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2017 Sermons
Sunday, September 3
Lamentations 3:19-26
Pastor Matt Vogt

Sunday, July 16

Pastor Matt Vogt

Sunday, July 9
Vicar Paul Koester

Sunday, June 25
Vicar Paul Koester
2016 Sermons
2015 Sermons
    11/15/2015 God Remembers Your Sins No More
  • God Remembers Your Sins No More
    1) Because one sacrifice lasts a lifetime
    2) Because Jesus has made you perfect 

    Hebrews 10:11-18 

    11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
    16 “This is the covenant I will make with them
        after that time, says the Lord.
    I will put my laws in their hearts,
        and I will write them on their minds.”[a]
    17 Then he adds:“Their sins and lawless acts
        I will remember no more.”[b]
    18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
     
    Love “keeps no record of wrongs.”  We know this because the Apostle Paul taught this to us in 1 Corinthians, and many others have mentioned that this should happen in our lives.  We’ve witnessed it upon occasions throughout our lives.  However, isn’t this truth easier to say than to do?  It’s easy for sinful human beings to say they’ve forgotten about wrongful things of the past.  But when another disagreement comes up, sinners pull out of their back pocket that wrong that was done against them in the past to defend their own sinful actions of the present.  Whether it’s small or great, we have a hard time of always reflecting true love by forgetting those things which have wronged us. 
     
    What about our gracious God?  Does his love for us keep any record of our wrongs against him?  Of course not!  God keeps no record of wrongs for those who love him, who have been set apart as his dear children by faith.  The writer to the Hebrews expresses this to us today.  God remembers your sins no more!  He didn’t just make up his mind one day and say, “I’m going to forget about every sin from now on.”  No, God remembers your sins no more from the beginning of time because one sacrifice lasts a lifetime and because Jesus has made you perfect.
     
    (1)
     
    We are uncertain about some facts concerning the letter to the Hebrews like who wrote this letter or where this letter was first sent and read.  Yet one thing is certain.  The letter to the Hebrews clearly depicts the doctrinal truth that the person and work of Christ is superior to everyone and everything.  For as great as Moses and the other prophets were, as great as angels were and still are, Christ is superior.  Christ is greater.  As valuable as the priests were in their work, Christ’s work in the past and his continued work as the great high priest is most valuable.  Christ’s one sacrifice is greater than the sum total of all the sacrifices that happened in the Old Testament, and there were a ton of sacrifices offered.
     
    The priests were constantly busy offering sacrifices on a daily basis.  The priests regularly sacrificed a 1 year old lamb alongside grain and drink offerings.  They did this twice a day, every day.  They offered numerous other sacrifices and offerings on behalf of the people.  These priests were always on their feet doing their work.  But for has hard as they worked, no matter how efficient they were, the sacrifices offered by the priests did not remove the sins of the people.  “Again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” 
     
    Enter Jesus, the great high priest, who is superior to every priest of all time.  He offered a lamb for his sacrifice.  He offered himself, the Lamb of God.  Jesus’ sacrifice took a mere 6 hours on one day.  Yet, there was no need for another sacrifice.  As the Son of God, Jesus’ death was enough.  His innocent death covers every sin of all time.  “This priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins.”  One sacrifice not only removed the sins of those who mocked him on that day.  One sacrifice also removes the sins of the whole world, past, present, and future.  God remembers your sins no more because one sacrifice lasts a lifetime. 
     
    Since this sacrifice was accepted for the payment of every sin, God allows Jesus to sit at his right hand.  The writer to the Hebrews said of the Old Testament priests, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties.”  Their work of offering sacrifices was never done.  Jesus’ work of offering his sacrifice is done because his one sacrifice lasts a lifetime.  “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”  Jesus now sits in power at God’s right hand as he waits to bring the saints together in heaven on the Last Day.  On that Last Day, you saints will enter heaven because God remembers your sins no more all because one sacrifice lasts a lifetime.
     
    Simply doing the dishes doesn’t mean your whole home is clean.  There are plenty of chores to do to clean around your home.  There’s dusting, laundry, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming, and the list goes on.  In addition to cleaning the inside, there’s yardwork to do as well.  Isn’t it great when everything is finally clean after these chores are completed?  But guess what.  The moment everything is finally clean, something is dirty again.  Dust settles in the corner immediately.  Dishes stack up after another night of cooking.  The trees, grass, and weeds continue to grow.  More clothes become dirty.  Doing chores around the house is an endless process which seems to get us nowhere.  Not so is the work of Jesus making us clean.  He cleansed us and washed us with one wash as he shed his blood on the cross.  That one washing lasts a lifetime.  That one washing causes God to remember your sins no more.  That one washing makes you saints triumphant already on this earth.
     
    Wouldn’t you think that the world would respond differently to the message of this sacrifice?  Just because the Bible teaches it doesn’t mean everyone believes in this sacrifice for salvation.  Many disregard it as a good story, one that’s too good to be true.  Others think that the Savior is still to come because unless they see him with their own eyes, he hasn’t come.  Still others divert their eyes from the cross and look to themselves as their own savior.  What about you?  You don’t go that far with your thinking do you?  So aren’t you in the clear of reacting improperly to this great sacrifice?
     
    Even though you and I believe that Jesus died for our sins, we don’t always react as we should.  How often do you take this sacrifice for granted?  Maybe until you commit a more serious sin you forget to ask for forgiveness for the less noticeable sins in your life.  Maybe you’ve caught yourself thinking that since one sacrifice lasts a lifetime, there’s no need for regular church attendance.  “If Jesus has done all the work for me, I’ll only go when I feel like I need God’s Word preached to me” We all have plenty of opportunities to hear or read about God’s love for us through this one sacrifice, and we all come up with excuses every now and then for not wanting to hear about this great sacrifice.  We think that we already know that story or message.  “It hasn’t changed since the last time I heard it.”  Don’t we even sometimes come to church unwillingly?  Just because Jesus is now sitting at God’s right hand because his work of salvation is completed does not give us the right to kick back and relax ourselves in our spiritual lives.  Yes, you and I are already saints forgiven, but we should act like saints, not sinners. 
    Still, no matter how the world thinks or how we respond to God’s love for us, the message and impact of Jesus’ sacrifice does not change.  His sacrifice is able to remove those sins of spiritual laziness.  His sacrifice is enough to forgive even the smallest of sins which we don’t even know about or forget about.  Even after he forgives every last one of your sins, his sacrifice is enough to also cover all the sins of the whole world.  We hear in 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”  Don’t be fooled by those who claim another sacrifice is needed or that one hasn’t even happened yet.  If God isn’t looking for another sacrifice, you don’t need to either!  “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.  He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:27)  Because one sacrifice lasts a lifetime God remembers your sins no more!  He isn’t using a microscope to find the smallest sin to keep you out of heaven.  Rather, he looks at your life through the lens of Jesus’ life and sacrifice and doesn’t see you guilty of any sin.
     
    (2)
     
    But, just because Jesus is sitting at the right hand of his Father does not mean he is relaxing and doing nothing until Judgment Day.  Yes, one sacrifice lasts a lifetime so there is no more need for him to work for our salvation, but he does continue to work for us.  He intercedes for us.  Romans 8:34 says, “Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  He tells his heavenly Father that he can’t count our sins against us because Jesus has made you perfect.  Jesus reminds his Father to remember your sins no more.
     
    Don’t take my word for it that this is all true because these truths don’t come from my mind.  Rather, take the Holy Spirit’s word.  He is the one who has recorded all these wonderful truths for the world.  “The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this.” 
     
    The Holy Spirit himself testifies to us through His Word this morning that Jesus has made you perfect.  It’s the message of the new covenant which God has established with all the saints on earth.  It has been completed and fulfilled through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Those who are set apart from the rest of the world by faith take this covenant to heart.  They now instinctively want to live according to God’s laws because God has put his laws in their hearts and has written them on their minds.  Sometimes though, the instincts of the sinful nature take control.  When this happens, saints need not fear.  God has promised them through his Holy Spirit, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”  He still knows when you sin, but he does not count your sins against you because Jesus has made you perfect.
     
    Maybe you once had a classmate or friend who received special treatment from teachers or bosses because their parents contributed money and resources to the school or business.  No matter how many times they did something to deserve punishment, they were never reprimanded because of their status based on their parents.  Was that fair that that happened?  Whether someone considers it fair or not, that is the case still today.  Does it seem fair that God won’t punish all sinners forever?  We are saints only because God in his grace has given us the gift of faith.  We saints receive special treatment only because Jesus has made us perfect.  It may not seem fair.  Yet, the case remains the same.  Those who believe have received perfection through Christ. 
     
    You don’t have to wait until heaven to be called a saint.  The moment you were brought to faith, you were made perfect through Jesus.  But don’t let that go to your head.  It’s a great temptation to walk around, head held high looking down on others who don’t have the same status because they don’t have faith.  It’s easy to shake your head at those who continue to walk in sin and not by faith.  But remember, that’s what you once were.  At times, it can be easy to forget how far you have come by God’s grace.  By nature you are the same as all people.  You are nothing without Christ.  And even now you still fall into sin just like those who do not know Christ.  You test the ways of sin from time to time because your sinful nature wants you to remember the pleasures that come from sin.  Because you fail to live like a saint, you deserve the same as every sinner.  “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) 
     
    But even in your failings, you remain a saint because God remembers your sins no more.  Do you remember how the second half of that passage ends?  “But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Those sins which you remember and haunt you can be forgotten yourself because God remembers your sins no more.  
     
    So, we are already saints triumphant here on earth, and we are looking forward to singing with the saints who are already in heaven.  As we await that glorious reunion, we shout with joy in our words and actions as we consider our sainthood.   We can hold our heads high with humble confidence knowing our eternity in heaven is secure.  We can thank God with our good works, knowing that for Jesus’ sake God regards them perfect as well.  You can tell others that it’s never too late to believe that Jesus has made them perfect.  You can also tell others that there is no better time than now to believe this message. They too may walk with heads held high knowing that God considers them saints, since for Jesus’ sake he remembers their sins no more.
     
    Keep on striving, you saints.  The goal of eternal life is in view.  Soon, you will be sitting in heaven with God forever.  There will be no more need for God to remember your sins no more because you will sin no more.  That life is possible because one sacrifice lasts a lifetime and Jesus has already made you perfect. Amen.
     
    11/8/2015 2 Chronicles 20:1-30
  • 2 Chronicles 20:1-30
                                                                                            
    Dear sisters and brothers in our Savior Jesus,
     
    This will be the easiest Bible quiz you have ever taken.  I’ll start a passage and you finish it.  “Oh give thanks unto the Lord,…”   So quickly the words come to mind.  The common table prayers.  We know the words well, perhaps too well.  We limit the verse to a full supper table in a warm kitchen with our loved ones sitting next to us.  We might forget that this passage is used quite often in the Old Testament,  and sometimes where we might least expect it.  Please permit me to tell you one such surprising time.  It happened  about 125 years after King David ruled.  His descendant, Jehoshaphat, now sat on the king’s throne in Jerusalem and ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah.    …tell the narrative
     
    There was a national crisis.  A huge invasion force, three armies allied against God’s people.  Did you notice how the king took immediate action?  Sure, most would ridicule what he did.  He didn’t summon his military officials nor muster the troops.  The king took action most would ridicule.  He declared a fast and he went to the temple of the living Savior God to pray.  Did you notice the content of his prayer?  Jehoshaphat testifies to the truth that the Savior God is omnipotent.  Jehoshaphat recounts times when this almighty power was unleashed in saving activity for underserving people.  Jehoshaphat recalls the promises of this powerful Savior God to hear and listen and act for his people, not because they deserve it but because this is the essence of the Savior God – grace!  And the king confesses what should be our pray often during our pilgrimage.  We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you. 
     
    Did you notice the people of Judah, their faith, and their trust in this believing king?  The Bible says that from every town in Judah all the men, with their wives and children and little ones, assembled there before the Lord to pray with their king.  Imagine, all assembled at the capital city where government was centered.  Is that not the bulls-eye target for any invading force.  Yet the people have not panicked, they prayed.  They did not flee the countryside to escape from the country, they filed as families to the temple of the living God.  And God does not disappoint.  He raises up a prophet with a powerful promise.  You will not have to fight this battle.  Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.  Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you.
     
    Did you notice Jehoshaphat’s choir?  They are to stand in the front rank of the army, waiting as first in line to confront an overwhelming invading army.  They have no shield; no sword; no spear.  All they have is a song. Give thanks to the LORD, for his love endures forever.  Even before they saw the reality of the victory, Jehoshaphat’s choir sang thank you first!  They knew that God is not a man that he should lie, nor the son of man that he should change his mind.  By the Spirit’s grace they were fully confident in the truth and reality of God’s promises as good as done.  They stood and sang a song of victory and thanksgiving.
     
    Sisters and brothers in Jesus, STAND AND SING a song of victory and thanksgiving.  Yet perhaps you are thinking, “there is no invasion force marching through the Midwest.”  Yet the alliance of the unholy trio constantly invades my pilgrimage.  The devil, the wicked world, my sinful nature never rest. The old evil foe certainly is that roaring lion seeking to devour me with hellish lies and temptations that destroy.  My old nature invades my heart and seeks to take complete possession with his fist clenched in anger against the Lord God.  The world and its wicked priorities invades my space with judicial rulings that flaunt the Lord’s design for his creation and with the cultural corruption of a society so hardened that what is moral is slandered as intolerant, and what is evil is trumpeted as progressive.  Perverse society indeed.  The most helpless of all slaughtered for convenience and tiny corpses scavenged for profit. Invaded?  The war has never ended.  There is no peace treaty ever with Satan or a hostile world or my own old flesh.  Our struggle is against the spiritual forces of evil.  Our old nature is to be crucified, not coddled nor corrected.  It is to daily die in contrition and repentance. 
     
    Stand and sing the victory Jesus alone brings.  Jesus willingly came to go to war with Satan, toe to toe in the wilderness, and the Christ vanquished as Scripture declares:  the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.  Jesus lived in a wicked world as you and I do, yet Jesus was never defiled by the surrounding sin, not once in any thought or word or action in all his life.  In fact Jesus says In this world, you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.  And even our old nature vanquished.  It has been buried with Christ 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.  Stand and sing the reality of this victory even while living in a world of death and decay.   Sing with gratitude for you know the promises of Jesus the Christ, and say thank you ahead of time.
     
    Perhaps sickness has invaded your body and wrecked its mischief not only on your health but on your hopes.  Join Jehoshapat’s choir.  Stand and sing, sisters and brothers.  We know the promises of God.  Thanks be to Jesus and his victory we know that He will change this corrupt body that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body.   So we sing,   Why should cross and trial grieve me?  Christ is near with his cheer; never will he leave me.
     
    Perhaps the economy has invaded your checkbook and bank statement, and left it breeched and broken.  Join Jehoshaphat’s choir.  Stand and sing, sisters and brothers.  We know the promises of God.  Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow.  So we sing.  Rejoice my heart, be glad and sing; A cheerful trust maintain, For God, the source of ev’rything, Your treasure shall remain.
     
    Perhaps doubts and fears have invaded your soul.  Guilt, worry, shame.  You feel defeated. Overwhelmed. Tired.  Ready to run from life but feeling not nowhere to go.  Even relationships seem strained and suspicious.  Join Jehoshaphat’s choir.  Stand and sing, sisters and brothers.  We know the promises of God.  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things.    So we sing.  But for us fights the valiant one Whom God himself elected.  You ask, Who is this?  Jesus Christ it is, The almighty Lord.  And there’s no other God; he holds the field forever.
     
    So what has this all to do with you? A few weeks ago I ran across a YouTube video, one of those flash mob choirs. (tell story)  People like to hear music and songs and singing.  It lifts our spirits and our souls soar.  It is infectious, you draw near to hear.  You want to share the joy.  The church of Christ joins Jehoshaphat’s choir.  It sings with joy and confidence a thank you in the face of evil and danger.  It sings a thank you even before we see the victory, because we know in Christ we are on the winning side.  And this joy, this victory, this singing is infectious.    I pray that every student that God brings to MLC learns how to sing, how to stand and sing.  By the Spirit’s grace they need to learn every more clearly the promises of Savior God and be willing to stand in the front rank.  By the Spirit’s omnipotence they are sent forth to Stand and sing with confidence the thank you song of victory we have in Christ.  I pray that God sends them out to train others to join Jehoshaphat’s choir, to stand and sing a thank you because we know God cannot lie.  We have a victory, now and forever.   May the Church of Christ always be willing to stand in the forefront and face the forces of evil and lies and doubt and fear, knowing that God has won a victory.  Stand and sing.
     
    10/25/2015 Christ Died For Sinners
  • Romans 5:1-11
    Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
    You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
    Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
     
     
    When most people think about funerals, they think about sorrow.  The sorrow of the family and friends mourning the loss of a loved one.  The sorrow that comes from memories that once were and will now stay in the past.  The sorrow that comes from knowing no more memories will be made with that person.  There is nothing wrong with sorrow at funerals.  However, something greater breaks through the sorrowful mood.  The message in the sermon at Christian funerals focuses on Christ’s death which ultimately brings joy.  The message that Christ died for sinners brings everlasting joy because of what the message means!  That’s what Paul conveys to us today in the early part of his letter to the Romans.  Paul tells us  CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS that we may have peace with God and that hope may never disappoint us! 
     
    I
     
    I’d call Romans Paul’s courtroom letter.  You might too as you read through it.  In this great epistle, Paul describes all people in the world as sinners.  They are criminals who have broken the law of God and have been summoned to court as a result.  Like helpless defendants awaiting their inevitable guilty verdict, they are sinners standing before a judge.  The evidence against them is overwhelming.  The list of broken commandments is never ending.  God is the judge, and he has every right to announce his sentence of “Guilty!”  But he doesn’t.  The entire epistle explains God’s verdict for believers: “Not guilty!” 
     
    How can Paul be so sure about this?  After all, man cannot judge the heart.  Only God can do that.  So how is Paul so confident?  Paul knows whom Christ died for.  Christ died for the whole sinful world.  Paul writes, “Christ died for the ungodly.”  Does that make sense?  Why would a holy God die for worthless, sinful humans?  Because God’s love compelled him to send CHRIST TO DIE FOR SINNERS, and he did this “at just the right time, when we were still powerless.” 
     
    Powerless?  How so?  Well, the human race was once powerless because of sin.  Humans were like a dead corpse, unable to run away from God’s wrath.  They were unable to throw off the guilt of their sins.  Humans were also unable to separate themselves from sin and Satan.  So, Christ came to earth and walked his journey to Calvary where he shed his blood on the cross.  Can you picture that?  Jesus hung on a rough couple pieces of wood.  He may have had splinters driving into his back drawing out blood.  Blood streamed down his face as the crown of thorns continued to pierce his skull.  The ground stained red with the blood dripping from his hands and arms and feet and legs.  What a sorrowful sight.  Yet, what a joyous sight for those who need spiritual help. 
     
    The shedding of Jesus’ precious blood declares sinners not guilty!  The payment for reconciliation before God was paid by Jesus’ death.  Those who believe that CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS are saved from God’s wrath through Jesus Christ.  What is the result of being declared not guilty, being reconciled, and being saved?  Peace.  CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS that we may have peace with God. 
     
    Peace is that good feeling you have when you and your spouse are on the same page.  Peace is that good feeling when you hug it out with a friend.  But peace on earth disappoints, doesn’t it?  Peace on earth is uncertain because it must rely on the attitude of imperfect people.  You think you are at peace with someone, but if that person doesn’t think the same then there is no peace.  Earthly peace is also temporary.  Earthly peace vanishes with a simple slip of the tongue, a stray hand to the face, or an eye roll. 
     
    This true peace is one-of-a-kind.  Peace with God is an awesome blessing which gives us a new status before him.  It’s always certain because it comes from God who is perfect and unchanging.  He promises peace through Jesus so it is always ours.  Peace with God is also eternal since its benefits extend into our heavenly lives.  We are at peace with God even when we sin on earth because of the forgiveness of sins, and we will still be at peace with God perfectly in heaven forever!  This is and always will remain true because CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS that we may have peace with God.
     
    When I do or say something to hurt my wife, I tell her I’m sorry.  She forgives me, and we are at peace again.  You might be able to amend peace with a friend by taking him or her to a show on the Strip as a gift.  A nice gesture like this after a failed promise can ease tension and move a relationship back to peace.  Countries at war can even earn peace with each other with compromises and peace terms.  Earthly peace has to be earned.
     
    But, in the moments of trying to earn peace with someone or even with yourself, do you catch yourself trying to make peace with God at the same time?  Sometimes I think, “I’m a pretty decent husband.  Sure, I messed up and hurt her, but God must be proud at how I owned up to the situation!”  Do you think the same way when you try to patch up relationships in your family or personal life?  Do you think you can make peace with God just by saying you’re sorry to him?  Maybe you’ve thought you can make peace with God by going above and beyond what he tells you to do.  Have you thought about making peace with God by talking to him just a little bit longer in your prayer life?
     
    Well, I have news for you.  Just as earthly peace and peace with God are on completely different spectrums, so is the way each peace is attained!  The apostle Paul explains that you and I are powerless to earn peace with God because we are naturally ungodly people.  Your ungodliness makes you embarrassed and ashamed.  You can’t make peace with God by your own being.  My ungodliness makes me an enemy deserving of his eternal wrath and punishment.  I can’t make peace with God no matter how hard I try to be by my own doing. 
     
    So, CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS that you and I may have peace with God through faith in him.  Faith receives and welcomes peace with God gladly.  Faith confidently knows that God never refuses his peace to his people.  Faith believes that peace with God is the ultimate comfort. When earthly peace vanishes, God’s peace remains.  God’s peace comforts you when a family member leaves you.  God’s peace remains when a friend walks out of your life because of your faith and godliness.  God’s peace comforts those mourning a death because they know their loved one is at peace in heaven, and they will join their loved one someday in that eternal peace. 
     
    What can you and I do because we are at peace with God?  St. Paul has a suggestion.  He says we can boast in our status of being at peace with him.  You can’t help but brag about something awesome that has happened to you.  In the same way, you and I can’t help but boast in our peace with God.  Paul says, “We also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”  We are reconciled with God.  We are at peace with him because CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS.
     
    II
     
    But you know what?  Peace with God isn’t the only thing Christians boast about.  Christians also boast about the hope they have in Christ.  It’s the same expression of joy as boasting about peace with God.  Those who have this hope can’t keep quiet about it!  Because of this hope Christians can boast when they get sick.  They can boast when they suffer an injury resulting in a visit to the E.R.  They can boast when they lose a job or are struggling to pay the bills.  Christians can even boast when they are persecuted because of their faith.  How is this possible?  Why would a Christian even want to boast in afflictions? 
     
    Paul makes it clear by listing a chain reaction of events. He points out how when afflictions come upon anyone, generally, a person will try to persevere.  He will grow thicker skin when someone pokes fun at him.  She will fight to keep her job or find a new and better one.  Perseverance comes from afflictions.  In turn, perseverance builds up character.  A person’s true character is tested when afflictions happen.  How well someone perseveres in these afflictions is a statement of their character.  A commentator on Romans once said, “Character is acquiring a good trait as a result of perseverance.”  Finally, character builds up hope.  This final step separates Christians from unbelievers.  Unbelievers will put their hope in money to buy themselves out of despair.  They will put their hope in friends to back them up.  The best an unbeliever can do is hope that the objects of their hope won’t fail them.  There is always worry for an unbeliever. But a Christian’s character will put its hope in Christ for strength to endure afflictions.  An unbeliever’s hope will fail, but Paul is talking about Christian hope when he writes, And hope does not disappoint us.” 
     
    Why can it not disappoint us?  Well, the Holy Spirit pours out God’s love into a Christian’s heart.  The Bible clearly says that God’s love is pure so it is impossible for God’s love to disappoint.  Since our hope comes from the pure love of God, it is pure.  Our pure hope can never disappoint us
     
    When I was in eighth grade, I had dreams of grandeur to lead my grade school basketball team to a championship at the Michigan Lutheran Seminary Grade School Tournament.  However, a couple weeks before the tournament, I broke my thumb snowboarding.  I couldn’t even play in the tournament. There have been times when I hoped I would get a bigger raise when I returned to my summer job.  There have also been times when I hoped to do better on big tests in school.  This past season I actually hoped the Detroit Lions would win a Super Bowl last NFL season.  This wasn’t the first time this hope failed me, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  An endless list of hopes in things other than God have failed me.  What about you?  Have you hoped to make more money in a better job, but things haven’t worked out?  Did you hope the summer temperatures would have ended sooner?  Are you hoping you’ll avoid the flu this winter?  Most hopes fail us because we place our hope in our imperfect selves or in things affected by sin.
     
    Speaking of that sort of hope, I’ve seen evidence of it in answer to an extremely important question. The question is, “Why should God let you into heaven?”  Do you know what one of the most common answers is? Many people will say, “I hope he’ll let me in because I’m a pretty good person.”  Putting hope in what you’ve done will reserve a spot in hell for you.  Even adding your own works for salvation to Jesus’ work will result in damnation.  This formula sounds like this: Hope in your works plus Jesus’ work doesn’t equal heaven. No, hope in your good works plus Jesus’ work equals eternal death in hell.  Simply stated, putting hope in anything but Jesus’ death alone for salvation will result in damnation. 
     
    When you are recovering from a broken bone or a serious illness, do you spend your time relaxing without occupying yourself with God’s Word daily?  After you lose a job, do you sit around and pout hoping that something will come along?  When persecutions hit hard, do you curl up in a corner until the bombarding words go away?  You can’t get yourself out of trouble on your own.  Doing this will wear you down quickly as earthly and spiritual afflictions get to you.  Broken bones, losing a job, and persecution aren’t fun.  They’re miserable feelings.  They’re miserable when you deal with them by yourself.  Each one of us has to carry personal crosses on a daily basis.  The struggle to carry these crosses will remain until death.
     
    But let me restate that last statement. The struggle to carry these crosses will remain until you put your hope in Christ to help you.  Where can you find that hope?  Baptism creates faith and makes us children of God.  It helps put your hope in God by daily drowning your old, sinful self.  The Lord’s Supper renews your hope in the forgiveness of sins.  When I eat Christ’s body and drink his blood, I can’t help but think of his innocent death on the cross which paid for all my sins.  God’s Word strengthens our hope in all his promises.  God daily uses his Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper to work faith and create hope in him.  Surely, hope will never disappoint us.
     
    Hope didn’t disappoint Jacob either, did it?  His hope was not disappointed because God kept his promise to him in his dream.  The Lord remained with Jacob forever and Jacob’s family indeed became a great nation.  Or what about the disciples’ hope?  Their hope was not disappointed.  They witnessed the plan of salvation fulfilled with their own eyes!  In the same way, your hope will never disappoint you because God is faithful to all his promises. 
     
    You can confidently place your hope in God that he will work all things for your good.  Your hope in God’s promise to take you to heaven is safe.  You can place your hope in the promise of the resurrection of the dead on the last day.  And in the hope of that resurrection, you can confidently carry your daily crosses because you know each and every struggle is only temporary.  You can boast in afflictions because they are a reminder of hope which will be fulfilled.  It will be fulfilled because CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS.  CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS that hope may never disappoint us.
     
    This message is why funerals so great.  This message strengthens the faiths of believers.  The Holy Spirit uses this message to work faith in the hearts of unbelievers present at Christian funerals.   The message that CHRIST DIED FOR SINNERS gives comfort.  It gives comfort because it tells us we have peace with God and hope may never disappoint us.  Amen.
     
    10/18/2015 Haggai 1: 2-13
  • 2015                                                                                                 Haggai 1: 2-13
                                                                                                                                                                         

    Text Box: 2 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the LORD’s house.’”
3 Then the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 4 “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?”
5 Now this is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”
7 This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. 8 Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the LORD. 9 “You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?” declares the LORD Almighty. “Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the heavens have withheld their dew and the earth its crops. 11 I called for a drought on the fields and the mountains, on the grain, the new wine, the olive oil and everything else the ground produces, on people and livestock, and on all the labor of your hands.”
12 Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the message of the prophet Haggai, because the LORD their God had sent him. And the people feared the LORD.
13 Then Haggai, the LORD’s messenger, gave this message of the LORD to the people: “I am with you,” declares the LORD.




















    My friends,  you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.  God made you His, so that together we might declare His praises to the ends of the earth,
        If you are younger than 50, chances are you’ve never seen one of these; and if you are over 50, chances are you’ve never used one of these.  What is this wooden ball?  It’s a mini darning ball, called a “darning egg.”  Years ago Moms would put this into the sock to stitch/darn a hole in the heel or toe.  It was a time-consuming task.  As a child I wore mended socks.  And perhaps some of you did as well. 
     
        Today no one thinks of using a darning ball or wearing mended socks.  We simply throw them away and buy new ones.  At best, we may use them for dusting the furniture or as padding vs. a hot steering wheel in the summer months.  But sooner than later worthless socks end up in the garbage – never to be seen or used again. Thankfully, God isn’t like us; and  God doesn’t think and act like us – nor does He wear socks like us. Here’s why I say this.
     
         Since birth – and even before that, we’re full of holes.  By our rights, by all rights, God ought to throw us away.  Due to our anger and arguing; our bullying and bickering;  our greed, our gossip; our love-affairs with things; our lust, our laziness; our misused talents and misspent time; our slander; our selfishness, our worries and our woe-is-me attitudes our hearts, heads and  hands are full of holes.  We have so many holes – and such big holes- that human hands could never mend them.  That’s why by all rights God ought to throw each of us away to a place where our woeful cries would forever be: “ouch, ouch, ouch.”  
         But wait a second.  What is impossible for man, was made possible by God – the heart,  head and hand mender. When the time was just right, God sent His son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law that we might receive the full rights of sons.  In other words, we, who are so full of holes do not have to cry “ouch” for all eternity. Instead, by faith in Jesus, our mender and mediator, we are privileged to say, sing and shout: “dear Daddy” now and for all eternity. Galatians 4: 4  Wow!  That’s grace!  This is the undeserved love God shows us in and through His Son, Jesus Christ.  We are His people!  His blood-bo’t people! Yes, his mended people!
     
          With this gospel truth tatted to our hearts and rattling around in our heads, we’re now able to boldly and confidently pray: Lord, mend also the purses of your people.  Yes, mend them      1) By Your grace; mend them 2) To Your govern; and mend them 3) For Your glory.
     
           Many a Christian would be hard pressed to find the book of Haggai in their Bibles; many a Christian has never read, much less studied, this book, and many a Christian pastor has never preached on this book.  So what does this book, written around 520 BC, have to say to me/us in 2015 AD?  Good question!  Let the truth be told: it has everything to say about our walk with Jesus.  In fact, it’s as if God wrote it yesterday so that we can put our Christian faith and life into practice today.  This tiny book –only 2 chapters long-  is about 4 GP’s: #1 God’s prophet – by the name of Haggai;  #2 God’s pastor – by the name of Pastor Vogt;  3) God’s people – by the name of you; and  4) God’s promise – namely, “I am with you.”  Can you relate to this? You betcha!  Let’s take a closer look.
            The book begins on a low note.  God noticed that His people had gotten side-tracked.  After 70 years of being held hostage in Babylon, they were returning to their homeland in Jerusalem.  Oh how happy they were to be home!  They were free from a ruthless government;  free to find a job and earn an income, free to buy, build or rent a house;  free to start a family, free to plant a garden and free to come and go as they wished.  All were blessings from the Lord!  However, in returning to their homeland, the Lord gave them a task:  Rebuild my house!   The temple had been destroyed and lay in ruins.  With their new-found freedom, they were to set aside a part of their time, talents and treasures to restore God’s temple.   However, somethings, someones intercepted their task.  See if you can figure out what they were: v.2  This is what the Lord Almighty says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.’”Then the word of the Lord came through the prophet Haggai: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.”  What was the problem? What was hampering the Lord’s work in 520 BC?   Better yet, what’s our problem?  What’s hampering the Lord’s work in 2015?  The age-old answer remains: me, myself and I.  They had developed an “I” problem.  Me first, my time first, my talents first, my treasures first  was the cause of their busyness. No time, no talents, no money for the Lord and His work.  That’s why God’s prophet called them to repentance. They needed to penitently pray; as do we: Lord, mend the purses of your people.  Mend them 1) By Your grace.  Let’s make sure we understand this.                                                                                                                            Does God need our money to carry on His work?  Does God need Pastor Vogt & Vicar to preach and teach you His Word?  Does God need the people of Water of Life to do evangelism?   Does God need the WELS to get His word out to the world?  We’d like to think so, but it’s wrong to think so.  The God who created this universe in 6/24 hr days; the God who told the sun to get up this morning and will tuck it into bed tonight; and then call out the billions of stars by name tonight and every night needs nothing and no one.   Our money is His to begin with;  Rover could preach this sermon if God chose him to and God could use His angels to do evangelism.  While God doesn’t need any one or anything, He lets His people in on the joy of doing His gospel work. Just like His OT people, He has freed us from slavery and freed us for service in His kingdom.    We’ll never be first-fruit givers, we’ll never say, “Lord, here I am use me,” nor will we ever experience the joy/privilege of being His people, because ‘we have to.’   Rather, the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared and it teaches us to say yes, yes, yes to our Savior’s gospel work. Titus 2:11.  That’s why we pray: Lord, mend the purses of your people!  Mend them 1) By Your grace. 
        With our purses mended by Jesus’ precious blood, we can proceed.   Twice Haggai writes: v. 4 & v. 7:  This is what the Lord almighty says:  “Give careful thought to your ways.”  A more literal translation would be:  ‘the Lord Almighty says, put your heart over your ways.’   In other words,  let the joy of your forgiveness, the joy of being His mended people,  guide you to spend and to share what’s in our mended purses in ways that are pleasing to the Lord.  That’s why we also pray:  Lord, mend the purses of your people!  Mend them 2) To Your govern.  For this one I need your help.
         Do children nowadays get an allowance, or is this a thing of the past?    Do adults nowadays get a paycheck, or is this a thing of the past?  Do seniors nowadays get a Social Security check or a pension check, or is this a thing of the past?  Would you agree the answer in most cases is: yes, we do; it’s not a thing of the past. It’s a now thing!  So what’s the easiest thing to do with this now thing?  The easy thing is to blow it -  not manage it.  As a child, I received 25 cents/week for my allowance.  I promptly went down to the corner store and purchased 5 packs of baseball cards with a piece of bubble gum in each.  The baseball cards I traded, the gum I chewed.  Did I manage my allowance? No!  I wasted it in selfishness.  I could still do the same with this now thing called my paycheck – and so can you. BUT wait, our purses have been mended.  Now we have every reason to manage our purses in Savior-ness – not in selfishness.   Or as the Lord Almighty says: give careful thought to your ways.
          Putting one’s heart over one’s ways means we take His lead at what’s important in life – and it’s not baseball cards and chewing gum.  His gospel work in telling others the praise-worthy deeds of our God is numero uno;  our family and making sure they have want they need – not want- is numero uno;  helping the less fortunate, the hurting and the hungry are numero unos.  Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and taking care of our bodies are numero unos.  All are important! Is it easy to blow what’s in our mended purses?  Oh yes!  Is it easy to manage what’s in our mended purses?  Oh no!  But we have the Lord to guide us.  That’s why we pray:  Lord, mend the purses of your people.  Mend them 2) To Your govern.  
        And this brings us to the why?  Why work and struggle to manage what the Lord has given us?  Why not blow it; why not just eat, drink, party and play as many do.  Why manage our purses? Because it’s not about me; it’s about Him.  It’s not about how I look and what I do; it’s about how He looks and what He does;  it’s not about us getting the credit for our gifts, it’s about Him not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to the knowledge of the truth.  That’s why God’s people – past, present  & tomorrow- respond in the very same way: And the people feared (trusted)  the Lord.13 Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: “I am with you,” declares the Lord. Lord, mend the purses of your people!  Mend them  3) For Your glory.
        Very quickly let’s go on a journey with some close friends.  Right now hiding/camping in our mended purses/wallets are Mr. President George Washington and his compatriots. When we bring them out of hiding; place them in the offering basket and earmarked them “for missions,” we fly with them to 23 foreign lands so others can hear the good news of the Savior;  we fly with them to over 160 neighborhoods throughout our land so that others can hear the good  news of the Savior. Then we fly with them to 4 unique places in the US where young men and women are being trained for ministry – so that the next generation, those yet to be born, will hear the good news about the Savior.  Why can we, why do God’s people today, freely part with our George Washingtons and his compatriots?  So that others all around the world will learn of Him and praise God for the obedience that accompanies our confession of the gospel.  II Cor. 9:13.  Lord, mend the purses of your people!  Mend them; 3) for the glory of your name.
       And that brings us full circle – not to this – a wooden ball; but to this – a wooden cross.  You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that we through His poverty might become rich.   II Corinthians 8:9 We are rich!  We are His mended  people!  We are His ambassadors to our fallen world.  With our time, talents and treasures, let’s go and give them heaven!  Lord, mend our purses to that end.  Amen!
     
       
     
    10/11/2015 What a Friend We Have in Jesus
  • Sermon Text:  John 10:14-15                                                                       October 11, 2015
    #750 – Festival of Friendship Sunday
    What a Friend We Have in Jesus
                Imagine what it would have been like to have known Jesus personally.  Imagine having been John, or Peter or Matthew, or perhaps Mary or Martha . . . not just one of the townsfolk of Nazareth or Capernaum, but one of those on the inside . . . not just someone who saw Jesus in passing or heard him preach a sermon or two or witnessed him work a miracle once or twice; but one of those who actually spent some down time with him.  Someone who really got to know him, enjoyed dinner conversations with him, took long walks with him.  Not only listening to Jesus speak, but conversing with him – knowing he was listening and taking the time to really get to know you . . . who you are, what makes you tick, getting to know your fears and the source of your sadness, as well as what brings you joy and satisfaction in life.  And being able to do this over a long period of time – really developing a relationship, even a friendship.  Imagine being able to tell someone – maybe your grandkids some day – that you were friends with Jesus!
                Perhaps you’ve already caught on . . . this is closer to reality than perhaps you think.
                You see, your Christian faith is not merely the practice of a religion.  It is not a faith in a system of doctrine or a set of religious tenets or principles.  Your faith is not a relationship with a book or a church or even merely with a group of like-minded people.  Your Christian faith is a relationship with a very real and personal being . . . a divine being, whose personality and humanity is as real as yours or mine . . . one who is just as, in fact, even more genuine and honest and transparent than we usually are in our relationships with one another.  Jesus invites you to consider him a friend.  And what a friend he is!  He knows you and you know him; or if you don’t already, he invites you to do so.
                Before we get too deep into our lesson this morning, there’s something I really need to say to all of you (and it seems fitting to do so on in connection with this lesson):  The phrase that I (or any pastor worth his salt) hates to hear most (and I’ve heard it quite a bit the past couple years) is:  “Pastor, I know you’re so busy . . .”  And then that sentence ends either with an excuse for not reaching out to me about something or with a sheepish request for just a little of my precious time.  I need you to know that I don’t consider my busyness a badge of honor.  It hurts me to know that you think I’m too busy for you.  If any one of you ever thinks that, then one of two things has happened:  either I’ve done something to lead you to conclude that, which means I’m completely failing as your pastor, or you don’t really know me.  Other than being the best husband and father I can possibly be, nothing is more important to me than being the best shepherd of your soul I can possibly be.  My heart it not in being a church administrator or in making a name for myself as some district or synod mission board guru.  I aspire to be nothing more than what the old German Lutherans called a seelsorger – that is, someone who is a pastor at heart – a “carer of souls” – a shepherd of the Lord’s sheep.
                If I’ve done anything to make any of you or anyone else you know feel different about me, please forgive me!  And please give me a second chance. 
                Now, if it tears me up inside to have you think that about me, imagine what it does to the Lord!  At least in my case there’s some grounds for thinking that way.  I am human.  I am finite.  I do have my limitations.  Like you I am limited to being in one place at one time, and only have so much of that time to work with.  But the Lord . . . Jesus is infinite!  He has no limitations on his time, his availability, his being any place.  Jesus is eternal God – omnipresent (present everywhere all at the same time); he is omnipotent (all-powerful); he is omniscient (all-knowing).  And as big as is his being, so also is his heart.  The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God!
                We heard earlier what the LORD said to the Old Testament Jews who felt God was too busy or too distracted to know what was going on with them or to hear their prayers or help them out:  “Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God’?  Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom” (Isaiah 40:27-28).  God is never too busy to be bothered.  Jesus promised:  “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  And also said, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it” (John 14:14).   
                Jesus knows you.  He knows all sorts of things about you and your life:  how many hairs are on your head, what you fear, what you hope for, where you’ve been and where you’re heading.  He knows what makes you happy and what makes you sad; what you’re successful at and where you’ve failed.  He knows who you truly are, what keeps you going, and what you need before you yourself even come to the realization of that need or think to ask him for it.  Speaking of which, as your heavenly Friend Jesus realized and has done something about your greatest need – and that is your need for salvation.  Jesus refers to that in our lesson when he says:  “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Jesus came to this earth – not to get to know us and what he could do for us better, but to do for us what he already knew we couldn’t do for ourselves . . . to live a perfect life for us – earning righteousness for us; to step under the wrath of God’s law and suffer the wages of our sin, which was death and hell; and to defeat our greatest enemies:  sin, death and the devil.  To win forgiveness for our sins, peace for our consciences and access to his heaven.
                Indeed, what a friend we have in Jesus . . . one who knows us, knows what we need from him, and provides it for us!
                But a friendship goes two ways.  There’s a lot that millions of everyday people know about the rich and famous.  All sorts of newsstand magazines like “People” magazine and TV shows like “TMZ” share all sorts of personal information about the famous.  You might know a lot about them.  But they don’t know the first thing about you.  In order for a friendship to exist, that knowing of one another must go both ways.  Friendship is a two way street.  In order for you to be able to claim to be Jesus’ friend, you need to know him.  And thanks be to God, nearly every one of you does.  And if someone doesn’t, there’s nothing keeping him/her from doing so.
                Why not?  Because everything necessary to get to know Jesus is right here in this book (the Bible).  And what is that?  First, it is knowledge about Jesus . . . who he is:  eternal God the Son become true man, to serve as your Savior.  It is knowledge of what he’s done for you (his substitutionary life, death and resurrection as your Savior from sin; that as a result he has justified you, acquired for you the verdict of innocence in God’s courtroom).  It is knowledge of what he means for you:  complete forgiveness of all your sins, peace with God, an open invitation to spend forever with him in the wonders of heaven. 
                But it is possible – and there are plenty of people who are like this – it is possible to know all about Jesus, but still not really know Jesus.  And that’s where faith comes in!  Faith in Jesus is the key to a relationship with Jesus.  Faith is not head-knowledge or Bible-knowledge, but it is heart-knowledge.  And where does faith come from?  How does one go about having this faith-relationship with Jesus?  The Bible says:  “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  And again it says:  “the Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
                God the Holy Spirit works through the gospel in his Word to work saving faith in our hearts, so that we come to truly know Jesus.  Just as Jesus said:  “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14).
                Someone might question the possibility of having a relationship with someone you’ve never actually met.  I think the whole modern internet and social media phenomenon has made this type of thing understandable.  All sorts of people have rather extensive personal relationships with people they’ve never actually met.  They may only know them by words on a screen, but they do come to know one another quite well.  But perhaps Jesus explains best how this happens in our relationship with him.  Jesus was speaking with his disciples the night of his last supper with them.  Jesus had just said:  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  And then he added:  “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”  But Philip didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about:  “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus answered:  “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6-9).  To know Jesus – to truly know him by faith – is to know God the Father.  And to know Jesus through his Word is to know Jesus – the person, your Savior, personally.  Jesus once said:  “If you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).  And in John 14 he also said:  “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. . . . If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:21,23).   
                Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior!  The life he lived, he lived for you.  The death he died, he died for you, as much as he died for anyone!  The rule by which he reigns over all creation, he reigns with you in mind and for your daily and eternal good.  Please know this about him!!
                What a friend each one of us has in Jesus:  one who knows us, one whom we’ve come to know (and who invites us to get to know better through his Word), one who has made himself at home within us, and one who will one day invite us to make ourselves at home with him in heaven.  Amen.
     
