought that because they believed in Jesus and Jesus is victorious that they should be experiencing victory and endless joy and success in their lives here and now. But they weren’t. They were suffering. They were experiencing hatred and hostility from the world and persecution by the government. Their marriages and families were far from perfect and there were tensions and divisions in their local congregation. By all appearances, it seemed like the devil was winning and they were losing.

 

So how did Peter encourage and comfort them? He didn’t promise them that it was all going to get better. He didn’t guarantee that if they just really tried hard and really believed better that the suffering would go away. He didn’t say that they must have been really bad to be punished so severely. He calmly and clearly told them that suffering is an inevitable part of life in a broken, sinful world which God actually uses to purify and strengthen faith. And then, he pointed them to Christ.

 

We hear and say it a lot, but exactly what comfort can we find in Christ when we are suffering? Throughout this letter, Peter repeatedly makes the point that whenever we are suffering we need to remember that Jesus suffered too! In fact, he suffered in a way that we cannot begin to imagine and, unlike us, he didn’t deserve it. Consider this whenever you are tempted to complain about the hand life has dealt you: Christ also suffered once for sins in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. Jesus was perfect, and yet he suffered and died and was condemned by God in your place, to redeem and restore you, who rightly deserve nothing from God but his wrath. This is the Gospel, and the Gospel gives comfort in any and every suffering because it assures us of two things: 1) no matter what we are going through, we are not and will never suffer the eternal punishment that we deserve for our sins – because Jesus suffered in our place; and 2) Jesus promised that the world which hated him would hate those who follow him – so, if you are suffering for your faith, you’re on the right track! (Matthew 10:24)

 

According to Scripture, the Christian life proceeds in a clear direction: the cross, then the crown; suffering, then glory; humiliation, then exaltation. Peter summarizes: He was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit. Without going into a lesson in Greek grammar, the best interpretation of this phrase is that put to death refers to Jesus’ state of humiliation: the time from his conception to his burial when he did not make full and constant use of his divine power and made alive in the spirit refers to his state of exaltation: when he again took up full use of his divine power. (see also Romans 1:3-4; 1 Timothy 3:16) Jesus’ humiliation ended when his body was laid in the tomb. His exaltation began when he came to life in that same tomb.

 

But that begs the question: what happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection? Where was he between 3p on Good Friday and sunrise on Easter morning? Peter tell us: [In his exalted state] he also went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison. These spirits disobeyed long ago, when God’s patience was waiting in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. Peter makes three things clear: 1) after he was buried but before he appeared to anyone, Jesus visited a prison. This prison is hell, the place where the devil and his demons who rebelled against God are being held in bondage until Judgment Day. (2 Peter 2:4-5; Jude 6) 2) Jesus went there to make an announcement. The content of which is alluded to in the only other Bible passage to mention the descent into hell, Colossians 2:15: having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Jesus visited hell for a victory parade, a spiritual press conference where he announced to the devil and his demons that God kept his promise, he had come, he had and died for sin – and they had been defeated and condemned forever. And 3) the spirits were those who did not believe God’s promise in the days of Noah, those who scoffed and laughed when Noah warned of God’s coming judgment and promised salvation. To their horror and to their shame Jesus confirmed Noah’s message (2 Peter 2:5): he died for their sins, that they could have been saved – if only they had believed.

 

That’s it. That’s all we can say with certainty about our Savior’s descent into hell. And, because it is all that God has chosen to reveal, it’s all we need to know. We should not indulge in idle speculation or silly theoretical questions, nor should we argue or be divisive based on mere opinion or conjecture. Our Lutheran forefathers stressed this in the Formula of Concord: “this article cannot be grasped by the senses or by our reason. It must be grasped by faith alone. Therefore, it is our unanimous opinion that there should be no dispute over it. It should be believed and taught only in the simplest way. Teach it like Dr. Luther…he has explained this article in a completely Christian way. He separated all useless, unnecessary questions from it, and encouraged all godly Christians to believe with Christian simplicity.” [1]

 

You probably wouldn’t be too shocked, though, if I tell you that not everyone heeds the confessors’ advice to maintain the simple facts of Scripture. In fact, while many have concocted their own theories about the descent, others are determined to cut this doctrine out of the Creed altogether; alleging that any mention of hell is oppressive and offensive. To some extent, they’re right. Hell is an uncomfortable topic for anyone – and necessarily so. The doctrine of hell is the final and strongest proclamation of the Law. It is the consequence of impenitence and unbelief. It means complete separation from God’s love and never-ending punishment and torment for all who reject Jesus as their Savior. God fully intends it to strike fear and dread into the hearts of unbelievers and to prick the conscience of those who have grown careless or presumptuous in their faith – which is why the reality of hell is something that we all need to hear regularly.

