“Stop Doubting and Believe” | John 20:19-31| The Second Sunday of Easter

What is your mental image as you picture when you think about people from church history? Most of the time I picture calm, dignified men sitting around a table talking politely to each other. For some reason, they always have a British accent, although I know they probably spoke Latin. “Pish, posh. That was a terrible sermon say I.” It’s probably true that these people were very respectful as they discussed issues, most of the time. One of my favorite stories from church history involves a man that you probably have another mental image of—St. Nicholas. Nicholas attended the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The big item of discussion that day was the teachings of another man named Arius. Arius had begun teaching that Jesus was not actually God. He was like God, maybe he was made from the same stuff as God, but he wasn’t actually God. Arius said that the Son of God was just a created being, not God from eternity. The result of this big meeting with all of the leaders in the church from around the world was what we call the Nicene creed. That creed specifically fights against Arianism and you can hear that when we say, “…eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”

While I think the Nicene creed is pretty cool, it wasn’t the coolest thing to happen at that council. As St. Nicholas sat there listening to Arius rip apart Christ’s nature and teach falsely, twisting Scripture, telling lies about his God, soon he couldn’t take it anymore. Dignified, respectful, bishop St. Nicholas stands up, walks over to Arius and punches him right in the face. Now, don’t walk away from this story thinking this is how you should confront false doctrine. Please, do not punch anyone because you heard it in this sermon. In fact, Nicholas was actually arrested for this and thrown into jail for three days. They even stripped him of being a pastor and bishop, until the emperor, who was also at the meeting re-established him. But, in that story we should not miss how important Jesus was to those people gathered there. They wanted nothing to cause anyone to doubt that Jesus truly was God, who had become a man and died and rose for them. That was how passionate they were about their Lord. Jesus wants you to have that same passion. He wants you to know that you should set aside your doubts about him and put your trust in him.

In our lesson from the Gospel of John, the disciples are afraid. Even though it has been reported that Jesus was risen that very morning, fear is reigning in their hearts. When our story picks up it’s the evening of Easter Sunday, “the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:19-22). Jesus wants to overcome the fear in their hearts. So, he appears among them and announces peace. He makes sure that they realize, foremost, that he is truly risen. How could they doubt that after seeing his hands and his side. More than that, Jesus wants them to realize that he doesn’t want them to live afraid, hidden in a locked room. He wants them to go out to tell others he is risen.

But, there were only ten of Jesus’ disciples in the room that night. One of them, Judas, has perished by his own hand. The other disciple, Thomas, for whatever reason isn’t there. When the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus, he doubts. He doesn’t believe them, and we don’t really know why. It doesn’t say that he was feeling sad or afraid. All we can say is that he thought the message was unbelievable. Thomas says, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25). His teacher and Lord had died. He had been buried, but even though he had heard the message of the resurrection, he didn’t think it could be possible. Dead men don’t rise. Men who went through what Jesus went through don’t rise. “So, unless I see Jesus and touch his wounds, I won’t believe.”

This mindset of Thomas is where the text meets us. We know that he is going to see Jesus, because the story goes on: “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’  Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe’” (John 20:26-27). But, you and I have never had the experience. We are like Thomas before he sees Jesus. You have heard the message of the resurrection. And if you haven’t, here it is: Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, just as he said he would. He is alive forever and forever more. The tomb is empty. Your God is truly alive.

How often do you find that your attitude is like Thomas’s? How often do you find that the message is just too unbelievable? I know that it’s true, because otherwise, our church would be as full today as it was last weekend. Last weekend, there were so many people in church that we had to set up chairs out in the atrium. It was beautiful. Maybe you were one of the people who invited someone to church for Easter. Did you invite someone today? A man has come back from the dead. He was dead, his body was buried, and he came back. That is the most amazing message ever. Have you just heard it so often that it seems unbelievable? Does it still seem worth it to come and hear that message? To invite someone else to come and hear that message?

Doubt is a dangerous thing. Perhaps, we don’t talk about it enough in church. But, doubt is the opposite of faith. There’s two main reasons that’s true, and they’re also the reason why doubt is so dangerous. First, doubt causes you to look inside yourself. I’ve had this conversation with many people, where they come to me and they say, “I’m not even sure I really believe,” or “How do I know that I have faith?” They are looking hard inside themselves to see if they can find the answer, but you aren’t going to find it there. Second, doubt destroys trust. Trust is the main part of faith. Faith in Jesus Christ means that you trust him to forgive your sin, to take care of you day to day, and one day take you to heaven. Doubt breaks down that trust. It makes you think, “Maybe Jesus can’t forgive my sins, maybe Jesus doesn’t care about me, and maybe even I don’t if I’ll get to heaven.”

There’s a song that was very popular on Christian radio for a long time by the Newsboys. It’s called “God’s Not Dead” and it came out along with a movie of the same name. If you like that song, I hope I’m not about to ruin it for you. My experience with it was very discouraging. At a time when it was very popular, I was at a church that sang it on Easter morning. Doesn’t it sound like a great song to sing? The lyrics go like this: “My God’s not dead // He’s surely alive //He’s livin’ on the inside // Roaring like a lion.” But, while the congregation was singing it, I felt very discouraged. Is the message of Easter, “My God’s not dead, because he lives inside my heart?” It’s not. If that was the message of Easter, that Jesus was only alive inside our hearts, then your faith would be worthless. The message of Easter is that Christ is risen, not that he is alive in our hearts, but that a dead man came back to life by his own power. And, friends, if that is not the case, then “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

The truth is, this message is unbelievable. You can’t believe it, at least not on your own. It’s literally a miracle that you do. You can’t look into your heart to see if the message about Jesus is true. If you do, then you’ll find only doubt. The truth is not within you. And, if you keep looking inside yourself, you’ll only find more doubt, more things that erode your trust in Jesus. You can’t believe this message. It’s too unbelievable, but the miracle is that you do. Because you have heard the message of the resurrection, and God has worked through that message so that you trust Jesus. It’s just like Jesus said in our lesson: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). You have not seen the Lord, but you have believed. That is exactly where your God wants you to be.

This is what you do with your doubt: take it to the Word of God where Jesus will crush with his power. He doesn’t want you to look inside your heart, he wants you to look inside his book. He doesn’t want you to doubt, so that your trust is slowly broken down, but rather to see that in every instance he keeps his promises. That’s what the whole Bible is about: “These [words] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Believe the message about Jesus Christ. He truly was raised from the dead. He truly has given you the forgiveness of sins, a new life, and one day eternal salvation. These words are certain and true, and they are what you do with your doubt.