    10/4/2015 Wait On the Lord!
  • Sermon Text:  James 5:7-11                                  October 4th, 2015
    #749 – 19th Sunday after Pentecost
    Wait On the Lord!
                Right now is a really fun time of the year on farms around the country.  Fields are filled with fruits and vegetables and grains ready to be harvested.  Orchards of apple trees, pear trees and a host of other fruits have ripened on the tree and are ready to be picked and eaten.  But ask the farmers and many of the pickers of the fruits and vegetables . . . they sure wish this could have come sooner.  It’s not easy to wait for the harvest. 
                There are so many factors that play into the timing of the harvest.  Weather is one of the major factors.  Weather can be funny.  We had another example of that this past month.  It seemed like summer might never end!  100+ degrees all the way through the last day of September!?!  Come on!  I for one got very impatient waiting for the heat to break and fall to arrive.
                The weather is uncontrollable . . . even in our modern, technologically advanced world.  And it’s even still rather unpredictable, especially more than 7-8 days out. 
                No one knows this better than the farmer.  Even with all our modern irrigation methods, the farmer relies heavily on the weather.  He or she has to wait for winter to lift and the ground to thaw before the ground can be tilled and seed planted in the spring.  No matter how much modern science is applied to the process, the famer still has to patiently wait for their crops to grow and produce the harvest.  No amount of fertilizing, watering, genetic engineering or pleading and worrying will make the process go faster than nature allows.  Farming requires patience . . . a lot of it!  And faith, I might add.  Faith that the seed will do what it’s supposed to do.  Faith that the weather will cooperate; that too much rain and flooding won’t destroy the crop; that a freak late summer hailstorm won’t destroy the harvest.
                I don’t think we have any farmers in the house this morning.  But we do have a room full of people whose lives require both patience and faith.  Why?  Because like the weather, the Lord – who controls so much our lives – is himself uncontrollable and rather unpredictable.  As much as we’ve come to know about him on the basis of what he’s revealed to us about himself in his Word, there’s a lot about him and how he goes about ruling the world and our lives that we just can’t predict in advance.  Our relationship with the Lord requires that we wait on him, and that we do so with patience and with faith, trusting him to be our compassionate and merciful God in heaven.
                James wrote this letter to a group of Christians in the first century who were obviously undergoing a great deal of struggles and hardships as a result of their faith in Jesus.  These hardships and this persecution were causing some of them to question whether believing in Jesus and living out their faith in him was worth it.  And because they couldn’t do anything to get even or get back at the ones who were inflicting this hardship on them, they were taking it out on those they could – like their fellow Christians.  They were grumbling and complaining against each other, even though they were all suffering the same hardships together.  Of course, this was only making matters worse.
                Grumbling and complaining and taking our frustrations out on those who are available and can’t or won’t do anything back are natural reactions in times of suffering.  But James is writing to a group of people with supernatural qualities and abilities.  He was writing to Christians, believers in whom dwelt the Holy Spirit.  Believers who had been filled with the fruits of the Spirit, supernatural qualities like Christ-like love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Harvest and use these fruits of the Spirit, James tells them. 
                “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!”
                Patience is not one of our stronger virtues.  It doesn’t come naturally.  Especially in our modern era in which we have become rather accustomed to instant gratification:  fast food, instant rice, high speed internet, same day shipping, on demand movie downloads, which only take as long as it takes to eat a cookie.  Rarely do you here of anyone offering lay away any more.  Now you hear stores offering you to take that new furniture home with you today, no money down, no payments for 12 months.  All we need is your signature (and all your credit and banking information).  We’re so used to getting what we want when we want it.  And usually we want it now!
                But certain things take time.  Mom always said, anything worth having is worth waiting for.  Certain things are better with age.  Things like good cheese or wine can’t be rushed.  Fruit which is allowed to fully ripen on the tree is so much tastier and filled with so many more healthy vitamins and nutrients than the fruit we usually get at the store, which is picked off the tree weeks before you buy it.  A butterfly is another example from nature that you can’t force things to happen quicker than God has designed them.  The caterpillar turned butterfly in the cocoon needs time to fully morph into a functioning butterfly.  Even near the very end of that process, if you were to see a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon and attempt to help it by cutting or peeling back the cocoon, that butterfly – rather than flying away – would collapse to the ground, unable to fly.  The struggle out of the cocoon is part of God’s design for that butterfly to strengthen its wings so they can fly.  There is a process to every aspect of nature – thoughtfully planned out by God – that simply can’t be rushed.
                The farmer knows this.  The botanist and the entomologist know this.  And I know you know this.  But we would all do well to be reminded of this.  Especially as it comes to our relationship with the Lord and his rule in our lives.  “Be patient and stand firm.”
                It might be a good idea, when you grow impatient with the Lord, to think of the Lord’s patience with you.  How many times he could have – and some would argue should have – simply said, “I’m done with you!  Have it your way!  If you want nothing to do with me and my will for your life, I’ll leave then.”  And then left us to struggle through life without him and face an eternity of misery in hell separated from him.  But in his grace, the Lord has patiently led you back to himself time and again in repentance.  He has graciously forgiven you for your grumbling and complaining and impatience . . . he’s completely forgiven you for Jesus’ sake and welcomed you back to himself with open arms.  He’s patiently led you over time to see the foolishness of your ways and the wisdom of his; the foolishness of your timing and the wisdom of his.  The Lord has been more than patient with you, in spite of your sin.  You and I certainly can be patient with him, who is perfect and loving in all that he does.
                As an example of patience in the face of suffering and trials, especially trials we face as a result of our faith in Christ, James writes:  “take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (vs.10).  While Satan wants us to think that the suffering we face is perhaps a sign that our faith is not so strong or God’s love for us is not so great, James reminds us that some of those who faced the most hardship were those who were the closest to the Lord and the most active doing his will.  Prophets like Jeremiah, who was imprisoned and thrown into a muddy cistern for days and weeks on end; who had his prophecies torn into pieces one page at a time as they were read to the king; who is referred to as the weeping prophet, because it tore his heart out to see his beloved city of Jerusalem and its people reject the Lord’s Word and suffer the consequences of such unbelief.  Or Hosea, who was commanded by the Lord to take a prostitute for a wife and to remain faithful to her, in spite of the fact that she proceeded to sleep around on him with numerous other men – all as an illustration of Israel’s adultery in its relationship with the Lord.  Or the prophet Isaiah, who immediately after excitedly volunteering to be the Lord’s spokesman, was told that he’d serve a thankless ministry of 50 years.  A ministry which would appear to be a complete failure.  A ministry in which not only would no one listen, but which would seem to accomplish the exact opposite of what was intended . . . it would harden people in their unbelief and rejection of the Lord’s Word.  Here’s what the Lord told Isaiah his first day on the job . . . before he even walked out of the Lord’s office.  Isaiah had just said, “Here am I.  Send me!”  And the LORD said:  ““Go and tell this people:
    “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. . . . 11 Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged,  12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken” (Isaiah 6:9-12).
                The only way any of this made sense . . . the only way any of the LORD’s prophets could possibly find purpose and meaning in their life’s work and the suffering they endured as a result . . . was to put it all in the context of eternity.  To wait on the Lord to accomplish his purposes in his way and in his timing.  This required a lifetime of patience, perseverance and trust.  Trusting that – in spite of the way it might appear at the moment – the Lord is, always has been and always will be a compassionate and merciful God.
                Which brings us to the second point of this morning’s sermon.  James writes:  “As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered.”  James was obviously familiar with Jesus’ words from his Sermon on the Mount, when he said:  “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).  James continued:  “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.  The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (vs.11).
                We don’t have the time to review the whole story of Job.  Suffice it to say, Job’s faith was tested severely.  And yet the Lord enabled him to persevere and prevail in faith.  In spite of all the pain and suffering Satan inflicted on him and the rollercoaster ride Job and his faith were taken on, Job kept the faith.  He continued to trust that behind all of this ugliness, the Lord was still his compassionate and merciful God.  And once God determined that that time of testing was complete, the Lord not only drove all the pain and suffering away, but he blessed Job with twice as much as he’d ever had before. 
                In order for the farmer, or the butterfly enthusiast, or the cheese or winemaker to be successful, they need to know and trust that this is how God has designed nature to work and let it do its thing in time. 
                In order for the prophets to be faithful prophets, they needed to trust that the Lord was a compassionate and merciful God who had good and gracious plans for his people.  That in his time, the Lord would finally bring about positive results from their labors.  In the case of the prophets I mentioned, the Lord in time brought his people to genuine repentance and a restoration of their relationship with the Lord.  The Lord preserved the line of the Savior through the nation of Israel and, finally - when the time was just right (“when the time had fully come” the Bible puts it) - sent the Messiah, our Savior Jesus into the world, to live, die and rise again as our Savior from sin, death and the devil.
                All of this is meant to encourage you to keep the faith, regardless of what trials and struggles, hardship or sufferings you are facing today or may yet face in the future.  Especially those hardships you face because of your faith in the Lord and your faithful, conscientious exercise of that faith.  “We live by faith; not by sight,” the Bible tells us.  In spite of what life may seem to be telling us, the Lord is compassionate and merciful.  He does know what is going on in our lives and does care about it.  He cares deeply about us.  He wants us to spend forever with him in heaven!  That’s exactly why he’s letting you face what you’re going through – to test and refine that faith!  In order for you to successfully enjoy the kind of life the Lord has designed and wants for you – both here on earth and forever in heaven – you must patiently and trustingly wait on the Lord.
                This isn’t just practical advice from Pastor to get you through life.  This is spiritual advice from the Holy Spirit to get you to life – life eternal in heaven! 
                Trust that in his timing (which is the perfect timing) the Lord will bring about his intended loving result.  He will cause that situation to bear the proper fruit!  And even if that burden is something that isn’t lifted/even if that situation is one that isn’t changed until the Lord comes to call you home or call all of us home, know that – in the context of eternity – it will all be more than worth it.  Soon – for Jesus’ sake - the Lord will take us to be with him in heaven, with its endless perfection and unimaginable and unadulterated joys.  In the meantime, in faith wait on the Lord.  “Be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”  Amen.
     
    9/27/2015 Serve the LORD with Gladness!
  • Sermon Text:  Psalm 100                                                                               September 27, 2015
    #748 – Mission Statement Sunday
    Serve the LORD with Gladness!
                Perhaps you’ve heard the story of a man named Jack,who was walking along a steep cliff one day, when he accidentally got too close to the edge and fell. On the way down he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet. He couldn't hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff. So Jack began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something. 
    HELP! HELP! Is anyone up there? "HELP!"   He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice. “Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?"  "Yes, yes! I can hear you. I'm down here!"  "I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?"  "Yes, but who are you, and where are you?”  "I am the Lord, Jack. I'm everywhere."  "The Lord? You mean, GOD?" 
    "That's Me."  "God, please help me! I promise, if you'll get me down from here, I'll stop sinning. I'll be a really good person. I'll be more than happy to serve You every moment for the rest of my life."  "OK, Jack. Let's get you off from there; then we can talk.  Now, here's what I want you to do. Listen carefully."  "I'll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do." 
    "Alrighty then . . . let go of the branch." "What?" "I said, let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go." 
    There was a long silence. Finally Jack yelled, "HELP! HELP! IS ANYONE ELSE UP THERE?"
    It makes for a funny joke.  But there’s a lot of truth there . . . perhaps more than we’d like to admit.  It exposes something about just about every one of us:  that we’re not always so eager and so happy to serve the LORD.  When God challenges our faith and pushes us beyond our comfort zone, we hesitate or back out altogether.  Or we go through with it, but begrudgingly.
    This morning it is my prayer that the words of the LORD in Psalm 100 might encourage you to Serve the LORD with Gladness.  That you might recommit yourself to serving God and doing so with joy in your heart and a smile on your face! 
                Psalm 100 has an interesting title.  It’s entitled: “A psalm.  For giving thanks.”  Which puts our service in its proper context.  Our service to God is simply an expression of our thanks to God for his service to us.  It’s a joyful response to the joy God has placed in our hearts through the message of our forgiveness and our rescue from sin, Satan, death and hell.  Not only is this a psalm for giving thanks, our lives are to be a means of giving joyful thanks to God. 
                “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.  Serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.  Know that the LORD is God.  It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture” (vss.1-3).
                I’m going to read a number of other passages, as well, and I want you to figure out what is the basic point which ties them all together.  What’s the one overriding truth that each of these passages – albeit in different ways – communicates to us?
                The first passage is taken from Ephesians chapter 6:  “Obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.  Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.  Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does” (6:5-8).  The second is taken from Matthew 6:  “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. . . . But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (6:1,3-4).  The next is from Matthew chapter 25:  “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did for me” (25:40).  The next is from the book of 2 Corinthians:  “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).  The last is Romans 6:13: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.” 
                Put all these passages together – boil them down, and what basic point do you come away with?  The point is this:  Your Christian service – whether here at church or in your daily lives – is being done, not for yourself and not even for your neighbor/for others, but rather it’s being done for the LORD.  It is the LORD God you are serving.  It is the LORD you set out to please when you do what you do.
                Now, I know, this isn’t some deeply insightful truth.  “What, Pastor, we’re serving God?!”  (mindblow!)  But I do believe it is a truth that we often forget and constantly need to be reminded of.  Our service in the home and the sacrifices we make for our families are not being done in service to our families but we are serving the LORD.  Our service here around church is not being done for the church or for me or for the people who are benefitting from our service, but it is being done in service to the LORD. 
    This simple truth has a number of implications we’d do well to be reminded of.  First, seek God’s will in the matter.  Look to him for direction.  It’s not about what you want or even what that other person wants, but what God wants from you and for you. 
    Second, count on God to provide for you.  Lean on and rely on him.  He’ll provide the gifts, the time, the energy, the talents required of you to carry out the tasks he’s asked you to perform . . . as a parent to your children, as a volunteer around church, as a servant of the gospel in your home, your church and your community.  He’ll provide answer to your prayers.  He’ll provide courage and boldness to carry out these tasks with confidence.  He’ll provide solutions to problems you encounter.  He’ll provide peace to counteract any anxiety or stress you’d otherwise feel in attempting to carry out the assignment. 
    Third, know that the LORD is grateful.  He does not need your service.  He doesn’t need mine, either.  But he does delight in it!  This is nice to remind ourselves of periodically, because the fact is that you don’t always receive the kind of recognition or appreciation you often feel you’d like for the service you provide.  If our purpose in doing what we do is to be appreciated and compensated by those we serve in some way, you’ll find that you’re often left hanging.  But the LORD promises to provide us with grace on top of grace . . . rewards of his grace in a variety of ways, helping us to realize that serving the LORD is well worth the sacrifices we make to do so.  He does so already in this lifetime, and we can only imagine what it will mean to us and mean for us when Jesus wraps his arms around you in glory and says to you:  “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Come and share your master’s happiness!”  (Matthew 25:23)  Imagine the joy you will feel!
    Which gets us to the second point of today’s sermon.  We have every reason to exercise this service with joy . . . to serve the LORD with genuine gladness!
    “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.  Serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. . . . Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (vss.1-2,4-5).
    Here’s where the beauty of the gospel really comes into play.  The underlying cause of our service to the LORD is joy and peace and love.  Every other religion and philosophical principle which underlies the actions of the vast majority of people is based on duty and obligation.  This type of service ends up either being very self-serving or – if we are truly out to serve others – ends up being motivated either by guilt or fear.  It’s forced and leaves little room for joy.
    Gospel-motivated service, on the other hand, is truly joyful service!  Why?  Because we serve a loving, gracious God!  A God who’s already removed our guilt and fear, by virtue of the life, death and resurrection of our dear Savior, Jesus Christ.  A God who has eliminated the need/the obligation of serving him with acts of righteousness to gain access to his heart in prayer or his home in heaven.  Jesus is our righteousness!  His acts of service to his Father – the life he lived, the obedience he rendered, the temptations he overcame, the works of love and compassion he performed, the sacrifice he made upon the cross – God credits all of this to our account.  We don’t “have” to do anything to please God enough to get to ourselves to heaven.  Everything needed has been done for us by Christ! 
    Jesus has done it all!  The Bible clearly tells us in the book of Titus chapter 3:  “God our Savior saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (3:5-7). 
    So, why do we do the things we do to serve God?  Because we get to!  Because “God saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.”  Because – as we heard before – Christ’s love compels us!  Because our hearts beat with love for the one who first loved us!  Because it fills our hearts with joy to know that our service fills the LORD’s heart with joy!
    Does this mean that service in the church is always and only pure, unadulterated joy?  I’m afraid not.  You still have a sinful nature which will threaten and challenge your joy in service.  It will lead you at times to feel tired, frustrated, overwhelmed or underappreciated.  You’ll be working with other sinners like yourself, each of whom also has a sinful nature, which will only compound the challenges to your joyful service.  And yet overall, the experience of joy in gospel service is overwhelming.  In a recent survey, 79% of Christians said their service in the church strengthened their love for God.  77% said they grew in their understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  And 83% said they learned to trust God more through their service. 
    Happenings like this morning . . . being able to witness the Holy Spirit working his miracle through the waters of baptism . . . remind us just how – well, fun maybe isn’t exactly the right word, but rewarding is perhaps a better word – how rewarding this work truly is!  And how much joy it brings to our hearts to know that we played a small part in God’s plan for the salvation of these souls. 
    Does our service reflect this joy?  Does the way we go about carrying out our service to God communicate to others that we are gladly and joyfully serving the LORD?  In our worship . . . the way we sing our hymns and say our prayers.  When it’s your Sunday to staff the nursery or come to church early to serve as an usher or greeter or stick around late to count the offerings.  When you’re asked to pitch in to help pull off one of our fellowship events.  Do people get the impression that we’re only doing it because we have to or because we “should be” or because we feel pressured to do so?  Or do they see we’re there and doing what we’re doing because we want to be?  That we’re happy to be here and to be serving the LORD!
    The LORD has placed us on a mission . . . to share the greatest, most exciting, most joy-inspiring news the world has ever or will ever hear – the gospel of God’s saving love and forgiveness . . . to share this joy of salvation with one another and with those in our community who don’t yet know him.  This is Kingdom work that needs to get done . . . that as many as possible may share with us in the joys and glories of eternity! 
    We can go about this work in drudgery, out of some sense of duty to the church or obligation of church membership.  Or . . . we can go about this work with joy in our hearts, a smile on our face, and even a skip in our step, serving the LORD with gladness. 
    It is my prayer that Christ’s love – and Christ’s love alone – continues to compel you!  That the spirit of Psalm 100 motivates your every act of service – here at church and out there in your life.  That you “enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.”  That you “shout for joy to the LORD” in all that you say and do.  That you “come before him with joyful songs” and “serve the LORD with gladness.”  Amen.
     
    9/20/2015 Make Me a New Heart and Spirit, Lord
  • Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32                          9/20/2015  "Make Me a New Heart and Spirit, Lord"
    The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:
    “‘The parents eat sour grapes,
        and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
    “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die.
    25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear, you Israelites: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? 26 If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin, they will die for it; because of the sin they have committed they will die. 27 But if a wicked person turns away from the wickedness they have committed and does what is just and right, they will save their life. 28 Because they consider all the offenses they have committed and turn away from them, that person will surely live; they will not die. 29 Yet the Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?
    30 “Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!
     
    “It’s not fair!”  How often did you proclaim these words as a child to your parents?  Or how many times have you heard them come from the lips of a complaining child?  A child complains that his brother deserves to be punished.  After all, he was the one who broke the window.  Yet, this child is just as at fault as the brother who broke it.  He was disobeying his parents who told him not to play catch near the window.  Both children are guilty and deserve just punishment from the parents.
     
    “It’s not fair!”  An NFL player is upset.  He and an opposing player are both suspended a game because of a fight between them.  He threw a punch at his opponent who threw the first punch. He claims he was just protecting himself, but he still broke the rules and deserves just punishment for his actions along with the opposing player. 
     
    Have you and I said the same thing to God?  “It’s not fair, God!  The world prospers even in their sins, but I’m getting nowhere following your will.”  “It’s not fair, God!  I’m always praying for health, but I’m always sick when everyone else is healthy.”  “It’s not fair, God!  I study hard but get bad grades, but he cheats, gets away with it and gets good grades.”  In the heat of the moment, this is how we usually react.  Then we remember that we have no right to complain to God.  The solution to receive God’s help isn’t to complain but to keep turning to God with a new heard and spirit.  That’s what God’s prophet Ezekiel desperately wanted for the children of Israel.  It’s also what God  mercifully wants for us today.  That’s why we pray, “MAKE ME A NEW HEART AND SPIRIT, LORD that turns away from sin and death and that turns back to your ways and lives!
     
     
    I
     
    The Lord had come to Ezekiel with an imposing assignment. “You will be my prophet,” the Lord had said. “I want you to speak up on my behalf.  It’s your job to warn the wicked to turn from their evil ways.  I don’t want to see my people die, and it’s up to you to help them turn back to me so they remember how they are saved.”  Ezekiel had a tough job.  His job was made more difficult because he was a prophet to God’s people during their exile in Babylon.  Imagine that!  In recent years the Lord God had watched thousands of his people get carried off to a distant land to slave away for a foreign ruler.  Enemy armies were gathering and would eventually destroy Jerusalem and level the temple.  The exiles in Babylon most likely had a good feeling that this would happen because they knew the ways of Nebuchadnezzar.  Now, Ezekiel, you have to tell God’s people they need to turn from their ways and back to the ways of the Lord!  Do you think they will listen to such talk?  It will be your job to tell the Israelites, “It’s your fault!  You are in exile because of your wickedness!  Yes, it’s your fault that you have so many complaints!” 
     
    Apparently the exiled Israelites were getting creative with their complaints.  They would quote this proverb: “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” Do you get it?  Let me say it again.  “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” In other words, the Israelites were saying, “Really Lord? You’re punishing us?  Our fathers, the wicked kings who went before us and did everything wrong in your sight should be punished.  Why are we who are their children suffering the consequences of their sins?  We don’t deserve such punishment; we’re much more righteous than them.” 
     
    The Israelites didn’t understand the way the Lord judges people, did they?  So the Lord set them straight: “Every living soul belongs to me,” he said, “the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me.  The soul who sins is the one who will die.”  The Lord God wasn’t punishing the Israelites for the sins of their fathers.  He wasn’t faulting them for the wickedness of their grandfathers.  Rather, the Israelites were suffering the consequences of their own sins.  The Lord justly punishes the individual.  He was telling the Israelites, “Your fathers were punished justly for their disobedience and unbelief.  You will suffer eternal punishment, too, if you continue to sin and do not repent!” 
     
    Still the Israelites kept complaining:  “We’re miserable!  It’s not fair, Lord!” We’re suffering!  The way of the Lord is not just.”  You hear that enough, I suppose, and you start to wonder whether God likes to watch people suffer.  Say that enough, I suppose, and you worry whether God wants to see people die.  But that’s not the will of the Lord, is it?  “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” he asked. “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord.  Repent and live!”  Ezekiel heard all the complaints, all the accusations that God’s not fair. Yet God didn’t call Ezekiel to confirm those complaints.  Ezekiel was called to turn the people away from their sins.  So, he urged the Israelites as he urges you and me today to pray, “MAKE ME A NEW HEART AND SPIRIT, LORD, that turns away from sin and death.”
     
    Do you know someone who has had a heart transplant?  Anyone who needs a heart transplant prays and prays for a donor to come along before death occurs.  After months of praying, a working heart is received from an organ donor, and the dying heart is replaced with a healthy heart, a new heart so to speak.  With this new heart a person can exercise again.  With a new heart a person can socialize better with friends.  With a new heart a person can continue to live.  GOD HAS YOU PRAYING FOR A NEW HEART today.  But this new heart has nothing to do with physically exercising, socializing with friends, or living on this earth.  GOD HAS YOU PRAYING FOR A NEW HEART AND SPIRIT so that you can turn from your sins and eternal death! 
     
    God knows you need a new heart and spirit.  I need them too.  My old heart and spirit view the world I live in and condemn it.  I think of those who spread the filth that pollutes the airwaves, television screens, and the streets.  I shudder about those who mock God all over social media.  Why doesn’t God just judge the world now and start over like he did with Noah?  Why doesn’t he just destroy those sinners?  And why doesn’t he start treating good people like me a little better?
     
    Now I have to stop.  You need to stop too.  Stop and think about your own world in which you live.  Do you have pet sins which you refuse to turn away from?  Do you crave for the pleasures that only satisfy the sinful desires of the flesh?  You condemn the world’s filth but refuse to acknowledge your own disgraces and your own faults.  Are you risking God’s punishment yourself?  Are you living on the edge of eternal death and damnation?  After all, the prophet says, “The soul who sins is the one who will die?”
     
    Yet that’s not the will of God!  Not for you. Not for me. Not for anyone.  Rather, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)  And, “(God) wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)  So, the Lord provides a solution!  A solution which is found in God’s Word!  A solution right before your eyes in this text and right in your ears as you listen now.  True, a failing old heart does not have the strength the body needs to recover, just like all my personal resolutions don’t have the strength to put my life on a healthy, spiritual course.  So, the Lord steps in.  The Almighty Doctor provides you with a clean, new heart and spirit.  This new heart and spirit is strong enough to immediately urge you to flee from sin and death.  Pray for that blessing!  Pray: “MAKE ME A NEW HEART AND SPIRIT, LORD, that turns away from sin and death.
     
    II
     
    Jesus once told a simple parable in Matthew.  A father went to his first son and said, “I need your help.  The vineyard needs tending today, and it’s the perfect day to get some work done.  Go and work in the vineyard.”  The first son, for whatever reason, refused to do his father’s bidding.  But he thought better about it later and went to work in the vineyard anyway.  The father must have needed more help so he told the same thing to his other son.  His second son responded, “I’ll do it!”  Yet, for whatever reason, he never made it out to the vineyard to join his brother in his work.  Jesus asked the chief priests and elders, “Who did the father’s bidding?”  They answered, “The first did what his father asked of him.”
     
    They answered correctly, didn’t they?  And that’s exactly what the Lord God was teaching the Israelites through his prophet Ezekiel.  A person who has true repentance is disgusted with the sins that have crowded his daily life.  This repentant person throws away his crowd of sins and fills his life with righteousness instead.  This person is like the first son in Jesus’ parable.  At first he doesn’t want to work, but he realizes he is disobeying his father in this way.  So he does what is right by going to work.  The repentant first turns away from sin and then naturally turns to God and his ways and enjoys the forgiveness of sins.  “But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life.”  Of course, it’s that NEW HEART AND SPIRIT that turns back to the Lord’s ways and lives.
     
    The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years.  God was providing food and drink for them every day.  They began to take God’s gracious providence for granted.  They began to complain about their lousy and boring life in the wilderness.  They blamed God’s chosen servant Moses for leading them out of Egypt to die in the desert.  They wanted to be back in the land of Egypt living as slaves of the Egyptians rather than living as servants of God.  The Israelites were living in sin by not trusting or thanking God.  So, the Lord brought punishment upon the people through venomous snakes.  But then they turned, didn’t they?  The Israelites quickly repented of their sin and asked for mercy.  They went to the Lord through Moses in repentance and faith.  God saw their true repentance and saved his people, promising that if they turned to the bronze snake, they would live.  Same lesson, right?  Same thing that the prophet Ezekiel announced so clearly:  God wants every sinner to turn back to God’s ways and live.
     
    In your catechism classes or in your Bible Information Class, you learned that repentance is not a one step process.  True repentance does not stop after you turn away from your sins.  So what’s next?  Repentance is also turning back to God and his ways.  But are you too embarrassed to do that? Too ashamed? Do you hesitantly teeter on the edge of turning back to God or turning back to sin?  Hesitation is enough for your sinful nature and the devil to snatch you back to their ways.  You quickly fall back into your sinful rut because you didn’t turn back to God right away.  That’s what the devil wants.  He wants you to be too ashamed to go back to God and seek his forgiveness.
     
    But the devil is a liar!  No matter how revolting the sin, no matter how hideous the sinner, the Lord invites all people to come running back to him.  The Lord invites you to come running back to him!  The peace of forgiveness awaits you in his arms.  Full forgiveness.  Free forgiveness. Complete forgiveness. It’s there in the arms of the Lord.  But that’s not all that’s awaiting you.  There is an immeasurable amount of additional blessings waiting for you in your Savior’s arms. 
     
    Turn back to your Savior, and you have an impenetrable fortress in Jesus.  His arms which surround you are walls which cannot be broken or torn down by any spiritual evil. The gates to Jesus are always open.  The entrance fee has already been paid for all people by his death on the cross.  And nothing can be stolen from a person who is inside these walls.  The blessings can never be taken away as long as you remain in Jesus’ strong and comforting arms.
     
    Turn back to your Savior, and you will quench your spiritual thirst.  You will receive the living water found in his Word.  Your spiritual well will fill up with the living water which provides words of comfort and rest that only Jesus can give.  You will have the comfort of knowing that Jesus is with you and is working a good plan in all situations for those who love him.  You will receive rest when you need it most when you turn back to your Savior. 
     
    Turn back to your Savior, and you also have eternal life waiting for you!  Satan’s chains which would have shackled you to eternal death in hell are broken because of Jesus’ resurrection.  You have a free life in heaven waiting for you in the Savior’s arms.
     
    Knowing this, who wouldn’t want to open up his Bible and pray “MAKE ME A NEW HEART AND SPIRIT LORD that turns back to your ways and lives!”  Who wouldn’t want to come forward to receive the sacrament and pray, “MAKE ME A NEW HEART AND SPIRIT LORD!” MAKE ME A NEW HEART AND SPIRIT that turns away from sin and death and that turns back to your ways and lives.”  Amen.
     
    9/13/2015 God’s Words Make Us Wise and Understanding People
  • Sermon Text:  Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-9                                                        September 13, 2015
    #747 – Christian Education Sunday
    God’s Words Make Us Wise and Understanding People
                Who’s opinion have you come to respect?  Who do you watch or listen to or read to learn from?  Some people feel they know it all, or at least know everything they think they’ll ever need to know.  So they don’t really listen to learn from anyone.  But most of us are smart enough to know that we’re not as smart as we’d like to be.  We know there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot we could still learn from others. 
                In fact, some of the best, most respected and most successful people in nearly every field are constant learners.  It’s NFL kick off weekend, and some of the best players and coaches are referred to as “students of the game.”  They may already be among the game’s elite, but they’re always watching and listening to other players and coaches to see if they might be able to pick up on some nuance or subtle insight that might make themselves and their game just that much better.  This principle of the best of the best always seeking to learn applies to just about any field.  Did you know the average Fortune 500 CEO reads an average of 4-5 books per month?  That’s 4-5 more books per month than the average American reads in an entire year.  Reading and learning and becoming smarter and wiser pay off in numerous ways in the long run.  For example, studies show that active readers are likely to have annual incomes more than 5 times greater than those who spend little or no time reading.
                Now imagine what this means for you, as one who has the Bible and who has a respect for the Bible as the Word of God.  This book contains God’s wisdom, which makes the wisdom of the smartest people here on earth sound like the language of little children.  On top of that you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you, who gives you the faith and the wisdom to be able to understand God’s Word.  The apostle Paul wrote on behalf of all the writers of the Bible:  “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.  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. . . . But we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:13-14).
                Within this book we have the very words and the very wisdom of God.  And God’s Words Make Us Wise and Understanding People.  Assuming, of course, that – as Moses said - we actually I. Hear them and II. Observe them for ourselves, and III. Teach them to others.
                The words of our lesson this morning come from the last of the first five books of the Bible, all of which were written by Moses.  This fifth book, Deuteronomy, contains a review of the history of the giving of God’s law to his people Israel and a review of that law itself.  It was written near the end of Moses’ life for the second generation of Israelites, all of whom were 20 years old or younger at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.  Their parents and grandparents had all passed away over the course of the past 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  Many of the people who heard the words of the book of Deuteronomy were too young or weren’t even alive to remember the Lord giving his law the first time at Mount Sinai.  And now Moses was about to die and the people were about to enter the Promised Land under the leadership of a new leader, Joshua.  So the respected elderly leader, Moses, felt it necessary to review God’s covenant and recommit the people to it. 
                After reviewing a bunch of the history explaining how the people got to where they were, Moses then said:  “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you” (vs.1).  Moses was about to read over 20 chapters of God’s laws, covering everything from the Ten Commandments to worship matters (like sacrificial rites and religious holidays and tithing) to what they were allowed to eat and not to eat to the draft and inheritance rights, marriage/divorce issues and all sorts of legal matters.  Moses’ words would be a review of God’s words regarding the moral, civil and ceremonial laws of God.  He would also review the gospel message as far as it was revealed at the time – how the sacrifices foreshadowed the coming of the Savior, who would shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins; how the Lord would send a Great Prophet from heaven, who would fully fulfill and reveal God’s grace to the world.
                And what did Moses plead with the people to do as he reviewed these words of God?  Not to fall asleep.  Not to daydream.  Not to tune him out or let what he had to say go in one ear and out the other.  But rather to listen.  “Hear now, O Israel, the decrees and laws I am about to teach you.”  And not just the parts they liked or wanted to hear or thought they agreed with, but all of it.  “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it.”  And why not?  Because these weren’t Moses’ ideas or opinions.  These were “the commands of the LORD your God” (vs.2).
                And these are still today the timeless commands and promises of the LORD your God.  The New Testament does tell us that portions of God’s law given through Moses – the ceremonial and civil portions – do no longer apply to us.  But God’s moral law and, of course, his gospel promises which have since been fulfilled do still apply.  They are as much God’s words to us – God’s people of today – as they were God’s words to his people of Moses’ day.  And the Lord would have us do the same he expected them to do . . . to hear them.  To listen to them.
                Jesus said:  “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28).  And like bookends on the Bible, the last book of the Bible says the same thing the first books of the Bible say:  “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it” (Revelation 1:3).  The last words of the last book of the Bible also say the same thing Moses said in this book about not adding or subtracting from God’s Word either.  These are God’s Words . . . the Bible is his book.  We don’t have the right to use either an eraser or a pen to take out or write in what we feel he’s got wrong.
                We are simply to listen to it.  So make plans to do that this year.  Commit to reading the Bible.  Commit to studying the Bible.  We have all sorts of opportunities to do that here with fellow believers throughout the week.  You can do it at home, too.  And I encourage you to do that.  But there’s something special about getting together with fellow believers to study and discuss God’s Word together. 
                So, what’s keeping more of you from doing that?  Is it really that you don’t have the extra hour to spare?  God gives 168 of them to us each week.  Is it too  much to offer him two of them a week?  Or are you afraid people might find out you don’t know as much as you’d like them to think you do?  First of all, none of us knows it all . . . that’s why we’re there.  Second, the best way to resolve your fear of being exposed for your lack of Bible knowledge is to add to it.  Come to Bible class and learn along with the rest of us.  Or is it perhaps that you fear you might discover things in the Bible that challenge you – challenge you to think a bit deeper, or challenge you to think differently.  Challenge your opinions and attitudes.  Do you fear you’ll learn that God is not comfortable with some of the things you like to think, say and do and that will make you uncomfortable.  Don’t you want to improve yourself and your walk with God?  Wouldn’t that challenge and discomfort do you some good?
    Hear and listen to God’s Words and enjoy a host of blessings the Lord promises to those who do.  Moses said to do this “so that you may live,” so that you may live and enjoy the kind of life that your Creator has designed and wants for you.  Jesus said do this so that you may be “blessed.”  You likely may not end up earn five times your current salary at work.  But you will experience greater peace of heart and peace of mind.  You will grow up in your faith.  You will find yourself being more eager to do what is good.  You will discover that you are more aware of God’s will in your life and that you more readily identify right and wrong in your life and in our society.  You will become more patient, more compassionate, more forgiving, more loving, more grateful, wiser and more spiritually happy.  “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
                You have noticed, if you’ve been listening, that there is an assumption on God’s part that we don’t merely listen to his Word, but that we also “obey it.”  That we do what it says.
                Moses said, “Now, Israel, hear the decrees and laws I am about to teach you. Follow them so that you may live and may go in and take possession of the land the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. . . . Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (vss.1-2,6).
                Obey God’s words, Moses says.  Follow them; observe them.  Observe here does not mean to watch them from a distance, like you would observe a band performance or an athletic event.  Rather observe them like you observe a holiday.  You’re personally involved; you do things to celebrate and enjoy that holiday.  Observe God’s words by personally taking them to heart, applying them to your life, putting them into practice. 
                Far too many people – and we’d have to admit we, too, far too often – observe God’s words in that first sense of its meaning I just mentioned.  They/we observe God’s words and then decide which of them we’ll believe or obey depending on how we feel or what we think of them or what’s convenient for us at the moment.  Kind of like going to the grocery store and selecting which items we’ll take home with us.  “I like these commands, but not these.  I like this teaching and this teaching.  But this one?  Ehhh . . . not so much.” As if we knew better than God – our all-wise, all-knowing Creator and Savior-God – what is best for us.
    Sometimes you get a doctor who doesn’t pay much attention; and because you’ve had a lot of experience with your own medical care and what has worked and what hasn’t, you might know a little something more about your body and what’s best for it than the doctor does at the moment.  But as a rule, the doctor is smarter than you and you’d do well to listen to him or her.  With God, this isn’t just a general principle that usually applies; this is an eternally abiding principle that always applies:  God is smarter than you.  He knows what is true and what is false.  He knows what is right and what is wrong.  He knows what is best for you.  And thanks be to him, he cares enough about you and me to reveal this to us in his Word.  So listen to his words carefully and observe them . . . obey them, follow them, put them into practice and apply them to your life.  Every last one of them.
    And not just when you feel like it or when it’s convenient.  Not just on some days or in some places.  Not just when it’s easy or you’re feeling particularly strong in your faith and your love for God.  Moses encourages us – again for our own good’s sake:  “be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live” (vs.9).
    And then Moses adds this word of encouragement:  “Teach them to your children and to their children after them” (vs.9).  Give your children and grandchildren the tools they need to be as smart or smarter than you.  Don’t make them try to figure this stuff out on their own.  Don’t wait to let someone else decide for them what is true and what is false, what is smart and what is dumb.  Teach them what God has convinced you to be true.  Teach them God’s words of wisdom. 
    It’s important for us as a congregation to be reminded of the tremendous value of Christian education.  We need to be reminded of how important it is that we teach the next generation of young people the words and wisdom of God.  We need to be encouraged to continue to provide quality Christian education in the form of Sunday School, Vacation Bible School-type events, confirmation instruction and preschool, for example.  I am so grateful to the Lord that we have 13 willing gospel servants who are eager to prepare themselves to teach God’s Word to our children in Sunday School this year.  That speaks very highly of our commitment as a congregation to providing quality Bible teaching to our youth. 
    But that teaching does not end there.  In fact, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, you need to know that I or vicar or the Sunday School teachers only have maybe 1-2 hours of influence on your children a week.  And that’s if your children come to church and Sunday School or confirmation each and every week.  You have a great deal more influence and responsibility to teach God’s words to your children.  Not only in the form of formal instruction of some kind, like devotions and prayers and reading the Bible to them at home, but also in the far more common form of informal instruction . . .  They are watching and listening to you . . . The words you choose to use around the home, the decisions you make, the way you treat others, the way your live out your marriage, the way you discipline and encourage your children, the way you model your faith each and every day.  “Teach God’s words to your children and to their children after them.”
    We truly are a blessed people.  We have God’s words.  We believe them to be true and stake our eternal lives upon them.  Now let us show our wisdom by also building our daily lives around them.
    “What other people is so great as to have their gods near them the way he Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other people is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? . . . Observe [God’s words] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”  Wise and understanding, indeed.  Thanks be to God!  Amen
    9/6/2015 Put on the Full Armor of God
  • Ephesians 6:10-20   9/6/2015 "Put on the Full Armor of God"
    10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
    18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
     
     
    It can be a daily struggle.  You wake up in the morning and smoothly go through your daily routine.  Yet, once that moment hits, the morning comes screeching to a halt.  You’ve opened your closet doors or the drawers to your dresser, and you look at the different choices you have.  Do I wear that shirt or this one?  Women ask themselves, “Do I wear a skirt, capris, or a dress? Which shoes go best with this outfit?”  Men ask themselves, “Will this tie go with that shirt?  Do these colors match?”  It’s a struggle that some have more than others, but I think all of us have gone through this struggle at least once in our lives.  Even kids sometimes wonder what to wear for the first day of school or picture day.  We want to wear the perfect outfit on a daily basis so that we can feel good about ourselves.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “You’ve got to look good to play good.” 
     