 

But while the doctrine of hell is a horrific, terror-inducing truth, that is not how it appears in the context of Christ’s descent into hell. In connection with Jesus’ exaltation, it’s good news for us who face hardship and suffering in this life. There are four things in particular that Jesus’ descent into hell means for us.

 

Jesus did NOT descend into hell in order to give those who had already died in unbelief another opportunity to be saved. There is nothing on any page of Scripture that supports second chance salvation after death. In fact, it explicitly denies any such opportunity. The book of Hebrews states that man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) That’s why life – all life, and every moment of life – is such a precious thing. That’s why we want to do all we can to protect and defend life from conception to natural death – because it is the only opportunity anyone will ever have to hear the Gospel, believe it, and be saved. It’s also why there is an urgency for everything the church does – from preaching and teaching to evangelism and discipline – because death could come at any moment for any one of us and once a person dies he will stand before God in judgment and go directly to heaven or hell. There are no do-overs, no second chances – this life is all you get. So treasure every moment as a gift of grace.

 

Second, Jesus did NOT descend into hell in order to complete the payment for our sins. When Jesus cried out from the cross it is finished (John 19:30) he meant it. He had totally, completely, absolutely accomplished our salvation. The price for sin had been paid in full. Nothing needs to be added. It is sufficient for all sinners of all time. (Which, incidentally, is why the reformers took such strong stands against the Mass (the bloodless re-sacrifice of Christ) and the theory of purgatory.) So rest assured that your forgiveness is finished, there’s nothing you can or have to do to attain it.

 

Third, it means that we don’t have any reason to fear death or hell. Our Champion faced them both – and lived to tell about it. He let death swallow him but then he came out holding the keys of death and hell in his hand. (Revelation 1:18) We fear death because from our perspective death is like a dark room that frightens us because we don’t know who or what is in it. We fear the unknown and we fear the punishment we know we deserve. But every time you recite these words of the Creed, remember that Jesus has gone there and come back – death is not a dark empty room, Jesus is waiting there for you to take you home. And for the believer, hell has a great big CLOSED sign on it. Jesus has suffered the punishment you deserved – so that you never will.

 

And, fourth, it means that the devil is fully and finally defeated. By his perfect life and innocent death, Jesus has crushed his head (Genesis 3:15); destroyed his work (1 John 3:8); abolished his power (Hebrews 2:14); disarmed his demons (Colossians 2:15); and sealed his doom forever (John 16:11). The roaring lion that prowls around…looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8) has been defanged and declawed. He can do all he wants: he can tempt us, he can hound and hassle us, he can accuse us – but he cannot take the crown of life Christ won for us. Yes, the battle rages on, but the war is over. Satan is finished. We can sing boldly and fearlessly with Luther: though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill; they shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still, scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him. (CW 201:3)

 

People sometimes wonder what that one little word is. But you know. It’s Jesus. From his conception to his temptation to his dying breath on the cross, he fought the powers of darkness as our Champion, he stood his ground, he carried out his Father’s will and he bore our shame and our sin, he died and by dying he crushed Satan and his power once and for all. He proved it to the devil and all those who died in unbelief by planting his flag of victory right in the heart of hell; and he stepped out of the tomb to prove it to the world.

 

The descent into hell then, while taught in only two places in Scripture, is a doctrine full of comfort and peace for us. It decisively marks the beginning of Jesus’ exaltation – proving that while Jesus died, now he rules not only time and history, but even death and hell for our good. And it assures us that the devil and all his dark forces are defeated forever. [2] Don’t let this doctrine lead you down the dead-end paths of doubt or speculation. Let it, rather, give you the courage and energy to go back out and face suffering, to fight the good fight, run the race of faith, to live as if you can’t lose – because in Christ, you can’t! Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Formula of Concord, Epitome, IX:2-3

[2] “It is enough if we know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and the jaws of hell. We will save our questions about how this happened until the other world. Then not only this mystery, but others also will be revealed that we simply believe here and cannot grasp with our blind reason.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, IX:4)

1 Peter 1:18-19 - Redeemed! - July 8, 2015

This past week we, and people across the nation, once again celebrated the freedoms that are ours as Americans; and many of us did it in the traditional ways: family gatherings, picnics, firecrackers – and yard work. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrating our liberty in these ways, there is a danger. A danger that we forget that our freedom and liberties are not our inherent right, that they weren’t – and are not – free; that our forefathers and modern day military members had to shed their blood to secure the freedoms we enjoy. And while it’s a tragedy to forget that our American freedoms were not free, it’s spiritually dangerous for us to forget that the peace, the joy, the hope and the freedom that we enjoy as Christians is not free either. It too came at an immense cost. It’s fitting then, as we wind down from our celebration of the 4th to consider the central doctrine of the Apostles’ Creed, the central theme of Scripture, the foundation on which the Church stands or falls: our redemption. Today, the Apostle Peter leads us to consider what we have been redeemed from and what we have been redeemed with.