That night, after Saint Nicholas punched Arius in the face and went jail, he asked for a copy of the Gospels. He spent the whole night reading all four of them to see who was right. Was Arius right about Jesus? Or, was Jesus really the Son of God who rose from the dead and had forgiven all their sins? He read all four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The next morning, he was sure of it. He had taken his thoughts to the Word of God, and Jesus had crushed all his doubts. Jesus was the Son of God, raised from the dead, and that message was worth being arrested and jailed over, that was worth dying over, that message was probably worth punching Arius again. I hope that’s how you feel. If it isn’t, take your heart and mind to God’s Word, and there you’ll find the power of God. There you will find peace for your fear and faith for your doubt. Because Jesus Christ is truly risen. Amen.

Need a Book for Bible Study?

Hello Everyone!

It’s often that people will ask me for ideas on what to study in the Bible. Recently, after some conversations with my students and some friends, an idea came to me to put together a book that would make it easy to study some parts of the Old Testament that you wouldn’t usually find in Christlight or the usual Bible study books. Those books often talk about Creation, David and Goliath, the 10 plagues, etc. So, I put together a book that skips over all of those stories and tries to target ones that are interesting for one reason or another, but that I’ve never seen in another Bible story anthology.

I think that this book would be useful for homeschoolers or middle to high school students who are interested in a different sort of Bible study.

The book is called Uncommon Testaments. It’s available on Amazon here. Check it out and let me know what you think.

God be with you.

Uncommon Testaments Cover

“Is Jesus Really the One?” | Zechariah 9:9-10 | Palm Sunday

Is Jesus really the one? That’s kind of a no-brainer, isn’t it? I could just end the sermon right here and say, “Yes.” Let’s say a prayer and get to brunch. But the issue is deeper than that, and I think that you can sense it. Really, it might depend on what we mean by the question? When we ask, “Is Jesus the one?” are we asking, “Is Jesus the one, or could there be someone else?” or are we asking, “Is Jesus the one, and if so, what does that mean for me?” I think we mostly assume the first question. In other words, did Jesus really fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament, or could someone else have done that? Might there be other messiahs, other christs? Then, if Jesus is the one, what does that mean for me? We’ll try to answer those questions today and we see that Jesus is the one. (1) He is the only one who fulfills prophecy and (2) the only one who can save us.

It won’t surprise you that other people in history have come forth claiming to be the Messiah, besides Jesus. Some of you probably remember such incidents as the Jonestown Massacre led by Jim Jones where 918 people died. Some of you probably have know about the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh and everything that happened in Waco, Texas back in 1993 when 76 people died. This seems to even be increasing in modern times, for whatever reason. More and more people are claiming to be the Messiah. Sometimes those people claiming to be the Messiah lead to disastrous tragedies. But, not all of them do. Some of these people aren’t dangerous, so much as just plain weird. For example, there is a man in Brazil who believes that he is the Messiah. When he was more, his parents named him Inri, spelt I-N-R-I. Despite the fact that this is a fairly common name in Brazil, Inri took it as an indication that he was Jesus, because the name stems from the sign hung on Jesus’s cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (or in Latin: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum). It didn’t help that his last name was Cristo. He’s now 66 years old and if you look him up on the internet, you can find pictures of him dressed up in robes surrounded by attractive women. Because we all know that’s what Jesus was all about.

Now, that man, while he claims to be the Messiah, does not claim to fulfill prophecy. How could he? Take for example our lesson for today from Zechariah, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, Righteous and having salvation, Gentle and riding on a donkey, On a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). That verse is packed full of prophecy, but that guy from Brazil has never ridden a donkey into Jerusalem. He’s never even been to Israel. So, does anyone else fulfill this prophecy? The answer is kind of. Before Zechariah had given this prophecy, Solomon did something very similar on his way into Jerusalem: “Solomon mount[ed] King David’s mule, and they escorted him to Gihon. Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. Then they sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, ‘Long live King Solomon!’ And all the people went up after him, playing pipes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound” (1 Kings 1:38-40). But, that doesn’t quite fit because it’s a mule and not a donkey. But, you might think that sort of event is in the mind of the people hearing this prophecy.

Another incident worth mentioning takes place in the Apocrypha—a collection of books set in between the Old and New Testaments. Some Christians claim that these books should be included in the Bible, but if you read them they aren’t God’s Word. They do provide some useful history though. In this account, a man named Simon Maccabeus processes into Jerusalem amid the cries of the people who thought he was their savior from a foreign army: “There was a great celebration in the city because this terrible threat to the security of Israel had come to an end. Simon and his men entered the fort singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, while carrying palm branches and playing harps, cymbals, and lyres” (1 Maccabees 13:51 GNT). But, that doesn’t quite fit either. First off, Simon Maccabeus was not riding an animal, but there are shouts and palm branches. Second, consider the second part of what the prophet Zechariah said, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). Simon was a military leader, and this person Zechariah talks about is clearly not a military leader. Even though he will be victorious, he does it without instruments of war.

We could probably sit here all morning and talk about people who have claimed or were thought to be the Messiah. But, I’ll tell you right now, that we would debunk every single one of them by testing them against the Scriptures. But, it says something about humans that they accept these sorts of people. As humans we have ideas about what the Savior should be like, and if we did not have the Scriptures, we would not think Jesus was the Messiah. Doesn’t it make sense for the one God chooses to be stately and kingly looking like Solomon was? Doesn’t it make sense for him to be a great warrior like Simon Maccabeus? That’s what humans look for, but those ideas don’t describe Jesus. If that is the sort of savior you want, it isn’t the one the Bible describes. The prophecies that the Bible gives us about the Messiah have been fulfilled, but they depict the Savior in an unexpected way. He comes victorious, but isn’t a military leader. He brings peace and rules over everything, but he hardly looks like a king.