    As Christians we have to deal with a similar struggle on a daily basis, but the reason being is different.  We need to put on the perfect outfit in order to properly prepare ourselves for our daily struggle with Satan.  Thankfully, the struggle with what to wear isn’t a struggle at all.  Today, God is telling us through his apostle Paul what we need to wear.  Like a parent who dresses a child, God is giving us the perfect outfit so we can walk confidently throughout the day knowing we are dressed for success to do battle with the devil.  Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God to stand up daily against the schemes of the devil and to stand your ground in the evil day.
     
    I
     
    When the Apostle Paul was writing this letter to the Ephesians, he was chained up as a prisoner in Rome.  He had plenty of time to reflect about all the people he met throughout his mission trips, especially the Ephesians.  He spent more of his time there than any other mission field.  Paul wanted to make sure they were still practicing and believing what he taught them because he knew the devil would be working on this new congregation.
     
    Paul wrote to remind the Ephesians they were called by God to be saved through the faith which God gave them.  He also wrote to them explaining their new calling enabled them to live according to God’s will.  Yet, Paul knew the members of this young congregation could not rely on their own strength to survive the devil’s schemes.  So, Paul told them to turn to God’s strength for help, and he did so with the perfect illustration.  He probably got the idea as he looked at the Roman soldier he was probably chained to.  Paul knew armor was necessary for a Roman who wanted to survive in battle. 
     
    He lists the armor in the order that a Roman soldier would put it on.  The belt covered the midsection and thighs and protected the soldier from sword thrusts to the groin which would end up in the stomach.  The belt also kept the breastplate in place.  This was necessary to protect the soldier from weapons attacking the vitals.  A soldier needed proper footwear in order to move well in battle.  As the soldier moved, he held up his shield to protect his body.  Finally, the soldier would put on his helmet as one final protection against any blow to the head, and he would pick up the sword so he could go on the offensive.  Just as Paul realized the value of these pieces of armor to a Roman soldier, he also knew the necessity of God’s armor for the Ephesians so they could stand up daily against the schemes of the devil. 
     
    Paul assigned spiritual qualities to each piece of the armor, but he doesn’t go into a long discourse about what each quality can do for the Ephesians.  We’ll follow this same model today.  The point Paul is driving home is that the Ephesians should rally to God’s armor as a whole when under attack.  They rally to the armor God gives them instead of trying to find their own armor they came up with.  This armor is a culmination of Christ’s redemptive work which helps Christians battle the schemes of the devil.  Paul is urging the Ephesians to put on the full armor of God to stand up daily against the schemes of the devil.    
     
    Right off the bat Paul tells the Ephesians where the source of their strength is found.  It wasn’t found in their own thinking or in the support of a friend.  Paul writes, “Be strong in the Lord.”  He follows up that advice with a practical way of doing just that.  Paul tells them to put on God’s armor.  Actually, he says more than that.  Paul says, “Put on the full armor of God.”  They couldn’t just put on parts of this armor and expect to be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  By putting on the full armor of God, the Ephesians would be fully protected to stand against the schemes of their enemy.
     
    The Ephesians’ enemy was no ordinary enemy.  It was of cosmic proportions.  Paul explains, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” This enemy is made up of the devil and his demons and instruments of evil.  Together, they make up an enemy that is often invisible.  They make up an enemy that is powerful and relentless.  They make up an enemy that surrounds its prey on a daily basis.  Paul knew their primary goal was to make the Ephesians stumble and fall.  Yet, their power is nothing compared to the strength of the Lord.  Their power cannot penetrate the full armor of God.  In fact, the full armor of God not only defends against the attacks, but it can also defeat the attacks of the devil by helping a Christian stand up against them. 
     
    I loved Labor Day weekend as a kid.  It meant going to a nice beach along Lake Michigan one last time while the weather was still nice.  Going to the beach came with precautions to protect our bodies from the sun.  I’m sure those precautions are even more stressed here whether going to a beach or a waterpark.  The mother tells her son to put on sunscreen and to reapply often.  She tells him to drink plenty of water and find spots in the shade to cool off.  She may even tell him to wear a hat for extra protection.  Throw in the advice to wear sandals on the pavement so his feet won’t burn and the mom has given her son a long list of things to put on so he can enjoy his day.  Often, the son just brushes off the advice and thinks he’ll be ok on his own.  He doesn’t want to worry about all the protection.  He just wants to go and have fun. Yet, the mom knows best.  If her son forgets just one of those precautions, it will be cause for a painful time.  The child won’t be able to stand long in the heat and sun, and he’ll have to go home to recover.  God knows what we need to stand up against the devil.  He tells us to wear his full armor.  If we forget or simply refuse to wear just one piece of that armor, we give Satan a weak spot to attack our souls.
     
    Neither you nor I want to fall in the face of the devil’s schemes.  We want to stand and fight!  So why do we so often forget to wear the full armor of God?  Maybe you’re afraid of uncomfortable situations so you change the subject or mumble when someone asks what you believe.  The devil wants you to be scared to stand up for your faith.  Do you let human reasoning of those on social media or on the news change your mind about some of God’s so-called unfair or unloving teachings?  The devil wants you to think that God’s Word is outdated and not useful anymore.  Has the devil tempted you in your busy lifestyle?  Has he gotten you to think that you are too busy for God’s Word on a daily basis?  Maybe you’re getting tired of constantly standing up against all the schemes of the devil.  You and I just want to have fun as the world has fun for a moment.  Is that too much to ask, God?  But one moment turns into a day and a day can turn into a week or even longer.  Eventually the flaming arrows of the devil have done their work causing you to commit a chain reaction of sins.  You are no longer standing up against the devil’s schemes.  You and I fall in these times.  As a result, we endanger our spiritual lives giving the devil the opportunity he wants to trample our souls to death.   
     
    But just when it looks like the devil has won, here comes the rider on the white horse to save you.  This rider was surrounded with daily temptations for 33 years.  He was surrounded like you and me by the devil’s army.  He was tired and vulnerable just like you and me as he stood against the devil’s schemes.  Jesus continually stood up against the schemes of the devil, and he always won.  He defeated every temptation and lived a perfect life for you and me.  The writer to the Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)  The armor which God gives us to wear was forged in the redemptive work of Christ.  When you have fallen and think you can’t get back up because of your sins Jesus directs you to his true Word which shows you the breastplate of righteousness and helmet of salvation.  He helps you stand up again, and he will keep you standing.  “So do not fear for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10) Your holiness in God’s eyes and your spot in heaven are secured because Jesus has forgiven all your sins.  This Word also strengthens your faith to help you extinguish all the flaming arrows of the devil. 
     
    In our weakened spiritual state, we can put on the full armor of God and be renewed and strengthened again.  It does not matter how tired we are at the time because the power to stand isn’t within us, it is found in the Lord who never tires.  Put on the full armor of God to protect yourself, and then help others put it on as well.  The full armor of God is always strong enough to daily stand against the schemes of the devil.    
     
    II
     
    In the midst of all these daily attacks and schemes of the devil, there are also days that come around that are particularly evil.  Just as the armor of God is necessary to be able to stand up against the daily schemes of the devil, so it is also necessary to stand your ground in the evil day.  As if it weren’t enough for Paul to say it once, he tells the Ephesians again to put on the full armor of God.  However, this time he adds, “So that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.”  Not only does Paul say they can stand their ground, but he also mentions that they will be standing tall when the day passes by putting on the full armor of God.  The Ephesians had a great example of how to do just that in the Apostle Paul.
     
    Paul was heeding his own advice as he awaited trial with the Roman Emperor.  Paul’s evil day came because he was preaching the gospel of Christ.  A long chain of events ended with him awaiting this nerve-wracking trial.  His faith and courage would be tempted.  So, Paul put on the full armor of God for strength.  He lifted up the sword of the Spirit and prayed that God would help him.  He wrote to the Ephesians asking for their prayers that he would be given the correct words to say before the Emperor.  He especially asked for strength that he may not back down from speaking God’s Word.  Rather, he wanted to speak it boldly.  Paul was standing his ground in the evil day by finding strength in the Lord.
     
    How have you reacted when you’ve faced an evil day?  I know I’ve failed to put on the full armor of God.  Have you too?  Maybe there’s been a tragedy within your family.  Have you caught yourself, even for a second, blaming God?  Surely, it wasn’t his time to die.  Surely, it wasn’t the best time for her to get severely sick.  How could you, God, let that happen to them?  Has that helped you deal with this sort of evil day?  Have you lost a job or taken a serious pay cut because of a rough economy?  How did you stand your ground then?  Was it by putting on the full armor of God and trusting in his care or did you turn to the desires of the sinful flesh to help you cope with this disaster?  Have you suffered persecution from friends because of your faith?  Have they turned their back on you because you won’t renounce God?  It’s happened to me where I thought it was best just to not bring up my faith anymore.  I was weak in this moment.  I didn’t put on the full armor of God to stand my ground in the evil day.  Yes, I kept my friends, but I wavered in my faith.  When you and I try to stand our ground in the evil day with our own solutions, the result is more trouble, a growing weakness, and failure to stand.
     
    The power to stand our ground isn’t within our strength.  We find the power to do so in the Lord.  He gives us the armor we need.  He has the power and authority to give this armor because he faced countless evil days.  He lost the support of his disciples when they fled in the Garden of Gethsemane.  His hometown wanted to push him off a cliff.  He lost his dear friend Lazarus.  His fellow countrymen wanted to give him the death penalty.  Jesus remained perfect even in these difficult times.  He could have blamed God for the death of his friend.  He could have been angry with his Father in heaven for sending him to deal with sinners who wanted to kill him.  He could have called his disciples names for abandoning him during his most evil day.  He could have done these things, but he didn’t.  He battled these days for you and me.  He stood his ground and didn’t give into temptation so that he could live a perfect life in our place.  On his most evil day, he trusted in God’s plan of salvation.  He willingly died on the cross so that someday you and I will no longer face evil.  After standing his ground, he stood tall by rising from the dead so you and I will stand tall with him in heaven. 
     
    You can now endure your evil day with strength by putting on God’s armor.  When you face the reality of a family sickness or death, you can stand your ground by looking forward to a reunion in heaven with them.  When you face the loss of a job, you can stand your ground knowing that God keeps his promise to provide for you in every situation.  Paul says in Romans 8:32 “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”  Even when you lose friends or family because of your faith, your perfect friend Jesus remains at your side reminding you to find strength in him.  You can stand your ground in the evil day and grow in the Lord by going to him in prayer.  Not only can you ask him to help you in your evil day, but you can do as the Ephesians did and pray for a fellow brother or sister in the faith that they may stand their ground.  You can help them through their evil day by urging them to put on the full armor of God.
     
    God is protecting you by graciously giving you this all-powerful armor.  So, put it on!  Put on the full armor of God to stand up daily against the schemes of the devil and to stand your ground in the evil day.  Amen.  
     
    8/30/2015 How Successful Is Our Ministry?
  • Sermon Text:  John 6:60-69                                                                         August 30th, 2015
    #746 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost
    How Successful Is Our Ministry?
                Today is an important day for our ministry here at Water of Life.  We are installing nearly 40 lay ministers of the gospel, who together with the five preschool staff members, 11-12 ESL teachers and more than a dozen Sunday School teachers (who will be installed in a couple weeks), will be actively participating in planning the work and working the plans we laid out for the gospel work of our congregation in the year ahead. 
                Today’s gospel lesson is a fitting one for us to consider on such an important ministry day as today.  Our lesson raises and answers the question:  “How Successful Is Our Ministry?”
                How ought we to gage success?  How do you define and determine success as a church?  What are the metrics by which we determine the success of our ministry?
                Is it longevity?  Water of Life has been in existence as a ministry now 18 years as of this month.  Within that time numerous other churches and businesses of all sorts have folded and closed up shop.  But we are still around.  Is that enough to be considered successful?  Would you consider a marriage successful if two people stay married to each other – miserably so every day of their lives! – for 60 years?  I think we’d be happy they didn’t decide that two wrongs make a right and get divorced.  But I don’t think we’d regard a miserable marriage of 60 years a “successful” marriage.  Is our goal as a church merely survival?  Or do we have loftier goals than that?
                Is our primary metric for success membership?  In our long range planning we have set certain goals for the number of members we hope to have a year from now, 3,5 and 8 years from now.  Is that how we should be determining the success of our ministry?  If we meet those target numbers or not?  We have 30-40 less members than we did at our peak about 5-6 years ago.  By that standard we have been failing as a congregation. 
                Is that the right standard for gaging the success of our ministry?  Or should we be looking at something like worship attendance?  Obviously it’s important that people come to church, hear the Word, receive the Sacraments, and worship the Lord.  Last year on average five more people each Sunday worshiped with us than the year before; and last year was six better each Sunday than the year before that.  However, last year was 25 less per Sunday than 5-6 years ago.  Is our ministry successful these days?
                Or perhaps we should answer that question based on finances.  Last year we fell over $50,000 short of what or budget called for in offerings to run ministry the way we’d like as a congregation.  The first two months of this fiscal year haven’t been any better. 
                Or perhaps all these are the wrong determining factors to gage the success of our ministry.  Perhaps what truly matters is how many people are actively involved in carrying out our ministry . . . the number or percentage of people volunteering as Sunday School teachers, choir members, shepherds, ministry team members, ESL teachers, and so on. 
                Or is the significant metric the number and type of ministries we are conducting?  7-8 years ago we didn’t have a Korean ministry.  6-7 years ago Shepherd of the Hills, our daughter congregation, didn’t exist.  2-3 years ago we weren’t actively supporting an African refugee ministry.  A year and a half ago we didn’t have a Lutheran preschool.  8 months ago we didn’t have an ESL outreach program.  These ministries combined with ours – these extensions of our ministry – currently serve nearly 700 members and hundreds of other non-members with the gospel! 
                So . . . is our ministry “successful”?
                Before you come to a conclusion in your own mind, consider the words of our gospel lesson today.  It’s important as we kick off another year of ministry today, that we let Jesus help you and me determine whether our ministry here at Water of Life is successful or not.
                This is a very important question.  If we don’t know what we’re shooting for, how will we know whether we’ve achieved our goals or determine what we need to be doing to get there?  How can we get “there” if we don’t know where “there” is?  And why should you bother being involved?
                Listen as Jesus explains what success in God’s eyes entails.
                Our lesson is a fascinating one!  Not just in terms of the account itself, but in terms of Jesus’ ministry as a whole.  It was a pivotal point in Jesus’ public ministry; and a defining one at that! 
                Jesus had just preached a “No bones!” sermon.  He’d said some difficult things to understand.  More than that, he said some things that were hard to accept.  As even many of those who considered themselves his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching.  Who can accept it?” (vs.60)
                Jesus had preached a sermon on “the Bread of Life.”  He’d claimed to be the true bread from heaven which gives life to the world.  He said that people needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life.  Many of Jesus’ followers were not only struggling to accept what Jesus had preached; they were offended by Jesus’ teaching!  “Does this offend you?” Jesus asked (vs.61).
                The word Jesus used for “offend” is the Greek word from which we get our English word “scandalize.”  Some of Jesus’ own followers, not to mention the curious unbelievers who heard the sermon, were scandalized by Jesus’ words.  It was not the hardness of Jesus’ teaching that brought about this unfavorable reaction, but it was the hardness of their hearts.
                Jesus, of course, was not talking about a literal eating and drinking of his physical flesh and blood.  Nor was this a reference to the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus had not yet instituted the Lord’s Supper and wouldn’t for quite some time yet.  Instead, Jesus was speaking about the spiritual eating and drinking of him as the Bread of Life for the soul.  “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.  Yet there are some of you who do not believe” (vss.63-64).  Jesus whole sermon was an illustration of faith . . . the fact that by simply believing in him as their Savior from sin, their soul’s every craving would be fed and satisfied. 
                But the vast majority of Jesus’ followers were not satisfied with his answer.  John records – and you can imagine he recalled this moment very vividly – “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (vs.66).  So many, in fact, that it almost seems as if Jesus himself was shocked and saddened.  Jesus made it clear with this sermon that he had not come to earth to be the physical Bread King, or miracle worker, or earthly savior of the Jewish nation from Roman occupation they’d hoped he might be.  This sermon – these words of Jesus – left a lot of people disenchanted.  Most of his followers left him. 
                Did Jesus miscalculate with this sermon?  Were his a poor choice of words?  Was Jesus failing in his ministry?
                In response to the rejection of Jesus’ words by so many – still today – not only by those outside the church, but within the Christian church as well – God tests our faith and gives us an opportunity to confess our faith.  It provides us with an opportunity to reflect on what success really entails and what truly matters.  Jesus used this situation for just that purpose for the inner circle of his disciples.  “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  Only Jesus satisfies the cravings of the human heart.  Only Jesus’ words provide healing for the soul, forgiveness of sins, peace and eternal life.  “We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (vss.67-69).  These men – few as they might be – had Jesus’ words and through faith possessed eternal life by them.  That’s what truly mattered!
                By God’s grace – and only by the grace of God – we here at Water of Life have Jesus’ words.  And these are not idle words.  They’re not the deceptions of a liar.  They’re not the rantings of a lunatic.  They are the truths of the Lord of heaven and earth.  These words are full of the Holy Spirit and full of life.  They are, as the Bible says in the book of Hebrews, “living and active” words (Hebrews 4:12).  These words are the words of the gospel, which are “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).  Jesus promises about these words:  “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).  As Peter so wonderfully confessed, Jesus words are “the words of eternal life” (vs.68).
                By God’s grace, we here at Water of Life have Jesus’ powerful, eternal life-giving words.  In spite of tremendous pressure from society, from any number of individuals over the years, and from our own sinful natures, which would love to throw out any number of Jesus’ teachings – either for our own sake or for the sake of the physical growth of our church, by God’s grace we have not given in to the pressure.  We still have Jesus’ words.  We still believe them for ourselves, seek the Holy Spirit’s help to apply them to our lives and conform our lives to them.  Let us not ever take that for granted!  It’s a miracle – the miracle of inspiration – that we ever had these words in the first place.  It’s a miracle – the miracle of conversion/the miracle of faith – that every one of us personally came to have and hold and believe these words.  As Jesus said:  “I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (vs.65).  And it’s nothing short of a miracle of that same gracious Savior God that after 18 years we still have Jesus’ unchanging words as a part of every sermon, every devotion, every worship service, Bible study and Sunday School lesson.  That, I assure you, the Lord and his angels regard as success and rejoice in!
                And it’s also a miracle that we unashamedly share Jesus’ words with others. 
                There are any number of churches and preachers who have their own personal beliefs about things.  Preachers who – for the sake of keeping their jobs – will say some things publicly, but privately hold to others.  Churches whose core families and leaders believe one set of principles, but which like to call themselves “non-denominational” and publicly preach and teach only those things that are PC to the masses.  But Jesus’ words and only Jesus’ words – only God’s Word – has the Spirit working through them and grant eternal life to those who believe.  Only the gospel is “the power of God for salvation.”  Only Jesus’ words are “the words of eternal life.”  Only those who “hold to Jesus’ teaching are really his disciples.”  Only then do we “know the truth” and are we truly “set free” from sin, Satan, death and hell!  (John 8:31-32)
                Without a doubt, we could have more members if we were willing to change some of Jesus’ teachings – as many churches have chosen or felt forced to do.  In fact, if our metrics for measuring success were based on the number of people in worship or Bible studies or on the membership roster, we’d have to change.  History has proven, and the Bible itself admits, that people will flock to places and preachers who will tell them what they want to hear; who won’t confront them about their sin and won’t stand firmly on any one firm foundation of truth.  If success to us meant size, first and foremost, then we’d really need to consider changing up or letting go of many of Jesus’ words.  But if success means “making disciples” – as Jesus put it in his great commission for the Christian Church – then we need to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you,” as Jesus said. 
                “Success” in the terms of results, we must leave altogether up to God.  As Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him” (vs.65).  To a certain extent we can determine things like how many outreach visits we make, how many contacts shepherds have with families in the congregation, or how many Bible classes and worship services we offer.  But only God can move hearts to respond to those gospel invitations and opportunities.  Only the Lord –working through his Word and Sacraments – can bring people to saving faith in him.  What we can and must do – with God’s strength and guidance – is see to it that we share God’s Word – Jesus’ words – at each and every one of these opportunities.
                So, the question Jesus laid before his disciples is laid before you once again today:  “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” 
                May the Lord continue to lead you to answer as did the apostle Peter:  “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  And if by God’s grace we do so – each and every one of us in every aspect of our ministry - then our ministry will continue to be a success!  Guaranteed!  Amen.
    8/23/2015 Great Faith Seeks Jesus for Mercy
  • Matthew 15:21-28  8/23/2015  "Great Faith Seeks Jesus for Mercy"
    21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”
    23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
    24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
    25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
    26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
    27 “Indeed, Lord,” she said. “For even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
    28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that very hour.
     
                It’s a great story about great faith.  Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and Lot’s family were living in the sin-infested city of Sodom.  God told Abraham that he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness.  Abraham thought of his nephew, Lot, and his family.  He wanted God to spare those cities so that Lot and his family would not perish.  So, he asked God to save the cities for the sake of 50 righteous people.  God agreed, but Abraham was not satisfied.  He prayed again asking God to save the cities for the sake of 45 righteous people.  God said he would save the cities for the sake of 45.  Abraham prayed again!  “What if only 40 are found there?”  God said he would save the city if 40 righteous people were found there.  Abraham continued his persistence by praying to God 3 more times.  He ended up asking God to save the cities if he found only 10 righteous people.  Abraham prayed persistently and with a humble heart.
               
    Abraham had GREAT FAITH, didn’t he?  So did the Canaanite woman we are talking about today.  She wanted something which she needed: mercy.  So she asked Jesus for it.  Then she asked again and again and again.  That’s what GREAT FAITH does, and that’s a model for us, isn’t it?  GREAT FAITH SEEKS JESUS FOR MERCY with persistent cries and with a humble heart.   
     
    I
     
                Why did the Canaanite woman ask Jesus for mercy?  Her daughter was in bad shape.  Her daughter didn’t just have the common cold.  She wasn’t just having a bad day.  No, she was demon possessed.  Do you remember the man whom Jesus healed of many demons?  He lived alone in a cave.  People could not keep him under control because of his strength.  Chains could not contain him because he simply broke them.  The demons even made this man cut himself with stones!  People were so afraid of him that they did not go near him.  He was alone and suffering.  Can you imagine how awful that was?  Or how about the woman who, for 18 years, could not stand up straight because a demon crippled her body.  Can you  imagine her pain and discomfort for 18 years?  Now put yourself in the shoes of the Canaanite woman.  She was the mother of a demon possessed girl, and she could do nothing to help her daughter.  Her anguish must have been excruciating. 
     
    But this woman didn’t give in, and she didn’t give up.  Rather, this woman sought Jesus, her Savior for help.  Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”  The Canaanite woman cried out earnestly to the only person who could grant her mercy.  Can’t you hear her crying out to Jesus over and over again, saying these same words?  She wanted to get the point across to Jesus that she needed his help, so she kept calling out to him.  And what was Jesus’ response?  At first, Matthew tells us, “Jesus did not answer a word.”  But Jesus’ silence did not deter the woman.  She persisted with even more cries, but seemingly to no avail.  You see, a little bit later Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” 
     
    That sounds harsh, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it sound like Jesus didn’t care about this woman?  Yet, before I accuse Jesus of being unkind and unfair, I need to recognize that God always had an order in mind.  So do you.  Go back to the very first book of the Bible with me.  One of the first lessons Moses teaches in Genesis is that God’s mercy was first for Abraham and for all his descendants.  God promised Abraham that many generations would come from him.  Jesus would come from his line.  God continued to promise this to Abraham’s descendants Isaac and Jacob.  This woman did not come from the line of Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob.  She was a Gentile.  God’s mercy was not meant for her first.  Yet, she still didn’t give up.  She continued to cry to Jesus for mercy.  So, the disciples stepped in and urged Jesus to send the woman away because she kept crying out after them.  They were annoyed with her persistent cries.  Even after the woman was deterred by the disciples she never gave up.  Her GREAT FAITH continued to cry FOR MERCY.  Jesus did not dismiss the woman.  No, Jesus welcomed her persistent cries.     
     
                “Can we play there?  Oh, how about there?  Can we please, please play at that course?”  When I was younger, I always asked my parents to take me miniature golfing.  Every time we went on a trip, and we passed a course, I’d ask, “Can we play Putt-Putt?”  I’m sure I annoyed both my parents and my brothers with my persistent begging.  My parents only wanted to keep driving and talking with each other, and my brothers simply wanted to continue napping.  Still, I persistently asked for them to stop the car so we could go miniature golfing.  Although my parents did not take me miniature golfing immediately, they would sometimes take me another day.  The Canaanite woman did the same thing, didn’t she?  She had a great need; her daughter was demon-possessed.  She also had GREAT FAITH.  So she continued to beg Jesus even after he did not answer her cries immediately. 
     
                Jesus invites you to do the same.  He says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble,” and he promises, “I will deliver you” (Psalm 50:15).  So what keeps your FAITH from persistently crying to JESUS FOR MERCY?  Perhaps there’s a serious disease so you pray to Jesus.  “LORD, take this cancer from my body.”  “Jesus, grant me strength again.”  When the cancer spreads or you remain bedridden, do you stop praying?  Maybe you are trying to start a family so you pray, “Jesus, grant us the blessing of children.”  After your prayer, a year passes, or two, or five, and God has not given you children.  Do you stop praying to God?  Why does that happen?  Is it because your timetable is definitely not in sync with God’s plan?  Is it because you want your requests now?  Jesus says, “Wait.”  So you stop SEEKING HIS MERCY.  Is it because you want exactly what you ask?  Jesus says, “No, you do not need that according to my will.”  So you stop SEEKING JESUS.
     
                Yet, even when you stop seeking him, Jesus never stops seeking you.  If it is his will, Jesus grants your requests even after you stop seeking him.  But, you should not be afraid to be persistent.  Jesus is always patient with you just as he was with the Canaanite woman’s persistent cries.  He hears every single one of your prayers no matter how many you send his way.  He is especially patient when you persistently ask for forgiveness.  When you SEEK JESUS FOR MERCY with persistent cries, he does not take into account the times you fail to seek him.  Rather, Jesus graciously answers your persistent cries FOR MERCY.
     
                In fact, do you remember his invitation?  He says, “Keep asking, and it will be given to you.  Keep seeking, and you will find.  Keep knocking, and the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7).  Jesus is always listening.  Many pray to him at the same time, but he listens and hears each petition individually.  He answers each cry according to his will.  GREAT FAITH trusts in these promises.  GREAT FAITH SEEKS JESUS FOR MERCY with persistent cries
     
    II
     
                Perhaps this woman had to keep running after Jesus because he kept walking silently ahead.  Maybe she used many other phrases to gain Jesus’ attention.  Perhaps she even stood in the way of Jesus and his disciples so they had to stop walking and listen intently to her.  St. Matthew does not tell details like that, but, what we do know is that her daughter was possessed by a demon.  We know this Canaanite woman continued to beg Jesus to help her.  Not only did the Canaanite woman SEEK JESUS with persistent cries, she also sought him with a humble heart.  She knelt before Jesus.  She placed herself at Jesus’ feet, giving up any hope that she could do anything by herself.  The woman knew she was incapable of doing the things she sought from Jesus.  She could not drive out the demon from her daughter.  She certainly could not save herself from her sins.  So, she said, “LORD, help me!”  You can hear her change of tone.  She spoke to Jesus with the tone of complete reliance.    
     
    But Jesus seemed to rebuff her, didn’t he?  He told the woman that God’s mercy was first meant for the descendants of Abraham.  Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”  This Canaanite woman fully understood what Jesus meant.  The Israelites were God’s children.  Just like parents work hard to prepare great food for their children, God worked hard to prepare salvation for his children, Israel, first and foremost.  The woman responded with a humble heart.  She said, “Indeed, Lord.  For even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Parents do not waste the leftover food.  They give some of the leftover scraps to their pet dogs.  Likewise, God did not waste his salvation.  The Canaanite woman knew this. She recognized God granted Gentiles mercy as well.  Jesus’ response?  He drove the demon from the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  He rewarded the Canaanite woman because of her GREAT FAITH which sought him with a humble heart.
     
                My cousin’s faithful dog, Harley often sat at my feet during holiday meals.  Harley was one of my favorite dogs because he was a golden retriever.  He loved to play and be petted.  He was my kind of dog.  It was my common courtesy to sneak some food which I didn’t want to Harley.  Harley gladly welcomed these treats.  There were also times when scraps would fall from my plate to the floor, and Harley did not waste any time eating those scraps.  My parents always reminded me after either instance that the food was meant for me and not Harley.  Yet, they also realized that some way or another, Harley would end up getting some of my food.  Of course, Harley never complained; he was satisfied with whatever he could get.  He was just like this woman.  The Canaanite woman knew she was like a pet dog.  She was second in comparison to the children of Abraham, yet she was still blessed with GREAT FAITH.  GREAT FAITH SEEKS JESUS FOR MERCY with a humble heart.
     
    I often struggle going to Jesus with a humble heart.  Do you too?  “If I give offerings, then you better heal my diseases, God.”  “Since I have shown lots of love to my neighbors lately, it’s time for you, Jesus, to give me children.”  “I’ve worked hard for many years now.  It’s time that I get more money, God.”  Such arrogance!  I’m not worthy to go to God because of my sins.  There is absolutely nothing I can do to earn anything from God.  My sins of arrogance have tainted my relationship with God so much that my prayers deserve to be unheard and unanswered.  Isn’t the same thing true for many of your prayers?
     
                But, do you remember how Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane?  He prayed for mercy with a humble heart, didn’t he?  “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)  He didn’t tell God what to do.  His humility took him to the cross where he humbly died for you. Jesus humbled himself in your place in order that he could suffer in your place.  Even when the people mocked him to come down from the cross, Jesus humbly remained nailed to that tree.  In fact, Jesus humbled himself from the time of his conception until he died that Good Friday.  He left the side of his Father in heaven to come down and live with us.  He became one of us so that he could humble himself in our place.  He has made your relationship with your heavenly Father pure again through his humble death on the cross.  So, God does hear and answer your prayers.  Jesus has rewarded you with the gift of humble hearts which SEEK HIM FOR MERCY.
     
                So, when you pray, do it with a humble heart.  When you seek Jesus in prayer for children, remember that they are a blessing graciously given from God.  It is according to his will that he gives or withholds that blessing.  When you seek Jesus in prayer for health, keep in mind that God’s will be done in your life.  And when you seek Jesus in prayer for some extra money, do so with the right mindset.  Use that gift to give glory back to God.  GREAT FAITH SEEKS JESUS FOR MERCY with a humble heart.
     
                Make it your goal, brothers and sisters, that Jesus will say to you as he did to the Canaanite woman, “YOU HAVE GREAT FAITH.”  Be persistent in your seeking HIM FOR MERCY.  Go to him with a humble heart.  God has granted you with GREAT FAITH, so use it as the Canaanite woman did.  Amen. 
     
    The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen. 
     
2014 Sermons
    6/29
  • Matthew 9:9-13
    Vicar Benjamin Steenbock

     
         Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. Amen.
     
         In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, dear brothers and sisters,

         In 1953 Edmund Hillary became the first known person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. He did it with the help of his hired guide, a Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay. Hillary may have been the first, but in the last twenty years or so, there has been an explosion in the number of expeditions to Mt. Everest. Thousands have succeeded. Hundreds have actually died trying. Everyone agrees, though, if you want to be successful you need to hire and follow a Sherpa.

         There's no doubt that summiting Mt. Everest is a huge achievement. But if you want to reach the heights of heaven—
    the home of eternal glory—a Sherpa won't get you there. Instead, you'll need to follow Jesus! He calls you...
    1) out from a life of sin, and
    2) into a life of mercy.

     
    (1)
         If you've been following our preschool building project, you probably remember that we had an unexpected delay in the early months. Now, we had all our ducks in a row. We submitted all of our government paperwork early. Still, we ran into some red tape. We got held up in the permitting process for Clark County Water District. Of course, things are on track with God's plans for the building, even if they are a little different from what our plans were. However, humanly speaking, it would have been nice to avoid that delay.

         But let's play a game of “what if?” What if the delay had been caused by a delinquent church member, a member who hadn't come to worship in years? And what if he only gave us the permit once we agreed to pay an extra fee. And not just a one-time fee, but every single year. And then, what if we found out he was personally profiting from that fee. Wouldn't you be furious at the betrayal, at the wickedness, at the audacity of it all?

         Well, now you understand how most Jews felt about Matthew. He abandoned a pious, Jewish life. He became a willing servant and agent of the oppressive Roman government. And he did it all just to get rich. Like many other tax collectors he overtaxed his Jewish brothers and then pocketed the extra money.

         Many viewed Matthew as a hardened sinner. But the truth was a little more complicated. Matthew may have lost his faith, but he didn't lose his conscience. Guilt gnawed at him. Money hadn't brought him fulfillment. And now he was hearing about this preacher from Nazareth, Jesus. Jesus spoke with power and authority. He wasn't afraid to confront sinners about their wrongdoing. Yet he mercifully forgave even the worst sinners who confessed their sins.

         So when Jesus walked into Matthew's tax office, Matthew was stunned. “[Jesus] saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. 'Follow me,' he told him” (Mt 9:9). Matthew's jaw dropped. “Me?! Follow you?!” But even as he picked up his jaw off the floor, his heart must have soared. “Matthew got up and followed him” (Mt 9:9). He followed Jesus who called him  out of a life of sin.

         Years later, St. Paul would be able to fully relate to Matthew's situation. Paul had completely bought into the
    self-righteous beliefs of the Pharisees. He was totally self-assured of his ability to earn his way into heaven. What's more, he vehemently hated Christians. Paul hunted them down. He persecuted them. He arranged to have many Christians killed. Later in life he would admit he was “the worst of sinners” (1 Tim 1:16).

         Yet, as with Matthew, Jesus came to make Paul into an unlikely convert. Appearing before Paul in all his resurrected glory, Jesus basically told him,  “Follow me!” He called Paul out of a life of sin.

         The result was an incredible transformation. The chief of sinners became the greatest of the apostles. Paul wrote, “I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor 15:9-10). And it was all because he  followed Jesus, who called him  out of a life of sin.

         Back to Matthew for a moment. When Matthew told the story of how Jesus called him, he was a little modest. Luke gives us an extra detail: Matthew “left everything and followed [Jesus]” (Lk 5:28). Matthew left behind his job, his wealth, everything. After all, to hang on to that wealth would mean hanging on to his sinful greed.

         Have you left everything to follow Jesus? I don't mean your stuff, I mean your sinful way of life. Have you left behind greed, lust, pride, grudges? Or are you still holding onto those things. Are you still enjoying their wicked pleasures in your secret moments? Or are there sins that have just become a part of the fabric of your life? Sins like filthy language and crude jokes. Sins like disdain and hatred for people with different opinions or people in the other political party. Paul urges all of us to 
    give up sinful living. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom 6:1-2).
     
         The solution is to  follow Jesus. He calls you  out from a life of sin. He calls you by his gospel, by the good news about what he did for you. Jesus conquered the curse of sin. From birth he resisted every temptation and denied every sinful pleasure. He took the sins you cling to and nailed them to the cross. By the power of his perfect life he is able to call you out from a life of sin. He can do this because he himself has washed away every single one of your sins.

         With the power that flows from him and from his gospel, you  follow Jesus. He calls you  out from a life of sin. In fact, you have his promise that you will  follow Jesus.  “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (Jn 10:27). And while following Jesus may not always be an easy path, it is always the path to true spiritual power. When he calls you  out from a life of sin, he also gives you the power to resist sin's allure. “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Tit 2:11-12). So follow Jesus! He calls you out from a life of sin.

     
    (2)
         Matthew had to celebrate this new joy, peace, hope, and life that he found in following Jesus. In fact, he felt compelled to thank his Lord and Savior. So he threw Jesus a banquet. And in order to share the love, he invited his friends to join them.

         Of course, since Matthew had lived the publicly sinful life of a tax collector, you can imagine the company he kept. He didn't exactly hang out with high society. It's no surprise that a “sinner” like Matthew was friends with a lot of other tax collectors and shameful outcasts of society. But now, Matthew was  following Jesus, who called him into a life of mercy. Matthew wanted all his friends to learn about the forgiveness Jesus offered.

         But not everyone was impressed. The Pharisees were keeping a close eye on Jesus. They despised people who committed the “really bad” public sins—people like tax collectors or prostitutes. When they saw Jesus eating with Matthew's friends, they hoped to discredit Jesus for keeping such bad company. “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” (Mt 9:10-11).

         Jesus heard them ask the question. He wasted no time in answering. “On hearing this, Jesus said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners'” (Mt 9:12-13). You see, the Pharisees were so obsessed with the letter of God's law that they didn't know the purpose of God's law. The purpose is to lead sinners first to repentance, and then, by the gospel, to offer them mercy. And mercy seeks out those who are spiritually sick and dying. Mercy comes to them in love and holds the cross of Christ before their eyes. True believers in God's Word follow Jesus who calls them into a life of mercy.

         Do you remember Jesus' parable about the prodigal son? The son commits horrible, hurtful sins against his father. He goes to him and says, “Give me my inheritance.” Basically, “I wish you were dead already so I could have my money.” Then he leaves home, goes far away from his dad, and squanders all his money on wild living. Eventually, when he is utterly destitute, he realizes how sinful he has been. He resolves to go back to his father and beg to be treated like one of his dad's servants.