 

The Creed itself, in line with its objective of being the briefest possible summary of Christian faith, simply states that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried. It does not explain why. But Peter does: you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers. Two things stand out in Peter’s explanation. 1) The way of life we once had was empty – meaning it was vain and useless; and 2) it was a way of life we inherited from our forefathers – meaning that it is ours whether we like it or not.

 

So what did this useless, hereditary way of life consist of? With Luther we confess: [Jesus Christ] has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. Both Peter and Luther describe our useless, hereditary way of life in terms of slavery. While most Americans would like to pretend that slavery never existed in our country, the fact is that it has existed since the beginning of time. But, even in places where slavery was a socially acceptable and legal institution, it would occasionally happen that a compassionate person would come along who would pay the price to free the slave from his master’s control. This was known as the ransom or redemption price. When that happened, an extraordinary change took place: the slave was no longer a slave, he was no longer bound by his master’s will or whip – he was free to do what he wanted to do. The nature of the useless life we inherited from our parents is that we were born into slavery. And Jesus came – like a compassionate benefactor – to redeem us, to free us from slavery to three dread masters.  

 

The first of those masters is sin. Now, let’s be honest, we like to pretend that sin is not our master, that we could stop sinning at any time. Nowhere is the pretending more evident than right here. When put on our Sunday best, plaster a smile on our face and when someone asks us how we are we cheerfully respond “fine,” or “great.” But that’s not the truth, is it? We come here after another week of slavery, another week where we have said and done and thought things that have offended God and hurt others, another week where we had many opportunities to do good – but failed. There’s nothing we can do to change it. The opportunities for good – they’re gone forever. The sins – they are a stain we can’t remove. Failure weighs on us like immovable chains. No Sunday outfit, no Sunday smile, no cheerful Sunday greeting can change the fact that for another week we have been shameful, disgusting sinners.

 

But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? In fact, the burden of sin is ultimately the only reason to come here week after week. We come because Jesus promises redemption from sin. I won’t speak for you, but the older I get the more I treasure the beginning of the service – the confession and absolution. Finally, after a week of pretending, I get to be honest, I get to admit that I have not been what God created me to be – and I get to drop that weight, that burden at Jesus’ feet, where he takes it away and buries it in the depths of the sea. I never tire of hearing and speaking those words: as a called servant of Christ…I forgive you all your sins – because I know that I need that forgiveness more than anyone – and Jesus is happy to give it. The result is an extraordinary change: sin is no longer our master, we no longer have to obey it, we are truly free to say no. (Titus 2:12) The burden of guilt – of the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do – is gone forever. Redeemed by Christ, sin is no longer our master.

 

But sin, even forgiven sin, has consequences. And one of those consequences is the second slave-master of all people: death. Again, it’s something we pretend is not true, something we like to avoid, something we do all we can to prevent. In fact, death prevention is the single biggest business in our world: from armies and airbags, to health insurance and check-ups, to medicines, surgeries, and diet and exercise – all are explicitly designed to prevent death. But it doesn’t matter, does it? When death comes calling – we all have to answer. Death is our master whether we like it or not. But, Jesus came to redeem us from death – by turning death into his servant.

 

The thing we need to realize is that, as horrible as the physical death is, it’s not the worst thing that can happen to us. The worst thing that can happen is not the separation of our bodies from our souls. The worst thing that can happen to a person is permanent separation from God in hell. This is what the Bible calls the second death. (Revelation 21:8) That is what Jesus suffered and died to redeem us from. Make no mistake, unless Jesus returns, these bodies will return to the dust from which they came. (Ecclesiastes 12:7) It is the final proof that we are all, from conception, sinful. It is indisputable evidence that God meant it when he said the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) But it is also, for the believer, God’s final act of purifying that he started in our baptism. In this way, death is not our master – death is instead God’s servant to bring us out of this world to himself in heaven. By robbing death of its eternal sting, Jesus has made the slave-master his slave to accomplish his goal of freeing us – permanently – from this world, this life, this body of sin.

 

But if we are to be truly free, truly liberated from the tyranny of sin and death, then we must be freed from the one who holds the power of sin and death: the devil. (Hebrews 2:14) And this is precisely what Jesus came to do. From the moment Adam fell into sin, God promised to send a Savior who would crush the devil’s head (Genesis 3:15) and destroy the devil’s work. (1 John 3:8) And that’s exactly what Jesus did. By paying the redemption, the ransom price for every man, woman and child, he has destroyed the devil’s claim on us. We no longer belong to him.