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was very careful about it. Everything he did and told his disciples to do was done specifically to fulfill this prophecy. He made sure that he had the colt, the foal of a donkey. The people stood around him shouting, singing, and waving palm branches. They spread his way with their cloaks. Certainly, that day the daughter of Zion rejoiced. But that wasn’t the most important part of the prophecy Jesus fulfilled. Others could ride a donkey into Jerusalem, but no one except Jesus could do it as a person having righteousness and salvation. That is why this prophecy can only be about Jesus. It is only Jesus who lived a perfect life, so that we can correctly say that he is righteous on his own. No one needs to give Jesus righteousness. It’s only Jesus who could offer himself up as a sacrifice to earn salvation for the whole world. He won the greatest victory the world has ever known, and he did it without a single weapon, chariot, or warhorse. Instead, he did it with his precious blood and innocent suffering and death. Jesus is the only one who fulfills prophecy.

So what does that mean for the people of our world? If Jesus is truly the one, and he is. He is the one who has fulfilled all prophecies, what does that mean for them. One author put it is this way: “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. […] It seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). When you look at the prophecies about Jesus, and see that he fulfilled them, you can assume that Jesus is a liar, you can assume he is a lunatic or you can assume that he is the Lord. But there are no other possibilities. When you see that he didn’t lie once in his life about a single topic, and when you see that he clearly wasn’t crazy, even though he did impossible things, that leaves one option.

Jesus Christ is the one Lord. He is the one God, and this is the fact people don’t want to accept. They ask, “Is Jesus really the one?” because if he is then they need to change their lives. They need to figure how to get right with God. They need to stop trusting in themselves, in their money, in anything other than him. They need to begin to follow his commands. They need to find a way to present themselves before God in a way that he will accept. Only, they know they can’t. They know that they can’t be perfect. The only way they have ever known is not what Jesus wants. He doesn’t want their best effort or their man-made perfection. These things are true for you as well. And it’s good for you to be reminded of this very basic truth of the Bible. Jesus doesn’t want you to try hard to get to heaven. He doesn’t want you to hope you’ve done more good than evil. He either wants you to be perfect or repentant.

The holiness God wants from you is the holiness that your God gives you. The righteousness you need is the righteousness that your king wins for you. The salvation you receive is the one Jesus won for you when he rode into Jerusalem as the king who humbled himself to death, even death on a cross. That is what you receive from God. That is why Zechariah calls us to lift our voices: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zechariah 9:9-10). King Jesus rides into Jerusalem today and he comes as a king declaring war against your every enemy. He will win the victory for you, so that you are declared right with God and granted salvation. So, sing Hosanna today. Praise your God for his wonderful work.

A man named Phillip was walking on the road from Jerusalem. Not far from him he saw a chariot, and in the chariot was a man reading. Phillip continued to walk, keeping to himself until he heard the Holy Spirit speak to him. The Spirit said, “Go over by that chariot.” So Phillip did what God told him to do. As he got closer, he heard what the man in the chariot was reading. It was a passage from the book of Isaiah. He read: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth” (Acts 2:32-33). That passage was a prophecy. It predicted that Christ would die. Phillip knew this, but the man reading didn’t understand. He wanted to know who Isaiah was talking about? Phillip had the opportunity to show that man two things that day. First, there is only one man that this prophecy could be talking about, and that was Jesus Christ. Second, Jesus Christ had saved this man from his sins. When that man heard these things, he asked to be baptized. The joy in his heart was great. When Phillip finally left him, the man continued in his chariot rejoicing the whole way. Be like that man today. Rejoice greatly, because your king has come. Amen.

“There’s Too Many Rules” | Romans 8:1-10 | The Third Sunday in Lent

[Pastor removes stole and walks away from the pulpit.]

               Folks, we need to talk. I’ll just be honest. I’m worried about you. I’m worried about the way you’re living. The way you have some of your thinking messed up. I think that this is something that needs to be pointed out and explained to you, because it’s not something that you’re going to get coming to a church like this. They aren’t going to tell you what you really need to hear—something that you already know. I bet you can even feel it in your gut. And I know why they don’t talk about this in church, but we’ll get to that. This is something that you really need to hear. It’s something that is basic and fundamental to being a human. I know it. You know it. Everyone out there in the world knows it. Do you want to live your whole life completely ignorant of what everyone else knows? So let’s just come right out and say it: you aren’t trying hard enough to keep God’s law.

I know all of this because I’m part of you. I can feel what you feel. I know what you know. I’m that part of you that whispers down in your gut how guilty you are every time you mess up. And, I’m that part of you that whispers how good you are every time you keep God’s law and make him happy. I think that I deserve a voice. I know you are already listening to me. You may not even realize just how much you listen to me. But, it’s time we talked directly. It’s time, face to face, that you hear what I have to say. From my perspective, there are two things that could be true, or are both true, or maybe sometimes are true or sometimes aren’t. It doesn’t actually matter to me as long as you believe one of them is true. Either the things God tells you to do are good, and you are able to keep his law, or the things God tells you to do are bad, and you can’t keep his law.

I don’t care which one you choose to believe at this moment. I bet you even bounce back and forth every day. That’s fine with me. Believe what you want. It doesn’t matter, because we both know you think one of those thoughts is true. Take the first one for instance. God law is good, and you can keep it. That sounds like a good pious thought. Embrace it. Certainly, God’s law is good. Doesn’t he want you to try your hardest to keep every single one of his laws? Plus, don’t you feel good when you do? It’s so much easier to know your place in life when you know that God is happy with you because you please him. It’s so much easier to talk to people, especially the ones who struggle, because you can know you’re better than them. God’s law is good because it let’s me feel good about myself. And, you know what, if I focus on keeping God’s law enough, I can even forget about Jesus. Most of the time, I keep God’s law well enough that I don’t even need him.

I know some of you are thinking that’s not how you feel at all. You’ve never reached that exalted feeling you get where you are confident of the place you’ve earned before God. But that’s okay. You’ll probably get there some day if you try hard enough. But, I bet you thought the second statement makes sense. God’s law is not good, and I can’t keep it. That sounds a little contrary to God’s Word, but you’re just being honest. And we have to be honest. You try to keep God’s law, but all you see is that you never do. How could you ever be pleasing to God? His rules just seem so unfair. I know the things that I want to do. I know the things that please me, and some of them are things God says I shouldn’t do. How can that be right? It’s just easier if I pretend that part of God’s law doesn’t apply. Or, if I just do it once in a while. It’s so bad then. Because, if we’re being honest, who can keep God’s law? No one can. And if you try, you just end up despairing. God doesn’t want us to be unhappy, right? And, you know what, if I focus on what I want enough, I can even forget about Jesus. Most of the time, what he wants to give me doesn’t seems to match up with what I want anyway.