         Meanwhile, the father's reaction is not what you might expect. He spends every day waiting and watching for his son to return. When his prayers are finally answered, he runs down the road to meet his son. He throws his arms around him in a loving embrace. Then the father holds a huge banquet to celebrate his son's return. The father wasn't concerned with just desserts. Even toward his wayward son, he lived a life of mercy.

         But there's a second son in that parable. The second son was furious. He was furious at his brother for the sins he committed. He was furious with his father for forgiving his brother. He refused to celebrate with the rest of the family. He refused to show mercy.

         Do you show mercy when grievous sins are committed against you? Or do you have your own personal list of “unforgivable” sins? Do you often find it difficult to forgive those who really hurt you? The temptation for you and me is to hold your own personal judgment day and start handing out tickets to hell.

         Here's the truth: you and I waver between being Matthews and Pharisees. We commit our own horrible sins. Jesus calls us. He shows mercy. He heals our sin-sick souls. And then you and I turn around and self-righteously refuse to forgive others.

         Put aside that self-righteousness.  Follow Jesus! He calls you  into a life of mercy. Jesus showed mercy when he ate with sinners and tax collectors. He is quick to show you the same mercy. He forgives your wickedness and rebellion. He also forgives your self-righteous lack of mercy. And then, under his mercy, he invites you to follow him.  Follow Jesus! He calls you into a life of mercy.

         You know that feeling of gratitude, joy, and peace when God shows mercy and forgives your sins. By following Jesus, you can be the one who brings that joy to others. Listen to Paul's encouragement. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3:12-13). And that kind of gospel mercy is infectious! When you live a life of mercy, you become an encouragement for others to do the same. So follow Jesus! He calls you into a life of mercy.

         Then, together with all believers, you can enjoy some rarefied air. Not at the top of Mt. Everest, but in the glorious realms of heaven. And the best part? It won't take months or years of training. In fact, you don't have to work your way up there at all. You just follow Jesus. He calls you out of a life of sin, and  into a life of mercy. Amen.
    5/18 You Are Living Stones
  • Confirmation Sunday
    I Peter 2:4-10
    Pastor Matt Vogt


     

    What is confirmation?  What is happening today?

        Some would say that confirmation is simply a coming-of-age ritual for Christians; a rite of passage into adulthood.  If it were simply that, you’d have much reason to be grateful.  To become a man in the Amazon’s Satere Mawe tribe young men have to wear ceremonial gloves filled with stinging bullet ants.  These ants are called bullet ants for a reason – their sting feels like getting shot.  Each sting is thirty times more painful than the sting of a wasp.  You have to wear these gloves for ten minutes; and not just once, but 20 times!

        On the tiny South Pacific Island young men have to jump off a rickety 100 foot tall tower with vines tide around their ankles.  Mind you, vines are not bungee cords.  You don’t slowly approach the ground or bounce nicely back up.  And your head must hit the ground for it to count.  The difference between a good jump and a fatal one is the matter of inches / centimeters!  

        And in Papua New Guinea young men have to expel any blood they received from their mothers at birth.  In order to do that they undergo brutal bloodletting rituals like shoving canes down their throats, sharp reeds up their nostrils and plunging sharp arrows repeatedly into their tongues.  

        If confirmation is all that is required for you to be considered adults in our culture, you can be happy.  But confirmation is more than just a coming-of-age ritual.  It is a rite of the Lutheran Christian Church.  It does mark a certain level of maturity whereby the church recognizes you have reached a level of Bible knowledge and spiritual maturity to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and to make a commitment to be responsible for your own spiritual welfare.  

        But there’s more to this day than merely marking a milestone in these young people’s lives.  You are making a commitment to God and his Church, to be sure.  But God himself is also assuring you in his Word of his commitment to you today.  Just as he’s done through your study of his Word these past two years, he’s strengthening you in your faith in his commitment to the cause of your soul’s salvation.  A commitment to you being able to keep the promises you make today.  A commitment to you remaining an integral part of his Holy Christian Church; which is a spiritual building consisting of spiritual stones.  You are those living stones.  As such, I.  You have been chosen by God and II. You are precious to him.   

    Our lesson begins:  “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

    A number of years ago I decided to build a nice stone patio in our backyard.  As a part of that project I went down to a stone distributor and picked out the quartzite flagstones which I would build the patio out of.  Because I wasn’t buying a whole pallet of the stones, I got to sort through the stones and choose exactly the ones I wanted to use.  Of course, I chose the ones that seemed appealing to me.  Stones that had interesting shapes, vibrant colors, and real character.  To this day I still look at that patio and those stones with a certain amount of pride every time I got out there to grill or sit on the patio.  It was pretty neat being able to choose the stones I wanted to use to build my patio.  

    So also has the LORD . . . chosen the stones he wants to use to build his Church.  And having done so, he, too, looks upon them with great pride and admiration.  And you’re one of them!  

    But why did he choose you?  We can all understand why he chose the chief cornerstone that he did.  Jesus, God’s eternal Son, is the perfect choice.  He is “the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God” and the “chosen and precious cornerstone” (vss.4,6).  We understand why God chose him.  Like God, Jesus is perfect . . . no flaws, no sins, perfect through and through.  The world rejected him – even tried to dispose of him altogether, crucifying and burying him.  But after he accomplished what God chose him to do – to live and die in our place to take away all our sin, the Lord raised him from the dead and returned to him all authority in heaven and on earth.  Made him to be the cornerstone – the foundation stone of his Church.  Jesus was a good choice . . . the only choice to serve as the only Savior the world will ever know and the only Head the Church will ever have.  He was the perfect choice.  We all understand why God chose him.

    But why did God choose you?  You’re not perfect like Jesus . . . not even close!  The Bible says:  “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.  We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).  In fact, even the good things we think we do – apart from faith in Jesus – are filth!  God did not choose you because you were somehow more special than others, better than others.  He did not choose you because there was something about you that appealed to him.  No, in fact we were “objects of [his] wrath” (Ephesians 2).  So why did he choose you?  Because of his grace – his undeserved, unconditional love.  Because he is love.  The Bible says:  “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.  It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (I Corinthians 1:27-30).

    It is because of Jesus that God chose you to be a part of his spiritual house.  It is because Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life in your place and then credited his holiness to you.  It is because Jesus died as your substitute for sin and sent his Holy Spirit to wash you clean in the waters of Holy Baptism.  

    The apostle Paul was inspired to explain God’s choice in this way in Ephesians chapter 1:  “For he chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. . . . In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding” (1:4,7-8).  Because of Jesus “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (vs.9).  Because of the living Stone, you are “living stones” and are being built into God’s spiritual house.

    I pray you never lose sight of or lose appreciation for this remarkable blessing of God’s grace.  Do you recall the last time you stood in a group with a bunch of other kids in front of two team captains?  They were picking teams.  Do you recall how happy or excited you were when you were chosen by the captain of the team you wanted to be on?  Or perhaps you recall the disappointment of not being picked  . . . left for last.  Jesus himself said about God’s team/God’s kingdom:  “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).  You are one of those privileged few.  You are part of a comparatively select few who have been chosen / hand-picked by God to be a part of his family and to dwell with him in his eternal kingdom.  To God alone forever be the glory for this!  Praise him who called you out of the darkness of spiritual ignorance and unbelief and into his wonderful, saving light!  

    “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (vs.9).  As one of God’s chosen living stones, built into his eternal kingdom, you are precious to him!  You are “God’s special possession.”  You are special and precious to him because he paid a heavy price for you to make you his possession.  It cost him the death of his own Son – his dearly loved and precious Son!  The one he – not just once, but twice – boasted about in a thundering voice from heaven:  “This is my Son whom I love!  With him I am well-pleased!”  Jesus paid with his own blood the price to make you God’s precious possession.  

    You – like Jesus, that precious living cornerstone – are precious living stones to God!  I know you may at times not feel so special or so loved.  The world likes to make us feel silly or ignorant.  Other people do or say things that tear down our self-esteem.  Satan likes to get into our heads and make us think less of ourselves.  We do things – sinful things, foolish things, harmful things – that lead us to doubt whether God really could ever love us or we can ever respect ourselves again.  But listen again to what God says of you in our lesson: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (vs.9). And through the prophet Isaiah, the LORD says of you:  “You are precious and honored in my sight.  I love you!” (Isaiah 43:4).  

    This confirmation class is particularly special to me.  I have baptized five out of this year’s seven confirmands.  I have watched you grow up together.  I have spent a lot of time with you and your families.  This year is special to me.  You’re not only precious to me, but precious to your parents and grandparents who are here with you today.  You are precious to this congregation . . . You represent the pride of this family of believers . . . young people who have been raised here to know and love Jesus, who have worshiped with us, studied the Word and grown in faith and spiritual maturity in our midst.  You are the next generation of believers to carry the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ into the world and into the future.  Above all, you are precious to God . . . for all those same reasons and more!

    Don’t ever doubt that!  Don’t ever lose sight of that, forget that, or let anyone – even Satan himself – deny you that!  Stay in the Word.  Participate regularly in the Lord’s Supper.  Exercise your faith.  Offer spiritual sacrifices of love and good works to God here in this place and wherever it is that the Lord takes you in life.  Stay connected to Jesus and his Church, like stones mortared together.  Know that you have been chosen by God to be living stones within his house, and that, as such, you are precious to him!  Amen.

    4/6 That Settles It!
  • John 11
    Pastor Matt Vogt


     

    In late June of 1914, Austria had had enough.  Relations between them and the Serbs had been strained for some time already.  In fact, there had been a great deal of hostility between Austria and Germany on the one hand and Russia, France and Great Britain on the other for quite some time already.  So when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the nephew of the King of Austria and heir to the throne, and his wife, Sophie, were shot to death by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28th, the Austrians had had enough.  That assassination settled it.  

    Now, the cold blooded murder of an heir to the throne is certainly nothing to sneeze at.  That being said, it seems silly to fight a war which resulted in the tragic deaths of some 30 million people because of the death of two individuals.  WWI didn’t actually start for over a month after the assassinations; and it wasn’t just that one event over which World War I was fought.  But that event was the defining moment; it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back; it was the event that pushed everyone over the edge.  

        The event put before us today in our Gospel lesson was perhaps the defining moment of Jesus’ public ministry.  Other than his death on the cross and his own resurrection about three months later, no single event in Jesus’ ministry had such a tremendous impact on so many.  This event forced people’s hand.  It forced them to come down on one side or the other concerning Jesus. There was no more sitting on the fence.  The resurrection of Lazarus, who lived so close to Jerusalem and who had been dead for four days, settled matters.  It required a response.  For many it was a Spirit-produced response of faith.  Jesus had to be the Messiah!  There was no doubt!  For others, however, it was a response of hardened unbelief.  This was getting out of hand.  That settles it!  Something has to be done about Jesus . . . and now!  

        The reaction of Jesus’ enemies to this amazing miracle was this:  “From that day on they plotted to take his life” (vs.53).  Why?  How could they or why did they react in this way?  To understand their thinking we need to read on a few verses after our lesson.  There we’re told that some of those who witnessed the miracle firsthand raced back to Jerusalem to tell the Pharisees what had happened.  The Pharisees then called together a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.  “What are we accomplishing?” they asked.  “Here is this man performing miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (vss.47-48).  That settled it.  Jesus had to go! 

        What’s striking about what they said is that they did not deny Jesus’ miraculous powers.  They admitted he was performing inexplicable miracles!  They also admitted that these miracles were signs; that they signaled something about Jesus, namely that he had otherworldly powers.  But many of them were still convinced that the source of his otherworldly power was Satan.  As they’d stated before:  “He is possessed by Beelzebub!  By the prince of demons he is driving out demons” (Mark 3:22).  And even if some of them weren’t convinced that Jesus was a demonic threat sent from hell, they did all agree that Jesus was a threat.  A threat to their positions and their power.  Soon everyone would be convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and would switch their allegiance over to him, which means they would lose their power and influence and positions of privilege.  Or the moment Jesus’ was recognized as the Messiah, he and his followers would try to lead a revolt against the Romans, which means the Romans would come in and squash the rebellion.  As a part of that, the Sanhedrin would be stripped of its power at the least; the whole nation could perhaps be devastated and wiped out.  The members of the Sanhedrin couldn’t afford either scenario playing itself out.  They had to do something before things got any more out of hand; before Jesus became any more popular.  “So from that day on they plotted to take his life” (vs.53).  In fact, some even went so far as to suggest killing Lazarus, too, for the same reason.  John records in chapter 12:  “the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him” (vss.10-11).

        It’s hard for us – as people of faith – to understand the mindset of the unbeliever.  How anyone could have so much evidence laid out before them and still refuse to believe.  How anyone could hate in response to so much love.  How anyone could do evil to one who is doing so much good.  The only true explanation is the power of sin and Satan.  The Bible says that those who are hardened in unbelief and unrepentance are caught in “the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). 

    Here we all have reason to pause and give praise to God this morning, because we were all there at one point in our existence.  We were all born blind to the gospel of Jesus Christ, enslaved to Satan, enemies of God.  We by nature considered the gospel a bunch of foolishness and those who believed it fools for doing so.  The Bible says:  “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved” (Titus 3:3).  Were it not for the Holy Spirit raising us to spiritual life and giving us the gift of faith, our souls would still be as dead as the decomposed body of Lazarus was before Jesus raised it back to life.  The Bible says of us:  “As for you, you were dead in transgressions and sins in which you used to live when you followed the ways of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work I those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:1-2).  Thanks be to God that “because of his great love for us,” he “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions . . . For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:4-5,8).  Thanks be to God – and he alone gets the credit and the glory – that our God-given response to Jesus’ miraculous power over death is one of faith!

        That was the response of many the day of Lazarus’ resurrection, as well.  Lazarus’ resurrection was the defining moment for many in a good way.  John records in chapter 11:  “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him” (vs.45).  That settled it.  Jesus had to be the Messiah, the Savior sent from God!

        And that was Jesus’ intent with this miracle all along . . . to awaken and/or confirm the faith of his followers.  He said just that when he explained to his disciples why he hadn’t raced off to Bethany when he first heard that Lazarus was sick and on his deathbed.  “Lazarus is [now] dead,” he told them, “and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (vss.14-15).  There’s a lot that we can learn about faith by looking a bit closer at this remarkable incident.

        Mary and Martha (among others) had their faith rattled a bit by Lazarus’ death.  They had known and believed in Jesus as the Messiah – the Savior from sin sent by God – for some time now.  They’d opened their home to Jesus on a number of occasions.  They and their brother Lazarus had grown to love Jesus and Jesus loved them.  But why, then, did Jesus let Lazarus die?  Jesus had healed so many others, but he didn’t come quickly enough to help his own friend?!  In fact, Jesus had even healed others from a distance – people he’d never even met before!  But he didn’t do that for Lazarus?!  Both Martha and Mary were obviously heartbroken, hurt and confused. Why didn’t Jesus come in time to do something?  “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus – when he finally did show up four days too late! – “if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vs.21).  

        I know you’ve been there, too.  “How could God let this happen?  Why is God allowing this to happen to me?”  “Lord, do something!  Don’t you care?  Don’t you see what’s going on?  Can’t you fix it?!”  Perhaps you’re going through something right now which is causing your faith to be rattled a bit.  “Where’s God when you need him?!”

        Notice how Jesus handled Martha’s rattled faith.  First, he gave her something to hang her faith on.  He gave her his word.  He did this already way back when the messenger first came to deliver the news about Lazarus’ illness.  John records in verse 4 of this chapter, “When he heard this, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death.  No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’”  Jesus had given his word that – once this was all said and done – Lazarus would not be dead.  This illness would not bring about the end of his earthly life.  That message quickly got back to Mary and Martha.  They believed Jesus.  But now that Lazarus was dead, those words seemed to be null and void.  

        That being said, in spite of her tears and her grief Martha still had faith in Jesus.  “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask,” she confessed (vs.22).  And then Jesus gave her more of his word to build her faith on.  He assured her of his power over death – claiming to be “the resurrection and the life.”  To which Martha responded with a beautiful confession of faith:  “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (vs.27).  

        And then, to confirm that faith, Jesus proceeded to prove that her faith was not misplaced by miraculously raising Lazarus from the dead.  “Lazarus, come out!” he shouted.  And he did . . . grave clothes still wrapped around him!  If there had been any doubts before, this resolved them!  The raising of Lazarus settled it for Mary and Martha, for the disciples, and for many others that day!  This event confirmed Jesus’ identity, his power, his compassion and his love.  Jesus indeed was the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior.  He indeed loved them.  And in his love he could and would do whatever he felt and knew was in their best and eternal interest.   

        What lessons can we take to heart from this account to assist us when our faith is under attack, when we have our doubts and fears, when we’re confused by God’s actions or seeming lack of action?  First of all, know that God does care.  After recording the message delivered to Jesus about Lazarus’ illness, John records:  “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days” (vss.5-6).  Jesus loves you, too, as he loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus.  And because he loves you, he wants you to spend eternity with him in the glories of heaven.  In order for this to happen, he needs your faith to be kept alive and well.  Sometimes this means he needs to allow our faith to be tested so that it can be refined, purified and strengthened.  The apostle Peter explained to first century Christians who were suffering a great deal because of their faith in Christ:  “for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (I Peter 1:6-7).  

        But that’s just how strong and how beautiful this gift of faith is that the Holy Spirit has given you.  It can and does still believe in spite of the odds stacked, the attacks launched, and the questions raised against it.  The apostle Paul put it this way, when he was talking about Abraham’s faith:  “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18).  Faith is “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:3).  And why can we be so certain?  Because Jesus has given us his Word!  Our lives, too, will not end in death.  Sure, unless Jesus’ returns first, we will all experience death.  And there’s no promise that the lead up to that experience will be pleasant.  But Jesus has given us his word that he is “the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”  In fact, we will never truly die.  Rather, our souls will simply slip from this life to the life God truly wants for us and has prepared for us there with him in heaven.  Faith knows and trusts that Jesus has the power to remain true to his Word . . . even and especially in the face of our own deaths and the deaths of those we love. 

        Finally, faith leaves the specific answers up to the Lord.  Notice how Martha confessed to and about Jesus:  “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  She didn’t demand Jesus explain himself.  She didn’t demand Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.  “Whatever you feel is best, Lord.  You decide.”  The faith the Holy Spirit has given you is equipped to offer to God the same kind of trust and the same kind of respect.  Know that your heavenly Father knows best and trust him to provide the perfect answer, the perfect solution at the perfect time.  After all, we know that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28).  And that settles it!  Amen.

     
    1/19 Look! The Lamb of God!
  • John 1:29-42
    Vicar Ben Steenbock

     

    In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, dear brothers and sisters,

        So here we are in the dead of winter. And today's high is what... 50, 60 degrees? It's certainly a far cry from our brothers and sisters up north. Right now other WELS Lutherans in rural Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are probably trying hard to drive straight and steady on dangerous icy roads. Even if you're used to it, it takes focus and discipline to drive safely in those conditions. It's important because a lack of focus can be fatal. It can be fatal for you and for other drivers.

        Of course, a fatal car accident is  nothing compared to a fatal spiritual accident. God forbid that a lack of focus on God's Word should ever send our souls spiraling back toward hell. Today, John the Baptist, sent by God, is going to help us stay focused. He points to the Messiah and says, “Look! The Lamb of God!”

                                                                  1) Seek his sacrifice, and

                                                                  2) Confess him as Christ.

    (1)

        The Jews, the Judean nation, at the time of Jesus was a nation without focus. Excitement abounded 450 years earlier when they returned from exile in Babylon. But over the centuries, that excitement and zeal faded. Centuries of being ruled by foreign empires took its toll. Slowly, surely, the Jews lost their focus as a people. Perhaps most disturbing of all, there seemed to be silence from the Lord. His Word was sufficient, of course. But people yearned for the old days, when the Lord sent prophets and performed mighty miracles.

        This loss of focus led to all kinds of factionalism. There were political factions, of course. Some favored Roman rule, others desperately fought against it. But worse yet was their divided religious leadership. The Sadducees were the majority religious elite. They offered a sensible, rational religion to the people. Unfortunately, they denied God's Word. They said that the resurrection wasn't real. They said angels weren't real. They said only the first five books of the Bible were really God's Word.

        On the other side were the Pharisees. Unlike the Sadducees, they claimed to be serious about God's Word. But they didn't preach love, mercy, and forgiveness like God wanted them to. Instead, they preached that people had to earn their way to heaven by meticulously following the law of Moses. Mostly, the Jewish people were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36).

        So you can understand why people were curious about John the Baptist. In the middle of an unfocused nation, here was a man preaching a clear and resounding message. Clear, resounding, yet also hard to hear. You see, John preached repentance from sin. He wasn't shy to point out wrongdoing or the terrible hellfire that waited for wrongdoers. But he also preached a soothing baptism of forgiveness. No wrongdoer, no sinner, was so far beyond saving that they could not be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Basically, John preached God's Word in its truth and purity. And it wasn't long before disciples were drawn to him. These were men yearning for a relationship with God. These were men hoping to cut through all the unfocused clutter of their culture.

        One day they had a moment of clarity unlike any other they had before. “John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'” (Jn 1:29). Now that was a clear statement. John the Baptist's two disciples understood exactly what he was saying—this man was the Messiah! Could it be true? “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, 'Look, the Lamb of God!' (Jn 1:35-36).

        All kinds of bells and whistles were going off in the disciples' heads. They were triggered when John the Baptist said “Look! The Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29). They knew John was making a clear reference to the Passover. Way back in Egypt, when God rescued the Israelites from slavery, the final plague against the Egyptians was the Passover. God sent his angel to kill all of the firstborn sons in the land. But he gave the Israelites special instructions. They were instructed to take a year-old lamb from their flocks. This lamb should be perfect, without defect. They were instructed to slaughter the lamb and paint its blood on the doorway of their house. When the angel came by, he would see the blood on the door frame and pass over that house, sparing the firstborn sons inside. It was a moment of clarity for the Israelites: “In place of my firstborn son, an innocent, perfect lamb must die.” Did the disciples understand the metaphor quite yet? When John said, “Look! The Lamb of God!” he meant nothing else than this: the innocent, perfect Jesus will give his life for your salvation. Seek his sacrifice!

        Presented with the Lamb of God, these two disciples said, “We have to seek his sacrifice.” The apostle tells us, “When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, 'What do you want?'” (John 1:37-38a).

        Jesus' question is actually a profound one. I wonder.. what do you want? When it comes to your relationship with God, are you focused? Or does your life have a lack of focus? When you and I lose our focus on God's Word, that's when troubles come. That lack of focus leads to all kinds of sins and failures. That lack of focus can lead to a lost temper with your children, spouse, or parents. That lack of focus can lead to giving in when Satan turns up the heat with temptations. There's temptations to abuse alcohol, temptations to abuse the internet, temptations to gossip and tear down others, temptations to mishandle our money. So many temptations. Without focus, can you really stand against them all? They're little individual terrorist cells—you have to stop all of them, but they only need one success to send you reeling. Ironically that lack of focus can lead to a moment of very uncomfortable clarity: that moment where guilt, shame, and regret come washing over you.

        When that happens, there's only one clear way to deal with it. There's one clear way to handle the guilt, shame, and regret. Look to the Lamb of God. Seek his sacrifice! Gather together as a family around his Word. Read God's words of forgiveness. Study his promises and mercy. God invites you, every single day, to paint your home with the forgiving blood of Jesus. In his blood there is forgiveness for lack of focus, lost tempers, and lost battles with temptation. You are forgiven for dealing harshly with your children or your spouse. You are forgiven for disobeying your parents. You are forgiven for every verbal battle and passive aggressive assault against your neighbor. You are forgiven for abusing and misusing alcohol, money, or any other blessing from God. As St. John once wrote, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Look! The Lamb of God! Seek his sacrifice. Heap all of your guilt, shame, an regret onto the Lamb of of God. He takes away the sin of the world. He takes away your sin. And then you can enjoy this glorious sense of clarity: guilt gone, shame silenced, regret forgotten.

    (2)

        The two disciples sought his sacrifice. When Jesus asked, “What do you want?” they expressed their desire to learn more. They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?"

        "Come," [Jesus] replied, "and you will see."

        So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him.

        Do you wonder how fast the hours must have rolled by? Can you imagine what it was like? All their lives they had heard about God's promised Messiah. All their lives they had been told that God would send a Savior some day. And as they learned at Jesus' feet, deep questions were answered. Crippling doubts and skepticism melted away. This truly was the Lamb of God! Jesus of Nazareth revealed himself to them as the long-promised Messiah, the Savior from sin. Andrew couldn't keep this to himself. He had to share what he learned! He had to confess Jesus as Christ!Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, 'We have found the Messiah' (that is, the Christ).” 

        Think back to a time when you received some incredibly joyful news in your life. Perhaps it was something that you waited and waited for. Maybe it's when you were accepted into college. Maybe it was when you got engaged or you got married. Perhaps it was getting hired on to do your dream job. When you got that news, did you bottle it up and keep it to yourself? Of course not! You shared that news with friends and family. If it happened in the last decade, you probably posted it all over Facebook. Did you invite friends to celebrate with you at a restaurant? Or maybe you did one better and threw a whole party to celebrate. The point is, you wanted everyone to know about this gigantic milestone in your life. You definitely couldn't hold in that good news.

        Do you treat the good news about Jesus a little differently? Do you regularly confess him as Christ? Or is it true that we treat the news about Jesus Christ as if it's an old hat? “Oh yeah, that old story. Everyone knows that.” Has the inexpressible joy and thanksgiving you once felt about Jesus been dulled through the years? Have you lost that sense of urgency to tell lost souls about the light of the world? Maybe not. But perhaps it's fear that gets in your way. Perhaps it's a fear that when you tell the story about Jesus and his forgiveness, your friends and family members won't think it's such good news. I've got to confess myself, my life is littered with incidents where fear or apathy took over. A wonderful opportunity to share Jesus was right there. Instead, I gave a milquetoast response that left both of us unsatisfied.

        If these sins sound all too familiar, then look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Just think about what that really means for you. The Lamb of God has given you a heart that beats at peace. The Lamb of God has given you a mind that thinks in tranquility. The Lamb of God has promised you a body destined for perfection in heaven. Just try to take it all in again, if you even can! My prayer for you and for myself is the same as St. Paul's “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:16-19).

        With your heart bursting at the seams with Jesus' love, look at the Lamb of God! Then you won't be able to stop yourself! You'll have to confess him as Christ! I know that you want Jesus' eternal blessings for your loved ones. I know that your heart cries out for their salvation. So what are you waiting for? Confess him as Christ! It doesn't take much. Next time you're with a loved one who doesn't know Jesus, grab a Bible. Turn to your favorite story about Jesus and say, “Look! The Lamb of God!” Amen.

    Please stand.

    He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. Amen.

    1/6 Jesus Became Your Savior
  • Isaiah 63:7-9
    Vicar Ben Steenbock

     

    Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
    In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, dear brothers and sisters,

        “Your life will never be the same.” That's a line that new parents often hear these days. That's because having a baby is an incredible responsibility. For at least 18 years, parents are responsible for the well-being and safety of their children. Whether they are threatened by spiritual or physical dangers, it's a parent's duty either to protect their children directly or to equip them with the right tools to defend themselves.

        I'm a new parent myself. I'm also sinful and imperfect. I know there are times I will fall short. At those times when cute and cuddly morph into sassy and prickly, I may not always show the kindness God calls me to show. When it means an interruption in my schedule and my needs, I may not always answer her distress the way I'm called to. I'm not the only one to struggle with these things, am I? Thankfully, as children of the Almighty God, we have a much more dependable Father. He never falls short of his promises. When he was faced with your greatest need, and my greatest need, Christ became your Savior,

                    1) who is driven by kindness, and

                    2) who carries you in distress.

    (1)

        Some three hundred years after King David, the Israelites were in the middle of a spiritual tornado. Their nation kept whirling back and forth between godly leadership and ungodly leadership. Every day, more and more people were descending into darkness and idolatry.

        God was jealous for their hearts. He sent warnings to them through his prophets. He sent the armies of the Arameans and the Assyrians as discipline for his chosen children. In each case, the Lord spared them, rescuing them just short of total disaster. But the Israelites weren't really listening. The warnings were ignored. So he gave his prophet Isaiah a dire message to deliver. Not too far in the future, the Babylonians would descend on Jerusalem. They would completely destroy it and carry the people off into captivity.

        In the midst of all this spiritual turmoil and chaos, a few faithful remained. They loved the Lord and followed his laws. But when they heard this message, Israel's faithful got frightened. “Does the Lord still love us? Does he plan to keep his gospel promises? How can the promised Savior come if we are destroyed as a nation?”

        So God gave Isaiah more to say. “Comfort, comfort, my people. God will be true to his gospel promises. He will bring a remnant back from Babylon. And just as promised, Christ will become your SaviorI will tell of the kindnesses of the LORD, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the LORD has done for us-- yes, the many good things he has done for the house of Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses. He said, "Surely they are my people, sons who will not be false to me"; and so he became their Savior. Your God is not motivated by anger and vindictiveness. He doesn't demand payment for his mercy like the idols around you. No, Christ will become your Savior, a Savior driven by kindness. Do you want evidence? Look back at all those good things he has done for the house of Israel.

        “Consider how he rescued your ancient fathers from slavery in Egypt. They had done nothing to deserve their rescue. But God your Savior was driven by kindness to rescue them. Consider how your forefathers turned away from God time and time again before the days of King David. They brought destruction on themselves from the Moabites, Philistines, and others. But when they repented, God your Savior, driven by kindness, always sent the judges, mighty warriors, to rescue them. Consider the evidence you have seen with your own eyes in your own lifetimes. God your Savior, driven by kindness, sent his destroying angel to obliterate the Assyrian army. So is there really any doubt? Christ will become your Savior, a Savior driven by kindness.”

        A little bit like the Israelites of old, you and I are often caught in a spiritual tornado. You and I waver between a faithful devotional life and spiritual neglect. We waver between standing firm against temptation and plotting our next sin. You waver between leaning on God in tough times and depending only on yourself when the chips are down. We are anything but consistent in following the Lord. Should you and I expect mercy from God when we are so untrue to him? Should we expect kindness?

        Here is the unfathomable mystery: God gave us the unexpected. Christ became your Savior, who is driven by kindness. Our Immanuel, God with us, came on Christmas morning because God your Savior is driven by kindness. Driven by kindness, Jesus carried a cross to Calvary. Driven by kindness, he suffered the Father's punishment for your wavering, unfaithful heart. Driven by kindness, he won your forgiveness, Driven by kindness, he sent his Holy Spirit to enlighten you and transform you. Through the gospel, Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled in you: “Surely they are my people, sons who will not be false to me.” Our God once put it this way: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” That's why Christ became your Savior. He was driven by kindness.

    (2)

        Through these words, God encouraged his followers. Isaiah's prophecy gave them sure gospel hope. The Lord had not forgotten his promises. The God who had saved them so many times before would send the Christ as their ultimate Savior. That was a real and true comfort that no one could take from them. However, in the meantime, they had some tough realities to face. The Babylonian exile was still going to happen. Those who survived to see it would experience many griefs. They would see their families dragged away, broken apart, and dispersed. They would be forced to live in a foreign, gentile land with a foreign language. Perhaps most heart-breaking of all, they would see their homeland ravaged and the Lord's temple taken apart brick by brick.

        As they started to contemplate these things, fear raised its ugly head once more. How could they possibly face these things? How could they possibly find the strength to get through them? It was all too overwhelming.

        Once again, Isaiah's message brought comfort. Through Isaiah, God reminded them what kind of God they had. When God's people suffered in the past, what was God's attitude? Isaiah proclaimed, “In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”

        Christ would come someday and make the most important rescue of all: the rescue from sin. Yet God's love and mercy extended even farther than that great deed. God their Savior promised to carry them in distress, including the distress they would experience in the Babylonian captivity

        Have you ever watched The Biggest Loser? It's a TV show where expert personal trainers help morbidly obese individuals lose weight. The participants learn healthy eating patterns. They learn healthy exercise patterns. Along the way, they compete to see who can shed the most pounds.

        If you've seen the show, you know that this transformation is not easy on the contestants. From day one they are given diets that are radically different from what they're used to. From day one they are subjected to grueling workouts. They are made to exert themselves far beyond their normal activity level. But what is the purpose behind it all? Why do the trainers push them so hard? Is it out of meanness and spite? Of course not. In fact, the trainers are with them every step of the way. When their bodies are under extreme distress, the trainers are there to carry them through it so that they don't lose courage and give up.

        We live in a sin-filled world of distress. It's a world radically different than the one God made for us to live in. It's a world that often beats down on us and tempts us to lose courage and give up. True enough, many of these troubles are really our fault. You make a sinful decision and have to live with the consequences. But a fair amount of the hardship you face is actually not your fault. It's just the result of living in a broken, distressed world.

        The temptation to feel despair is very real. That temptation comes when a strained budget is busted by a broken car. It comes when an influential colleague cuts you with a nasty, public remark. It comes when a child or a spouse turns their back on you in rebellion and selfishness. In distress, do you give in to the idea that God is too busy to notice your problems?

        What does Isaiah say? “In all their distress, he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” Christ became your Savior who carries you in distress. It hurts God's heart to see you in pain and suffering. His love and mercy moves him to swift action. You have his promise from the psalms, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”

        You can be sure of this because God has already conquered your biggest enemy. Christ became your Savior who destroyed the power of sin, death, and Satan in your life. With that victory in hand, of course he carries you in distress. As St. Paul says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

        Indeed, the Lord does not leave you all on your own. Since Christ became your Savior, he does carry you in distress. He promises his Holy Spirit will be with you every step of the way. “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba,' Father” (Gal 4:6). “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Rom 8:26). Through his Holy Spirit, Christ your Savior carries you in distress.

        In his Word, God describes himself many ways. But it's no accident that over and over again he describes himself as our Father. Fathers are made to defend and protect the little ones that God has given them. We are his little ones. Our God defends and protects us. What better evidence could be found than this: Christ became our Savior, who is driven by kindness, and who carries you in distress. Amen.

    Please stand.

    May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. Amen.

2013 Sermon Archive
    11/23 That You Might Share in Jesus' Glory!
  • 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
    Pastor Matt Vogt

     

    It was the knock at the door he likely knew was inevitable, yet he absolutely feared.  He’d gone into hiding, hoping never to be discovered.  At one time he had been a prince, heir to the throne, grandson to the king – the most powerful man in the land.  But in one tragic day both his father and grandfather died in battle; the man his grandfather had attempted on numerous occasions to kill became king; and he – still a young boy at the time – was crippled in a horrible accident during his escape.  

    That was all years ago.  Yet hardly a day went by that the dread of this very moment didn’t haunt him.  The knock at the door was an official dispatch from his grandfather’s enemy.  He’d been discovered, and he feared the worst.

    Imagine what that ride to the palace must have been like.  What fears must have been racing through his mind.  He’d been called to appear before the king.  He could only assume he’d go the way of his father and grandfather.  New dynasties saw the old as a threat.  Entire families were massacred to prevent an uprising or claims to the throne on the part of the old dynasty and their supporters.  Young Mephibosheth – the only surviving member of the family – would likely only see one other person after appearing before the king, and that would be the executioner.

    But when he arrived and stood before the king, the king had a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye.  With open arms he greeted him and said:  “Mephibosheth! . . . Don’t be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan.  I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table” (2 Samuel 9:6-7).  

    Mephibosheth couldn’t believe what he was hearing:  “What is your servant, that you should notice a dead dog like me?” (2 Samuel 9:8)

    David didn’t even acknowledge Mephibosheth’s humble, shocked exclamation.  Instead he immediately gave orders to return all of Mephibosheth’s father’s and grandfather’s personal property back to Mephibosheth and made arrangements for those lands to be farmed for him and the proceeds to go into Mephibosheth’s pocket the rest of his life.  “And Mephibosheth,” David added, “you will always eat at my table.”  (2 Samuel 9:10)

    Does any of that sound strikingly familiar?  I don’t mean the name Mephibosheth or this particular incident in the Bible.  I mean the whole scenario.  An enemy of the most powerful ruler, the King, being called to stand before him.  Fearing the worst . . . even deserving the worst . . . a guilty verdict, a death sentence.  But being welcomed, instead, with open arms, a warm smile, and a tender heart.  Being invited to share in the king’s riches, to be seated at his table, treated as one of his children, and to bask in his glory!  Sound familiar?  It should.  I’m talking about you!  And I’m not talking merely about temporary honor or earthly wealth; I’m talking eternal riches and heavenly glory!  That You Might Share in Jesus’ Glory, you have been I. Chosen by God and II. Called by the Spirit.  

    Imagine, for a moment, being Abraham.  Imagine having the Lord God appear to you and say these words:  “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. . . . and all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3).  Imagine after the adrenaline wore off and he had a chance to think about what had just happened, Abraham wondering to himself “why me?”  The world’s population at the time has been estimated by some to have been around five million people.  “Out of all the people on the planet, why should I be so blessed?!”

    Or consider the words of Moses to the people of the nation of Israel:  “Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the LORD has chosen you to be his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:2).  Hundreds, even thousands, of nations on the planet, and God chose to have a special relationship and reveal himself in a unique way to this one!

    And now consider the fact that the Lord has chosen you to be among that select few who have been chosen by him to be saved.  Jesus spoke of the rarity and the privilege of this when he ended one of his parables by saying:  “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14).

    Do you understand why the apostle Paul writes with such passion and with such wonder:  “we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth”?

    To what do we owe this?  Was there something about us that God found appealing?  Some redeeming quality that caught his eye?  Something loveable within us?  No!  “Like the rest we were by nature objects of [God’s] wrath,” the Bible says.  Or as Paul put it in the book of Romans, “Are we any better?  Not at all! . . .  Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9).  

    The nation of Israel was “a stubborn and stiff-necked people,” guilty of adultery in their relationship with their love, the Lord.  Mephibosheth was the deformed grandson of David’s predecessor, a man who hated him and attempted on numerous occasions to kill him.  Mephibosheth himself regarded himself “a dead dog.”  And us?  Well, “we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.  We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another” (Titus 3:3).  Loveable?  No!  

    But loved?  Yes!  Wanted?  Yes!  Chosen?  Yes!  Why?  “Not because of righteous things we had done, but because of [God’s] mercy,” is the Bible’s answer (Titus 3:5).  That’s why you “ought always to thank God” . . . “because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (vs.13).  

    The apostle Paul was inspired to put it this way in Ephesians chapter 1:  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . for he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.  In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins . . . In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we . . . might be for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:3-7,11-12).  

    Have you ever known anyone who’s been the grand prize winner of some pretty remarkable contest?  The prize being that they and a friend would be whisked away on an all-expense paid trip to some exotic location.  You’d like to think that many such winners would take their spouse along.  But I’m sure many others have had more than a few other options as to who might accompany them on this once-in-a-lifetime vacation to a tropical paradise.  Imagine being chosen by a friend to share in such an experience!  It was their prize.  They earned it or won it.  But they chose you to be the one who got to share in it just as much as they!

    In his grace, God has chosen you to share in an experience far grander than any earthly tropical paradise.  Paradise itself is what he’s invited you to share in!  The real deal!  Heaven in all its glory and all its grandeur!  God chose you that you might share in Jesus’ glory!

    “God is faithful,” the Bible states.  God follows through.  God finishes what he’s started.  God keeps his promises!  God’s choosing of you in the beginning – in fact before time even began – didn’t become an unfinished project, like many things you choose to write down on some to-do list, but never get around to.  No.  God not only chose you in eternity, but in time he then called you to faith.  He did this by the Holy Spirit working through the gospel.  “From the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.  He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vss.13-14).

    Romans 8:30 puts the timeline of our personal salvation succinctly like this:  “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”  This “call” we’re talking about is the effective call to saving faith which the Holy Spirit works in us through the gospel message – the message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins.  It’s the “sanctifying work of the Spirit” to which Paul refers in our lesson, which results in us “believing in the truth.”  The truth which Jesus is and the truth of what he’s done.  

    The moment we received that call and believed the gospel we were “justified,” Paul says in Romans 8.  “Justify” means to declare not guilty.  God – for Jesus’ sake – declared us not guilty of all the bad decisions we’ve made, the poor word choices, the bad timing, the inappropriate behaviors and thoughts, the help we’ve failed to offer others, our lack of patience with the Lord and with others.  The very moment we were brought to believe in Christ as our Savior, we stood blameless in the sight of God.

    And the moment that happened, we were qualified for heaven’s glories.  It was already as good as done.  We still have to wait for it.  But there’s nothing left to be done for us to qualify.  No sins yet to atone for.  No penance to be performed.  No punishment to suffer.  Nothing but to wait patiently and faithfully for Jesus to return and bring us to glory!