Now, we might be tempted look around at this world and think: how can that be true? It seems like the devil’s influence is only growing in our world, that Christianity is being mocked and persecuted on every side, that immorality and wickedness are prospering. And yes, it is true that the devil’s grip on this world remains strong. But it only remains strong in people who want to remain enslaved to him. The devil can only master those who reject the freedom Christ offers and choose to remain bound to him. But what about us? Doesn’t he still haunt and harass and assault and accuse believers like us? Yes, but because of Jesus even the devil is not free, he is chained up, all the evil he can do must serve God’s good will for us and our salvation. Think of Job. The devil was convinced that the only thing holding him to God were the blessings God poured out on him. God took the devil’s wager and allowed him to strip Job of every earthly blessing except life itself. But nothing he could do could destroy Job’s faith, his conviction that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, the name of the LORD be praised. (Job 1:21) He realized the profound truth that Paul stated so well: when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10) For only when we realize that we are truly helpless on our own, that we are powerless to free ourselves are we ready to turn in penitent faith to Christ for redemption. Only when we give up all our doing, all our giving, all our effort to save ourselves is the good news truly sweet: Jesus has redeemed us! So let the devil do his worst, under God’s powerful hand all he can do is drive us closer to Christ and his cross. For he, along with his allies sin and death have been destroyed forever. [We have] been redeemed from the empty way of life handed down by our forefathers once and for all.

 

And this redemption is yours, no strings attached, free of charge. It’s yours, believe it. But, while it is free, it certainly was not cheap: You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. From the day Adam plunged this world into the darkness of sin and death, mankind has searched for ways to buy its own freedom from sin, death, and the devil. Cain and Abel presented offerings from their gardens and flocks. (Genesis 4) Israel offered countless lambs and goats and bulls and her pagan neighbors sacrificed their children. In the middle ages, people set off on pilgrimages and crusades and took vows of celibacy and poverty to free themselves from sin’s curse. Today, even in our secular culture, people attempt to purge the guilt from their consciences by demanding that the government legalize what God has forbidden, by supporting all the “right” causes, by purchasing energy efficient homes and cars in an attempt to offset the evil they have done. Saddest of all, many Christians – even Lutherans – believe that their prayers, their offerings, their attendance, their effort somehow contribute to their redemption. But all of it: all the blood, sweat, and tears; all of the money spent and energy expended cannot pay for a single sin. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4); the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough (Psalm 49:8). All the blood of all the animals in all the world; all the gold and all the silver and almighty US dollars in the world could never make a dent in the debt we owe to God.

 

Because two things were necessary to free us from our bondage, two things we couldn’t provide: a perfect life and a sacrificial death. First, it was the blood of a lamb without blemish or defect. In the OT, God required that the animals which were offered be perfect; no deformities, no spots or blemishes, no missing eyes or broken legs. This was a picture of what God demands of us: nothing less than spotless perfection. (Matthew 5:48) But only Jesus could be – and was – what God demanded. From cradle to grave, Jesus never doubted God’s love, never misused his name, never despised his Word. He never disrespected those in authority (even when they beating him and spitting on him), never let hatred take root in his heart, never lusted, never defrauded or slandered or coveted. And what was the reward for his spotless life?

 

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus did not stand before God merely as a sinner, or even as one who bears the guilt for every sin ever committed. Jesus stood before God’s judgement seat as sin itself. And for sin there is neither grace nor mercy – only punishment. And so, as reward for living the only perfect, spotless life the world has ever seen, God poured out every last ounce of his wrath on Jesus for every evil thing we have done and every good we have failed to do. There are people today who would like to scrub this bloody, sacrificial message out of Christianity. They say that it scares children and scares off potential members. But the truth is that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Hebrews 9:22) We are free, free from sin, death, and the devil forever. But it cost God dearly, it cost him the blood of his perfect Son. That was the incredible price Jesus paid to set us free.

 

This Lamb, his cross, his sacrifice, his death, and his blood are the center of the Christian faith. The Father’s work of creation and preservation, Jesus’ person and his offices – all lead up to this point. And everything we will consider in the coming weeks has significance only because it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. By now we’re probably done celebrating the freedoms that are ours as Americans; but let us never stop giving thanks to God for the freedom that is his gift to us; freedom from sin, death, and the devil; freedom purchased with the priceless blood of Christ. Amen.   