[Pastor returns to pulpit and puts on the stole.]

               If you’re like me, there’s a voice inside of you that whispers all those lies, or ones just like them. The voice tries to tell you some twisted version of the truth about God and what he says in his Word. Theologians might call the voice the opinio legis or something like that, but it’s something that we all know so intimately that we don’t even recognize it all the time. It’s there, and most of the time we might even just believe it. We might believe that God is more pleased with us when we are keeping his law. But, that’s a lie the voice tells us. Or, we might believe that God makes unfair rules, and we can’t possibly keep them, so why try? Or maybe we should just despair? But, that’s a lie, too. The two options that voice gives you are both half-truths. It wants you to think either God’s law is good and you can keep it, or that God’s law is bad, and you can’t keep it. But, the truth is neither of those statements. The truth according to the Bible is that God’s law is good, but you can’t keep it.

The voice doesn’t want you to realize this because when you do, you turn away from yourself. You stop seeing yourself as the source of good and pleasure. You stop thinking that you can earn God’s favor. So, we should all turn way from that voice, and instead we should listen to what God wants us to know. The apostle Paul lays it out so clearly for us in this lesson. You cannot keep God’s law, but Jesus did. You should be condemned, but instead God condemned Jesus. Listen for those two points: “What the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (Romans 8:3). It’s not often that we say God’s Word is powerless, but in this case it is true. God’s law does not give you the power to keep his law. So Jesus did it for you.

The result is one of the most beautiful statements in all of Scripture: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There are few passages in the Bible as lovely as this. Just think about it. That voice is going to try and distract you by thinking you can keep God’s law perfectly. But, it knows you are going to fail eventually. Then, in your despair at failing, it’s going to convince you that you are garbage. That God hates you, that you have earned hell for yourself through your sin.  There’s just too many rules for us to keep! How does this passage, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” answer that accusation? It says, “You’re right, voice. There’s too many rules. I have earned hell for myself, but even still God does not condemn me.” God doesn’t give you what you deserve. Instead, in Jesus, he gives you what Jesus deserves. He gives us every blessing that he would give to his one and only Son. Before God, the judge of all, there is no condemnation. All that’s left is the smiling face of God, who sees only children that please him.

God wants you to know, then, that you are pleasing to him. You are pleasing because within you is the Spirit of God. There is another nature that you have beside your own sinful one. God wants you to know how different it is. Where the sinful nature sees no way out except by earning God’s forgiveness, the Spirit within you from God, knows that forgiveness has already been earned. Where the sinful nature sees despair, the Spirit sees hope. Where the sinful nature whispers God’s wrath, the Spirit proclaims loudly that there is peace through Christ. This is what God says:

Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. (Romans 8:5-10)

I had a conversation with a teen girl a number of years ago. It was at Camp Phillip, and we were talking because she had some struggles that she was going through. So, we were sitting on a picnic table and talking during some down time. What troubled her were thoughts that she was too involved with things at her school, and not involved enough with her church. She felt troubled by the fact that she didn’t help out often, or sometimes didn’t even attend church. As we talked, she told me about how she had recently broken up with her boyfriend because of some sins they had committed. All of this was weighing on her heart, and then she said, “One of my friends told me that God is a God of second chances. Is that true?” I think that she wanted me to say, “Yes,” that she could try again and maybe this time she could go to church, have another boyfriend, and through all of it, be pleasing to God.

But, I told her, “No, God is not a God of second chances.” If God is a God of second changes, we’re no better off. Even if he was a God of 1000 chances, we’d still be doomed. The though that she could try harder and maybe succeed made her feel better, but God is not a God of second chances, and if he were, then we’d all be condemned. Instead I told her, God is a God of grace. He doesn’t condemn us, even though that is what we deserve. You cannot try harder and hope to please God. He is already pleased with you. Even in your sin, that has no changed. There are too many rules for us to follow, but they’re merely a test. All of the rules remind us to repent and turn to God. There you will find that he makes you alive by giving you himself, and his Son, and his Spirit. There you will find the true freedom that does not come from following God’s law, but by trusting in his promises. So, quiet down that voice in your head, and listen instead to the voice of God. He says, to you, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

“Elijah Shows the Truth about Heaven” | 2 Kings 2:1-12 | Transfiguration Sunday

One of the rules of telling a good story is that you don’t want to give away the ending. It’s just assumed that a story is more enjoyable if you don’t know what is going to happen. There are some exceptions to the rule, though. If you’re telling a story to children, and you don’t want them to be afraid, you might tell them right away what is going to happen. “This is the story of how Hansel and Gretel defeated the evil witch in the woods.” That way, even when the scary part happens, the child can always remember that everything is going to turn out alright in the end. Knowing how the story ends gives them some hope. That’s how the writer of 2 Kings begins this account: “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal” (2 Kings 2:1). If you wanted to avoid spoilers about the story, it’s too late. You know what is going to happen. By the end the reading, Elijah will be taken up to heaven.

Elijah and Elisha are two of the best known prophets in the Bible. Both of them do some amazing things. Elijah was the older prophet. His ministry was coming to an end though and God had chosen Elisha to taken his place. Elijah had found Elisha while he was plowing in his field, and he had taken his cloak off and thrown it around Elisha to show he would inherit his prophetic ministry. Since then, Elisha had followed his master around learning from him and preparing to take over when that day would come. And that day had come.

On the last day those two would spend together on earth, they were traveling. There were these companies of prophets that lived in the area. We don’t know exactly what these companies of prophets did. Some people guess that they were the ones responsible for delivering the sermons and messages that God’s prophets had spoken to as many people as they can. You could kind of view them like the postal service. They would receive the message from the prophet and then they would go and deliver it from city to city and town to town. But, we don’t really know much about them. In this account we see that they have some sort of prophetic ability themselves. Each time that Elijah and Elisha come to one of these groups, they say to Elisha: “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?” (2 Kings 2:3).