    I thought about bringing a picture to show you.  I’ll have to try to paint it for you or dig it out of that deep memory bank of images in your head.  It’s the picture of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees holding up his one year old son, Baylen, moments after Brees and the Saints had won Super Bowl XLIV in 2009.  Were you to quickly glance at that picture you’d think Drew Brees was holding up the Lombardi Trophy, the way he’s holding up his boy and smiling a huge smile.  He’s just gazing into his son’s eyes and watching the joy on his face.  Thousands of fans cheering, confetti flying all around, and just loving sharing the moment with his son!

    Can you imagine the victory celebration we’re going to be a part of in heaven?!  And not just as fans in the stands, but as children of God in Jesus’ hands!  We get to share in his glory!  How amazing is that?!  He’s the Lamb who was slain!  He did all the work and alone is worthy of the glory.  But because he is our Savior and our Brother, we get to bask in the limelight with him!  Imagine his joy seeing the joy on our faces!  Imagine what it will mean to him to know that he did all that he did – choosing you, suffering and dying for you, defeating death and Satan for you, calling you and justifying you – all that you might share in his glory!  Amen.

     

    Now “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.”  (2 Thessalonians 2:15-16)

     
    10/13 Jesus Loves Me, This I Know
  • Pastor Matt Vogt

    2 Timothy 2:11-13
     

    As most of you are well aware, we are currently in the process of designing and soon building a brand new preschool and ministry center.  Early on in the design phase of this church building 11-12 years ago, the architect asked each member of the team to share a favorite Bible passage or hymn; some verse or song which best epitomized what their faith was or what it meant to them.  When it came around to my turn, the expectation of some was that I as the pastor would have some long passage or deep, fancy concept to explain the meaning of our Christian faith.  This is what I said:  “‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”

        Maybe its akin to the saying, “Everything I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten.”  It’s perhaps one of the first songs a little Christian child learns.  “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  It’s simple.  Yet it’s very profound.  And if you know that and believe that, you do truly know everything you’ll ever really need to know.  Jesus loves you.  And how can you be so sure?  Because the Bible – God’s very own word – tells you so. 

        This morning I want to remind and reassure you of that same thing on the basis of the Lord’s words in 2 Timothy 2.  Jesus – your soul’s best and dearest friend - Loves You (and Me) I. In life and in death, II.  In good days and in bad, III.  In time and for eternity.

        The Lord says in the book of Proverbs:  “A friend loves at all times.”  What a remarkable description of true friendship.  It can be easy to find people who want to be your friend when things are going well for you . . . especially if things are going poorly for them.  On the other hand, people are not so inclined to want to be friends with you when things are going poorly for you.  Especially if things are going great for them!  They get all wrapped up in the enjoyment of their stuff – and often selfishly so – and have little to no interest in sharing their success with you.  

        Not so with Jesus.  Jesus is like the rare friend who “loves at all times.”  And in fact . . . even better than that rare lifetime friend, because – among other things - his success and what he has to share with you is so amazing, and nothing – not even death – will separate the two of you!

        Let’s start there . . . “If we died with him, we will also live with him.”  It’s a good place to start because, as they say, unless you know what your goal is you have no idea of how to get there!  We need to live every day of our lives – we need to prioritize our lives – with the day of our death in mind.  Now maybe that sounds a bit morbid.  But this life – as we know it – is, according to the Bible, but the blink of an eye compared to where we will spend eternity.  And where we stand in relation to Jesus on that day will determine where we spend every other day endlessly from that point forward.  The apostle Paul assures us:  “if we died with him, we will also live with him.”  Jesus put it this way:  “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).  Already in this life, Jesus has brought us over from spiritual death to spiritual life.  Which means that when we die physically, we know that we will continue to live.  Jesus said about that moment:  “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:15-26). 

        When I come across a person eating in a restaurant alone, I feel a bit bad for them.  Now, they could have all sorts of friends and family who love them, but sitting down for a meal is such a social activity that you hate to see someone being alone at a time like that.  Even sadder, however, would be to die alone.  Having friends and family around you in the days and hours leading up to one’s death is invaluable.  

        That being said, death itself is a very personal event and can be very lonely – even if you are surrounded by friends and family.  And we deserve nothing better, by the way.  The wages of our sin is death and we fully deserve to be completely abandoned - even by the Lord – not only in that moment, but for eternity!  But “Christ was put to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25)  For Jesus’ sake God has declared us not guilty of sin and promises to never leave us or forsake us.  What a comfort it is to know that even then – in death – Jesus loves us and will not leave us to be alone. 

        The Bible has some beautiful things to tell us about that moment - a moment which otherwise would be terrifyingly lonely.  Psalm 23, for example, assures us:  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with; your rod and staff they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).  And in the book of Romans, we’re told:  “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8).

        Bottom line?  Jesus loves us . . . in life and in death.  

        I’m going to skip ahead for a moment to the last line of our lesson now:  “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”  To be entirely honest, this last line most likely refers to God’s faithfulness to everything he says . . . not only his beautiful gospel promises – like free forgiveness and full salvation through faith in Jesus, but also his clear law threats.  If you prove to be unfaithful . . . if you deny and lose your faith in Christ and persist in unbelief, there are consequences . . . eternal consequences.  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).  Jesus also said, “whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven “ (Matthew 10:33). Be assured, these are not empty threats. Your parents may not have always followed through on their threats, but Jesus – as the Judge of souls - is faithful.  He will remain true to his Word!    

        I’d like to use this reference to God’s faithfulness, however, to highlight another quality of Jesus’ love.  A quality which makes him such an invaluable friend.  Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker:  “God loves you, whether you like it or not.”  God is love.  That’s just who he is and what he does.  And that in spite of the fact that we – by nature – are altogether unloveable.  Still today, take away Jesus and there’s nothing left in us for God to love.  And yet, God loves you . . . whether you deserve it or not.  God loves you whether you like it or not.  

        Likewise, Jesus’ friendliness does not depend on how good a friend you are to him.  Jesus is just a good friend, period.  Someone may choose not to be with him, not to spend time with him or enjoy his friendship, but the Lord himself is just friendly. As our friend, the Bible says that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  And God wants us and all people to benefit from this at all times.  

    Yet in spite of this at certain points in our lives we may wander from the faith . . . or at least not be very faithful in the exercise of our faith. Worship attendance and time in the Word may fall by the wayside as we pursue other interests or chase after other distractions.  We may even be led into some gross, unrepentant sins.  But Jesus remains faithful to his desire that we be saved.  He never quits seeking us out and attempting to call us back to himself.  Do you recall what he related to us about this in his parable of the lost sheep:  “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them.  Does he not leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? . . . I tell you there is rejoicing in heaven over every sinner who repents” (Luke 15:4-7).    

    Even when we choose to distance ourselves from Jesus, our Good Shepherd never quits on us.  Think, for example, of David and the ugly period in his life surrounding his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.  Or Abraham taking matters into his own hands and having a child out of wedlock with his servant girl, Hagar.  Both were highly offensive to God and deserving his eternal punishment!  And yet of David was able to rejoice:  “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (Romans 4:7-8)  And of Abraham the Bible says:  “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).  Here’s where God’s people benefit the most from his grace; from his eagerness to forgive the sins of the repentant sinner; from his desire to call back to himself the wandering sheep.  

    Jesus loves us at all times – both in our spiritually good days and in the bad.  Both when we’re walking hand in hand with him and in those days we’ve let go to wander off on our own into spiritual harm’s way.  “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

    And then there’s this remarkable gospel promise:  “if we endure, we will also reign with him.”  It’s this third part which really blows my mind and fills my heart with such amazement; with such hope and joy when I slow down to think about it!  Jesus loves us in time and for eternity.   

    Let’s first take up the “in time” part and the role Jesus’ love plays in our enduring in faith throughout our time here on earth.  True lasting friendships can be hard to come by.  And they can be even more difficult to maintain.  You know how difficult it can be for two sinful people living in a sinful world to maintain a healthy relationship over the course of life.

    Our relationship with Jesus, too, faces many challenges in life.  Satan throws up numerous obstacles, attempting to separate the two of us.  Temptations of all sorts, spiritual apathy and complacency, laziness, numerous distractions and doubts.  Any one of which is enough to cause us to quit on Christ and walk away from him.  But in his love for us, Jesus keeps directing us to his example and the power that that example provides for us to persevere and endure to the end.  “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lost heart” (Hebrews 12:2-3).  

    Seeing Jesus on the throne with the eyes of faith and maintaining that focus gives us such tremendous cause for endurance!  And this is the thing that so blows my mind:  that Jesus loves us so much that he wants us to be with him in heaven.  And not just be there, but to reign there with him.  To climb up onto the throne with him!  Just moments before he left the solitude of the upper room with his disciples to face his enemies and Satan and his death on the cross, Jesus offered this very personal and passionate prayer on our behalf:  “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory” (John 17:24).  

    And because he was successful that weekend in defeating Satan and sin and death, we have this assurance issued by Jesus himself from there in heaven:  “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne” (Revelation 3:21).  And this encouraging promise:  “Be faithful to the point of death and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).  

    Do you understand how crazy amazing this is?!  Here he is, the Victor over all his enemies . . . his work is done.  He’s earned his rest.  You’d think he’d want to kick back and relax; enjoy some peace and quiet.  The last thing most of us would want at that point would be to do a bunch of entertaining; have a few billion people over to the house!  But that’s how much Jesus loves you and always will!  “If we endure, we will also reign with him!”  Jesus loves me – and you – for time and for eternity!

    You’ve probably burnt through a friendship or two in your lifetime.  Either because one of you moved, or life’s circumstances slowly led you down different paths or because of something dumb or flat out wrong one or the other of you did.  It’s understandable that a person might fear that such a thing is likely to happen in their relationship with Jesus.  Please take to heart this assurance of the Scriptures:  “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).  

    Jesus Loves You . . . this you really must know!  Amen.   

        

        “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever!  Amen.”  (Revelation 1:5-6)

    10/6 You Can Do This!
  • Pastor Matt Vogt

    Luke 17:1-6

     

    Vicar shared with you last week one of his favorite books as a child, Horton Hatches the Egg and the lesson it taught about faithfulness.  One of my favorites as a kid was the story of The Little Engine That Could.  Do you recall the story?  A large string of train cars loaded with toys for children on the other side of a steep mountain was stranded without a working engine.  Eventually they asked the little blue engine if he would take them over the mountain.  The engine had never been asked to do anything like that before; he had never gone that far and he’d never been up and over the mountain.  But he agreed.  The whole way up he repeated to himself, “I think I can.  I think I can.  I think I can.”  And sure enough, after much effort and a great deal of perseverance, the little blue engine reached the summit.  On the way down the back side of the mountain on the way into the village in the valley, the little blue engine repeated over and over to itself:  “I thought I could.  I thought I could.  I thought I could.”

        Have you ever been in a situation where you felt you were in over your head?  That what you were being asked to do was beyond your ability?  That you just didn’t have what it took?  You weren’t qualified or equipped to perform the task, take on the responsibility, complete the job?  Whether it was due to a false sense of humility, a misjudging of your talents, or just plain old fear.  

        Do you recall how reassuring it was to have someone you respected come to you and tell you:  “You can do this!”  “I know you.  I know what you’re capable of.  You have what it takes!  You can do this!”  And wouldn’t you know . . . they were right!  But without that encouragement, without their reassurance or that little nudge, you’d have never succeeded.  

        The Lord knows we need his reassurances periodically throughout life.  And so he offers it to us time and again in his Word.  Our lesson this morning is just one example.  May the Lord use his Word this morning to encourage each one of us to more courageously exercise our faith; to more aggressively put to use your time and your talents in service to the Lord.  “You Can Do This!”  I.  God has given you faith.  Now, II. Use it!

        The situation was this:  Jesus was instructing his disciples, sharing with them some of God’s expectations of his believers.  His instruction had to do with the fact that we don’t live in a perfect world.  Sin exists in the world, in our lives, and even within ourselves.  The Lord needs us to know how to handle it and deal with it.  So “Jesus said to his disciples:  ‘Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.  It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.  So watch yourselves’” (vss.1-3).  Sin is very common.  And while we might be tempted to adapt to it, God – who remains holy – cannot and will not.  God hates sin.  God will punish sin.  Those who sin deserve to stand before God as judge and fall under his curse.  And so do those who encourage others to sin.  God is serious about this.  So serious, in fact, that Jesus says that to be taken out to the middle of a lake, have an anchor tied to your neck, and to toss both the anchor and yourself overboard would be better than causing someone to sin and then having to face God’s judgment.  A violent, horrific death such as drowning would be better than an eternity in hell, which is what such a crime as leading others into sinful activity calls for.  “Watch yourselves!” Jesus says.

        Then he adds the following instruction . . . in light of the fact that people are regularly going to be sinning around you and against you, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him”  (vss.3-4).  Warn the sinner that their sin is offensive to God and deserving of his punishment.  Rebuke them!  But also be prepared to forgive them.  Regardless of the pain they’ve caused, any injury you may have endured, or how often it’s happened . . . if they apologize, forgive them!  

        These are not easy lessons to hear.  And they’re certainly not easy instructions to carry out.  Forgive someone who has hurt me seven times in the same day?!  Call someone out for the things they are doing wrong?!  Watch myself so that I don’t in any way lead a person to get angry or jealous or get dragged into a gossip session or be tempted to do or say anything offensive to God?!  Wow!  The Lord is really asking a lot of us!  He certainly has high expectations of us! 

        That was the apostles’ response, too.  “We can’t do this . . . at least not the way we are right now.  Someday, maybe, when our faith is stronger, but not now.”  They said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”  But listen again to Jesus’ response:  “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you” (vss.5-6).

        Do you understand what Jesus was saying to them?  The disciples were feeling inadequate; ill-equipped to live up to the Lord’s expectations of them.  They felt they just didn’t have what it would take to rebuke sinners, to avoid causing others to sin, and to forgive like God wanted them to forgive.  “We can’t do this!”  “Yes you can!” Jesus was saying.  “You can do this, because God himself has given you the faith to do it!”  Even a tiny faith can do great things.

        The Bible tells us that faith is a miracle.  The fact that we possess faith is not something we can boast about because we can’t conjure it up within ourselves.  It’s a gift from God.  “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this [this faith] not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Our saving faith in Christ is a remarkable, invaluable, powerful gift.  Not only does it make forgiveness of your sins, life and salvation available to you, but it also equips and motivates and empowers you to do good works and to live God-pleasing lives. Faith is a powerful, living, vibrant spiritual quality within you.  It can do and wants to do good works.  It wants to express itself in love in meaningful ways.  Immediately following those verses on faith and what it means for our salvation, the Bible continues by speaking of the powerful effect faith has on our lives:  “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

        This past week in our Elders meeting we were talking about all the pressure and all the stress pressing in on our lives.  And as a part of that discussion Jim Stupnik brought up how amazingly God has equipped our bodies to handle pressure.  He mentioned how the human body can go into a completely foreign environment, like diving down to depths of 100/110/even 120 feet without any special protective equipment and still withstand the tremendous pressure being exerted on it there underwater.  Now that’s not our normal environment.  We’re designed to be land creatures; handle the pressure of gravity.  And yet, even when put in a strange environment, the Lord has equipped the human body to withstand so much more!  The human body can do this!

        Now apply that point to the pressures you’re forced to endure at times in your life.  Or apply it to seemingly foreign environments in which you’re asked to perform, like doing church work and gospel ministry.  Or simply trying to resist sin when the pressure to engage in it is so great.  You know the excuses.  “I don’t have a choice.  Every seems to be saying it’s alright!”  “I don’t dare try to patch up that broken relationship.  The last time I tried that it didn’t go well at all!”  “I only I weren’t so busy already.  If only I had more time.  If only I were older.  If only I were younger.  If only my faith were stronger.  If only I knew more of the Bible or understood Jesus better.”  When asked to serve, you know the voice that says:  “I can’t do that. . . . I haven’t been a member long enough.”  As it relates to bringing goodies on Sunday morning:  “I can’t bake like so and so.”  As it relates to helping out in the nursery:  “I don’t think I would do so well with other peoples’ kids” or “I don’t have the energy anymore to keep up with the little ones.”  As it relates to being a greeter:  “I don’t know many people’s names.”  Enough with the excuses!

        Jesus sent out 72 disciples to do missionary work . . . rather early in his ministry.  As little as Jesus’ inner circle of twelve understood still at the very end of his ministry, imagine how little some within this group of 72 understood at the point Jesus sent them out.  And yet these men preached to thousands, drove out demons, and were used by the Lord to convert hundreds!

        When you were God’s enemy, doing nothing for God and his Kingdom was explicable.  When you were spiritually blind and ignorant of God’s grace, we all understand why you didn’t serve the Lord.  When you were dead in transgressions and sins, you had an excuse.  But you have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, you have been made alive with faith, Christ’s love now compels you!  You can tell your sinful nature:  “Enough with the excuses!”  

        By God’s grace you possess this faith in Jesus.  You have been set free from the shackles of slavery to sin and Satan.  You are God’s workmanship, created to do good works.  Through the Word you have been thoroughly equipped to do these good works.  You have this eagerness of faith to do what is good.  You can do this!  So . . . do it!  You have a living, active faith.  So use it!

        When the disciples responded to Jesus’ challenging instruction with a plea that Jesus increase their faith, Jesus simply reminded them of what they already had . . . and what they were already capable of.  “We can’t do it!”, they objected.  “Yes you can!”  Jesus said.  “You can do this!”  “You possess faith and faith is powerful!  So use it!”

        Faith wants to serve.  Faith wants to do good works.  Faith wants to express itself in love.  And the Lord wants the same of us and our faith.  In the book of James, James was inspired to write:  “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such a faith save him? . . . Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:14,18).  Like a new car, faith isn’t meant simply to make you look good when you’re sitting in it.  It also gets you places.  In fact, that’s why you own it.  You didn’t buy it to sit in your driveway.  You bought it because it can get you around from place to place.

        God gave you faith, not just to get you from here to heaven, but also to get his work done through you.  To get you around from place to place doing his Kingdom work.  The Bible says of itself that “the holy Scriptures . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  And of what earthly value are these Scriptures and your faith that believes them?  Well, it “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).  And in the book of Titus were told this about God and his grace and the usefulness of the faith he’s given us:  “For the grace of God that brings salvation . . . teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives . . . Jesus gave himself for us . . . to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:11-14).  

        I’ll share a little secret with you . . . some of you know this about me:  I’m an extremely shy person.  Take my pastor hat off / separate me from my call and you’d have trouble getting me out on a stage anywhere; you certainly won’t see me striking up a conversation with strangers.  But give me the Lord’s call / assure me this is God’s will and the Lord is asking me to serve him in some way, and a courage and confidence comes over me that I can’t explain.  All I can say is that if this is what God wants of me, then I know he’ll give me the ability to accomplish his purpose and will for me.  God will see to it that I have what I need to do what he wants of me.

        Isn’t that exactly what Jesus is assuring his disciples of in our lesson?  “Trust me,” Jesus says, “you can do this!”  “God wants this of you.  He’ll give you what you need to get it done!”

        Like a coach who knows his team is better than they’re playing at the moment.  Like a parent who knows their child is capable of more than they’re doing.  Like a teacher who is trying to draw out the best of the abilities from her students, the Lord says to us:  “You can do this!”  I have created you to do so much more.  I have equipped you with so much talent.  I have poured out my grace upon you in abundance.  I have filled your heart with my love, your body with my Spirit, your mind with my wisdom, your being with Christ’s strength.  I have given you faith.  Now use it!”  Amen.

     

    “We can do everything through him who gives us strength.”  (Philippians 4:13)

     
    9/29 Be Faithful!
  • Vicar Ben Steenbock

    Revelation 2:8-11

     

    In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, dear brothers and sisters,

        I grew up with a lot of Dr. Seuss books. One of my favorites was Horton Hatches an Egg. In the book, Horton the elephant promises Mayzie the bird that he'll sit on her egg until she comes back. While Mayzie takes advantage of his offer, Horton endures inclement weather, the mockery of friends, the threat of hunters, and even being sold into a circus. And throughout it all, Horton simply repeats the line: “I said what I meant and I meant what I said, an elephant's faithful, 100%.”

        Horton didn't really have a reason for being faithful. He just figured, that's what elephants do. Actually, Christians like you and I have that in common with Horton. Being faithful is what we do as Christians. But unlike Horton, we have deeper reasons. Our encouragement comes from our risen Lord, who says: Be faithful!

            1) Jesus knows your sorrows.

            2) Hell cannot harm you.

    (1)

        The salty sea air comes rushing inland a good mile and blowing through the hair of a middle-aged man named Marcus. He looks out and down across the bay. A dozen ships full of cargo from the entire known world fill the Bay of Smyrna, each hoping to get docked before the sun sets. Marcus tries hard to focus on the peaceful bay in front of him. It distracts him from the fact that he is kneeling on bloodied shins. His wrists bound are behind his back. Further back behind him his wife and daughter wail in desperation as Roman soldiers rummage through what little remains of their possessions.

        Blinking back tears, Marcus prays, “Father, forgive them. Not just the soldiers, but your lost children, the sons of Israel. Their slander against us and blasphemy against you comes from Satan, but they don't understand what they are doing. In Jesus' name, Amen.” Despite the pain and humiliation there's a dark sort of humor to the situation. The Romans already confiscated everything valuable they had. The soldiers won't be finding much in the house.

        And yet, the situation isn't hopeless. Marcus remembers the letter they received only last week. Pastor read it in church. “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”

        “Be faithful,” Marcus tells himself. “Be faithful, because Jesus knows your sorrows! He knows because he has also promised us, 'Surely I am with you, always.' He knows the false accusations the Jews brought against us. He knows how the Romans believed them because they hated us. He knows how they confiscated our valuables, our food. Be faithful. Jesus knows your sorrows.”

        This story has played out before. Millennia before the persecution in Smyrna, another man told himself, “Be faithful! The Lord knows your sorrows.” Joseph was the favored son of his father Jacob. But when his jealous brothers sold him into slavery, he lost everything. Yet he remained faithful. The Lord was with him, and he prospered as a slave to Potiphar. He didn't have his freedom, but he was second-in-command in a very rich man's household. It didn't get much better for a slave.

        But then, wouldn't you know it, he lost it all again. False accusations from Potiphar's wife got him kicked out of his position and thrown into jail. But Joseph told himself, “Be faithful. The Lord knows your sorrows.” It's true. Jesus knew his sorrows. And although Joseph was a penniless prisoner, he was rich. The Lord was still with him in everything he did. He was rich in the things of God, who later made him a crucial part of the plan for salvation. God exalted him to second-in-command of all Egypt, where Joseph was able to save the entire nation and his own immigrant family from a devastating famine. Joseph was faithful because he trusted the Lord who knew all his sorrows.

        You and I also face sorrows in a world hostile to Christ and his followers. Maybe you've been the victim of false accusations, “He's not really committed to his job—he's just into that religion thing of his.” Maybe you've felt the pressure from a boss or just your own checkbook to put in extra hours at work when you know that will eat into time to read the Bible on your own or with your family. The temptation to take that position with better pay or better perks is so strong, even though the hours mean you won't be able to attend worship services anymore. The best extracurricular opportunities for your kids always seem to be scheduled for Sunday mornings.

        Really, these hardships aren't a fair comparison. The Christians in Smyrna had their possessions, maybe even their homes confiscated from them. That hasn't happened to you and I, and it probably won't. But sadly, this only highlights our sinful weakness. Despite our relatively simpler sorrows, there are times when you and I have gotten our priorities upside down. You give in to those temptations to act in your own economic best interests first and worry about Jesus and the nourishment of your faith later.

        Thanks be to Jesus, he carried every one of those sins to the cross. Every unfaithful moment was nailed to that cross. It's forgiven. Totally. It's in the past. And now your heart sings with Jesus' command, “Be faithful.” Jesus knows your sorrows when the pressure is on. Be faithful and remember that, just like the Christians in Smyrna, just like Joseph, you are rich! James wrote, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him.Be faithful, for our Lord is with you! Jesus knows your sorrows.

    (2)

        “Be faithful.” Those words continue to echo in Marcus' head as things take a turn for the worse. A soldier kicks him in the back, smashing his face against the ground, and then roughly grabs him by the cord around his wrists and hauls him to his feet. “Get moving, dog!,” the soldier growls, “it's prison, now, for scum like you.”

        “No!” screams' Marcus daughter, as the soldiers march him past his family. Marcus steels himself to look his daughter square in the eyes and mouths two words, “Be faithful.” Through her tears and sobs, the little girl remembers Jesus' words that the pastor read last week. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.

        She knows what daddy faces in prison. They torture people there. Some of them die. Yet through the pain of watching her father dragged away, she trusts Jesus. She trusts his promises to them in Smyrna. The persecution won't last forever. It will be limited. And even if the worst happens, even if he dies, the second death, that is hell, can't harm him. She hangs onto the hope that Jesus gives. “Be faithful,” Jesus says. “Hell cannot harm you.”

        Jesus knew what it was to be faithful. He had experienced all of this and much worse. The Jews slandered him, too, and had him arrested. He was dragged before the Roman government and flogged. The pain and prospect of death all might have ended for Jesus if he simply backed down. But he didn't. Jesus was faithful. As St. Paul said, “while testifying before Pontius Pilate [he] made the good confession.” Jesus was faithful in the face of intense pain.

        That's not easy, is it? In times of pain hell can seem so near to us. When you're left in shambles by a broken relationship; when disease ravages your body; when death looms hell seems so near. It may even seem that hell and the forces of evil can strike you down at any moment. And maybe there's even that temptation to take the pain away by putting Jesus aside for a while and indulging in whatever makes us feel better in the moment.

        Don't give in, dear friends. Instead, lean on Jesus! By his power, you can be faithful! Hell cannot harm you, because Jesus already suffered hell so that you wouldn't have to. He was separated from the Father's love, so that the Father's inexhaustible love for you would sustain you with the power to be faithful. And now his promise is for you: Be faithful. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. Even when death threatens to stare you down, you have the trustworthy Word of God that hell cannot harm you. You can be faithful and say with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Where? Nowhere. So be faithful. Jesus knows your sorrows, and hell cannot harm you. Amen.

     

     

    9/22 What Do You and They Have in Common?
  • Pastor Matt Vogt

    I Timothy 2:1-8

    Most, if not all of us, have a tendency to spot differences between ourselves and others.  What race or of what ethnic origin are you?  Are you Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Hispanic?  Male or female?  Are you in your 20’s, 40’s or 60’s?  Are you are an athlete, a techie, an academic?  Are you a slob or a neat freak?  Introvert or extrovert?  Are you religious or not religious, spiritual, agnostic, Lutheran, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist?  

        Differences . . . we’re quick to spot them.  And while there may be a certain element of truth to the axiom “opposites attract,” we tend to keep our distance from those who we find to be different from ourselves. We relate better to those with whom we share things in common and we’re more apt to gravitate toward them. 

    Doesn’t that honestly have a lot to do with why you are here?   We are gathered together here because, while we certainly have our differences, we have one very important thing in common:  we share a common faith in Jesus as our Savior from sin and source of eternal life.  We share a common faith in the authority and infallibility of God’s Word and its teachings.  The fact that this is what brings us together is not a bad thing.  In fact, it happens by God’s design.

    But it can become a bad thing when we get to thinking that we are somehow better than those who are different from us.  That we are somehow more deserving of God’s love and forgiveness.  Or when we get so comfortable with one another - with those who think like us and believe like us - that we have trouble relating to those unlike us or when we fail to recognize the real spiritual needs of those whom we see to be so very different from us . . . too different from us.  It becomes a problem when we’re only willing to discuss spiritual matters and expose our faith when we’re around others like us and not be willing to do so with those who think or believe differently.

    This sermon won’t be serving as your “tolerance” public service announcement.  This isn’t a “let’s all just learn to get along and coexist” appeal.  Rather it’s an appeal on the basis of God’s word to be more aware of just how much you do have in common with those outside the church and in the world.  And in so doing . . . in identifying that common ground, prayerfully, you’ll be more understanding of their spiritual needs and more willing to engage others with the gospel message.

    So what do you and they have in common?  First, God loves them and wants them to be saved as much as you.  “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (vss.1-4).  

    God knows – as do you – that all people . . . even the nicest, sweetest, most generous and law-abiding soul . . . is guilty of grievous sin.  God knows that every person he himself has knit together in his/her mother’s womb is born into this world spiritually dead by virtue of the sinfulness he or she has inherited from his/her mom and dad.  God knows that were nothing done, there would be no one who would spend eternal life with him because, as Jesus said, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”  And then explains why:  because “Flesh gives birth to flesh” (John 3:5-6).  

    The apostle Paul begins the book of Romans by holding up the mirror of God’s law to the face of every individual soul, requiring everyone to take a close look.  After exposing the sin of the obvious public sinner, and then the moral unbeliever, he then turns his attention to the church-goer and asks the question:  “Are you any better?”  “What shall we conclude then?  Are we any better?  Not at all!  We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9).  

    If we’re honest with ourselves and with God, we have a whole lot more in common with even some of the worst people we know than we’d like to admit.  We rightfully have disgust for the murderer; and yet the Bible says:  “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (I John 3:15).  We’re appalled by the rapist, the pedophile, the adulterer – and rightly so!  And yet Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).  The person who cheats on a test or cuts corners at work or is just flat out lazy on the job shares something in common with the home burglar and the convenience store thief.  The public slanderer, liar and reputation ruiner isn’t all that different than you when you gossip with your spouse or friends.  There really is no difference, is there?!  “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3).  

    This is as true for you as it is for every person you’ll ever meet.  Here “there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22,23).  Perhaps we forget this after a while.  Our sinful natures like to take the amazing changes the Lord has worked for us and in us by faith and get us to think that somehow we are more deserving of God’s love; that he cares for us and has saved us because we were better than the others; that God saw something in us he liked that prompted him to call us to be one of his own.  Not true!  “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

    And yet – although this is true – God still loved you and wanted you to be saved.  And not only you.  “For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16).  Or as our lesson says:  “God our Savior wants all men to be saved” (vss.3-4).  

    And, therefore, the first thing the Lord would have us do for those who aren’t yet saved is pray for them.  Start by identifying those people in your life who have not yet come to know and believe in Jesus, and pray for them.  And might I even suggest that you do this by name.  Yes, a generic prayer for the unbelieving in the world is also good and pleases God our Savior, but one of those important “adverbs of prayer” is that you pray specifically.  Identify and pray for that person in your family or the person you work closely with week after week who does not have a faith-knowledge of the truths of the gospel.  Pray that the Lord bring that person to faith and that, if he so chooses, he use you; that he give you the courage to have that conversation and the words to say.    

    Why is this so important?  Important enough for you to consider stepping out of your comfort zone and attempt to share Christ with others of a different faith or no faith at all?  Because there is only one God and one mediator between that one God and all people.  “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (vs.5).  

    The Bible clearly espouses monotheism.  Unlike Hinduism or any number of various forms of pantheism both ancient and modern, the God of the Bible clearly says there is only one God!  “This is what the LORD says – he who created the heavens; he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth . . . he says:  ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other. . . . there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me’” (Isaiah 45:18,21).  

    The LORD is not some regional god or local deity.  It’s not as if Christianity is one of any number of equally valid understandings of God; or that the God of the Bible is in a spitting match with other gods trying to see who can have more adherents and, therefore, exercise more power and influence in the world.  No, “there is one God.”  And there is also only one point of access to the only true God, “and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (vs.5).  

    Jesus is the “only begotten Son” of God (John 3:16).  As such he is the only one uniquely qualified to serve as go between between humankind and the only true God.  Jesus alone was able to live a perfect life.  Jesus alone has the right and authority on his own merits to approach his holy heavenly Father.  Anyone else – trying to access God – like trying to get into Fort Knox or the White House without the proper authority – simply cannot . . . he or she will not be heard.  The Bible says:  “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).  

    But Jesus, our Savior from sin, now assures us:  “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 16:23).  This not only applies to prayer but just as much to salvation.  When asked abut getting to heaven, Jesus answered:  “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  

    Have you ever had someone make you a promise; promising to provide some product or work out some deal that they simply can’t follow through on?  The spiritual world knows those kind of people, too.  Muhammad can’t do what Jesus can do.  Joseph Smith can’t get you an audience with the Lord.  Following Buddha and his principles won’t get you anywhere near heaven’s gates.  Nor will any motivational speaker help you work your way to the throne of God.  Whether you’re seeking an answer to prayer, forgiveness for sin, or prime real estate in God’s heavenly Kingdom, “we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (I John 2:1).  

    The fact of the matter is that Jesus alone can do this for people because Jesus alone has ransomed all people.  “there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (vss.5-6).

    A lot of people can talk big and make bold statements and promises, but finally the proof is in the pudding.  Can you deliver?!  When it comes to rescue from sin and Satan, death and hell, there is only one who can deliver . . . only one who can provide deliverance.  “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), and that name is Jesus.  Jesus Christ, who once claimed that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) is called: “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2).  

    The blood of bulls and goats couldn’t do that for the Jew.  The five pillars of Islam can’t do that for the Muslim.  Obedience of the Ten Commandments or the golden rule can’t do that for the moralist or the Mormon or the Jehovah’s Witness.  Only the one and only Son can do that, whom God gave in love for the world “that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  Here again, “there is no difference” for the same “all” who “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” have also been “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).  What centuries of the blood of bulls and goats or a lifetime of clean living and good works couldn’t and won’t do, Jesus did by giving his life as a ransom for all!  Only the sinless blood of the Lamb of God could pay the extreme price for the forgiveness of sins.  And he has!  In fact, “paid in full!” is what he shouted once the last drop of blood had been shed.  Jesus “offered for all time one sacrifice for sin,” the Bible assures us (Hebrews 10:12).  

    Listen to the conclusion the apostle Paul then draws from everything we’ve heard this morning:  “for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle . . . and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles” (vs.7).     

    Paul knew that because Jesus had rescued every person on the planet, that he could and should share that news with anyone and everyone he possibly could.  He didn’t have to ask whether any particular soul qualified or not.  He didn’t have to take a blood test to determine their eligibility or run their name and social through a system to see if it appeared in the database of souls for whom Jesus died or souls loved and cared for by God.  Anyone – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man, woman or child, Roman, Asian, or Caucasian, whether raised a pantheist or atheist or philosophist, Paul knew God wanted them to be saved; that Jesus was their only mediator and their only Savior, who had already lived, died and risen as their Savior in full for sin.

    So Paul, who self-identified and best related as a Jew – preached and taught and appealed to everyone, both Jew and especially Gentile:  “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

    The same holds true for us to this day.  Jesus is the sole Savior of the world . . . the only hope for salvation for the person who may at this moment be Jewish or Mormon or Muslim or agnostic or simply mildly spiritual.  This isn’t just your church God isn’t just your Father; Jesus isn’t just your Savior.  Both as a congregation of believers and as individual Christians, let us not be selfish and keep Christ to ourselves.  Let us not be deceived by the devil’s lie that Christianity is only for some.  Let us not be prideful and think only we or a select few deserve God’s love and salvation.  Let us not be timid and keep our faith under wraps and our lips zipped about Jesus.  

    If you were blindly and unwittingly racing headlong toward hell, wouldn’t you want someone to love you enough to attempt to prevent that from happening to you?  Do you really believe it’s any different for anyone out there?  Amen.

    9/15 Continuing Education
  • Pastor Aaron Strong, Shepherd of the Hills

    2 Timothy 3:14-17

     

    I’ve received invitations from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary and 
    Martin Luther College, two schools that I attended for my pastoral 
    training, over the last couple of months to sign up for continuing 
    education classes. There are classes that I can use to brush up on my 
    Greek and Hebrew; classes to freshen up my preaching; classes to 
    further develop my counseling skills and many other aspects of ministry. 
    I also get regular emails from different church conferences inviting me 
    to attend and get reinvigorated for ministry. I’ve even received letters in 
    the mail from local colleges to come and take advantage of their 
    continuing education classes. 

    I thought that after 21 years of formal education, I’d be done with the 
    classroom when I graduated from the seminary. Apparently I was 
    wrong. 

    Maybe you’ve had that same thought but in regard to your life of 
    faith. You did the Sunday School thing as a kid, you went through 
    confirmation classes, you attended a membership class at some point… 
    now you’re done! But then you still have the pastor sending out emails 
    and newsletters and making announcements inviting you to come and 
    participate in the new Bible study or some other class. 

    I’m sure that you know how important it is to keep sharp the skills you 
    use for your job. You understand the need to keep up-to-date on 
    advances in your field. Many of you are regularly tested, are expected to 
    attend seminars or conferences, maybe even take retraining or 
    advanced training classes to grow and stay strong in your job. You 
    understand the importance of continuing education. 

    So why should your faith be any different? Today’s lesson reminds us 
    of the importance of continuing education when it comes to your life of 
    faith. 

     

    The apostle Paul penned the words of our lesson today to a young 
    pastor named Timothy. The verses before us are words of 
    encouragement for Timothy to continue to be faithful to the Word of 
    God even in the face of a sinful world. He starts off the encouragement 
    with these words, But as for you, continue in what you have learned 


    and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom 
    you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy 
    Scriptures. 

    Timothy had a good, solid foundation of faith laid in his life. His 
    mother and grandmother had started to share God’s Word with him at 
    a very young age. God the Holy Spirit had worked the conviction of faith 
    in his heart so that he was convinced that what he had been taught was 
    truth. Paul encouraged him to continue in that conviction. Here’s why. 
    The verses just before our lesson said this, In fact, everyone who wants 
    to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers 
    and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being 
    deceived (2 Timothy 3:12-13). There were unbelievers and false 
    teachers who tried to pull Timothy and his congregation away from 
    their faith. Yet they were to continue in the truth they had learned in 
    order to avoid falling from their secure position of faith. 

    When you spend time in the Holy Scriptures –the Bible– the Holy 
    Spirit works to lay a foundation of faith in your life through the message 
    of God’s plan to save sinners because of Jesus. A true faith is built on 
    the foundation of the apostles and prophets (in other words, their 
    witness and writings), with Christ Jesus himself as the chief 
    cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Maybe that saving message was one that 
    you heard in your home as you grew up and the foundation of faith was 
    laid at a young age. Perhaps that foundation was built later in life or is 
    still in the process of being laid. But the thing is you need to stand on 
    that foundation of what you have learned from the Bible. 

    Much like Timothy and his congregation, you are faced with less than 
    faithful people and popular notions that the devil uses to try to deceive 
    you. They will try to pull you off of the foundation of Scripture and have 
    you build your faith on yourself and your own efforts, on material 
    things, or on no foundation at all. 

    There was a heart surgeon who had been performing surgeries for 
    some time. He was confident in his skills until one day some fresh new 
    surgeons came on board with a new and advanced way to perform 
    heart surgeries. This doctor found himself going back and studying and 
    he was convinced that this new way really wasn’t the best. One day the 
    new surgeons were using their new techniques when the surgery went 
    south. The doctor jumped in and, with confidence in what he had 
    learned and had been convinced of, saved the life. 

    When new, fresh and exciting sounding teachings come your way, 
    continue in what you have learned and have been convinced of from 


    the Holy Scriptures. Your life depends on faithfulness to the Word of 
    God. You must know the Holy Scriptures. Why? They are able to make 
    you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 

    Continuing education can save your job. Continuing education for 
    your faith can save your life. The reason I encourage you to be regular in 
    your worship attendance and to be involved with Bible studies here and 
    privately at home is because there is nothing other than the good news 
    of Jesus that can save you. When you’re bombarded by worldly ideas 
    that tell you they’re going to make you wise about how to live your life, 
    what’s important in life, what’s after this life, it’s too easy to give in and 
    fall away. Those things though don’t tell you about your relationship 
    with God and how your sin separates you from him. They don’t tell you 
    about God’s great love for sinners and his plan to save you. The world 
    cannot make you wise for salvation. 

    But the Bible does. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has 
    conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”— but God 
    has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10). The Holy 
    Scriptures have revealed to us what God has done for you. It directs us 
    to Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). He alone with 
    his perfect life was able to pay the price for your sins on the cross. He is 
    the one who won for us God’s forgiveness and gift of life. You need to 
    daily be reminded of this truth from God’s Word to combat the prideful 
    sinful nature and the guilt and burdens of life. 

    As you go to the Bible, you are going to the perfect source of truth 
    and wisdom. There are many sources of wisdom in our world: text 
    books, online resources, personal experiences. I’m always amazed 
    though at how often those resources change as more information is 
    brought to light. Some resources aren’t all that accurate or come from a 
    biased background. Sometimes it’s a challenge to find the right info or 
    the truth. 