Jesus Is the Anointed One of God: Prophet (Isaiah 61:1-2); Priest (Hebrews 7:11, 23-27); King (John 18:36-37; 19:14-19) - July 1, 2018

While the 4th of July specifically celebrates the completion of the Declaration of Independence – and this year, the 242nd birthday of the USA – it is also an occasion for us as Christians to thank God for the many blessings of the nation we live in. One of the more underappreciated of these blessings is the separation of powers in our government into three distinct branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. Blessed by God with a clear understanding of human nature, our founding fathers have ensured that no one person would have absolute power and enshrined that principle by outlining and limiting the roles, powers, and authority of the three branches of government in the constitution. The president is the commander-in-chief, the legislature writes laws and controls the purse-strings, and judges issue verdicts based on the constitution. (At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.) While this separation of powers was unique in the 1700’s, it was not new. Some 3000 years earlier, God had established separate branches of authority among his OT people: the office of prophet, priest, and king. Each office had a specific role and authority and God intended them to be kept separate. (In fact, God ripped the kingdom away from Saul when he assumed the role of priest unlawfully. (1 Samuel 13:8-14)) No one sinful man was allowed to fill all three offices. There was only one perfect person who could: God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. Both during his life on earth and now as our ascended Lord, Jesus has been anointed by God to the offices of prophet, priest, and king.

 

I.                    He Proclaims Good News to the Poor

 

In the Old Testament, anointing with oil was used to symbolize that a man was “set apart” by God to carry out a specific task. Anointing signified two things: 1) that God had chosen this person; and 2) that God would equip that person with the necessary gifts to carry out the task. While Jesus’ anointing properly took place before creation (1 Peter 1:20), God publicly confirmed his choice at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. (Luke 3:21-22) The first office to which he was appointed is that of prophet. While we might think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future, the Biblical definition of a prophet is simply someone appointed by God to speak God’s Word – regardless of whether that Word deals with the past, present, or future.

 

In his first public act after his temptation in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-13), Jesus stood up in a synagogue in Nazareth, read these words from Isaiah, and stated unequivocally: today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke 4:21) So what does it mean that Jesus is our Prophet?  According to Isaiah, he came to preach good news to the poor. In the context of Isaiah, the message was that God would carry out vengeance on their enemies, redeem his people from their exile in Babylon, and bring them back to their homeland. The good news was all about what God would do for his people.

 

Before we get to the specifics of the good news for us, let’s consider who Jesus comes to preach to: the poor. Who are the poor? On the one hand, this is not simply referring to those who are financially or materially needy or to an oppressed minority; on the other, neither is the good news for the comfortable and self-righteous. Isaiah uses four phrases to describe who the poor are: the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and all who mourn. The poor are those who are so broken by the trials and troubles of life that they have no more heart to try, who are so enslaved by sin and its consequences that they can’t imagine ever being free, who are locked up in the dark, meaningless prison of doubt and unbelief, who mourn because they despair of ever experiencing God’s love or seeing their enemies brought to justice. To all who suffer from sin and its effects, to all who crave freedom and relief, to all who fear God’s wrath and dread death and judgment, Jesus proclaims good news!

 

What good news? The good news is not that if you try a little harder, be a little better, dream a little bigger – that you can succeed and prosper and overcome; nor is the good news that Jesus came to bring social equality, financial prosperity, or physical health. No, the good news is that God sent Jesus to save you from your sins. (John 3:16) He has come to take away the guilt that weighs so heavily on our hearts, to free us from sins’ addictive, enslaving power, to release us from the darkness and meaninglessness of living as God’s enemies. He proclaims that we no longer have to fear sin, death, or the devil because he has come to crush them once and for all. And even though Jesus is no longer here preaching this good news with his own lips, he continues to carry out his prophetic office by sending out pastors and teachers and ordinary, every-day believers like you to preach this good news of forgiveness, life and salvation to a world of brokenhearted, imprisoned sinners. (Fathers leading mealtime devotions, mothers singing Christian hymns at bedtime – Jesus is carrying out his prophetic ministry) Jesus is not a mascot to be trotted out in support of any of the political debates roiling our nation, he is a prophet anointed by God to preach good news of God’s grace to poor sinners like us.

 

II.                  He Offers the Perfect Sacrifice for Sin

 

In the Old Testament, while prophets proclaimed God’s Word to the people, priests (and especially the high priest) represented the people of Israel before God. They offered prayers and sacrifices on behalf of the people as a reminder that sinners need a mediator before a holy God. But there were two problems with these priests: 1) they were sinful themselves, so that before they could offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, they had to offer sacrifices for themselves; and 2) their sacrifices of lambs and goats were never sufficient; they had to keep offering these sacrifices day after day, month after month, year after year. But far from being useless ritual, this all served a very important purpose: it pointed the people ahead to the perfect High Priest God had promised to send.