Twice Elisha is asked that question. Twice he says to them, “Yes, I know, but be quiet.” There’s grief in his voice. Elisha knows that this is the last day he has with his friend and master. He knows that after all of this is over, he will carry on the ministry alone. Even though he knows that his friend will be going to heaven, that doesn’t make it any easier for them to part ways. We can hear Elisha’s dedication when he takes the solemn oath: “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you” (2 Kings 2:4). He makes that promise to Elijah three times, but in the end the matter is taken out of his hands. The Lord will take Elijah from Elisha to a place where Elisha could not yet follow. This wasn’t an easy thing. There was true grief and pain here.

After making their last visit, the pair heads for the Jordan river. They cross after Elijah does a miracle. The water of the Jordan river parts to either side of them and they cross on dry ground. When they have crossed, Elijah asks Elisha what he can do for him. What is the last thing the master can give to the student? “‘Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,’ Elisha replied” (2 Kings 2:9). It’s a strange request, and a hard one. Even Elijah says so, “‘You have asked a difficult thing,’ Elijah said” (2 Kings 2:10). Is he asking to be twice the prophet that Elijah was? Was he asking to be able to do greater miracles? We see Elisha’s dedication not only to his master, but also to his God. Here, he expresses his dedication to both with his request. He lets Elijah know that he is going to carry on his ministry, and he asks his Lord for the ability to do it.

We know that Elisha gets his request, because he sees Elijah taken away. Sometimes we picture Elijah riding on the chariot of fire as he is taken up to heaven, but it seems like the chariot and the horses were there to separate the two prophets. It was a whirlwind, like a small tornado, that carries Elijah off, with Elisha crying out: “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” (2 Kings 2:12). Then, Elijah was gone. God took him to heaven like Enoch of old. Elijah never died. He never experienced what every human being will before the Lord Jesus returns. But, for Elisha he might as well have died.

Don’t miss this last small detail of how the reading ends: “Then [Elisha] took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart” (2 Kings 2:12). You’d think that knowing how the story was going to end would maybe provide some small comfort for Elisha. He knew what was going to happen. But, not in this case. Tearing your clothing was an immense sign of grief. Elisha’s heart was broken. I’ll bet that you know how he was feeling. I’ll bet you know what it’s like to lose a loved one. You’re likely familiar with Elisha’s grief and heartache. Knowing the end of the story doesn’t necessarily make it easier. Even the confidence that when someone dies with faith in Christ they go to heaven doesn’t deaden the pain. That’s okay. It’s okay to hurt like that. But don’t let the hurt overwhelm your trust in the Lord, because the story of Elijah shows us the truth about heaven.

Fast forward to the time long after Elijah and Elisha to when Christ walked the earth. In a similar fashion Jesus was traveling around with his disciples teaching them and preparing them for a time when they would carry on the ministry he would leave them after he too ascended. But, before that he would die. There was a dark period coming for the lives of those apostles, when they would see their Lord captured, beaten, crucified. So, Jesus gives them a glimpse of the end of the story. He shows them what the ending is going to be like, not Jesus defeated and bloody, but glorious in his splendor. “After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (Mark 9:2-3).

The pain and the hurt that his disciples would feel in that time between Maundy Thursday and Easter would be real, but here Jesus spoils the ending for them so that they can realize how everything would turn out. Jesus would rise from the dead after having won for them the forgiveness of sins and salvation. And don’t miss this detail from the Transfiguration account: “There appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus” (Mark 9:4). Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus. Moses was a man who had died long, long ago. Elijah was a man who never died, but we know where he ended up—heaven. Here they both are showing the truth about heaven. There exists a very real place where those who depart from this life go to be with the Lord forever. Even on that mountain, Elijah and Moses were still there—in heaven, face to face with God.

In this account the Holy Spirit pulls back some of the mystery of the story so that we can know what is coming. Elijah would leave his student, but he would go to be with the Lord. Jesus would set aside the humble state he walked around in before his death, and showed his glory. These facts do not set aside our pain when we lose a loved one, but they do set aside our despair and hopelessness. Those who die in the Lord go to be with him forever, and Elijah proves this. Then, on a day we don’t know, we all will rise to receive back our bodies, no longer corrupted by sin, but glorified like Christ’s resurrected body. These accounts spoil the ending of the story for us, but it’s good that they do, because it gives us hope.

Some day in your life you will face the death of a loved one. Or, someone who know will experience a loss in their life. When that day comes, don’t give up hope. Don’t despair. Go to your friend and mourn with them. Share their grief. If it is your own grief, don’t be afraid of the pain you feel. Elisha was grieved, but one day he was reunited with his master. The disciples felt loss and despair when Christ was captured and killed, but the Lord comforted them, too. In these moments, you don’t need to have the right words to say. In fact, there’s no combination of words you could say to a person who experiencing such grief that will take it away. Instead, let your trust in the Lord speak clearly and loudly with your mere presence. Because you know the end of the story and you are so confident about that person’s eternal state that know words about it need to be said.

I read a book recently by a man named Daniel van Voorhis. He wrote a book called Monsters about the problems that he faced in his life, like alcoholism, depression, suicidal thoughts, and so on. But, before he really gets into tell his story he wrote: “Hope is impossible to shake, because somewhere along the line we realize that despair can only be temporary. It has a shelf life. Despair can only really be despair if we know what’s written on the last page. We have to know the rest of the story to know that it is hopeless. And as long as that last page isn’t written, there’s a crack of light. That is hope” (Monsters, Daniel van Voorhis). If a person doesn’t know what is going to happen, there’s the possibility that whatever might happen might be good. As long as that is the case, there’s hope. Sure, it might be bad, but it also might be wonderful. There’s hope. That is what is true if you don’t know what is written on the last page, but the truth is that you do. Elijah shows the truth about heaven. What’s written on the last page for those who believe in Jesus is glory, that means that Christian have no need of despair. Forever with the Lord is waiting for us. Amen.

“As God Has Said, May It Be” | Luke 1:26-38| The Fourth Sunday in Advent

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart” (Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl). I think I read those words from Anne Frank’s diary for the first time when I was in sixth grade. As a class, we discussed those words, but we didn’t come into the discussion neutral. I don’t remember deliberating human nature before that day, but I do remember having a sense of unease about Anne Frank’s words. I remember thinking that it sounded differently than I heard in church. One of my more intuitive and smarter classmates, raised his hand and asked, “If what she said is true, than why do we confess our sins in church?” I felt like that hit the nail on the head. If we were “good at heart” then there would be no reason to confess our sins. Even those things that look evil on the outside would be inherently good because they were done by a person who was “really good at heart.”