    You aren’t going to find wisdom for salvation in a self-help book, the 
    Koran, or philosophies. They can make you wise, but not for eternal life. 
    For that kind of wisdom we must turn to the Bible. All Scripture is God-
    breathed. What that means is that the words of the Bible are the very 
    words of. God used his prophets and apostles to record his words as is 
    described in 2 Peter, “Above all, you must understand that no 
    prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own 
    interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, 
    but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” 
    (1:20-21). So we know that these are the very words of God able to 


    make us wise for salvation. This textbook for eternal life is filled with 
    truth and is unchanging. This is a book that we want to continue to grow 
    in. 

    As you grow in wisdom that prepares you for eternal life, you’ll find 
    yourself prepared for the life you live now too. All Scripture is God-
    breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training 
    in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly 
    equipped for every good work. 

    When it comes to continuing your education for your work, you want 
    something that is really going to help you thrive. But perhaps you’ve 
    taken a continuing education course that just wasn’t practical. It didn’t 
    really offer you anything that you could really use for your job and it 
    was just a waste of time. Unlike those things and other writings, the 
    Holy Scriptures are useful for the spiritual growth of those who believe 
    them. In fact with God’s Word you have absolutely everything you need 
    to be fully equipped and prepared for living as a child of God. God’s 
    Word helps you to thrive in your faith and life of Christian living. 

    Here you have God’s Word that is the most useful tool that you have 
    at your disposal to lay the foundation of Christ in the lives of your 
    children and loved ones. These Scriptures do the important job of 
    rebuking or exposing sin in our lives so that we can know what sin is and 
    strive with God’s help to leave it behind. God’s Word is useful for 
    correcting us. Only the gospel of free and full forgiveness found in Jesus 
    can comfort and restore sinners. It’s God’s Word that shows you what it 
    truly means to live a God-pleasing life of praise and thanksgiving. And 
    it’s God’s Word that guides you and strengthens you in that endeavor. If 
    you’re going to hold on to these things, you need to continue in your 
    education. 

    Today we’re kicking off a new year of continuing education classes 
    right here at church. Kids in Christ, Teen Bible study, Small groups, Adult 
    Bible Study, Toddler Time, Confirmation classes, and membership 
    classes. I encourage you, just like the apostle Paul encouraged Timothy, 
    to continue in what you have learned and have been convinced of from 
    the Holy Scriptures. Make use of these opportunities to be in the Word 
    so that the powerful Spirit of God may strengthen your faith and 
    prepare you for life. Amen.

    9/8 Come ... Listen ... Learn!
  • Pastor Matt Vogt

    Psalm 34:1-22

    The saying goes, “We learn from our mistakes.”  If you are at all wise, you’ve likely found this to be true for yourself.  No one gets it right all the time.  We all make our share of mistakes.  But the wise person looks back on his/her mistakes and takes away a lesson or two, which will help them in the future.

        David, as in King David, was one such man.  A wise man.  A man of God.  A man who, like us, made his share of mistakes.  And in so doing, David learned a lot . . . about himself and, more importantly, about his God.  

    There’s another saying or word of advice that the wise person will take to heart and that is:  “Learn from the mistakes of others.”  The wise person will see how someone else has suffered the consequences of a poor choice or bad decision and not repeat the same  mistake.  Because David’s nature is a lot like our nature, and David’s God is the exact same one as our God, there’s a lot we can learn from him.

        So this morning let us take him up on his invitation:  “Come . . . Listen . . . Learn.”  We will also see that this is an abiding general principle and invitation of the Lord through his inspired apostles and prophets.  I.  Come and listen.  II.  Learn the fear of the Lord.

        The book of Psalms is basically a hymnal.  It served as the song book of the people of the Old Testament era . . . and continues to serve the Church in this way today.  Many hymns and songs today are psalms set to music.  What it is not is a history book.  Only a handful of the psalms give us any indication as to the context surrounding the writing of the psalm.  

    Psalm 34, however, is one of them.  In the heading to the psalm, David the author, says this:  “Of David.  When he feigned insanity before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.”  

    The incident David refers to was not one of his prouder moments.  It was one of his mistakes, in a moment of weakness of faith, while serving as a young general for King Saul.  In spite of all David had done to prove his loyalty, Saul didn’t trust David.  He wanted David dead.  So David fled for his life.  But rather than turn to the LORD for help and protection and advice as to where to go and what to do, David fled to a foreign, godless king, King Abimelech, also known as Achish, the king of Gath – a Philistine and arch enemy of the Israelites.  

    David soon realized this was a mistake.  The book of I Samuel records:  “the servants of Achish said to him, ‘Isn’t this David, the king of the land?  Isn’t he the one they sing about in their dances:  ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands?’  David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath.  So he feigned insanity in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard.  Achish said to his servants, ‘Look at the man!  He is insane!  Why bring him to me?  Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me?  Must this man come into my house?’”  (I Samuel 21:11-15)

    Humanly speaking David’s clever little acting performance saved his neck.  But David knew better.  He knew that in spite of his reckless decision to run for cover from Saul by running to the godless king of the Philistines for protection, that the LORD still took pity on him and rescued him.  It was the LORD who spared his life.  David also learned that running to the LORD in the first place would have been far better.   David learned that in the future he’d take the LORD up on his invitation:  “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Psalm 50:15).

    Why is it that in times of trouble we, too, have a tendency to run away from the LORD and his Word rather than to him?  Is it because we’re embarrassed; ashamed of what we’ve done or are doing?  Is it because we don’t want our church friends and family to see us struggling the way we do?  We don’t want them to see us cry, see us weak, pick up on our fear or our doubt?  Do we fear we’ll be judged for our lack of faith or that our perceived spiritual weakness will be frowned upon?

    Why – at a time when we need the LORD and our brothers and sisters in the faith more than ever – do we stop coming to church and Bible study?  We back away from those we’re close to; not reaching out with a phone call or even not picking up the phone or answering an email when your pastor or elder or shepherd or other friends from church – other of the Lord’s representatives – try to reach out to you?  We cut ourselves off from the very thing that alone can help us.  The very One who alone can help us . . . the LORD and his Word!

    The LORD has issued you the same invitation:  “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Psalm 50:15).  Whether the trouble is physical and worldly or spiritual and other-worldly; in times of temptation, frustration or pure exhaustion, Jesus invites us:  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).  

    Especially in times of physical trouble, emotional struggle and even spiritual weakness, don’t run away; don’t bottle it all up and try to deal with it all on your own; and don’t turn to other godless resources or seek godless advice and counsel.  Come and listen . . . listen to the LORD, hear his Word, seek the advice and counsel of your brothers and sisters in the faith who know and will share his Word with you.  In so doing you will learn what it means to fear the LORD and how to express that fear in love for God. 

    Before we go any further we need to pause a moment to understand what the term “fear” means.  Fear in this context does not mean “be afraid of.”  Yes, there is much to fear about God in that sense in light of the fact that we are sinners.  From the perspective of our sinful nature, just about every characteristic of God is terrifying.  He – in stark contrast to us – is absolutely holy and cannot tolerate even the slightest sin.  He hates sin!  He is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (present everywhere all the time), so he knows every sin we commit in our actions, in what we say and even how we think.  There’s no hiding from him!  He is almighty, which means that if he wanted to he could execute his punishment against us however and whenever he wanted!  Yes, there is much to fear about God.  

    But that’s not what is meant by “the fear of the LORD.”  Fear in this context . . . in the context of the gospel and God’s gracious, loving, forgiving nature – means to revere him, respect him, hold him in awe and high regard.  For all practical purposes, the term fear is equivalent to faith.  To fear the LORD is to know him, respect him and love him by faith.  What David says in Psalm 34 (“Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD”) is the same thing the apostle Paul says in Romans chapter 10:  “Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).  We need to come and listen to God’s Word so we can get to know the LORD, the true God, and what it means to live as one of his dear children.

    And what does Psalm 34 teach us about the fear of the LORD?  First it teaches us that we don’t have to be afraid of God.  “The LORD redeems his servants; no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned” (vs.22).  David was the great, great ancestor of Jesus.  Jesus is often referred to in the Bible as “the son of David.”  David knew the promises of the Savior who would one day be born through his family line.  He knew the promised Savior, the Messiah, would redeem him – buy him back and rescue him from the punishment and the wrath of God that he deserved because of his many sins.  Through the promised Savior the LORD would win forgiveness for David’s many failures.  Jesus’ blood would cover all his mistakes and shortcomings.  Knowing this, rather than running away from the LORD in the times he sinned, David could turn to him in repentance and know that “no one who takes refuge in him will be condemned.”  David feared the LORD because the LORD removed his reason to be afraid of God.  

    To fear the LORD also means to know you can turn to the LORD in times of fear and trouble and can expect him to rescue you.  “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.  Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.  This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.  The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. . . . The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry . . . The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.  The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all” (vss.4-7,15,17-19).

    Does this mean that our troubles will suddenly vanish?  That the LORD will instantly and entirely resolve the issues that surround us and bring us so much pain or sadness or frustration?  No.  Not necessarily.  Very often, yes.  But sometimes he’ll keep his promise by giving you the courage or the strength to handle the situation; he’ll give you wisdom to deal with it; he’ll give your heart and mind peace in the midst of it.  And he’ll give us the faith to know and trust that finally heaven and its unadulterated joys will be our home.     

     Fear of the LORD also means to know and trust that the LORD is a tremendous and faithful provider.  “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.  Fear the LORD, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing” (vss.8-9).  The LORD generously provides for our every need of body and soul.  There is nothing you truly need that you’ll ever lack.  The LORD who made you with both a soul and a body, as both a spiritual and physical creature, promises to understand your needs and to provide for you and preserve you until he brings you home to heaven.

    Finally – and briefly – we learn from this psalm that the fear of the LORD means to walk in that fear.  To live our lives in such a way that we show respect to the God who so lovingly made, saved and provides for us.  “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.  Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (vss.12-14).  To love God is to hate evil, the Bible says.  The two go hand in hand.  Fearing God and doing good are intimately connected.  The Bible says, “The only thing that counts is faith, expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).  To which the apostle Paul adds:  “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).  And not only in what we do for others, but also in what we say to them and how we speak about them.  “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies.”

    What does Psalm 34 and all we’ve spoken about today have to do with Christian Education Sunday?  It’s just a sampling of the wide variety of things the LORD wants to teach you . . . about himself, about yourself, and about your life – both your life in this world and your life with him.  There is no greater source of knowledge; no higher authority; no one more clued in to the essential answers to life’s biggest questions and to its daily concerns; no one more in the know in regard to right and wrong, truth and error, what it means to know the LORD and how to enjoy a lasting, meaningful relationship with him throughout your entire life and into eternity.  

    So come and listen.  Come regularly to worship.  Attend a Bible study or two or even three each week.  Bring your children and grandchildren to Sunday School and confirmation class.  There is so much more to learn.  Let us teach you the fear of the LORD.  Amen.     

    8/4 The Meaning of Life
  • Pastor Aaron Strong, Shepherd of the Hills

    Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:18-26
     

    What is the meaning of life? Ah, the great philosophical question that inquisitive minds have wrestled with for ages. Great philosophers have tackled that question right along with the couple of friends sitting and having coffee together. The answer to that question can take a lifetime to chase after or can be fleeting thought in a moment of boredom. So how about you? Have you ever asked yourself that question? What is the meaning of life? This is an important question. You want life to be meaningful, don’t you? You want to have purpose. So we contemplate that question today. There are lots of conclusions that people have come to, some satisfying, some not as much. Today we’re going to see where a meaningful life is truly found.

    A king of Israel named King Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes from which we find our lesson for today. It’s important to understand a little bit of Solomon’s background, of who he was, to best understand what he says here. Solomon was the son of King David. When Solomon became king, God came to him in a dream and offered him anything he asked. He didn’t ask for wealth or honor, but Solomon asked that God would give him wisdom to govern God’s people, the people of Israel. God was very pleased with this request and gave Solomon a wise and discerning heart so that he would possess wisdom unlike anyone that came before him or after. God also blessed Solomon with what he didn’t ask for – he blessed him with riches and honor.

    So, you see, Solomon had it all. He was super smart, super rich, honored and loved by all. He had it going for himself. He loved and honored God. But he had his struggles. He was influenced by his foreign wives, which he had many of, to worship their false gods. His sinful flesh wrestled with the love of wealth. Even with all of his wisdom, he could fall. But we see in this writing that in his old age he turned back to wisdom that directed him to God and reflected on what is truly meaningful in life.

    Often the effort to find meaning in life is found in the pursuit of the “stuff” that this world offers. I’m sure you’ve heard this motto before, “He who has the most toys when he dies wins.” Is that reflected in your

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    life? Is your life all about the chase for the next best thing in your life? Perhaps you’re driven by the desire for a better job or promotion. You want to move up from the starter home or apartment that you’re in. You need the next degree in your education. You need to upgrade to a better phone, the newest car, and build up your investments. Earthly life often revolves around this chase for the next thing. You work hard. You work endless hours to dig yourself out or to better yourself. Then you reach your goal. But at what cost? Was it worth it? Does the nicer house, the bigger paycheck, the padded retirement account, the bills paid off, the new phone give you a truly meaningful life?

    In the opening verse of our lesson, Solomon shares some of his wisdom as he talks about this pursuit of finding meaning in stuff. This verse is also the theme of all of Ecclesiastes. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Well gee, thanks for the encouragement, Solomon! But he’s right! The expression used here comes from the words “breath” or “vapor.” To really picture this you have to imagine being up on Mt. Charleston in January. When you exhale in that cold weather you can see your breath. While you see that cloud of breath for a moment, it soon dissipates and disappears. Solomon’s point is that everything in this world is fleeting. Nothing will last, but instead, like that vapor, it will vanish. Everything is meaningless.

    That’s Solomon’s important point for us to take to heart as he continues in our lesson. “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.” Solomon describes all of the hard work that you give to have a better life, to try to find meaning in this world. You work with all your wisdom, knowledge and skill. You put in long hours, your days are filled with pain and grief, you can’t sleep at night because you’re overwhelmed and stressed about the next’s day’s pursuits. And then in the end after a lifetime of toil and anxious striving, what happens? You give it all to someone else.

    Human life is limited by boundaries. The worldly stuff that perhaps brought meaning to your life while you lived can’t pass through the gates of death. It’s like going to the airport and buying that $7 cup of coffee right before you go through the security checkpoint and having to throw it away because you can’t pass through with it. All of the effort that you put in for earthly stuff is worthless at the end of life.

    You have no control over the stuff that you find meaningful here on earth once you die. You leave it for others and, as Solomon says, who

    knows whether he’ll be wise or a fool with it. You might say that the work that you put in for this life is to make life better for your children. But does that give you lasting peace and joy? Will they even enjoy the fruits of your labor or waste it away?

    But most importantly, stuff can’t save you. Working hard for a degree or promotion will not save you eternally. Working to pad your bank account will not save your soul. If all you live for is trying to find meaning in earthly stuff, the life you live is a life of meaningless toil. Life on earth is full of troubles and even when we find pleasure it is fleeting and soon disappears. The meaning of life isn’t found in stuff. It’s all meaningless.

    Thank God that he doesn’t want you to have a meaningless life! Solomon directs us to where the meaning of life is found. Listen. A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? True wealth, true value, true satisfaction can only come from the hand of God – the powerful hand of God that can accomplish all things.

    With his mighty hand, God has rescued you from a meaningless life. You have been saved from slavery to stuff that cannot save and from human toil and anxiety that does nothing but leave you weary and burdened! God sent his Son, Jesus, that you “may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)! Jesus pierces through the world’s dark cloud of vanity to show the light of the Almighty God’s love and mercy. Jesus came to save you from your sins. When you were dead in your sin...God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins (Colossians 2:13). Christ’s death and resurrection gives your life value. He bought you from sin to be his own. His sacrifice makes you worthy to God the Father to live free from slavery to the sinful nature. And he gives you the satisfaction of knowing that because he freed you from sin, you will live eternally.

    That’s the meaning of life! There is more than this earthly life that you live for. Each day, you, a child of God, can and should live like you’re living for eternal life, the life that Christ won for you and has gifted to you through faith.

    This wisdom that comes down from heaven, gives us the perfect insight that we need to know a meaningful life. God gives this wisdom and knowledge of Christ to the one who pleases him. Who is it that? The one who pleases God is the one who is covered in the blood of

    Christ and believes in Jesus as the Savior from sin. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).

    With this God-given knowledge, a life of meaningless toil turns into a new and lasting life in Christ. What a contrast between the one who lives just for this world and the one who lives for Christ. That’s evident in the gospel for today and the parable of the rich fool. That man measured the meaning of his life in the abundance of his crops. But Jesus warned against that when he said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

    The things of life that we toil for can be taken away. Remember the example of Job from the Old Testament. His great wealth, his children, his health was all taken away from him. Everything that he worked hard for and amassed in his life was taken in disaster. Yet he found meaning not in the stuff of the world, but in the merciful hand of God. For those who do not believe, life is without meaning. But to the Christian, meaningful, lasting life is given, crowned with the generous gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and happiness from God in Christ.

    Solomon knew that toiling for the things of this world was meaningless and that a truly meaningful life was the one lived with the Lord. May the life you live each day, be a life lived in pursuit of the Lord; that you desire to grow closer to him, to be more content with what comes from his hand, and to know the life that he has prepared for you in heaven. This is the meaning of life and it’s found in Christ alone! 


    7/28 When in Doubt, Pray
  • James 5:13-18

     

        Sometimes it can be difficult to make a decision. There are many times when we are in situations that are either stressful or we may be just inexperienced. Public servants like police officers, or soldiers are taught techniques that can help in these types of situations. I remember my grandpa talking about the rules of engagement from when he was in world war II. One of the things he told me was, “Never fire until fired upon.” Those were the rules. It made the decision a lot easier. Think about it. “Should I shoot at that plane?” Has he fired at you? No? Then don’t shoot. You don’t have to think to deeply about what to do when the rules are presented that simply.

    We like simple decisions. We like to have an easy answer. I always want to know what to do, what to say, how to act. But it’s not always that easy. If you do a quick search for what to do when you’re in doubt, you come up with all kinds of answers. Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” I tend to agree with him. But Benjamin Franklin said, “When in doubt, don’t.” 

    I can’t help but think that James wrote these words before us today to a people who didn’t always know what to do all the time. James wrote this letter to believers who were struggling in living their lives as Christians. He had a lot of advice to give them on living thankfully. Almost the entire letter is a message encouraging believers to live lives of faith. And here we see the rule that will make decision making easier for us: When in doubt, pray.

    Listen to the text. Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 

    17 Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

    In this letter James is writing to believers. The fact that they had faith was a given. They knew exactly how they were saved. They were well aware of the love of God, the sacrifice of their Savior, the Holy Spirit working faith. Those things were never in doubt, but James wants these people to know what it means to live like they were saved. He gives lots of great instructions in this little letter. “Christians,” he says, “Be patient as you wait for Christ to come back.” “Christians, tame your tongues. Submit to God. Don’t boast. The wealthy shouldn’t hoard.” This is all common sense stuff to us. This is what God wants us to do. Live Christian lives that demonstrate the love of Christ in you.

    But when it comes to prayer, our talks with God, what’s that look like? For the people James was writing to prayer was another skill they needed to learn. They had to be taught. So what was their hang-up? Did they think it was just waste of time? Were they just lazy, maybe? Is it even possible that they just didn’t know when or how to do it? So James focuses on prayer here because he wants them to know that a healthy prayer life is a part of wholesome Christian living. And not just for them but for all believers of all time.

    Look at the questions James asks his readers. Is anyone in trouble? Is anyone happy? Is anyone sick? He cites three situations we are all familiar with. 

    Ask yourself the same questions. Is anyone in trouble? Is there some sort of life problem or anything? You know there are troubles. You know the problems you all deal with everyday. Maybe it has something to do with your family, your career, your health, you friends, the state of affairs in the country, anything. When in doubt, James says you should pray.

    Is anyone happy? Is your life great? Does everything seem to be going well? Because life isn’t always down in the dumps. God blesses us with all kinds of good things. You know the blessings of a new life, the success of a career, goals met, games won, relationships created and strengthened. Has God blessed you? James says you should sing songs of praise! Rejoice in the Lord always! Praise God, he has fearfully and wonderfully made you! And what is praise but another type of prayer. It’s a way to talk to God.

    Is anyone sick? Is someone you love on their deathbed? Do you have any health problems? You know when the doctor brings you the bad news. Maybe it’s appendicitis. Maybe it’s a mental health issue? Don’t hesitate to go to the doctor. God wants you to receive physical comfort that comes with that. In James’ day the elders would soothe the sick with oil. But as Christian elders they have so much more to offer than just a band-aid. They can soothe the sin-sick soul! Are you sick? Don’t know what to do? When in doubt, pray! Ask your brothers and sisters to pray for you!

    That’s what God wants us to do. He gives us the special privilege of prayer and commands us to use it. But I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always pray like I’m supposed to. Prayer is so simple. It’s easy but all of us misuse it in one way or another.

    Some look at prayer as some sort of good luck charm. But James doesn’t talk about the elders as some sort of “prayer healers.” When we pray it’s not like ordering a burger down at the In-n-Out. “I asked God to heal me now in a few moments I should start to feel better.” It doesn’t work that way. When you pray it isn’t a guarantee of healing. Neither is the recovery a sign of answered prayers or strength of faith. Prayer isn’t a placebo that induces healing by the power of suggestion. The oil James is talking about here isn’t super-special healing oil. You want prayer to be all these things. You want everything to be fixed right now, but that’s not what God promises. That’s not what prayer is. 

    Prayer comforts and strengthens not the body but the mind, and more importantly, the soul. Prayer gets at the heart of the matter, it does what doctors and nurses alone can’t do because it puts the patient in God’s hands. That’s what we do when we go to bat on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We say to God, “I trust you. Do what you will with grandma, I’d like you to restore her strength and grant her healing, but I have confidence in your gracious will. If that’s not what you have in mind, then so be it. You know what’s best. Here, she’s yours.” “I want my depression to go away forever. But I trust in you, God. I’m yours. Do your will!” That’s the prayer in faith that God wants. You’re not sure how God will answer it, but hey, when in doubt, pray.

    But all kinds of things get in our way, don’t they? Those doubts that fill our mind, the pithy sayings the world throws our way, the false teachers and logicians tell us that prayer is waste of time. They have their empirical research that “proves” prayer has no effect. We’re not immune from that weakness of faith; from their persuasive arguments.

     “I’m not good enough for God to listen to me.” or “But I’ve sinned, God could never answer my prayer.” “Is my faith strong enough?” Don’t you know? God doesn’t withhold answers to prayer made in faith on the basis of past sins. It’s not like God looks down on me and says, “Ok. Vicar wants me to do this that and the other thing. Now let me see…He broke all these commandments, just last week. Nope, can’t do it.” No, that’s not how he works. Our prayers come from faith and that’s how God operates. So don’t doubt, pray.

    Don’t let your sins get in the way of prayer. “If he has sinned,” says James, “he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins…” He knows those thoughts can hamper our prayers. He wants us to always be ready, with a clean heart, prepared to pray. You know what’s inside of you. There’s so much sin weighing you down. For this reason we come to church. For this reason at the very beginning of the service we confess our sins. Go ahead, open up your service folder. Take a look. We confess and we are forgiven. That is nothing more than God’s grace in action. So don’t fail to confess your sins to God, to another believer, to me or pastor. That forgiveness frees up our consciences so we can pray. You’ve sinned? Confess. You’re forgiven? Rejoice! You have trouble? Pray! James is just showing us the buckets and buckets of grace that God is pouring down on us. 

    That grace comes from Christ. He didn’t have any sins to confess. He was always ready to do good. He never did anything wrong. Because of him you are righteous. You remain here for now; you still sin. But in God’s eyes you are perfect. And your prayers are powerful and effective! 

    Think of that when you are tempted to focus on the “unanswered prayers.” When God didn’t give you what you wanted. And you think, “Whoever wrote this is a liar! Powerful and effective? I lost my job! My best friend hates me now! Dad is still in the hospital!” 

    God doesn’t say, the prayer of the righteous man is always answered as expected. God knows what you’re going to pray even before you pray it. He knows what you need before it even registers in your mind. He’s working things out according to your prayer before it’s ever formulated in your mind or before the words cross your lips. That’s why your prayers are powerful. That’s where their effect comes from. They come from the all-powerful God who loves you and promises to work out everything for your good.

    You need proof? Just look at Elijah. Who prayed to God asking that it not rain. And it didn’t rain for 3 years. Then he prayed asking for rain, and it did rain. Just look at Abraham from this morning’s 1st lesson. He boldly came before God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And God listened. There are many more examples from the Bible of answered prayers. You may even be able to think of a few from your own lives. The job you got. The child born healthy. The perfect life partner, given to you by the Lord. 

    You know, you’re not the only one who has ever prayed to God. People pray. That’s what we do. Jesus is a person. He prayed, too. “Father, forgive them.” “If it is possible take this cup from me.” He spoke with God. “Why have you forsaken me?” “It is finished.” His will was his Father’s will and his prayers were answered in accordance with that will. So are yours and mine. 

    There’s a lot of disorganization and insecurity in this world. We don’t always know how to act and what to do. But God gives us his Word to guide us. And he tells us it’s not a waste of time, it’s powerful and effective. Unsure of your circumstances? When in doubt, pray.

    3/31 Easter Sunday- Catch the Son-Rise!
  • Matthew 28:1-10

    Part I.  The Son is Up!

                Are you a morning person?  I’ll be honest with you, up until this past year or so I’ve not been one to get up super early.  And now, even though I do get up before the sun does every day, I still wouldn’t consider myself a morning person.  That being said, even when I didn’t like getting up early, I still appreciated sunrise. 

                I appreciated it on rare occasions for its beauty – usually when I was on vacation in a scenic place.  I thought about sharing some of my pictures with you this morning of beautiful sunrises I’ve experienced – like the sunrise I caught from the top of Mount Sinai after having hiked through the night to reach the summit.  Or the sunrise over Suttons Bay, MI viewed from the beach in front of my wife’s family home.  Or the sunrise viewed from our campsite set up in the middle of Arches National Park, just to name a few.  I hope you’ve had similar experiences, and can picture some beautiful sunrises and the pleasant experiences associated with them.

                I also appreciate the sunrise for what it means for us . . . even if you don’t actually catch the sunrise itself.  It means a new day, a fresh start.  It may take a bit to get the sleep out of your eyes and loosen up the joints, but the new day after a good night’s sleep means fresh energy, fresh perspective, and renewed vigor to take up what lies before you!  The Bible says of the Lord, “Your mercies are new every morning!” (Lamentations 3:23)

                It’s that positive, hopeful, coffee cup or orange juice in hand, go out and take a brisk morning walk attitude toward sunrise and the new day that I’d like to capitalize on in the sermon this morning.  Think of that energetic, get up and take on the new day spirit as we reflect on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ resurrection this Easter morning.  Our sermon theme is:  “Catch the Son-Rise!”  And the first thing we need to reaffirm in our minds and hearts is that Jesus, the Son of God, is indeed risen!

                Matthew’s Gospel is just one of numerous accounts of Jesus’ resurrection recorded in the Bible.  The apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters that Jesus appeared to as many as 500 different people between Easter and when he returned to heaven 40 days later.  Matthew’s account is quite short and to the point – especially for something so significant.  Then again that window of opportunity to catch the unique beauty of a sunrise is quite narrow, too, compared to the length of time the sun is actually up! 

    To be completely honest, no one actually saw Jesus rise.  Just like most of you each day . . . you don’t see the sunrise.  But you know it rose, because you see the sun shining.  No one saw Jesus physically leave the tomb.  Not even the guards who were standing there guarding the tomb.  The stone didn’t budge . . . not ‘til the angels showed up to toss it out of the way.  But by then Jesus was already gone.  But we know that Jesus rose because of all that followed that day (and the days after).

    An angel from heaven “said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.  Come and see the place where he lay.’”  The women did just that and then “hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”  Then, “suddenly Jesus met them, ‘Greetings,’ he said.  They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.  Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.  God and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’” (vss.5-10).  Which we know from later in this chapter and the other Gospel accounts that they did . . . on numerous occasions in a variety of settings!   The point is – and the Bible emphasizes this over and over again – Jesus, eternal God the Son, rose from the dead Easter Sunday morning.  The Son is up and is shining!  He is alive and well!  He is living and ruling over all things, with a special concern for and care of you and me, his believers.  This is not just a cute children’s Sunday School story.  It is the foundation of your Christian faith; the basis for everything the New Testament teaches and promises.  Paul begins his letter to the Romans by describing Jesus in part in this way:  “Jesus Christ our Lord, who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).  In the book of I Corinthians the apostle Paul lays it all out on the line saying:  “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. . . . But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:17,20).  And in the book of Philippians chapter 2, the Bible declares:  “Christ humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11). 

                This is the Bible’s testimony:  the Son is up!  Risen from the dead!  The Son is up - glorified and reigning in heaven!  Jesus is risen!  Alleluia! 

    Part II.  Get Up and Enjoy Him!

    It’s one thing for the sun to rise.  It’s an entirely different thing for you to get up out of bed, get out there and enjoy it!  It’s one thing for Jesus, the Son of God, to rise from the dead.  That’s happened.  It’s a fact – as certain as the sun rises every day.  It’s an entirely different thing, however, for you to – by faith – get up and enjoy what he’s done for you and what having a risen, living Savior means for you.

    What does it mean for you?  Let the Easter angel give us some insight:  “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid . . .’” (vs.5).  In the original language of the Bible the angel’s announcement reads, “Don’t YOU be afraid!”  Unlike the guards paralyzed by fear and, when they were able to move bolted!  Unlike Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders who feared something like this – although nothing quite like this! – just might happen and pleaded for a dispatch of Roman guards to secure the tomb to prevent it.  Unlike the disciples who are hiding behind locked doors for fear that the same thing that happened to Jesus just might happen to them.  Unlike them, don’t YOU be afraid!

    Now, someone might ask, “why would he need to say to the women, ‘Don’t be afraid?’”  Well, wouldn’t you be?!  Afraid?!  It was early, early morning.  The women were going out to a graveyard expecting to anoint a corpse.  But once they got there the stone was rolled away; the body was gone!  Was this the work of grave robbers?  What had happened?!  Who did this?  Might they still be around?!  Add to that the fact that the women were not expecting to bump into anyone at this early hour, much less angels from heaven!  Holy, mighty, glorified spirit-beings sent to earth direct from the presence of Almighty God!

    All of that was more than reason enough to be afraid.  But if they needed another reason, and were they to have had enough time to think about it, the fact that these women – like the rest of Jesus’ followers – had refused to believe what Jesus had predicted about his death and resurrection gave them another cause for fear.  How embarrassing . . . such unbelief!  How shameful!  Jesus had told them all a number of times that all of this would happen.  But they didn’t believe him!  They should have been out at the tomb that morning with Easter breakfast – coffee and donuts and a fresh set of clothes for Jesus to slip into once he’d risen!  Instead they had come to pay their last respects and say their goodbyes.  “He is not here . . . just as he said!”  “You should have known better,” the angel could have said, and rebuked them for their lack of faith . . . for repeatedly refusing to take Jesus at his word.  But he didn’t.  “Don’t be afraid,” is what he said. 

    Why?  Because this was a day of joy, a day of celebration, a day of forgiveness and salvation.  The Son had risen and was shining on the women that morning!

    And when he personally appeared to them, Jesus said something very similar . . . something very comforting, “Don’t be afraid.”  And then he referred to the disciples as “my brothers.”  Not “those good for nothings who let me be handed over to my enemies to kill me, who all bailed on me to save their own skins, who spent three years jockeying for position to see who could be closest to me in my glory but couldn’t get far enough from me fast enough in my hour of need!  With friends like them who needs enemies?!”  There was none of that.  Just “my brothers.” 

    And would you believe Jesus and the Bible say the same of us?!  “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call [you] brothers” (Hebrews 2:11).  Not “those good for nothings who time and again fail to stand up for me or the truth of the gospel when put under the slightest bit of pressure for their faith.”  Not “you who are quick to identify yourselves as Christian when it’s convenient, but just as quick to deny it or hide it when it’s not.”  Not “you who come close to me in prayer whenever you think you need something or have something to say to me, but so often don’t take the time to be with me in worship or Bible study where I have so much to say to you.”  Not “you who find it so easy to quote and preach my Word to others when their faith is being challenged, but then turn around and doubt those same promises of mine when you yourself are going through hard times.”  No, just “brothers / sisters.”  That what Easter is about!  The Son has risen and is shining on each of you, too!

                Jesus suffered hell – literally – and died for your sins, including your sins of neglecting your faith, denying Jesus, doubting the Lord, and despising his Word.  That was Good Friday!  “It is finished!” Jesus said that day on the cross.  Everything necessary to pay for and remove accountability for your sins – all of them – was done by Jesus at the cross on Good Friday.  Easter isn’t about suffering for sin, paying for sin, atoning for sin or feeling guilty about sin.  Easter is about forgiveness!  Easter is about the peace of that forgiveness and the joy of salvation!  Easter is about feeling the warmth of God’s unconditional love as the saving gospel message warms your heart and soul.  Easter is about Jesus sharing the spoils of his victory – his victory over sin and Satan, over death and hell!  Easter is about being reassured in your faith that with God all things are possible and that he indeed can and will work all things out for your good.  Easter is about celebrating the fact that for Jesus, the Son of God’s, sake we are the sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of THE only-begotten Son of God.  The Son who rose and lives and reigns and shines upon us every day of our eternal lives! 

                Easter is also about at least this one other thing . . . You, too, shall see him!  Already now with the eyes of faith you get to see and believe and know him to be alive.  Each new day you get to enjoy the benefits of such a faith . . . the confidence, the peace, the joy, the optimism, the forgiveness, the courage, the hope.  As Peter wrote in his first inspired letter:  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . . Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (I Peter 1:3,8-9). 

    But also – like the angel promised and the women experienced – you, too, will see Jesus - literally!  Not in Galilee, but in heaven.  Not with faith, but with your own eyes, as the apostle John proclaimed: “We shall see him as he is!” (I John 3:2).  You will see Jesus, come back from the dead . . . the both of you!  As Job so eagerly confessed:  “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27)

    So get up and catch the Son-rise!  By faith believe and enjoy what Jesus’ resurrection means for you today and every day!  Live in the light and the warmth of his saving love, his tender care, his perfect answers to prayer.  Be confident, be hopeful, be courageous, be optimistic, be joyful, and - above all - be loved by him!  The Son has risen!  So get up, go out there and enjoy him!  Happy Easter!  Amen.
    3/24 Our King Is Going Up to Jerusalem
  • Luke 19:28-40

    "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit." You know who said that? Aristotle. He was explaining what we would call diligence or dedication. Excellence isn't just working really hard for one hour one day. It's being excellent all-day every day. For you and me, excellence is a worthy goal, but most likely we won't achieve it, at least not for an extended period of time. And as hard as we try we definitely won't achieve perfection here. Jesus, on the other hand is perfect. He's the Messiah. He is our King.

    Being the King is a lot like that excellence that Aristotle was talking about. It's not merely a single act; it's a habit. Jesus spent his whole life being the Messiah, our King. But this week, beginning with Palm Sunday, Jesus is going to demonstrate what it really means. Today, this morning, we see our King is going up to Jerusalem. He's going there humbly, and he's going there triumphantly.

    Jesus had just spoken with a wee little man named Zacchaeus and told the parable of the 10 minas. After that he continued the journey he'd been making for some time now. He went on heading up to Jerusalem. He was approaching from the Eastern side, the Jericho and Jordan River side of Jerusalem. He had to walk through some wilderness to get there and also he had to walk by some small towns. As he was approaching some of those towns, Bethphage and Bethany, he stopped and gave two of his disciples some orders.

    They were getting close, in fact they would be back at this Mount of Olives in a few days. The disciples couldn't have known that. They were so in the dark. Up to this point, this probably seemed like just another trip up to Jerusalem. This time was different, though. Jesus asked them to do something strange. He wanted them to commandeer a baby Donkey.

    Bizarre, isn't it? I would've had some questions for Jesus if he asked me to do this: "You want me to do what? A donkey that's never been ridden? And if they ask just tell them that 'the Lord needs it.'?" But as near as we can tell, they didn't doubt Jesus at all. They just did what he said and it all worked out according to his plan.

    They must have been at least a little embarrassed, I mean seriously, a donkey. This is just so wrong, too for our King, Jesus, to be riding such a humble animal. But I guess it does make sense. Jesus is our humble King. And he is going up to Jerusalem as our Messiah. His habit, what Jesus repeatedly did, was to be the Savior we need. He's going to Jerusalem to die. This is no easy task. The disciples didn't have an easy road ahead either.

    Sometimes Jesus asks us to do things that seem difficult or out of place, too. It might not mean going to get a donkey from some strangers but it could mean losing some friends. I mean, Jesus is something special and we follow him and try to do what he says, but there are times when following him might not seem so attractive. When "everyone else" is doing something wrong, or when someone tells you that religion is the "opiate of the masses." They point to a humble man, riding on a baby donkey, and ask, "Do you really want to follow that?" Yeah, that's what faith is. It takes faith to follow this King up to Jerusalem, but we do.

    We do follow him as he goes onward so humbly. Because we know he is special. Even on that understated mode of transportation. Even in his lowly, poor state, Jesus is the King. This Savior-God-King has goals in mind. He does what he came for. He saves us from the eternal death that should have been ours.

    He goes up to Jerusalem, even though he knows he's going there to die.

    Because of you and me and the bad stuff we do; Because we haven't always put God first. We examine ourselves in the light of the ten commandments and see we've broken them all repeatedly. We blend in with the world. We act embarrassed of what we believe, and bow to the pressure to be "tolerant". But sin is sin and because of it Jesus mounted a common colt, and rode in humility to save us and pay for it. He had to. It was the only way to save us. He put us first and himself last.

    Thank God he did that. Thank God he modestly approached that great city, fully intending to die there. Because of that impending death, now only days away, salvation came to all of us. And now, all that humility, all that service, everything that Jesus did and is makes sense. He told us: "Blessed are the meek." It doesn't make sense until you see this meek God-man saving the world. He knew that in his death we would find life. Because of his wounds, our open-gashes would be healed. Yes, indeed, thank God for that humility.

    It's strange, though, isn't it? Jesus was arriving to the City of David on a donkey, like a regular old poor person, but he receives a welcome worthy of a king. Because even though Jesus is humbly entering Jerusalem in order to die, he is also entering triumphantly.

    Jesus' disciples put him on the donkey and they all went together toward the city. As they got closer a larger group of Jesus' followers began to praise God. "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" and "Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" The other gospel accounts tell us that they were yelling "Hosanna!" Which means "save [us] please".

    Jesus accepts these acclamations. He knows that even though he is going there to die, that soon he will be triumphant. The Pharisees were not going for this. They didn't like the fact that the people were praising Jesus as if he were God. But Jesus not only accepts the praise, he lets them know that he won't ask them to stop their praises. "If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out." Nothing can stop the praise of the Messiah.

    Jesus entered as a king, but there is something unique about this King. His loyal subject weren't waving weapons of war. He wasn't on some thundering steed. He wasn't leading a train of captives from his last military campaign. He was riding a donkey. His people were waving palm branches. The crowd was made up of his followers, people who wanted to be there. Over the course of the last 33 years, Jesus had shown his wisdom. He had demonstrated his power, but he hadn't taken advantage it for earthly gain at all. Perhaps the disciples took note of this. Maybe they were thinking that Jesus was going to reveal himself as the Messiah soon and the Kingdom they were waiting for would finally come. Of course, as you all know, the kingdom the disciples wanted wouldn't come this week. These praises would soon fade.

    The crowd would turn and forget about the triumphant entrance of their king and instead they would be asking for his crucifixion. Jesus wasn't what they thought. "If he was truly the Son of God," they reasoned, "He wouldn't let himself be humiliated like this." But he did. And even though he was triumphant, he would die. In fact, it was in that death that he would triumph. That death should have been the real reason for those people to be singing praises.

    We should be singing praises to the King, too. Shouldn't we? But sometimes we find ourselves a lot like that fickle crowd on that first Palm Sunday. Praising Jesus here, but turning on him once that seems more convenient. How sinful we are. "Out of the same mouth comes praises and cursing, brothers, this should not be." Says James. But it's more than just cursing. God wills that our entire life be one of worship, but it isn't. We should be praising God in the way we act, the way we work, the way we are parents, children, students, husbands and wives. But we don't. Instead we try to fit in the with the crowd. We treat our kids more like a nuisance than a blessing. We treat our parents with disrespect instead of treating them like God's representatives. Husbands don't love their wives and wives don't respect their husbands. God is not glorified. When we do these things, we are not praising Jesus. How could we do this? How is this possible?