 

From the moment of his conception, Jesus was a different kind of priest. He wasn’t a descendant of Aaron or a member of the tribe of Levi (he was from the tribe of Judah – Luke 3:33)). He came from the order of Melchizedek – a mysterious character from Genesis who had no beginning or end. (Genesis 14:18-20) He was not like the priests who had come before him, who entered the office by virtue of their bloodline. No, Jesus became high priest because he was holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted in the heavens. And because he had no sins needing sacrifice, he sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. When Jesus came to represent us before God on the altar of the cross, he did not present a lamb or a goat or a bull as a sacrifice – he offered himself. He was both the priest and the sacrifice. His blood, the infinitely precious blood of the spotless Son of God, was the only sacrifice precious enough to pay for the sins of the world. This means that there is no need for you or me to do something or offer something to pay for the sins we have confessed to committing. Jesus did it all for us. The sins of yesterday, today, and yes, even tomorrow have been paid for. Your forgiveness and your salvation are finished, once and for all.

 

But that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ work as our high priest has ended: because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Jesus’ sacrifice is done, completed, finished. (John 19:30) But what isn’t done? Our sinning. We continue to sin minute after minute, day after day, year after year. And so Jesus continues to represent us before God. He stands in as our defense attorney, fending off every accusation the devil and our own consciences can hurl at us – the accusation that we are sinners who deserve nothing but wrath and punishment – by pointing back to his sacrifice for sins once for all. The apostle John speaks of the comfort that is ours because Jesus continues to serve as our high priest: if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

 

Whether they know it or not, people are still searching for a priest, a mediator, to represent them before God today. Many don’t recognize this need, many would prefer to spend Sunday morning camping, running or boating – because they misidentify the source of trouble in their lives. They blame their problems on other people, on emotional trauma, on physical maladies, or – these days – politics. But none of those are the root cause of the real problem that we all have: a broken relationship with God caused by my own, your own sinful rebellion. And so, while people search for help and relief in pills and therapies, in materialism and gluttony, in recreation and entertainment – none of those ever really work because – just like the thousands of sacrificial lambs and goats – none of those things can solve the problem of sin. None of those things can give us a right relationship with God. Only Jesus can serve as our Great High Priest. Only he has sacrificed himself for the sins of the world. Only he can continue to represent us before his holy throne. Jesus didn’t only come as a prophet to proclaim good news to poor sinners like us, he is good news for sinners like us – because he has taken our sins on himself and given us his righteousness, he has made us right with God once and for all by sacrificing himself. He, and he alone, is our Great High Priest.

 

III.               He Is Our Conquering King

 

The third and final role, or office, to which Jesus was anointed is that of King. One would think that this would be the easiest office to understand because everyone knows what a king does. Sadly, that’s not true. Just like in Jesus’ day, many people are looking for Jesus to be a social and political king: a powerful and persuasive personality who will give them free food and health care, provide them with jobs and homes, educate their children and overthrow their enemies and lead them to prosperity and power. Because Jesus refused to be the kind of king they wanted, they turned him over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate to be crucified. And yet, even as Jesus is standing bound and helpless before Pilate, he teaches that this is precisely how he rules as king.

 

My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place. An earthly kingdom consists of a territory and the people in it. The king rules with laws and the sword. But Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. He didn’t come to set up an earthly kingdom with borders, armies, and laws. Instead, Jesus came into this world to testify to the truth. What is this truth? The truth that we are, by nature, damned sinners (the law); but that he came into the world to save sinners from eternal damnation (the gospel). By means of the truth that he proclaimed as God’s anointed Prophet and carried out as our High Priest, Jesus would rule in hearts of everyone who is on the side of truth. Jesus does have a kingdom, he does rule – not with laws and borders and armies (so don’t try to make Jesus into a social or political leader) – but with the Gospel, with the good news of salvation.

 

At the same time, Jesus wouldn’t be a king and we wouldn’t be members of his kingdom if he didn’t go to war to defeat our enemies. And this is how he did it: carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Nowhere is the contrast more crystal clear between worldly kings (and the kind of Jesus many are looking for) and the kind of King Jesus actually is, than right here, on Golgotha. Kings of this world send their subjects out into war to shed their blood to bring them the victory. Jesus went to war in our place and on our behalf, he shed his blood in order to bring us the victory. Kings of this world destroy their enemies. Jesus came to save his enemies: us. Kings of this world are sinful humans who have limited power and authority. Jesus is the King of kings (Revelation 19:16) who continues to rule everything – including all three branches of our government – for the good of his Church.

 

As you celebrate Independence Day, give thanks to God that he gave our founding fathers the wisdom to separate the powers of government, so that they and we know what their jobs are. More importantly, thank God for anointing his Son to be our Prophet, Priest and King. Many people want Jesus to be all sorts of things, but only when we receive him according to his offices will we be receiving the real Jesus and real comfort. To poor sinners like us, he proclaims the good news that God has had mercy on us. For rebellious people like us, he sacrificed himself to bring us peace with God. For defenseless people like us, King Jesus defeated our greatest enemies through his own victorious death on the cross. Jesus will not be whatever we want him to be. But as God’s anointed Prophet, Priest, and King he is exactly what we need most. Amen.