As an adult I can articulate better what I was felling that day. I knew about the doctrine that we call original sin, but that was the first time I had consciously applied it to a topic. Human beings are not good at heart. I think that most people in the world believe that they are. They believe that everyone naturally wants to do good, and if they end up doing something evil, then they probably had a good reason for it. People believe in the goodness of humanity, but God doesn’t. That is the fact that I wrestled with on that day in sixth grade. In catechism class I had memorized a passage from Genesis. It came from right before the flood, but God repeated it right after the flood. It described all people of all time: “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

As a sixth grader, I understood that humans carried this sin around inside of them. I couldn’t see the full implications of original sin, but I knew it was there. Today, maybe I’m more aware of it, of how it infests like a psychoactive disease that convinces us that it isn’t actually making us sick and killing us.  But, even now, I doubt I grasp how deep the sin goes. Jesus says that we are truly capable of some terrible things: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). Those sins lie dormant within us waiting to spring to life with the right temptation. I know those words are true. I can find that dark place in my heart that loves those sins. It’s the place the sins I do every day come from. These words are true, they hit me hard.

As humans, it makes sense to us that if someone is angry that we should do something that to fix it. If we break something of someone else’s, then we need to buy a new one for them. If we lose something, we replace it. It we hurt someone, we need to make it right. It makes sense to us that if we have offended God—and we have—then we should do something to make it right. But, see how much your sin affects even what you might try to make it up to God: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 49:6). Make it up to God? How could we do that? Should we try to offer him sin for our sin? Do you ever probe your heart and see how hopeless everything is without God? You can’t keep yourself from sin, because it clings to your very bones. You can’t repay God for your sins, because all you have to offer is more darkness. That is what God has said.

This is where the Lord meets us. He does not demand we find a way to come to him, to ascend to the heavens by our own goodness and works. Instead, God descends into the darkness of the world to join us in the pit. That is why the angel Gabriel came to Mary. He came to tell what God was doing to take away our sin. God has chosen Mary for a special position. She would be the mother of the Christ, but it wasn’t because of Mary. Mary struggled against her sin as you and I do. That God chose her was grace. Mary had no control over the family she was born into, but it was David’s family in the line of the Savior. She was even marrying a man who was a descendent of David. Mary was shown grace from God, and that’s how Gabriel greets her: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). God is the one doing the favoring; he is the one showing grace. Even when Gabriel says she has “found favor with God,” (Luke 1:30) he is not say that she deserved God’s grace, but that if there is a place to find grace and favor, it is with our God.

But, God was going to show Mary a special type of favor: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33). Mary would have to privilege of being the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. That was an honor no other woman would ever be able to boast of. Still, it was grace that brought this about. Mary didn’t deserve it. God had chosen a virgin, someone who could physically should not have a child yet. God had chosen to send his angel privately to her, in a city that no one cared about. Mary didn’t deserve any of this.

None of us deserved this gift. This was God’s answer to our sin. Sometimes, to respond to the doctrine of original sin, people will say that it doesn’t matter what God says. They say, “Even if he is the Creator, he does not know what it means to be a human. He might think we are sinful, but if he has never been a man, how doesn’t truly know what the human heart is like.” But, the Lord became a human being. He was the Son of God and Mary’s son. He knows what it means to be human. God’s grace to Mary does not extend only to her, but to us all. Her son would be King, our King. He would reign over us. His kingdom would never end, and we are part of it. That is what God has said. He has given an answer to our sin. We have no good in us, only evil, but he sent his Son who has not evil in him, only good.

The angel adds a sign for Mary, further proof that God would keep his word: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37). Throughout the Scriptures there runs this theme of promise that leads up to and points to Christ. A woman, for whatever reason, is unable to have children. Perhaps, like Sarah in the book of Genesis, she is too old for children. Perhaps, like Hannah in the book of 1 Samuel, she is barren, unable to have children at all. They have no business having children at all. Yet, they bear a child as if by some miracle. Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hannah gives birth to Samuel, and Elizabeth would give birth to John the Baptist. These signs, miracles of a promised child, point to Jesus. Mary was a virgin, who has no business having a child, yet by a true miracle she would give birth to Jesus.

Tomorrow is Christmas. We have spoken much this Advent about keeping Christ in Christmas. But, could you ever truly prepare yourself to receive so much grace? Will it ever not amaze and surprise you that God is willing to send his Son to live and die for us—a people who deserve to be punished and destroyed, not redeemed and forgiven? Yet, Christ came for us. Our only response to this is faith. We receive God’s grace when we trust his Word given to us. We do not deserve the grace that God has shown to us, but we trust him. We believe that Mary’s son is for us. We can respond like Mary does, “I am the Lord’s servant….May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). We can recognize the Word of God and pray that it would be true for us. May it be to be as you have said, Lord—that my sins are truly forgiven, that my heart is truly made new, that you recreated my nature in Christ Jesus to love good and hate evil. How do you receive Christ at Christmas? Believe that Jesus Christ is your Savior who was born at Christmas. Faith receives Christ.

One theologian wrote, “Faith is this that the heart with its evil conscience has been conquered by the revelation of love and goodness, the grace of God in Christ Jesus, and now with trust and hope clings to that message in the face of reason’s objections and the fears of conscience” (J.P. Koehler, History of the Wisconsin Synod). That’s how Mary responded when Gabriel announced to her that she would give birth to the Christ. Her heart was conquered through God’s word to see the grace of God in the coming Christ. Your hearts have also been conquered by that same revelation. You have received the grace of God, now cling to that message. When your heart reminds you of sin and sadness, cling to God’s grace. When you sense there is no hope, when nothing in life makes sense, cling to God’s grace. Believe what God has said, and say, “May it be.” Merry Christmas. Amen.

 

“Your Life Points to Christ” | John 1:6-9, 19-28 | The Third Sunday in Advent

“From heav’n above to Earth I come,” the hymn says, “to bear good news to ev’ry home.” The angel that came that day knew his purpose and exactly what God wanted him to do. That angel was sent by God to the shepherds around Bethlehem. He came to bring good news, to preach the gospel. From the skies above the shepherds, the angel proclaimed: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). I think that few human being probably feel as sure as that angel did about their purpose in life. When humans are born, we don’t know our purpose yet. We don’t know the reason that we are here. I would bet that many adults don’t even know exactly what their purpose is. That angel knew the reason he existed though. This morning we are going to talk about John the Baptist. John is unique because as a baby he knew exactly why God had created him and what his purpose in life was. “He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe” (John 1:7).