    Jesus is worth so much more than anything the world has to offer. His love compels us to lead lives of praise. In view of what he is and what he's done, obeying his commands doesn't seem like so much work. Look at the 2nd lesson this morning. He is God but he humbled himself and took on the form of a servant in human likeness. He even died. But he was also exalted to the highest place. That's why we praise him. That’s why we confess him as Lord, because of all the awesome stuff he's done for us!

    It's hard to sing praises to Jesus when he isn't doing what we think he should do. It's hard when we are subjected to peer pressure. It's even difficult for us when we think we're doing a good job. The Pharisee inside of us wants us to praise ourselves, "look how good I did at being a Christian today. I heard Vicar saying all that stuff, and I don't do any of that." And before you know it, we're singing praises to ourselves instead of Jesus. All of our shortcomings, all our sins, everything we do, made it necessary for someone of Jesus' stature to save us. We needed a King, God's own Son, in fact, to save us. The Pharisees wanted to make sure that everyone thought Jesus was just another guy. But he wasn't. If he were his death would mean nothing to us. But he's God, and his death means everything. That's how he can enter Jerusalem triumphantly.

    He was and is everything he claimed to be. He always has been and always will be God. He became man around 2000 years ago so that he could be exactly what we need. He still is both God and man, and he still is triumphant. Yes, in a few short days he will go through hell. He'll suffer unimaginable things and he'll do it all for us. Because he loves us. But don't worry, because after 3 days, it will all be good.

    So yes, we are what we repeatedly do. Jesus repeatedly showed us that he was the all-powerful God-man, come to save us from sin. He showed us he's the Messiah. He went up to Jerusalem for one reason, to save us. Let our lives be ones that always, always remember that. Remember his humility. Remember the praises we bring before him here. But don't just praise Jesus here for an hour on Sunday, make your whole life one of praise. Give thanks to God for everything he gave us in that perfect, humble, triumphant, king-Jesus. Amen.

               
    3/10 Who’s the Real Fool?
  •  I Corinthians 1:18-25  

    Bill Nye, "the Science Guy," has recently stepped up his public attacks on creationism and the Bible.  I’m sure you’ve all heard of him.  His show originally aired on PBS Kids for five years back in the 90’s and won 19 Emmy Awards.  It is still popular today and is used in schools throughout the country.  In an interview last fall he said that creationism is not appropriate for children . . . that the “Creationist movement” (as he calls it) has “brainwashed children and corroded America's capacity for growth and innovation.”  "When you have a portion of the population that doesn't believe in [science], it holds everybody back" Nye said.  "And I say to the grown-ups, if you want to deny evolution and live in your world that's completely inconsistent with everything we've observed in the universe . . . that's fine. But don't make your kids do that, because we need them.”  Bill Nye would have been appalled at what we did for or to the kids yesterday at Creation for Kids.  Teaching creation as the Bible presents it to us is not merely silly and a waste of time, but – in Bill Nye’s mind – it’s dangerous and destructive.

    Bill Nye’s not the only one who thinks that what the Bible teaches about creation is foolishness.  He joins the Bill Maher’s and Carl Sagan’s of the world along with the majority of the scientific community which believe (and mind you, I said “believe”) that creationism – with its teaching of a young earth and an intelligent designer (namely, God) is pure nonsense. 

    I doubt at this point in your life that it’s news to you that your faith is considered silly by many.  Not everyone, by the way.  In the case of creation, you’re not even hardly in the minority.  In recent polls, 46 percent of Americans – just under half – claim they believe God created humans in one day, about 10,000 years ago. Only 15 percent said they believe humans evolved without help from God.

    That being said, you know how often your faith – in creation, in the Bible, in God and specifically in Christ – is under attack.  You know how often you’re made out to be the fool, the one who’s got it all wrong, the one who’s out of touch with reality.  It doesn’t do us or our children any good if we simply ignore the criticisms that are waged against our faith or pretend they’re not out there.  We owe ourselves and others an answer.  So let’s ask ourselves this morning:  Who is the Real Fool?  Is it the one who believes the world’s “wisdom”?  Or is it the one who believes the “foolishness” of God?

    Let’s admit it, many of the proponents of the world’s wisdom are extremely intelligent.  They could talk circles around us in their fields – whether it be science or philosophy or mathematics.  Many of them have dedicated their lives to studying what is available to them in this world in an attempt to understand the world in which we live, the universe in which we live.  And with their intelligence and research – using what they have to work with, they’ve come to certain conclusions about our world and about ourselves.  Much of what they’ve learned and applied is very valuable  - the medicines that have been developed, the diseases that have been cured and prevented, the industries and inventions that have been created.  We all benefit from them every day.  There’s a great deal of wisdom in the world.

    There’s at least one shortcoming of the world’s wisdom, however.  It cannot and does not take God into account.  God is not a scientifically measurable entity within the world.  God is above the world, over the world, larger than the universe itself.  He’s here all the time . . . right there wherever it is that you go.  But he can’t be seen.  He can’t be touched.  You can’t take a sample of him and put him into a beaker in the lab.  You can’t scientifically account for him or factor him in.  And because he can’t be seen, because he can’t be proven, the world in its wisdom has chosen to deny him. 

    This philosophy toward the existence of God – this denial of God, the Creator of all – is sad enough when it comes to things like creation and science and mathematics.  But it’s especially sad and dangerous when it comes to salvation; when it comes to understanding oneself, the meaning and purpose to one’s life, and having a relationship with this Creator of yours. 

    “Where is the wise man?” the apostle Paul writes.  “Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  . . . in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him . . .”  Therein lies the true weakness – the shortcoming and downfall – of all the wisdom and intelligence of the world:  the world through its wisdom has not and cannot know the true God.  Sure, a person can – and many millions and billions have – come to know about God in general terms.  In fact, in Romans chapter one the Bible says that ever “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).  God can’t be seen, but certain qualities of his can be deciphered by looking at his handiwork.  Just like you can learn certain things about a craftsman on the basis of his handiwork.  You can see how skilled he is, how smart or handy or crafty he or she is.  You might be able to determine a little bit about their interests and the likes and dislikes on the basis of what they draw or carve or assemble.  But there’s a lot about them you wouldn’t ever know, either, isn’t there?! 

    God gave this evidence of himself, the Bible says, so that people would know he was there; so that they would become curious and perhaps “reach out for him and find him.”  But far too many have failed to even do that.  Paul continued in Romans:  “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22).  Because people can’t prove him to be true the way we can prove gravity or see him the way we can see each another, they choose to deny him altogether.  They choose to focus on what they in their wisdom can prove and understand.  And such denial has eternally devastating consequences!  “the world through its wisdom does not know him.”

    I’d love to explain to you why evolution, for example, is silly.  Share with you numerous examples of why evolution is bad science.  The major laws of science a person has to deny or ignore in order to believe in evolution.  I’d be happy at some point – like we’ve doing in our Sunday morning Bible studies this winter – to expose the holes and fallacies in many of the prevailing philosophies of our day and age.  How the ideas and principles upon which so much of our modern world and so many of your friends and neighbors attempt to build their lives are just illogical and incoherent.  Simply put, if you attempt to take the Creator out of the equation when talking about his own creation, you’re going to have major problems.  You’re going to come to some seriously messed up conclusions. 

    But for the sake of this morning, and sticking to the thoughts of the lesson before us today, I need to focus now on the foolishness of the world’s wisdom as it relates to salvation and forgiveness and eternal life. 

    “No pain, no gain.”  “You get what you work for.”  “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”  These are all familiar axioms which we and the world have come to understand on the basis of experience.  These principles generally apply in our world.  So the world in its wisdom has decided that this principle of self-effort, self-determination and work-righteousness applies to spiritual matters and salvation, as well.  If you want forgiveness, if you want God’s love, if you want to get to heaven, you have to work for it.  You have to obey the “Eightfold Path” says the Buddhist.  Or the “Five Pillars” says the Muslim.  Or the Ten Commandments says the Jew, and far too many misguided Christians.  Forgiveness isn’t cheap; salvation isn’t free; getting to heaven isn’t easy . . . you have to earn it!  This is the wisdom of the world as it relates to God.  And it sounds good.  It makes perfect sense.  It’s logical.  But it’s wrong, the Lord tells us in his word.  The foolishness of the world and its philosophies lies in this tremendous shortcoming:  “the world through its wisdom does not know him.”

    So, who’s the fool?  The one who denies God or the one who takes him into account and believes him?  The one who refuses to acknowledge God as Creator and Savior or the one who trusts and believes him to be both?  The one who rejects what he’s told us in his Word or the one who takes him at his Word and uses his Word to get to know him, to get to know ourselves and the world in which we live, and to have a relationship with him? 

    Paul puts it this way:  “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

    Martin Luther put it something like this in his Large Catechism:  he said, go ahead and put all the scholars, all the learned professors, all the self-proclaimed spiritual leaders together on one side . . . heap together all their combined wisdom; and still the Lord has more wisdom in his pinky finger.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” declares the LORD (Isaiah 55:9). 

    Yes, God’s plan of salvation is altogether foreign to us; completely contrary, in fact, to anything the greatest of minds would or could ever devise; so foolish sounding and so altogether strange that one would have to assume that were there any truth in it, it had to have come from out of this world.  Which is exactly where it came from! 

    God’s plan – his one and only plan – was and is that eternal God the Son would come to this world of ours and earn our righteousness for us, by living the perfect life we couldn’t live . . . in our place, for us!  And that he would then proceed to take our sins upon himself and endure the curse, the death, the hell we deserved . . . again, in our place, for us!  That he would rise in victory over sin and death and hell.  And that he would work through the preaching of this very same message to effect saving faith in the hearts of believers.  Admittedly, taken at face value – without the gift of faith which the Holy Spirit has given us – the gospel message sounds a bit far-fetched, fairy-tailish, too good to be true.  Some guy claiming to be God died on a Roman cross nearly 2000 years ago.  He’s said to have come back to life.  And simply by believing that he was and is who he said he is and did what he said he came to do for us, we have a free ride into heaven?!  That’s crazy! 

    But God in his grace has called you and I to faith through that very message.  He’s led us to believe it.  As impossible as it sounds, as foolish and silly as it may very well sound, we believe it.  Because it’s the truth.  We believe it because the gospel has that kind of power . . . the power to effect faith in itself within us, the power to save us.  Christ crucified and risen may very well seem foolish to some . . . to most, in fact.  But to us and in truth, Christ crucified and risen is the height of wisdom . . . God’s saving wisdom.  It’s the power of God!

    And so we will continue to believe it.  We will continue to proclaim it.  And souls – yours and mine included – will continue to be saved by it.
    Jesus summarized things simply in this way:  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).  In the end it’s that simple and that final.  Believe in the world’s so called “wisdom” and be condemned to eternal death.  Or believe in God’s “foolishness” and spend forever with him in heaven.  Who’s the real fool? 

    I don’t know about you, but if being labeled a fool is what I have to endure as a part of being with Jesus forever in glory . . . go ahead and call me a fool . . . a fool for Christ.  Better a fool for Christ than a sucker for Satan.  Amen. 

    3/3 God Wants You to Know (Don't Be Ignorant)
  • 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
    by Vicar John Raasch

    Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, whom God does not want to be ignorant.
    I remember back when I was in high school my history teacher always asked a particular question on every history test. He asked, "Why do we study history?" He had a very specific way he wanted us to respond. "We study history to learn how to think," He would say. When I was in high school I didn't quite get that, but it makes more sense now. Perhaps you've heard it said that those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it. That is also true. We study history, not just because it's interesting but because it teaches us how to think and it shows us how people have made a lot of mistakes and how they've solved problems. With a knowledge of history we can "stand on the shoulders of giants" and we won't have to "re-invent the wheel."

    It's no different with Biblical history, the history of our salvation. It's wise to study Bible history. Not just so we can learn how to think but so that we can learn from the mistakes of other believers. They were people a lot like us struggling with a lot of the same things we still struggle with to this day. The Apostle Paul knew that and he was writing to some people who were immature in their faith; the church in Corinth. He wanted to give them a little sort of history lesson. He was writing around 2000 years ago but he wrote some things that God still wants you to know. About history and about God's love.

    He wrote: "For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
    6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel."


    He was speaking about God's Old Testament people, the Israelites. At one time they were nothing more than a small clan of people who lived in Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. They lived in Egypt for 400 years and then God miraculously set them free from their captors. He showed them a very special love. He provided for them in unique ways by guiding them with a cloud and fire. He gave them manna and quail to eat so they could survive in the desert. He promised them that he would protect them and that from out of their numbers a Savior would come. They would be the source of the Messiah who would rescue the world from sin. God loved the Israelites. They were his chosen people and he held them in high esteem.

    "Nevertheless," Paul writes, "God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert." The story is now familiar to us. These people, who God loved so much, disobeyed him and committed all sorts of sins. The examples Paul gives take us on a little trip through Bible history. When Moses was on Mt Sinai, the Israelites made a golden calf to worship. They were impatient and wanted a god like the rest of the people they saw. The worship included eating, drinking, and "pagan revelry". When they were traveling through Moab, the Moabite women proved too great a temptation for the Israelite men and they succumbed to sexual immorality. They longed for the diverse diet they had in Egypt, so they complained that God took them from the security of Egypt. Some men questioned the authority of Moses. So they decided to offer unauthorized offering in the tabernacle. God was displeased and the earth swallowed them up. Their bodies, the bodies of this stubborn sinful nation, were scattered over the desert. These sins were unacceptable in God's sight.

    Paul gives these examples for a reason. The Israelites committed many and varied sins that were displeasing to God, but Paul wanted the Corinthians to know about these. You see, the Corinthians had committed these same sins. They took part in the worship of the pagan idols of their neighbors and co-workers. They were guilty of all kinds of sexual immorality, even things that the pagans wouldn't do. They grumbled and complained. They seemed so ignorant of everything God had done for them!

    "Learn from history!" Paul says. You are all members of the same spiritual family! They were baptized into Moses. You were baptized into Jesus. They ate manna and drank from the rock. You receive Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper. That Rock was Christ; the same Christ you claim to worship. The Israelites and the Corinthians were spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ!

    As much as you and I would like to think that we are different from them, we're not. Paul says the same things to us. "Learn from that history! I don't want you to be ignorant." Don't reinvent the wheel, so to speak. Stand on the shoulders of your spiritual ancestors so you don't fall into the same traps.

    If I were to visit your homes, I doubt I would see any golden calves that you've been bowing down to. I doubt that you've been taking part in pagan feasts like the Corinthians. The idolatry we see today, the idolatry that tempts us is different, but it's idolatry nonetheless. What idols are there in your lives? Could it be the materialism of the world? Having the latest, greatest toys. The biggest looking houses in the best part of town. Maybe it's your kids or your job or straight up money that has the #1 place in your hearts. We live in a world that chants the chorus of "me me me". The egocentrism of our society wants to make God subject to the individual or displace him completely. It's difficult to completely escape that.

    We aren't too worried about those good-looking Moabite girls leading the men folk astray. A lot of the sexual immorality that plagued the Corinthian church isn't even on our radar. But sexual sins seem to be the order of the day. You can't drive around town without seeing billboards of half-naked women and strip clubs devaluing God's gift of sexual love intended for 1 man and 1 woman. Your co-workers seem compelled to share all their dirty stories of their seedy sexual escapades from the last weekend. And in turn you listen and maybe share a few of your own. Divorce is more than common-place, it's the norm. Your mouse hovers over the links to websites you know you shouldn't visit. You re-connect with an old flame via facebook and you do it on your cellphone so that your husband won't know. No we're not so different from those Corinthians at all, are we?

    The Israelites grumbled against Moses and against God. The Corinthians bellyached about their pastors. You wonder why God doesn't just let you get that job promotion. You think that Pastor Vogt or Vicar Raasch are woefully ill-equipped to meet your needs. It seems like the unbelievers are winning. What's the point of praying to God if it doesn't seem like he's listening. Contentment, that's nothing more than some pipedream. Learn from history! God's people have been testing him ever since forever!

    It's hard for us to read some of those Old Testament accounts. For one God seems to be so harsh sometimes. And for another, it's difficult to see God's people in such a poor light. But Paul tells us why God wants us to know about the Church's history. "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" Because you see, this history is more than just some interesting facts, it's an example and a warning. God's people have been taking his God's grace lightly for quite some time. So we are warned not to live as if God's grace had never visited our lives. They got lazy. They took pride in themselves. They thought their salvation came about because of something they did. They thought they were standing firm. If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall.

    "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it."

    The Corinthians were guilty of a sort of chronological arrogance. They thought they were so much better than those Old Testament sheep-herders. They didn't think that they were susceptible to the same sins. Paul told them to be careful and he tells us the same thing. Be careful, don't get too comfortable.

    That was quite a conviction of the Corinthians from Paul. God is saying the same thing to us. But it's not all doom and gloom. Listen to what he says: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man." You aren't as unique as you thought. Your sins aren't only your own. You are being tempted and tested by the same sinful nature that believers have struggled against forever.

    "And God is faithful!" Even though we sometimes live like the unbelievers. Even though we fall into the exact same sins over and over again. Even though we are so unfaithful, God is faithful! In fact he doesn't just tell us about our sins, he did something about it. He sent his own divine Son to this earth to suffer through the exact same temptations and trials that we struggle with! Jesus came to earth and he was tempted with all the sins that are common to man. All the sins you struggle with Jesus struggled with, but he was perfect. He didn't fail.

    He promised us a Savior and HE IS FAITHFUL. He's not like us. He doesn't disobey, lie, grumble, or cheat. He is loving. He promises and he fulfills his promises! His perfect Son, Jesus, did all the law commanded perfectly and then he died and rose again. He suffered through those temptations and then died anyways to win for us victory over that sin.

    Paul continues, "God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." So much comfort, so much promise. God is faithful. He knows that we daily come up against temptation. He knows that our lives in this sinful world will test us, but he promises that there will be a positive outcome. It may not be what we want. It might not be exactly what we're looking for, but God is faithful and he promises that whatever happens it will turn out in a way that is pleasing to him and that is in alignment with his will.

    God did provide a "way out" for us. His Son. Every time we sin, every little foible and blemish on our moral record, all our big public sins and our private, pet sins, Jesus is our out. He puts himself in our place and God looks at him and forgives us every last one of them. Thank God that he is faithful, not counting our sins against us.

    So God wants you to know about the church's history, your history. He's given us ample evidence of the sinfulness of humankind in the historical record. So be careful. Humbly listen to what God has to say. Because he does more than warn, he forgives. He is faithful. Let us be faithful to him. Let our lives imitate our Savior and show the world what we are, loved by God. We aren't condemned to repeat history, we are enlightened and blessed when we learn of ours. And when we see that Savior, Jesus doing all he did for us we have learned. Amen.


    2/24 The LORD is Sending You
  • Jeremiah 26:8-15 (NIV)

    I have some pretty exciting news to share with you this morning . . . you’ve all been invited to a special dinner being hosted by the Governor and his wife at the Governor’s mansion in Carson City!  What do you think of that?!
                You probably think I’m crazy.  Or if you didn’t think I was crazy, you’d certainly want some proof of what I was saying. 
                When news is delivered, you want to know, and really need to know, that the source of the information - as well as the source of their information – is credible!  An invitation to the Governor’s mansion for dinner would require some very credible sources!  That would be a big deal . . . if it were true!  It would be a pretty cruel prank were it not.  Were someone to deliver such an invitation to you, you’d likely ask:  “Who sent you to tell me this?”
                If we are being faithful in our calling as followers of Christ and ambassadors of Christ, you and I have some pretty remarkable news to share with people.  An amazing invitation to a lavish dinner at an out of this world mansion!  An invitation that makes the Governor’s invitation pale in comparison.  Not even a White House invitation would compare!  The LORD, by his grace, has invited you and me and the whole world to join him in heaven as a free gift through faith in Jesus!
                As the ones being sent with this almost impossible-to-believe invite, we need to make sure for ourselves that what we are being sent to share and to say is credible information.  Our time in the Word this morning will be time well spent as we are reassured that the LORD himself is sending you.  And since this is the case, I.  we need not be intimidated as we go about this work . . . and II.  that we can and must trust in the LORD!
                Have you ever been afraid  . . . afraid of what you felt you had to say or afraid of to whom you had to say it?  Intimidated either by the message or the audience of your message?  Well, you’re not the first! 
                We’re not told on this occasion that Jeremiah was afraid – in fact, he seemed to have done an amazing job of maintaining his composure.  But he certainly had reason to be intimidated.  The message the LORD sent him to deliver was not an easy one!  In fact, the LORD seemed to know that, too.  Jeremiah had been sent to deliver some tough messages before, but this is the first and only time the LORD insists – back in verse 2 of this chapter – “Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word.”  This was an especially dangerous errand the LORD was sending Jeremiah on.  It would have been tempting for Jeremiah to soften the message of the law he was being sent to deliver.  To tone down the LORD’s harsh words for the unrepentant Israelites.  “This house – Jerusalem . . . the magnificent temple built by Solomon . . . will be like Shiloh . . . the deserted city which at one time centuries before held the unique honor of being the home of the tabernacle of the LORD?  This city will be desolate and deserted?”  “God is not pleased with you . . . in fact he’s angry at you and disgusted by you. . . . Repent . . . reform your ways and your actions or else ‘this city will be an object of cursing among all the nations of the earth’”?  That was no easy message to deliver. 
                And the audience of that message and the social, religious and political context in which Jeremiah had to deliver that message were very intimidating, too.  Jeremiah had had some harsh things to say to the spiritual leaders and the people of Israel earlier in his ministry, also, but the king at the time was Josiah . . . a God-fearing king, a supporter of Jeremiah’s ministry, a defender of Jeremiah.  Jehoiakim – the king at the time of our lesson – was anything but!  Jeremiah’s life was in serious risk!  Our lesson records:  “But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the LORD had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, ‘You must die!  Why do you prophesy in the LORD’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and deserted?’  And all the people crowded around Jeremiah in the house of the LORD” (vss.8-9).  Whew!  Would not have wanted to be in his shoes!  You?!
                Then again, perhaps you have been in a similar situation . . . or will be sometime yet.  The LORD sends you and me, too, into situations where speaking God’s Word is not easy or safe.  There are dangers inherent in speaking the truth of God’s Word.  It’s not all fun and games.  Jesus himself experienced tremendous opposition.  And he warned his disciples that as they went out to preach the gospel, “You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. . . . [you will be] arrested and brought to trial. . . . All men will hate you because of me” (Mark 13:9-13).  We can expect opposition.  We can anticipate that even though we are really only trying to help them, that people will will be strongly – perhaps even violently – opposed to what we have to say and what we’re trying in love to do for them. 
                Not only may the audience of our message be intimidating, the message itself can be intimidating.  No one wants to tell someone that what they are doing is wrong or sinful or immoral or that they have problems; and certainly no one wants to hear that about themselves.  The LORD says to you in his Word, “If someone sins against you, go and show him his faults, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15).  And in the book of Galatians he says, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 5:1).  That can be a very intimidating assignment!  So you’re tempted to water down the law message of the LORD; soften the tone of God’s law and his wrath against sin; or just not get involved at all.
                And not only is the sharing of the law of God an intimidating thing, so can be the gospel; sharing the message of salvation.  I mean, this is a big deal!  This is God’s holy Word!  You don’t want to miscommunicate it, mishandle it or misrepresent it.  After all, this is someone’s eternal welfare we’re talking about.  This is an awesome responsibility!  It’s kind of like someone handing you $30,000 to take to the bank for them or a Rolex watch to hold on to for them.  “I don’t want to be responsible for this!”  So you’re tempted to leave it up to the professionals.  “Let Vicar of Pastor do it.”  And by the way, if you absolutely won’t do it, we will . . . we’d be happy to!  But many times you – and only you – have that opportunity with that particular person.  Don’t be intimidated! 
                Delivering messages has always contained a certain inherent risk.  Especially when the delivery of that message takes one into potentially hostile territory.  Think of the risks messengers have faced, like, for example, the riders of the Pony Express.  This was the mid-19th century Wild West’s version of FedEx.  In an effort to deliver the mail in a timely manner, the express riders faced extreme heat, extreme cold, exposure to the sun and the elements, threat of attack from unfriendly Native Americans and other dangers.  In fact, the assignment was so perilous that Alexander Majors – one of the founders of the Pony Express – gave each rider a Bible and required they take an oath that "by the help of God" they would overcome all difficulties.  Not a job for the weak of heart or those with queezy stomachs, to say the least.
                Then again, neither is this message delivery assignment the LORD has sent you on.  And that’ s why it’s important that we be reminded that we need to trust in the LORD – and can trust the LORD – to carry out this mission on which he is sending each of us. 
                Jeremiah certainly did.  When the city officials stepped in and Jeremiah was given the opportunity to defend himself, Jeremiah simply repeated the LORD’s message and then added:  “as for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right.  Be assured, however, that if you put me to death, you will bring the guilt of innocent blood on yourselves and on this city and on those who live in it, for in truth the LORD has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing” (vss. 14-15).  Why could Jeremiah be so bold?  Because the LORD had promised Jeremiah way back at his original calling, “Do not be terrified by them . . . They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you” (Jeremiah 1:17-19).
                The LORD has made a similar promise to you in his Word . . . on numerous occasions!  For example, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).  In sending his disciples out, as we heard before, Jesus was honest about the dangers.  But he also said to them:  “Do not be afraid of them. . . . What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops.  Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:26-28).  Trust in the LORD to be with you when you speak his Word to others.  Trust him to protect you.  Trust him to give you the courage you need to speak his truth.
             Trust, also that his Word is the truth that people need to hear!  Jeremiah spoke as boldly as he did because the LORD gave him the words to say.  The book of Jeremiah records the prophets original calling by the LORD and Jeremiah’s initial reaction to it.  Honestly, it was one of fear and apprehension.  (Sound familiar?)  “Ah, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” 7 But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. 9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (1:6-10).  And in this chapter the LORD came to Jeremiah and gave him exactly what to say.
             Now, you could argue, “I’d be a bit more confident, too, if the LORD came to me and personally told me exactly what to say and when and to whom to say it!”  Then again, unlike with Jeremiah, we have the written Word of God.  We have the LORD’s complete revelation.  Everything anyone needs to hear is here (the Bible).  This is God’s Word!  And if we study it and get to know it, we not only learn what God’s Word is but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we also get to know who needs to hear what parts of it and when.  And when we do speak, we can do so boldly.  The Bible says,  “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” (I Peter 4:11). 
             Remember, this is God’s Word!  And the LORD is sending you to speak these words of his for him.  This isn’t your opinion.  This isn’t your church’s idea of what the Bible says.  This isn’t 18th or 19th century America’s way of thinking.  This is the one and only true Lord God’s timeless Word and will!  I had more than one conversation this week – and I spoke to a couple of you who had similar situations – where you finally have to say to the person who doesn’t agree, “Hey!  Your quarrel is not with me . . . it’s with the LORD . . . with the Almighty!  I just showed you were it says this in the Bible.  I didn’t make this stuff up!  It’s HIS Word!  Don’t take your anger out on me.  Don’t shoot the messenger!  Your beef is with God.” 
             Trust, also, that the LORD himself is always active through his Word, as he’s promised.  The Word of God is described as being “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12).  In the book of Isaiah the LORD assures us that his word “will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).  Remember that it is not your job to convince anyone of the truth of God’s Word.  Your job is to deliver the message . . . herald the news . . . speak and witness to the truth of Christ.  And then trust that the LORD will take it from there.  This is his work, after all!  The power to convince and to convert lies in the Holy Spirit working through the Word you’ve shared.  Give him some time and some space to do that.  And when he does, be sure to also give him the credit.
             Finally, as you go about lovingly sharing the truth of God’s Word, trust that the LORD has in mind the best interests of those with whom you are sharing his Word.  Trust that his and your motives are pure.  That the goal is salvation, restoration, reconciliation.  Jeremiah said as much when he said, “Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the LORD your God.  Then the LORD will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you” (vs.13).  When you share God’s Word – regardless of what the situation calls for – whether it’s a situation calling for his law or for the gospel, both yours and the LORD’s goal is not simply to be the only one in the room who is right; it’s not to win an argument, but to win souls!  And only God’s Word – the gospel, in particular – can do that!  The apostle Paul wrote:  “I am not ashamed of the gospel [we need not be intimidated] because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
             So, don’t be intimidated!  Go out there and courageously communicate his Word in the different circumstances and with the different opportunities the LORD places before you.  He is sending you out for that very purpose.  Trust that he knows what he is doing.  Amen. 

    2/17 Let Light Shine Out of Darkness
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
    Pastor Aaron Strong, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church


    There is a horrible syndrome that frequently attacks men. It’s a very sophisticated and well studied condition called “man eyes.” For instance, I’m looking for the jar of mayonnaise in the refrigerator and call out to my wife, “Are we out of mayo? I don’t see any!” She tells me that there is a brand new jar in there, just look. After a few more moments of fruitless searching I give up, only to have my wife come over and point to the jar of mayonnaise sitting right there in front of my eyes. Men, maybe you have experienced these symptoms of being blind to what is obviously in front of you. While this is prevalent in men, let’s be honest, it’s a disease that sometimes hits females too. “Man eyes,” where you are just blind to what’s in front of you.

    This is kind of a silly syndrome, but it’s a reflection of the very real spiritual problem that affects every person. Listen again to the words of 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. There is a very serious problem with spiritual blindness and the only solution is having the light of life shine in your life.

    The apostle Paul talks about how the gospel is veiled. Something that is veiled can’t be seen. A bride wears a veil to keep her face from being seen by her groom. In the same way the gospel, the good news of Jesus is veiled. It is veiled to those who have been blinded by the god of this age. The god of this age is the devil or as he’s described in Ephesians 2:2 “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” The devil doesn’t want you to see the life and salvation that is found in Jesus, so he blinds people from seeing the true light of life.

    If someone is blind to the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, does that mean there is something wrong with the message of Jesus? Not at all. If a blind man doesn’t see the sun, it’s not because the sun isn’t there or because it’s not shining. They don’t see because they are blind. In the same way the good news of Jesus shines brightly, but hearts and souls are blinded by the devil so that they cannot see.

    How does the devil blind the world? It’s much the same as when you play a game like pin the tail on the donkey. A blindfold is put over the eyes of each player so they cannot see what is in front of them. That blindfold blocks the eyes from seeing.

    The devil blindfolds the world. He blinds people by getting them to think that they are smarter than God. He lures people with temptations that are much more appealing and pleasurable to the sinful nature yet blinds them from the eternal consequences. He blinds with greed. He blinds with popular philosophies or slick preachers who preach themselves or a message that falls well short of showing Jesus. He tricks a person into looking only at the good they’ve done and finding security and hope in that and yet blinds them from seeing the sin in their life. He blinds people to the power of the gospel and instead of finding forgiveness, life and peace in the crucified and risen Savior, he would have you find a lesser way with God that is based on emotion and feelings or a message that is more entertaining or what your itching ears want to hear.

    All of those things cover the eyes of our hearts and souls and blocks the true light of Jesus from shining into our lives. We focus so much on ourselves and the things of this world that we lose sight of Jesus. That’s the way the god of this age wants it. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:5, 10- 11). And all too often, people, including ourselves, are too willing to stumble through the darkness of sin and unbelief than to believe the gospel of God’s salvation. This is tragic!

    The worst thing that happens if I’m blind to the jar of mayo that sits right in front of me is that I have a bland sandwich. But the consequence of being blind to the good news of Jesus is death. The gospel is

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    veiled to those who are perishing. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18).

    There was a man who loved the darkness even though he didn’t even realize that he was in the dark. He persecuted Christians because he thought that’s what God wanted. He focused on his life of righteousness and was blinded to the sin that ran rampant in his life. It wasn’t until God shined the light of life into his life, literally and spiritually, that the blinds were removed. The man I’m talking about is the one who wrote our lesson for today, the Apostle Paul. Once as Paul went to round up followers of Jesus in order to imprison them, a light from heaven flashed around Paul, and Jesus spoke to Paul revealing himself as the true God and Savior. The blindfold of sin that had covered his eyes was removed by God and he could see with a believing heart that the very Jesus that he persecuted was the promised Savior of the world who had lived, died and rose again for Paul’s forgiveness and eternal life too.

    The devil together with your own sinful nature works to blind people to the glory of God and leave them in the darkness of unbelief. Yet the true God gives us light and life. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

    Paul emphasizes that his preaching is not about himself or his own ideas, so unlike those who are lost in the dark want to distort the truth with deceptive teachings and thoughts. But instead look at the only thing that needed to be preached, the only thing that is needed to be known and believed, Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s a simple statement with simple words, but a phrase that shines the light of truth. Jesus, the man who lived on earth, is the Lord God. As the lesson said earlier, the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

    It’s that very truth that we see revealed in the gospel as Jesus went up on the mountain with three of disciples and there was transfigured before their eyes. Jesus shined with all of the divine glory that belonged to him. He reminded his disciples of this fact because in a short while he would suffer and be put to death. But that death was necessary for him to be the substitute for the sins of the world, for you and me. Jesus is the image of God and through his preaching and life he gives us an intimate look at God’s grace, his undeserved compassion and love for sinners.

    While naturally we are blinded to this truth, God causes this light of life shine into your heart to believe. At the time of creation, God said, “Let light shine out of darkness.” With his simple yet powerful word, God created light to shine in a world that was nothing but darkness. It’s that same simple yet powerful word that God uses to shine the light of life into your and my naturally dark world of sin. That light gives us the knowledge of God’s glory shown in Christ Jesus. Through God’s promises we find that forgiveness and life are made possible not through our own efforts, but the efforts of Jesus. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

    As you trust in Jesus as the Lord and Savior, he shines brightly into your life. He breaks apart the darkness with the promises of forgiveness and life. The blinds are removed. We see sin as disobedience and lack of love towards God and how it separates us from him. We look to Jesus to shine in our life of love and thanksgiving to God. When you’re blinded by guilt to think that God couldn’t love or forgive, look to the light of Jesus and see God’s love on display. When you feel like you’re stumbling through life lost in the darkness of confusion and uncertainty, look to the light of Christ for guidance and his promise to be with always. When someone else is blinded by this world, take them up to the Mount of Transfiguration to see the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus. Let that light of truth shine into their lives.

    We only find real life, hope and peace by looking at the face of Jesus and seeing him for who he truly is. He doesn’t hide his face from us. He’s right there in front of you in God’s Word. Don’t have worldly eyes that blind you to him. But may God continue to let light shine out of darkness in your life to focus on Jesus your life and salvation. Amen. 


    2/13 Names of Wondrous Love- The Truth
  • John 18:37

    What is the meaning and purpose of life?  Why am I here?  Where did I come from and where am I going?  Who is God?  How do I get to know him?  What is right and what is wrong?  And why?  What is this voice inside of me that keeps nagging at me?  What can I do to silence it or satisfy it?  Is there life after death?  And how can I be so sure?  What is truth?

    What is truth?  It’s a question that has occupied the hearts and minds of people the world over for thousands of years.  Some of the world’s greatest minds have taken their best shot at answering the question.  From Aristotle to Voltaire, from Confucius to Freud, from Gandhi to Nietzsche, from Buddha to Descartes, from Plato to Kierkegaard, from Socrates to Sartre.  But which of them – if any – were right?

    Who’s to say what truth is?  Does the smartest guy in the room get to determine that?  Or does the strongest personality?  Is it a matter of public opinion?  Or is it an individual’s choice (decide for yourself what truth means for you)?  In America public opinion is shifting so that things like abortion and homosexuality are more and more so being regarded as morally acceptable by a majority of the population.  In much of Africa, on the other hand, those things are morally reprehensible!  And in parts of the Middle East you can be executed for them!  Then again, in China under its official Family Planning Policy, abortions are required for urban couples who attempt to have more than one child.  And according to the latest polls, 76% of the Chinese population is in support of the policy!  Who’s right?  What is truth?

    Few if any have been so bold as to lay claim to a monopoly on the truth.  Few to none have dared to claim to have all the answers or to possess absolute truth.  None, that is except a beaten, blooded and bound criminal on trial for insurrection in a Roman court nearly 2,000 years ago.  “For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).

    The head of that particular court, the governor Pontius Pilate, could hardly believe his ears.  And he certainly wasn’t about to believe the one who was speaking to him.  This Jesus definitely wasn’t the strongest one in the room, by Pilate’s estimation.  He didn’t appear to be a wise philosopher, a learned scholar, or mighty king.  “Truth!  What do you know about truth?!”

    Ah, but don’t judge a book by its cover.  Especially this book!  This was the King of kings and Lord of lords, the King of creation and Lord of the universe, albeit wrapped for the moment in beaten, bloodied, humble human form.  “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus had said.  To which Pilate responded:  “You are a king, then!”  Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king.  In fact, for this reason I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  (John 18:36-38)

    What about you?  Are you on the side of truth?  Are you willing to listen to the truth and take it to heart?  Do you listen to Jesus?

    Let’s admit it . . . it’s difficult to do!  The prevailing philosophy of our culture is relativism.  In our culture most share the opinion of Pilate, who flippantly brushed Jesus off with the retort:  “What is truth?!”  Truth for most people is relative.  You hear it when you hear people say, “I believe a person should be able to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.”  Or “I believe every person deep down inside knows what’s best for them.”  “You’re a Christian?  Jesus is your Savior?!  Great!  Good for you!  That doesn’t work for me, though.  So, you enjoy Jesus . . . he works for you.  I’ll go with what seems to work for me.  After all, it’s all the same in the end.”  “You’re happily married?  That’s great!  Marriage seems a bit old fashioned to me, though.  So, I’m going to sleep around and do what feels right to me.  I’m going to move in together with my partner a while . . . see how it goes.  It’s all good!”

    Truth for the relativist is a moving, shifting thing.  It means different things to different people, and can even change for a given person depending on different factors. Truth for an individual depends on one’s upbringing, one’s surroundings, one’s opinion, one’s stage of life and one’s circumstances. 

    There’s little to no true security for those who build their lives on the shifting sand of relativism, however.  The problem with a shifting, moving foundation is that when the storms and especially the earthquakes of life hit, your life is likely to come crashing down all around you . . . and finally you’re destined to suffer out and outright destruction and death – eternal death! 

    Jesus put it this way:  “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:26-27).  On the other hand, Jesus said:  “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (7:24-25).

    Why do Jesus’ words have such power to produce a solid foundation and basis to our lives?  Because they are truth!  Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).  He is the Word of God personified, who “came from the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  He came to speak and share the truth – the truths of God and of heaven, of life and of salvation, with us.  “If you hold to my teaching,” he once said, “you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth and the truth with set you free” (John 8:31-32).  This truth gives us the freedom of forgiveness of sins, freedom from the fears of death and hell, freedom from the lies of Satan and the control of Satan, and therefore, freedom for living our lives in the truth and to the service of God.  It changes us from the inside out by sanctifying us, as Jesus mentioned in his Last Supper prayer:  “Father, sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth” (John 17:17). 

    So, I ask you:  What is it worth to you to know the truth?  Do you value it and treasure it for the remarkable gift and rare treasure that it is?  To actually know what pleases God, whom you’ve come to love and respect, because he first loved you.  To know what God regards to be right and what he regards to be wrong. 

    The truth is that it’s hard to hold on to this truth of God’s law.  Daily you have to struggle against the lies of the devil.  He tries to trip you up with deception and half truths and with the prevailing relativism of our day.  “Sure, lying is wrong.  Sure, adultery is wrong.  Sure, cheating to get a leg up on the pack is wrong, generally speaking.  And so, too, is refusing to forgive and holding a grudge.  But for you . . . considering the circumstances you find yourself in . . .”  Far too often the devil is successful at getting into our heads and having his way in our lives. 

    That being said, I now ask you another question . . . what’s it worth to you to know the truth of the gospel – that Jesus is the only-begotten, eternal God the Son; that he came to this earth for the sole purpose of saving you from your sin and the death and hell you had coming to you as a result; that he did this by obeying every command of God to perfection as your substitute; and that God now credits you with Jesus’ righteousness; that he then went to the cross for you, where the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all and where it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer as the sacrifice of atonement for your sins – including all the times you listened to the devil rather than to him.  What’s it mean to you to know that he was “pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5); healed as in forgiven, as in rescued from death and hell?  What does it mean to you to know the truth that Jesus loved even Pilate enough to try to reach out to him with the truth of the gospel, and has done the same for you . . . sending his Holy Spirit into your heart through his Word and Sacraments to work the saving gift of faith in Christ within you; the truth that heaven is now – for Jesus’ sake – destined to be your eternal dwelling place?!