John 1:1-3, 14 - Who Is Jesus Christ? - June 24, 2018

When we started this sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, our stated goals were that we better know and believe the truth, that we might be emboldened to confess the truth to the unbelieving world around us, and that we would be better equipped to discern truth from falsehood. In regard to that last point, one of the most basic questions one can ask when listening to a preacher, reading a book, or attending a church is: which article of the Creed is being stressed? The first, second, or third? (Unfortunately, these days, many add a 4th article: I believe in me…) But throwing out article four as obviously false, is the focus on the person and work of the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Which article do we stress? We are, unashamedly, a second article church. We talk about Jesus more than we talk about anything else. Why? Two reasons: 1) when Jesus was transfigured, God himself said this is my Son, whom I love…listen to him! (Matthew 17:5); and 2) in his great Pentecost sermon, Peter proclaimed: salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men, by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) We are a second article church because God himself tells us to look to him for salvation. If we are going to tie our lives and our eternities to one person, we better know who he is. Today, John reveals to us that Jesus Christ is true God who became true man; and we will see why these truths matter.

 

If you are a student of the Bible, you may recall that Matthew and Luke begin their gospels with a record of Jesus’ genealogy and the account of his birth. They begin with Christmas. Not John. John takes us back before Jesus’ birth, before any of his ancestors were born, before anything existed, before time itself. In clear, unambiguous terms, John takes us back to Genesis and states: in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning, even before God began his creating activity, Jesus Christ, the Word, simply was. Before God spoke the all-powerful, creative words which brought about light, time, planets, oceans, and us – the eternal, uncreated, begotten Son of God, the Word, existed. As the only apostle to live long enough to die a natural death, John saw and heard that some were already beginning to doubt the deity of Jesus, and so he goes even further: The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. The Greek here (πρὸς) pictures the Word as standing face to face with God – on a separate but equal footing with him. And, not only that, but through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In three simple but profound sentences, John declares that Jesus Christ is, in fact, true God. He is without beginning, existing from eternity; he is of the same essence as God the Father; and with the Father he was the Creator of all things: time and space, planets and oceans, you and me. Things that can only be said about the one, true God, John here applies to the Word, to Jesus Christ.

 

But that leaves us begging the question “why does John call Jesus the Word?” Being a Jew, John frequently quoted the OT and weaved OT themes and terminology into his writing. That’s what he does here. From Genesis to Malachi, the Word is the means or instrument by which God interacts with creation: by the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth (Psalm 33:6); as the rain and snow come down from heaven…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11) The Word is God’s chosen means of to creating, relating to, and working in the world. Luther suggested that John used the term Word to make the relationship between Father and Son more understandable to us. (LW 22:6) Our words reveal our thoughts, our opinions, our hidden inner self. No one can know what is in our minds unless we make it known using words. In many ways, we are defined by our words. In the same way, the Word is the revelation of God’s inner self, his will, desire, and essence. As the Word of God, the Bible reveals God to us. But in an even fuller, more personal way, Jesus is God’s Word: he not only revealed the Father’s heart and desires, but carried out the Father’s eternal plan of salvation. The Bible teaches and we believe that Jesus is true God, distinct from and equal to God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  

 

But just because John doesn’t begin with the Christmas story doesn’t mean that he ignores it altogether. In verse 14, John distills the entire Christmas story to its single most important element: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Here we must bring up a big theological word that might make our eyes glaze over: incarnation. Carnal means relating to the flesh. To incarnate means to clothe in flesh. (Kind of like I was wearing a white shirt before church this morning, but put on a black robe over it – Jesus put on human flesh, without giving up his deity.) At Christmas, the eternal Word, the Son of God came down from heaven, was clothed in flesh and blood, and yet – being conceived by the Holy Spirit, did not inherit a sinful nature. And John testifies that he was an eyewitness to this mystery of the incarnation: we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only. The incarnation is more than a cold theological theory; it is historical fact. John and the other apostles saw, talked with and touched the one, true Son of God in human flesh, they witnessed his miracles, his power, and his resurrection.

 

The incarnation is a mystery far beyond anything we can grasp. Paul writes: beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: he appeared in a body. (1 Timothy 3:16) But it’s a mystery that is very good news for us. From cradle to grave, the Son of God experienced everything that you and I ever will. Hunger and thirst, weakness and strength, friendship and hatred, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure and death itself – he experienced them all, and because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18) Before time began, before the beginning the Word simply was. He was God and was with God. But in time, the timeless Word took on human flesh, became one of us. Jesus’ person simply defies words. It is not something we can understand or comprehend, but by God’s grace – we confess and believe it because it is the holy, inerrant, unchanging truth of Scripture.