Sometimes in movies or in books you see people who are shoehorned into a position because their parents had it, or because everyone expects it from them, but they don’t really want it, so they try to carve out a path for themselves. Like in Star Wars, Darth Vader at one point says, “It is your destiny! Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son! Come with me. It is the only way.” Luke Skywalker, of course, never joins him and works to bring about the defeat of the empire. It even happens in the Bible with the prophet Jonah, who admittedly has other sins that he’s wrestling with, but it all leads to him fleeing because he doesn’t want to be God’s prophet. What we don’t see from John the Baptist, though, is any reluctance. He doesn’t shy away from the job that God gave him.

John heads to the wilderness near the Jordan river and begins to preach and teach God’s Word. His job is to prepare the people for the coming Christ. Everything he does points to Jesus. John is one of those guys that wears his faith on his sleeves. Even when people come to him and question him about who he is, he doesn’t keep any of the honor for himself. He doesn’t want anyone to think that he might be the Christ. He doesn’t want anyone to think that he is more important than he really is. John knows his job. He is simply a voice. “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (John 1:23). John is a voice with one message, “The Lord is coming.”

Those who had come out to question John came with an agenda. They were curious, but they came to find out who this man was that was leading an enormous religious movement out in the wilderness. They ask him first who he was. Latent within their question is more than just a desire for his identity. They want to know what authority he has, why he is doing the things that he is doing, what his purpose is. John seems to understand what’s behind their words, so he answers the question behind their question. “He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah’” (John 1:20). This probably alleviated most of their worries. John wasn’t a fringe, rebel leader amassing an army in the wilderness. But, John is also saying, “It is not I who am the Messiah,” meaning, there is a Christ, and I know who he is.

So they ask him further questions. They want to know if he was Elijah, because they expected Elijah to literally be reincarnated before the Christ came. They wanted to know not if he was like Elijah, but if he was actually Elijah. “Are you the same prophet who was preaching against king Ahab hundreds of years ago?” is what they ask. John knows that they don’t understand what Malachi meant when he said Elijah would come. Because he was that Elijah, and angel from heaven said that he was and so did Jesus. He wasn’t a reincarnated Elijah, but he had come “in the spirit and power of Elijah…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

They ask him if he was the Prophet. You might be wondering which prophet they were referring to. They were referencing a passage from Deuteronomy 18, where God says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you [Moses] from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). These people who came to question John were looking out for anything that might signal the coming Messiah. They knew a Prophet like Moses was coming, but they didn’t know who he would be. They didn’t seem to understand that the Prophet mentioned here was the Christ himself. The Apostle Peter talks about this in the book of Acts: “But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer….For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you’” (Acts 3:18, 22).

If you went to the wilderness to see John, to hear the voice crying out, like so many people living at that time did, it would be hard for you to find John as someone who was just in it for himself. It would be hard for you to see him as a person afraid of confrontation about God. It would be hard to see a man who lived his life without purpose, as if what he was doing wasn’t important. It would be hard to see a person who lives his life as if he didn’t truly believe what he was saying. John knew his purpose for being he knew exactly why God had sent him, and you might think that made him unique—that John the Baptist, alone among all people of all time, knew what his reason for being was.

That’s a lie, though. The devil distracts Christians with this question. He gets them to ask themselves, “What does God want me to do with my life? Why did God create me? How can I find purpose?” Then, in a masterful trick, he gets you to look at yourself. He gets you to think about the things you enjoy, the things that you feel passionate about, or maybe the things that you dislike and hate. It’s all a temptation that leads you to emptiness, because you’re looking inside yourself. But, truth, purpose, meaning—they come from outside of yourself. Now, it’s true that God wants you to consider the gifts he has given you and what you enjoy as you choose a vocation, but the devil takes that one step further and convinces you that once you have made your choice that you will finally feel fulfilled.

It’s one thing that leads to Christians who on the outside look exactly the same as unbelievers. They go through the same motions, and if you compared them to someone with no faith, you couldn’t tell the difference. They go home after work, eat dinner, and watch TV. Around the supper table, there might be a quick prayer, but there’s no spiritual conversation. As they watch TV, it’s the same shows. When God’s gift of marriage is mocked, the believer and the unbeliever both laugh. When sin is glorified, neither turn to their child to say, “That’s not something God approves of.” Before bed, there’s no devotion. No one opens God’s Word. What is the difference between these this believer and this unbeliever? It’s practically nothing. This believer is nothing like John the Baptist, who called out sin, who preached into the wilderness of men’s hearts pointing them to Christ.

Can you see this problem in your own life? This temptation to find by yourself what God wants for you, assuming that God has not already told you. God wants you to see that he has not made you to scramble around in the dark looking for purpose. He wants you to know the light. In fact, you have far more in common with John the Baptist than you might suspect. John knew that he was just a voice. He knew his life pointed to Christ. God put faith in his heart, even from the time he was just a little baby. That faith was confidence and trust in Christ who would take away the sins of the world. The faith that God created in John gave him purpose—not because he believed, but because of the person he believed in. By faith, his life pointed to Christ.

John’s faith caused him to realize he was just a voice crying out to prepare the Lord. About the same time that John lived, there was a group of people that lived out in the wilderness. I bet that you have heard about the Pharisees, they’re mentioned in our lesson, and you may have heard about the Sadducees, but there’s a third group, the Essenes. They were a community that lived out in the desert, studying the Word of God. Now, they believed a lot of incorrect things, but they got one thing right. If you asked one of them who they were, and what their purpose in life was, they would have told you, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’” (John 1:23). They would have quoted the same passage that John did. That passage help them understand that they were living in such a way that their lives pointed to the coming Messiah. I think that they got that right.

Those words apply to you, too. Your life is like a beacon in the darkness that points to Christ. If you are a Christian, that is just a fact. God has put faith in your heart so that you believe in Jesus. You believe that he has taken away your sins and given you forgiveness. You trust in Christ, and your life points to him. A Christian lives differently than all the people of this world. We’ve been talking a lot about keeping Christ in Christmas lately, and it’s appropriate that we do. It’s easy to live our lives as if we are exactly the same as everyone else, but we aren’t. God has given you a purpose in life, to bear witness to his Son—to testify to the light that came into the world to give light to all men, the salvation and forgiveness of sins.

