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.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

[2] Kistemaker, Acts, p. 589

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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