    That, in a nutshell, is the truth of the gospel . . . the truth of Christ . . . the truth which is Christ!  I’ll tell you, there is nothing I love more than watching the Holy Spirit bring a person to a faith-realization of the truth.  Watching as over the course of weeks or months of Bible study the Holy Spirit draws back the curtain so that a person sees the truth for the first time in their lives.  You can almost visibly see a weight lift off their shoulders, hope enter their eyes, peace written all across their face, a guilty conscience being granted relief, a skip – even a bounce – put back in one’s step.  Because once a person comes to know Jesus, they come to know the truth.  And the truth, the gospel truth, sets a person free . . . free from the paralyzing fears of the future, from the enslaving control of sin and Satan in the present, and from the disabilitating regrets of the past.  That’s the power of the truth.  That’s the power of Christ!

    The Truth . . . what a wondrous name for such a wondrous and loving Savior!  Amen.

    2/10 How Good Lord, to be Here
  • Luke 9:28-36

    "How good to be here!" You say as you recline on your chaise lounge. The sun is shining. The water looks inviting. You're on vacation. It's good to be on vacation! You're not working. The kids are happy. The wife is dozing while reading a book. Life is good. "I'm not going back to work ever." You tell yourself. "I'm just gonna stay here on this beach. I'll buy a fishing boat and just stay here forever."

    Of course, you won't do that. You're not going to throw your cell-phone into the ocean and give up on your normal life. You'll get back on the plane and fly back home to "real life." Your plans of living in paradise, forgotten, on hold indefinitely. "Someone's gotta pay for all this fun," you tell yourself.

    It's nice to be on vacation, but life isn't a vacation. You all know that. It's full of bills, work, doctor's appointments, and so on. It can be a grind. Sometimes you need a break. That's why we have holidays and vacation. We rest, recharge, re-orient. All of that is good.

    Peter felt the same way. He was happy to be up there on top of the mount of transfiguration. It was a kind of mini-vacation. It's not some toes in the sand kind of vacation, though it did recharge the disciples and re-orient them. It wasn't meant to last, though. Today, this morning, we too are going to see how we can say with Peter How Good, Lord, to be Here. It's good to see his glory and it's good to hear his voice.

    All of the things we heard about in the Gospel lesson this morning happened about 6 months before the death of Jesus. His popularity was beginning to diminish and people were beginning to oppose him publicly. Just the week before, Jesus had begun to tell his disciples that he was going to suffer and die. The disciples, especially Peter, didn't like this and (or because) they didn't understand it either.

    At this point, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the top of a nearby mountain. Luke tells us they went up to pray and while the four of them were up there, something happened. Luke tells us Jesus changed. It was more than just some exterior alteration, his face and clothes were so bright you couldn't even look at them. His humble nature seems to have been set aside and his full glory is shining forth. And he's talking to two of the greats: Moses and Elijah.

    It must have been a long hike, late in the day, and some heavy-duty prayer because it seems like Peter and the rest were in a sleepy stupor. And as they come out of that deep sleep Peter sees Elijah and Moses leaving. He quickly hatches a plan to put up some tents. "Master, it is good for us to be here," he says. But as he was telling them his plan a cloud covered them and before you knew it, everything was back to normal.

    Can you imagine it? What a let down. Peter, James, and John were used to seeing Jesus in his humble state. In fact, that's the only Jesus they knew. He's a lowly man, just like them. But when they saw the full glory of Jesus, everything was completely different. This was what the Messiah had come for. Finally! They were going to see victory over all their oppressors and the kingdom of glory would be established here on earth! Or so they thought.

    But they didn't quite get it. Peter saw the glory and he didn't want it to end. This was the sneak preview. This was the brief foretaste of the glory they could expect for themselves. His Savior revealed just a touch of the heavenly splendor and Peter was ready to just quit there. He longed for a continuation of the present state where everything seemed to be just right. And when he saw Moses and Elijah leaving, he knew he had to act quickly before they were gone. He didn't want the vacation to end. But he didn't know what he was saying. Jesus couldn't stay there. This glory was only temporary. Christ had already said that he had to suffer and die. It couldn't be stopped. If Peter were really wise and rightly concerned about true glory he would've known that Jesus had to go to the cross. Jesus had to complete that redeeming work to win permanent glory for all of us.

    We often make the same mistake, though, don’t we? We expect everything to be perfect here. We seek to make our homes here as comfortable as possible while neglecting what God wants for us. You store up all the money you can here for your earthly time. You make sure that you have the best of everything. You don't want to have too many kids, then you wouldn't be able to get enough stuff.

    Sometimes it can be easy for us to get a little close-minded, wouldn't you say? We prepare Sunday morning to come to church, and we enjoy the smallest glimpse of heavenly glory here, and we want to stay. "It's good, Lord, to be here," we tell ourselves. Why would we want to go anywhere else? Church is the only place I'm comfortable talking about my faith. Don't want any new face around here, could be uncomfortable. Don't want to live my faith out there, that could be really uncomfortable.

    It's great that your comfortable. It truly is good to be here, but it's not perfect. God doesn't want for us to just stay in our comfort zone. He wants us to long for the glory of heaven. We have to come down off the mountain into the hot, stinky valley of real life. Remember that it's not about what happens here, we're just strangers here. Heaven is our true home.

    So it really is good to be here. Because here is where we come to be reminded of our God's love for us. Here is where we see the Lord revealing his glory. Here we are blessed to hear the words of forgiveness for all our sins. Here the Holy Spirit grows our faith in the power of our Lord. Here we see it, a fleeting hint of the glory that is to come in Christ our Savior. Praise be to God that he brings us up on this mountain and stoops to our level. How good, Lord, to be here. Not only because we get a chance to see God's glory, but because it's here that we hear his voice.

    Listen to what happened when that cloud was hiding the scene from Peter, James, and John. "A voice came from the cloud, saying, 'This is my Son, whom I have chosen: listen to him.'" Then the cloud lifted and Jesus was alone. This same account is recorded for us in Matthew and Mark. There Jesus tells the three not to tell anyone about this whole experience and here we see that they didn't. "The disciples kept this to themselves," it reads.

    Jesus had shown Peter, James, and John his glory and they were ready to stay there forever, but that was not to be the case. They heard the voice of God and it must have become apparent that they were taking part in something much bigger than themselves. They couldn't stay there forever. They would have to go down the mountain, but in the meantime God had instructions for them. "Listen to him," the Father said.

    The fact of the matter is that they did have to leave the mountain. Jesus' glory was fleeting and now his humiliation was at hand. His face wasn't shining. He was back to his normal, human self, nothing in his appearance to call attention to him. From now on Jesus would be persecuted. He would lose his following. No one would listen to him. Eventually, everyone would leave him, even the disciples, even the Father. He would be all alone.

    And God tells Peter, James, and John to "listen to him." That means even when what Jesus is saying sounds crazy, even if it is completely against your nature or you logic, even though Jesus will look like a pathetic, powerless, dying man, listen to what he has to say. Even when he tells you what you don't want to hear, like that you're sinful, or that he was going to die.

    Ooooh, that's tough. It's tough to listen. We don't want to hear what he has to say sometimes. We don't want to hear that we're sinful. We don't want to hear him warn the disciples that he was going to suffer and die. We don’t want to see him doing any of that. So it seems a lot easier just to ignore God's command and not listen.

    "But I listen to what Jesus has to say!" you're telling yourself. Well that's good. You should. But are you sure you're listening all the way? Have you read everything he says? He tells us that he hasn't come to bring peace but a sword. That those who want to get to heaven must hate their families. He tells us to turn the other cheek. Listening is a lot different than hearing. So we hear what we want and we try to do what seems best and for the rest we just tell God the way we think it should be instead of listening like he wants.

    So do you? Do you listen to Jesus? I mean he did give us a long list of things to do. Do you love your enemies, give to the needy, pray continually? Do you avoid adultery, worry, and the judging of others? Listening to Jesus might seem impossible, but it's actually really easy. He knows we have to do all those things, but we can't. For that reason he fulfilled all that the law required for us. Then he gave us the benefits. So yes, do listen to Jesus. He's got a lot of good news to tell you, too!

    Like that he was more than just some wise teacher who gave us a handy to-do list. Like that he was truly the Son of God and the sacrifice that would remove the barrier between God and us. He tells us that because of his work, not ours, heaven now belongs to us!

    So we do listen to him. Listen to him when he speaks. Hear the words he has for us. They're found in the Bible. This is where Jesus speaks to us. This is how we hear the good news concerning our eternal destiny. This is where God finds you and the Spirit transforms you and your walls are knocked down and your heart is opened and your faith is watered.

    This book is where we see that Jesus really does know what's best for us. Because in spite of Peter's "it's good to be here" protest, Jesus still surrendered the full exercise of his divine nature. In spite of the prevailing thought and in spite of our fallen, rebellious notion that we know what's best for ourselves Jesus still loves us. And in spite of how much it seemed like a defeat for God and a win for the devil, Jesus still let himself be nailed up on that cross. Because of that not only did God win, we all win too, because Jesus died for us.

    So say what you want. It's good to be here. It's good to be here in God's house worshipping him. It's good to be here on this earth living God-pleasing lives and spreading the news about what Jesus has done for the whole world. That good news tells us that we've been rescued from all the evil in us and around us. That makes life here seem not so bad. But more importantly we look forward to the day when we will be in heaven and we can truly say: "How good, Lord, to be here, with you." Amen.

    1/27 Don't be so Stubborn
  • Exodus 7: 14-24

    Have any of you ever met a stubborn person? You know, the type of person that, once they've made their mind up, they aren't going to change their opinions on anything. They are very determined and single-minded. If you look closely you can see stubborn people all over the place. They are the famous commentators on your favorite political TV show or sports radio show. If you can't think of anyone you know who's stubborn, perhaps you're the stubborn one.
    But being stubborn is more than just some sort of dogged determination or firm resolve. It's a refusal to change an attitude or position on an issue in spite of good arguments or rational reasoning to the contrary. Someone who is stubborn is not a lot of fun to be around. They always think they're right and it never pays to argue with them.
    In the section of God's Word before us today we see a classic example of someone who is very stubborn. Pharaoh is set in his ways. And while being a steadfast Pharaoh can be a good trait for a leader, being stubborn can be a tragic flaw. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary Pharaoh refuses to believe. You and I, we're not exactly like Pharaoh, but we can still learn a lot from him. Today we'll see that The LORD is God. He revealed it to Pharaoh and us. Both in power and in love.
    "The LORD" is the name God gives to himself. It's the name that reminds us that he is the great "I Am" God, the God of free and faithful grace! He makes promises and he keeps them. He threatens and follows through on his threats. Some people pronounce this all-caps "LORD" "Jehovah" or "Yahweh". For our purposes, we'll just call him "the LORD".
    Well the LORD decided that his chosen people, the Children of Israel, had been in captivity long enough. He was going to bring them out from under the thumb of Pharaoh and his slavery. So he sent his servants Moses and Aaron to try and convince the Pharaoh that it was time to let his people go.
    Pharaoh was an unbeliever and he was reluctant to release the Israelites. I guess he wasn't a total unbeliever… he believed, just in himself, not the LORD. And you know what else? He was really stubborn. Moses and Aaron had asked Pharaoh to release the Israelites so they could go and worship in the desert for 3 days. They even performed the sign of turning Aaron's staff into a snake. But Pharaoh didn't let the people go. Even when Aaron's staff/snake ate all the snakes that Pharaoh's magicians made he wouldn't listen. He was so, so, stubborn.
    We read in Exodus that, "The LORD said to Moses, 'Pharaoh's heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go.'" So the LORD tells Moses and Aaron to go out to him in the morning, while he's on his way to take a bath in the Nile. Then they were to take the staff they had turned into a snake and tell Pharaoh, "The LORD the God of the Hebrews has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert. But until now you have not listened. This is what the LORD says: By this you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood."
    God is serious, and God is warning Pharaoh, but he just refused to listen. We often make the same mistake, wouldn't you agree? Most of us have, at one time or another, just closed up our ears. We refuse to listen to what God has to say. It's easy sometimes to put our hands over our ears like little kids and just pretend not to hear what God is telling us. We would rather believe in ourselves. Sure God tells us to love one another. But it's just so much easier to hate those people who just make me so angry. Sure God tells us to be honest, but why? Isn't it a lot easier just to lie about our hours at work? Or work just a little slower than we know we can? It's not that big of a deal. Is it?
    And you know what? Life can seem a lot trickier than just trying to keep the 10 commandments. Our lives are full of difficult situations. A lot of times there is not clear black and white answer to our problems. We all have our fair share of problems, and there are more than enough people out there who are willing to sell you their solutions. "Your life is full of pain? Try drugs or alcohol" they tell you. "You feel lost? You just need to make your life more intentional." The gurus want you to think it's all about a certain diet plan or physical regimen, but they ignore the real problem: Your sin.
    Your sin that makes you desire selfish things instead of your God. The sin that makes it a whole lot easier to try and save face than to admit you're wrong and apologize. The sin that ultimately separates you from your God. Not only Pharaoh had that sin, but so did Moses and Aaron and so do you and I. Pharaoh never would repent. And he would find his end fighting against God all the way to the bottom of the Red Sea. Moses and Aaron did repent. They lived their lives in the glory of forgiveness. They spent their lives in the service of God and of his people; You and I, we live lives in the glory of forgiveness, too. We know our sins well, but we know our Savior even better. We repent and we glory in that free gift of the forgiveness of sins. Glory be to the LORD for that!
    Speaking of the LORD. He warned Pharaoh that he would turn the Nile into blood, then he did it. He showed everyone that he was God. We read from Exodus: "Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and the water changed to blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt. But the Egyptian magicians did the same things by their secret arts, and Pharaoh's heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. Instead, he turned and went into his palace, and did not take even this to heart."
    Just imagine how the people of Egypt must have felt. They couldn't have known that their fearless, stubborn leader was having a confrontation with the Almighty LORD God. But when the Nile river (the NILE!), the lifeblood of their beloved country, one of the high gods in their religious system, the backbone of their economy, was turned from it's usual blue to actual blood they must have been terrified. I'm sure they went quickly from terrified to thirsty, because they couldn't find any water to drink. Even the water in their storage containers was changed to blood.
    Now you'd think that a show of power like this would crack Pharaoh's heart of stone, but the text tells us that he just turned indifferently and went into his house. He didn't care about his loyal subjects suffering. He didn't even take this to heart. God did what he could, but he won't force someone believe. Pharaoh rejected God and sealed his own fate.
    Imagine the Israelites, though. As much as the Nile meant power and life for the Egyptians, for the Israelites it represented slavery. When God's people saw that mighty river, the source of everything, turned into a stinking cesspool of death and fear they must have been so…relieved. Finally! After all of this, their God was showing not only his power, but his love. For the Egyptians it meant certain defeat. For the Israelites that bloody Nile meant freedom.
    That's the way it is today, too. Isn't it? What the atheist bloggers and unbelieving co-workers see is a God who is angry. They see in your beloved religion a strict code of conduct, a rigid set of rules that is a heavy burden. They see myths and ignorance. Where they see chains, you see freedom from sin. Where they see myths you see the eternal truth. Where they see an angry God, you see a God who is not only mighty in power but oh so loving. If they could only see what we see! They would know what we know. The freedom, the way, the truth, life eternal. God continually demonstrating his love for us.
    But no matter how much God demonstrates his love for us it's still so easy for us to forget. The Devil would love for us to think like Pharaoh. He'd love for us to become indifferent to the grace God has won for us. He'd love for us to think to ourselves, "yeah sure, I've sinned. But what's the big deal. I'm forgiven, right?" Satan wants us to see Jesus sacrificing himself and then have us turn, go into our houses and not take it to heart. Why would we want to? It hurts to think that on account of me another person had to die. It hurts that my sins are serious. That's why I try to just not think about it.
    But you can't do that! You are sinful. God's Word calls on us to confess our sins and repent. John the Baptist preached, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Look at God's 10 commandments. You haven't just broken them, you've shattered them like Moses when he threw the tablets of stone. Don't wallow in unrepentance. Don't roll around in the mud of your sin. Don't be so stubborn like Pharaoh. Look at yourselves, and repent. Leave your sin behind, and go to God in faith.
    That faith that sees a bloody Nile river and recognizes it as a manifestation of God's love. Faith that sees the LORD guiding and protecting Moses and all the Israelites to the promised land. Faith that sees the bloody sacrifice of the Savior on the cross and recognizes it as the greatest show of God's love for all humankind. Oh yes, faith that enjoys the freedom from sin, a guilty conscience, and the fear of death. Faith that experiences and express love for God. Faith that enjoys freedom from slavery to sin and Satan. Yes that faith is your faith. The LORD did all these things for you. He protected his people so that the Savior could come from them. He sacrificed his son so that your sins would be forgiven. He sent Jesus to set you free!
    The struggle will never go away for you as long as you're on this side of heaven. Your old Adam or Eve will continually try to stubbornly keep you in your sins. Through faith in Christ, you will struggle, but you will also fail. That's what makes your faith in Christ so important. Because even though you are sinful, in spite of how unloveable you are, Christ loves you and gave himself for you. You are forgiven for the times you stumble and fall. And in the end you will win.
    So yes, we are stubborn. We fight against our God and at times reluctantly repent like children caught red-handed. We live imperfect lives and constantly don't meet up to God's expectations. But thank God that the LORD is God. He shows himself to us not only in the power of the works of his hands. Not only in the power we learn about in the Bible but also in love. That love that we can only know about through Jesus and through his Word. That love that we share with our neighbors. Yes that love that saves us, even us, the stubborn, stiff-necked sinners.
    Amen.
    And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds though faith in Christ Jesus.

    1/20 Bathed in God’s Kindness and Love
  • Titus 3:4-7

    Think back to worship in December. You might recall some things that were unique about worship. The church was decorated for Christmas and our service had a special advent opening each week. Perhaps you remember something else unique. You might recall all of the baptisms. We had an opportunity to witness seven baptisms in December from little babies to even an adult. What a joy it was to see the little children whether they were willing participants or fought against it to be baptized. I hope that on each of those occasions you were reminded of your own baptism.

    It’s important for us to understand and appreciate baptism. So what is it? We talk about baptism as a cleansing and it’s sometimes referred to as a bath. But if you were to look at it as a strictly earthly bath, it’s not really all that good of a cleaning. We don’t line up any bottles of shampoo or body wash. We don’t include a bar of soap. You don’t even get all that wet. The head gets some water on it. But I’m fairly certain that each child and person that was baptized probably had a much better bath or shower at home before they came.

    Baptism isn’t that kind of a cleansing. In fact the cleansing that we have in baptism goes beyond water and is far more powerful than any cleaning agent. God tells us in our lesson from Titus chapter three that you are bathed in his kindness and love.

    The opening verse of the lesson is a perfect segue that takes from Christmas to today’s lesson. “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared...” God’s made his love and kindness visible. I can show love and kindness. It’s called a hug. It looks like holding the door for a stranger whose hands are full or pouring a cup of coffee for someone. There are lots of ways that you can make your love and kindness visible. God did it in a different way. God our Savior made his loving kindness for mankind visible by sending his Son. The baby in the manger was God’s love and kindness sent to earth. The man who was baptized with the Spirit in the Jordan River, whom God announced, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” this was God’s love and kindness poured out on the earth.

    When that kindness and love of God appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, God saved you. Take a look at the reason that God saved you. Not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy he saved us. In a new year, people like to make resolutions that will better them and their life. I want to get in better shape so I’m going to exercise and eat better. I want to pay it forward so I’m going to volunteer more this year. I want better karma to come my way so I’m going to treat others better. A lot of times you and I get into this thinking that the harder I work or dedicate myself to something, the better the result will be. Often that’s true.

    But that’s not how it works when it comes to a right relationship with God. No matter how hard you might try to get in good with God, no matter how much good you try to do it can’t make you perfect in God’s eyes. Going to church on Sunday is not going to make up for ignoring the Lord the rest of the week. Helping an old lady carry her bags is not going to make up for the nasty, angry things you said to your spouse or friend. A selfless act of love cannot negate the many selfish decisions and actions in your life that lacked love towards God or your neighbor. God didn’t save you because he saw something good in you or because you deserved it. If God waited to save you until he saw something good in you, you’d stand no chance of ever being saved.

    There’s an accurate description of you and I in the verse just prior to where our lesson started, “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” God doesn’t save you

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    because you tried hard or because you were worthy enough. You and I are sinful and because of that sin, we deserve God’s wrath and anger. But because of his mercy he saved us.

    How do you know that didn’t save you because of anything that you have done? Look at how God talks about saving you, here and in many other places. He saved you. He talks about it as something that is already done. God’s plan to save you and all sinners is completed by the work of Jesus. It was completed before you even had a chance to attempt to earn salvation based on your merit. God saved you purely by his mercy; his kindness; his love. God saved you by bathing you in that kindness and love.

    He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. In today’s gospel we heard the account of Jesus’ baptism. He was baptized not to wash away his sins; he had none. But rather he was baptized to be anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power as he began his public ministry. Jesus was baptized that he might give your baptism power.

    When God’s kindness and love appeared in the visible form and life of Jesus we find Jesus to be the righteousness that you and I aren’t. We aren’t saved by the righteous things we’ve done because we’re sinful and can’t do righteous things in God’s eyes. But we’re saved because of the righteous things that Jesus did. He perfectly obeyed God’s will and commands. He was sinless. He paid the price for your sins. Jesus clothed himself in righteousness and because he died for sin and rose to live he can offer that righteousness to you.

    That’s exactly what God in his kindness and love offers in baptism. Baptism is not a cleansing because water is involved. Baptism is a cleansing because of God’s promise of forgiveness that is attached to it. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25–27). God promises his gift of the Holy Spirit through baptism who works into your unrighteous heart to remove your sins by connecting you through faith to the righteousness of Christ.

    In baptism God bathes you in his kindness and love. That flood of God’s grace and mercy drowns your sinful nature as it is put to death with Christ. “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). Through baptism you are born again into a new life and a renewed relationship with God that is free from sin and clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.

    There’s a rule at my house that before you sit at the dinner table you have to have clean hands. My children go into the bathroom and with soap and water wash away all of the dirt, germs, marker, slime and whatever else from their hands. With clean hands they are welcome at the table.

    In order to have a seat in God’s kingdom, you need to be washed clean too. In Christ and through baptism you are made clean. God states the blessed result of being bathed in his kindness and love in the last verse, “So that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

    The result of Jesus’ work that we are connected to through the faith that is created by the Holy Spirit in baptism is that you are justified before God. That means that you are declared not guilty. You are acquitted of your sins. Again, this isn’t because of anything that you have done, but only because of God’s undeserved love called grace. God graciously frees you from your sins all for the sake of Jesus.

    Now as you come before God with a heart that looks to Jesus, freed from your guilt and sins, you are an heir having the hope of eternal life. God has written you into his will and the inheritance is a place in his eternal kingdom. Not bad for people who think too highly of themselves, who try too hard to earn what they can’t get. For a bunch of people like you and I who aren’t worth anything because of sin, God bathes you in his kindness and love and makes you his own.

    So live as an heir of eternal life. Think about how rich heirs live their lives. Heirs and heiresses like Paris Hilton live their life like they are heirs to a great fortune. They wear expensive clothes, live in massive homes, dine and party with the best of food and drink. You too can live the rich life. You are bathed in God’s kindness and love. He pours it out generously. Share that wealth with others. Live in the righteousness of Christ. Leave behind the dirty rags of sin and wear the beautiful, richly ornamented robes of righteousness. Live in the peace and security of God’s love and kindness.

    When you witnessed those baptisms, you witnessed cleaning like no other. You witnessed God bathing those people with his kindness and love. Remember how God bathed you with his kindness and love at your baptism and that because of Jesus you are God’s own children. 


    1/13 A Christian Stewardship Paradox
  • Luke 7:36-50

    “You don’t owe me anything.”  Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by that phrase?

                Perhaps a friend or a friend of a friend came over to do some work on your car or on the house.  Something you simply couldn’t do yourself.  When they got done, you asked them:  “How much do I owe you?”  “You don’t owe me anything!”

                Perhaps you took the car in to get some repair work done or had to call a repairman to the house.  After they’ve finished and you ask what the damage is . . . what’s all the work going to cost, you’re told:  “You don’t owe anything.  It was still under warranty.”

                Or maybe you were at a restaurant . . . you finished eating, dishes were cleared away and your waitress came back with what you expected to be the bill.  “You don’t owe anything.  Someone picked up the tab for you!”  

                That’s a pretty great feeling, isn’t it?!  Especially when you know you really do owe them and fully expected to have to pay!  In fact, you may even be so grateful that you gave them a little something anyway.  You threw down an extra nice tip on the table . . . more than you would have given even if you owed them a tip.  Or you stopped over at your friend’s house and gave a little something to his wife, because you knew he wouldn’t take it but she’d accept it for him. 

                Christian stewardship works a little something like that.  The Lord in his grace says, “You don’t owe me anything!”  And yet, you know that you owe him everything!  And so you give him – or his bride, the Church – a little something anyways.

                Let us explore this stewardship paradox a bit further on the basis of the Gospel account recorded in Luke chapter 7. 

                On the evening of our lesson Jesus was invited over to a certain Pharisee’s home for dinner.  No sooner had Jesus sat down than an unwelcome guest invited herself into Simon’s home.  Uninvited, but not unrecognized.  Everyone in town knew this woman.  She had a reputation, if you know what I mean.  She walks straight up to Jesus who’s reclining at the dinner table and starts weeping.  The tears fall from her cheeks onto Jesus’ feet, and she stoops down to wipe them with her hair.  Then proceeds to kiss his feet and pour expensive perfume on them.   

                At this point you can almost cut the tension in the air with a knife!  Simon doesn’t say anything, but you know he wants to.  We do know what he was thinking, though . . . and so did Jesus:  “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner” (vs.39).  Inappropriate!  Shameful!  Disgusting!    

                Jesus is the first to break the silence.  “Simon, let me tell you something. . . .”  “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender.  One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both.  Now which of them will love him more?” (vss.41-42)

                The answer was obvious.  And so was the point Jesus was trying to make!  But just so that Simon – who as a Pharisee had simply no understanding of the gospel whatsoever – wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus spelled it out for him:  “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (vss.44-47).

                What this woman did that night was pretty unusual . . . pretty extraordinary!  But so was what Jesus had done for her!  Jesus had made her feel like she had never felt before.  Jesus had done something for her heart and her soul that no one else had even come close to doing!  Jesus had created hope in her heart.  He’d given her peace!  All because he’d been publicly preaching and teaching the gospel; the message that sinners – real sinners guilty of real sins – are forgiven by God freely by his grace for Jesus’ sake.  Through that gospel message, Jesus – for the first time in her life - had given this woman reason to believe that forgiveness was possible even for her . . . that she, too, could be forgiven for the life she’d lived and the things she’d done.  That although she had nothing to offer God, nothing that he could possibly want from her, that she, too, could be loved by God and could be sure that she would be welcomed by him into heaven one day.

                And when she so boldly came into Simon’s dining room that night, Jesus only confirmed those things for her – by means of a simple parable, by rising to her defense, and by the words:  “Your sins are forgiven!”

                Some of us – like the woman in our lesson – are likely very aware of our sins.  Certain ones in particular – those big sins we’ve committed that we can’t seem to ever put out of our minds for too long, or pet sins that we seem to constantly have to struggle against.  Others, on the other hand, perhaps identify a bit more with Simon, the Pharisee.  Our sinful natures try to convince us that our sins aren’t that many or that great; that our debt – while it’s nice that it’s been cancelled – wasn’t really all that great to begin with.

                On September 11th (9/11) each of the past ten to eleven years, thousands of people have gathered in downtown Manhattan to hear each of the names of the 2,753 victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks read aloud one by one.  The reading of that list of names – one by one, and recalling the disaster of that day back in 2001 as each of those names is read takes literally hours.

                Imagine if you were to have to sit and listen to a list of your sins being read aloud before a crowd of hundreds or thousands.  Shoot, even just sitting alone in a room all by yourself.  Listening to those sins being enumerated one by one – just as you committed them!  The lies you’ve told.  The promises you’ve broken.  The times you’ve lost your temper, lost your cool.  Every swear word; ever harsh word; every bitter and judgmental word.  Having to recall the feelings you’ve hurt; the pain you’ve caused; the harm you’ve done.  And wondering to yourself as the list goes on and on – hour after hour, how anyone – let alone a holy God – could ever forgive you for all that you have done!

                Do you understand and appreciate what a miraculous blessing it is that God has forgiven you of all your sins?!  Your debt of sin is tremendous – it’s unimaginable!  And yet the Lord has cancelled your debt; blotted out your transgressions!  “You don’t owe me anything,” the Lord says to you in the gospel.  For example, in the book of Isaiah, the Lord says:  “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts.  Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).  In the book of I Peter the Bible explains how something so valuable as forgiveness of sins and salvation can be freely given to us . . . because someone else paid the price:  “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed [which means, bought back from sin and the death and hell you had coming to as a result] . . . but with the precious blood of Christ” (I Peter 1:18-19).  And in the book of Hebrews the Bible tells us that since Jesus has paid the price for our forgiveness, we don’t have to do or pay anything for it:  “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . ‘Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.’  And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin’” (Hebrews 10:10,17-18).  Forgiveness, salvation, eternal life – it’s all a free gift from God.  That’s the message of the gospel!  “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not from yourselves, it is a gift from God” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  You don’t owe God anything!

                The woman in our lesson knew this. She already believed this, even before she came into Simon’s home that evening.  That’s why she was there to see Jesus.  That’s why she brought expensive perfume in a beautiful alabaster jar.  That’s why she loved Jesus so much.  She had been forgiven so much.  She’d already been given so much by Jesus.  And she didn’t owe him a thing – for any of it!  Then again, she owed him everything, didn’t she! . . . Worship, praise, obedience, love!  And how could she express that to him?  Well, you heard what she did.  And you heard how much Jesus appreciated it.

                You and I, too, owe God.  We owe God, not in the sense that he’s extended us a spiritual line of credit, which we now have to try to pay back.  It’s not a law-oriented debt.  Rather, it’s a gospel-debt; a debt of love, which – like the woman in our lesson – we can’t help but want to pay!   

                When someone gives you a gift, you want to say thank you.  And the bigger, the more meaningful, the more valuable to you the gift, likely the greater the gratitude – as Jesus led Simon to admit.  A thank you card may very well do the job for a Christmas or birthday gift, but what do we owe God for all that he’s given us? 

                I ask you to think about that here for a few minutes.  You and I were bound for hell!  Satan was our master.  Sin isn’t just what we did, it’s what we were.  But in pure mercy, Jesus rescued us from all of that . . . from spiritual and eternal death, from hell, from slavery to sin and our self-destructive behavior, from a haunting conscience and a troubled soul.  Being our Creator – as he is – we owe our existence, our entire being to God.  Being our Preserver and Provider, as he is, we owe him for every possession we have in this life!  And above all, being our Savior – as he alone is – we owe Jesus a debt of gratitude and love the likes of which a million lifetimes would never give us the chance to fully repay him!  But that doesn’t mean we won’t and don’t try.

                You owe God everything . . . worship, praise, obedience, love!  When we come into this house, where God dwells, we bring our guilty souls and our troubled, yet repentant hearts.  We confess our sins to God and hear him forgive us.  We bring our prayers and we offer our songs of praise.  And we also, as a part of our worship and praise and as an expression of our love for him, bring our offerings.  Not because we have to . . . not because we owe God anything.  But because we want to . . . because we owe God everything!  And we offer these expressions of our love and worship for him in keeping with what his word tells us about them.  We bring our offerings cheerfully.  We bring generous, firstfruit offerings (alabaster jars of perfume type offerings) – not the cheap leftovers.  We plan and prioritize our offerings to the Lord – not deciding on the way in that morning what to give him, as if he or our offerings to him were an afterthought.  And we closely guard that portion that we’ve determined ahead of time belongs to him, not taking from it at the end of the month to pay for other things.  We recognize that our gifts to him – our offerings – are a reflection of our faith, and proportionate not only to how he has financially and materially blessed us, but also in proportion to how he has spiritually blessed us.  The fact is that the Lord deserves nothing but our best.  We owe him that! 

                So there you have it.  You don’t owe God a thing.  His grace, his forgiveness, his love, his answers to your prayers, his Word, a place in his home in heaven one day – it’s all free!  Jesus paid the price, and no one else needs to or even can in any way pay anything more for them.  Then again, you owe God everything – you owe him everything you have for everything you have.  Reflect that fact in the way you think about and give your offerings this year.  Reflect that fact in the way you prioritize worship and Bible study time.  Reflect that in all that you say and do.  You owe him nothing less!  Amen.
    1/6 Be Like the Wise Men
  • Matthew 2:1-12
    by Vicar John Raasch

    Have any of you ever gone on a scavenger hunt? You know, you get a slip of paper with a clue and then once you figure it out you go to where the clue leads you. Once you get there, you find another clue. And so it goes until you get to the end and you find whatever it is you're looking for; a prize, an award, or some other treasure.

    Scavenger hunts are fun and many people enjoy doing them, especially if the hunt is fun or adventurous and there's a good prize at the end. But no matter how good the scavenger hunt is, it's just some way to kill time while running around with your friends and competing. Right?

    Well the Magi were on a scavenger hunt of their own. But theirs was a little different. They weren't following some contrived course looking for some "treasure" of questionable value. They were looking for the one they called the "King of the Jews."  They wanted to find him so they could worship him. They were looking for a most valuable treasure. This is a really important kind of "scavenger hunt." And you and I are on the same hunt, too. But do you sometimes treat your life as if it were some sort of trivial scavenger hunt? I think we do sometimes, don't we? Just going from one task to the next as if it weren't all that important? Even when we look at this account of the Magi we don't tend to focus on the most important parts.

    There's a lot of mythology and conjecture surrounding these mysterious magi from the east. Who were they? Where did they come from? How did they know to follow the star? What did the star look like? How did the star guide them? How many wise men were there? What about their gifts? What do they mean? What are "frankincense" and "myrrh" anyways?

    I could spend a lot of time trying to fill you in on all the theories that seek to answer these superficial questions. And there might even be a little bit of benefit to that, but I won't. Even if I did tell you a few theories it would leave us where we were, not knowing all the facts and just guessing. But, in the end, the answers to those questions aren't all that important. If they were, the Bible would've told us. It doesn't.

    The Bible doesn't give us all the answers and details for a reason. God leaves us with unanswered questions not to create confusion, but to place all the emphasis on the main thing: These wise men sought the Christ so that they could worship him. We are left in the dark on all these facts, so that against this dark background the light of the Christ may shine.

    Well you and I can learn some lessons from these Magi. Seek the Savior and Serve the Savior.

    "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

    "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 'In Bethlehem in Judea,' they replied."

    Do you see what the Magi did? First things first. They were looking for the Savior. They went into town, on their scavenger hunt, without all the details. Somehow they knew enough to get to Jerusalem and ask the questions that needed to be answered. "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." They didn't know everything and that's why they had to ask around.

    All this investigation raised some eyebrows in town. Even King Herod caught wind of this search party looking for the "king of the Jews." Once he found out about another king, look out! The people of Jerusalem knew the kinds of lunacy Herod the Great was capable of. Sure he had rebuilt the temple for the Jews but he was also known to be a shrewd and arbitrary ruler. He had even executed many members of his own family. No wonder they were all scared when he felt a little threatened; even if it was just a little baby boy being born.

    But Herod still played the part of the disinterested benevolent ruler. He really just wanted to help out. He was even nice enough to gather all the Jewish scholars together so he could ask them where this Christ was to have been born. That was an easy one for them. "In Bethlehem in Judea." Micah wrote it clear as day in his prophecy. “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’" Now that they had the next clue they were ready to continue the hunt.

    You see, these wise men were truly wise. They asked all the right questions and they sought their Savior diligently. So if we are to be like the magi, we too must seek the Savior. Look for him! The wise men asked, "Where is he?" They looked for him. They knew enough about the promises to know that he was worthy to be sought.  This is an important thing for believers to do, too!

    When one year is winding down and another is beginning it's easy to lose sight of the important things. We make our own little list of things to do and our boxes to check off on our scavenger hunt lists. But if you really look at all you have to do it can get a little bit overwhelming, can't it?

    So we do what come naturally, we try harder and harder. We try to keep a clean house. Check. We're trying to maintain all the cars and the yard and the plumbing. Check. Get the kids to practice, then get dinner on the table. Check. Check. Pay all the bills. Work the extra job. Get the promotion. Check. Check. Check. We're trying to do it all. And then, once that's all done, we can hopefully wedge in a little time for some TV.

    We ought to be a lot more like the wise men. But we often aren't. We don't always seek our Savior first. They did. Seeking the Savior was their main priority. They knew their lost condition. They saw the star. The Holy Spirit had worked though however little information they heard. They had faith that this little baby was their king. They had faith that the star they saw in the sky would lead them to Jesus.

    We think we're seeking the Savior, too. But are we? It seems like all too often we seek him the way the people of the world seek him. We look to our neighbor and try to keep up with him. We see our coworker's clothes and way of life and we want to be like her. So often we seek a worldly savior in the riches and pleasure of the here and now. That's not what the Wise Men did.

    Fortunately for you, you don't have to go travelling over hill and dale, through the desert on the back of Donkey, seeking the Savior like they did. You can find the Savior right here, at church. You can seek him in your personal devotions, your meditation on God's Word. He can be found.  When you seek yourself, that's exactly what you find, a miserable sinner, incapable saving anyone, not even yourself. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 6, when all the people were worrying about what to eat and what to drink. He says, "…the heavenly Father knows you need [these things]. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." When you look to God and find him as he reveals himself in his Word, you find Jesus: the Lamb of God, the Light of the world, and by the grace of God, your Savior. He saves you!

    So be like the Magi, they were led to God's Word and when they read the prophecy of Micah they knew where to go. The Magi found out where to look for Jesus. The account continues:

    After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child and his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route."

    The wise men were anxious, I'm sure, to continue their scavenger hunt. They had their next clue and they were on their way to find the King of the Jews. Imagine the excitement, after such a long journey, of seeing that star resting over the place where baby Jesus was. Matthew says they were "overjoyed." The whole point of the sojourn was about to be realized and they were beside themselves with joy. When they beheld Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us, they did what they came for. They bowed down and worshipped him.

    For the wise men that joy was part of their worship. They were so happy to be there. They bowed in respect. They gave him the honor he deserved, and they gave him their gifts.

    So what should we do? They showed their respect and humility by bowing down and by giving expensive gifts. We are supposed to show our love and respect by worshipping him too. It's sinful if we don't. It's selfish to keep all of God's gifts to yourself. That selfishness is a sin. So is joyless worship.

    Perhaps for your schedule or your state in life has sucked the joy out of worship. Maybe you don't like some of the other members, or the way worship is done. Maybe you want more or less ceremony at church. Maybe you want pipe organs and stained glass or praise bands and ripped jeans. There are a million ways that worship may not be exactly what you want and it makes it hard to worship joyfully. But look at the Wise Men! They are given as models of worship and they were bowing to a little baby boy in a little house in little bitty Bethlehem.

    So yes, we sin in our worship lives. We aren't exactly what God wants us to be. We are sinful. But that's what makes that little baby boy so important. He would one day die for the forgiveness of all those sins. So we say thanks to him by serving him.

    And serving God is really simple. The wise men bowed, you come to church. They gave gold, incense, and myrrh. You give offerings, time, your lives. Even though it's simple, we're not very good at it, are we? That regular offering easily becomes every so often. And giving cheerily slowly gives way to giving grudgingly. The time to have a family devotion slips through our fingers like sand.

    We all call ourselves Christians, but do we act like it? If someone talks behind your back, is your first reaction to "turn the other cheek" or is it to try and get back at them? When all your friends are getting drunk at the bar, is it your first reaction to close your tab and go home, or just have a few more? When everyone is trying to convince that it's a good idea to live with your boyfriend before you get married, is it easier think, "maybe they're right. That makes a lot of sense." or "I know that's a sin, I can't do that."?

    A Christian life of worship looks different from the ways of the world. You should let your light shine by not getting back at people and by showing modesty in the way you dress and act. Be like the Wise Men, give your best in your daily lives of worship.

    Jesus would die for every sin. From Adam up until the day Jesus comes back. He paid for all those sins and then, after he was buried, he rose. He came back to life. God proved Jesus' victory over the grave and promises us that same victory. How wise those wise men were! They knew this "King of the Jews" was their Savior, they believed. The Holy Spirit worked faith in their hearts and that faith showed itself in their worship.

    Thank God for that same faith the Holy Spirit worked in us. We can worship God like the wise men as his chosen people.

    So the silly little scavenger hunts that we do here on earth aren't all that important. They are a fun way to pass the time and there's nothing wrong with them. But look at the Magi and try to emulate them on your scavenger hunt of life. May we continue to seek our Savior where he can be found: in his word. Let us be like that star in the east for those who are lost around us so that they too can come and bow before the Savior. And may we always serve him, not only with our gifts of gold and incense, but with all our lives. 

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