 

But as amazing as the deity and humanity of Jesus are, it’s the why of it all that makes us fall down on our knees and worship him as Lord. Why did the Word go to the effort of creating us, knowing full well that we would ruin his perfect creation? Why did the Word step down from his throne in heaven to take up human flesh and take up residence in this broken world? John says that he came from the Father, full of grace and truth. He came as living, breathing, speaking proof that God is not what we would never imagine him to be. He came to reveal and persuade and demonstrate that God the Creator, our righteous Judge who has every right to hate us with every ounce of his being for rebelling against his love and destroying his perfect creation, is not angry at us. The appearance of the Word on earth, in human flesh is the fullest, most comprehensive evidence of God’s grace: that he loves us even though we are completely unlovable. Remember this, whenever you doubt God’s grace, whenever you think you have been too wicked, committed too dark of a sin, when you think God has abandoned you: instead of destroying us, he became one of us. Instead of demanding that we obey his commands perfectly or be destroyed, he came to earth to do it for us and credits his perfection to our account. Instead of justly condemning us to an eternity of punishment, he suffered hell itself for us. And he did it all so that instead of being afraid, angry, and defiant toward a God we could not see or imagine – we would know and believe the truth about God: that he is our gracious Father who wants nothing more than for us to repent of our sins, look to Jesus in faith, and be saved. As the writer to the Hebrews put it: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

 

So, back to our question, who is Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ is true God, he existed from eternity as the Creator of all things and in time was conceived by the Holy Spirit; and Jesus Christ is true man, born of the virgin Mary, who lived for 33 years on this earth proving through word and action that he was indisputably true God and true man in one person. This is the inerrant testimony of Scripture and the timeless confession of the Christian Church in the Apostles’ Creed.

 

The problem with a sermon like this, on a basic tenet of Christian faith like the person and nature of Christ is that we might be tempted to take it for granted, we might be tempted to think: so what? I’ve known and confessed this week after week for years, what difference does it make? Why does it matter that we confess and believe that Jesus is true God and true Man? This matters – more than anything else in the world – for three reasons.

 

First, how we react to this doctrine reveals how we react to Scripture as a whole. In other words, this doctrine – taught not only by John but by the entire New Testament – forces us to ask ourselves: will we believe what the Bible plainly teaches – even if it’s impossible to fully understand and comprehend, or not? In a postmodern culture like ours, many people approach the Bible like they would a buffet: they pick and choose what they want and reject the parts they don’t like or understand. The problem is, the Bible itself doesn’t allow for this approach; the Bible presents itself as a seamless, unified whole. (2 Timothy 3:15-16; John 5:39-40) When it comes to the Bible, it’s all or nothing. If Jesus is not true God and true man, then there’s no reason to believe that God created the universe, that the Flood really happened, or that there is life after death. This doctrine forces each of us to ask and answer the question: do we believe the Bible or not?

 

Second, this doctrine forces us to honestly assess what we believe about Jesus. Who is he? Where did he come from? What meaning and place does he have in my life? Is he simply a great teacher, a social reformer, a fine example of how to live a tolerant and loving life, a teddy bear to hold on to when I feel sad or distressed – or is he God in human flesh? When it comes to who Jesus is, there is no sitting on the fence, there is no neutral ground, you either believe what Scripture (and he) claim about him, or you don’t. C.S. Lewis put it well in response to those who would accept Jesus as a fine moral teacher but reject his claim to be God: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up as a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.” [1] In other words, if Jesus is not God, he is not a good teacher, he’s a liar; he’s not a good example, he’s a hypocrite; he’s not a social reformer who suffered and died for a cause he believed in, he’s a lunatic and a fool. But, if he is who the Bible says he is, then he is no less than our Lord and Savior.

 

Finally, our eternal salvation hangs on the question of who Jesus is. Jesus had to be both true God and true man in order to be our Savior. He had to be true man in order to take our place under God’s law, in order to be tempted, in order to suffer and die. He had to be true God so that he could live a perfect life in our place and with his death pay the price to redeem us from sin once and for all. If Jesus is not both true man and true God, then your faith is futile, you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:17) So yes, it does matter if Jesus is who he claims to be and whether we take him at his word.

 

But it’s still a question we must each answer for ourselves: who is Jesus Christ? The Apostle John calls him the true, eternal Son of God who took on human flesh in order to live for us, die for us, and rise for us. He’s the Savior God sent. He’s the Savior we all need. God grant us an ever firmer faith and bolder conviction to confess and believe that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, our Lord and Savior. Amen.  

 

 

 

 

[1] Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity Book II, Chapter 3

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.