Listen one last time to how much this affected John the Baptist: “He [Christ] is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27). If we think about a task like taking off someone’s sandals, we would probably think that’s below us. Let a person take off their own shoes, we don’t need to do it. For someone to stoop down and take off someone else’s shoes shows humility. John came to realize that action wasn’t below him. In fact, it was something that he didn’t deserve to do. John knew Jesus was so great that he didn’t deserve to do the work that he was doing, and what he was doing was far more than just taking of Jesus’s shoes. John was honored to point to Christ. It’s an honor for us as well. At Christmas, we realize how honored we are to point to Christ. It’s why we spend so much time worshiping him this time of year. God has honored us beyond what we deserve. We aren’t worthy to come into his house and hear the message of his Son’s birth, much less be invited into the family of God to lead lives that point to him. But, your life does point to him. Live like it does. Amen.

“Remember the Lord’s Grace” | Deuteronomy 8:10-18 | Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays when I was growing up. Every year my family would pile into our car, drive three hours up to Minocqua, WI and visit with Dad’s family. My father is child eleven of twelve, and nearly everyone from his family would come. We’d get to my uncle and aunt’s house and there would be kids running around, the adult would sit upstairs and talk. I got to hang out with about 30 of my cousins, eat delicious food, including famous Heise deserts like suet pudding. I remember years when we had talent shows, when we had we played pool in the basement, watching my uncles ice fish when the ice wasn’t nearly thick enough, and even more. It was a grand time. But, let me be honest with you. Thanksgiving was a holiday, and that’s how I thought about it. I don’t remember many times when I actually had the sense to take the word apart to realize the day was about giving thanks. Sure, we went to church, but it was just church to me. I did it, but I didn’t sense that this was a special day.

What are you going to spend time remembering this Thanksgiving? I know that we all want to look back on what we did and think about how blessed a year we had—how good things were and how happy we are to be where we are today. But, there’s so many ways that this might go wrong. Someone, for instance, might like to look back with pleasure at things that ought never be done. They are people who give thanks by saying, “At least, I was never caught.” There are some who might look back and think about the good old days. They are the ones who give thanks by saying, “At least, it was good while it lasted.” There are those who might look back and see only the bleak disappointments, the losses, all the sorrow. They are the ones who give thanks by saying, “It could be worse, I guess.” There are those who look back at this year with a sense of accomplishment, and maybe even arrogance. They are the ones who give thanks by saying, “At least I got what I wanted.”

What is it that is missing behind these attitudes? Maybe some of you are already thinking, “Well, we’re forgetting God.” And you’re partly right. God should not be forgotten among us—he doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. But we aren’t all the way there even if we are remembering the Lord and his blessings. An attitude that forgets the Lord and his many benefits goes deeper than just our mind. It has penetrated deep into our hearts and taken control. Moses is giving the Israelites a very poignant warning, more than just “remember the Lord.”

Try and feel what these Israelites were feeling and sense what they are sensing. They have wandered in the wilderness for so long that most of them have only ever known that barren wasteland. But, the Promised Land was coming. Soon, they would cross over that Jordan river, right up to the cities of Canaan and begin their conquest. Wouldn’t that be welcome after 40 years wandering? Wouldn’t it be amazing to enter into the land that would be exactly as Moses was describing it? We can eat and be satisfied, no more of this manna and quail. We’ll get real food. We’re going to be able to build beautiful houses, grow our flocks of animals huge, and have as much silver and gold as we can find. Finally. Finally, life will be good. We can leave behind the wilderness, the thirst, the snakes and scorpions, all of that. Of course, we’ll also remember the Lord. Of course, we will. Why wouldn’t we?

If the Israelites thought that the temptations of the wilderness would give way to the ease of the Promised Land, God wants them to know that’s not the case. That just isn’t the way of life or the way of the human heart. The real danger lurked here, where they might praise the Lord, remember the Lord, follow his commands, and yet forget him. He would be remembered in their words, maybe in their minds, but their hearts would be far from them. Instead, they would look at everything they had—their houses, their flocks, the gold and silver, they’d feel their full bellies—and they would enjoy how much they had gotten. Not how much they had been given, but how much they had earned. They, their work, their effort, it was all theirs. Remember the Lord? Sure, they’d do that as long as you didn’t talk about what was in their hearts. Hearts that had forgotten the Lord in their pride.

That is what’s behind our Thanksgiving attitudes, too. We’re here at church, we remember the Lord, but is that what is in your heart? Was worship the part of Thanksgiving you were even looking forward to? Or was it the food and the family? Was it football? Was it pie and turkey? What’s in your heart today? We’re just like those Israelites who remember the Lord, but hiding is ours hearts is pride of accomplishment for all the things that we have. Or, maybe it’s pride that causes us to feel jealous of the things you don’t have, or wish things were the way things used to be, or lamenting the meaninglessness of it all. What are you going to spend time remembering this Thanksgiving? Will it be the power and the strength of your hands, the way the power of your hands has failed, or will it be the fact that you don’t deserve any of this? The Israelites didn’t deserve that Promised Land; they didn’t deserve the good gift, much less the Good Giver. What do you have in your life that you deserve, that you can take pride in as if you earned it?

What are you going to spend time remembering this Thanksgiving? Here’s what I hope it is. There is nothing in your life that you have earned or deserved. Even the blessings you receive from working hard and not deserved, because you couldn’t do the work if it weren’t for the Lord. That you have good things in your life is not something to pride in. The blessed fact behind everything in your life is that it is all a gift of God’s grace. For those Israelites, it was pure grace that God remembered the covenant he made with people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God promised a land where his people would live, and he kept that promise. For us, it is pure grace that God remembers the covenant that he makes with people like us. It’s a covenant in which God says, “Because of Christ Jesus, I will look on you favorably and give you every good thing you need.”

It is a humbling fact to look at the people in your life, to think of how much you love them—like your children or your parents, your spouse, your best friend—and recognize that God didn’t have to give you those people. But, he did, because of his grace towards you. This was a fact one of my best friends helped me see. He and I were sitting outside looking at the stars one night. He pointed out as we were talking that God didn’t have to make us friends, he didn’t have to give us the many blessing that he had given us. Things could have gone in a completely different direction. Maybe we never met, maybe we ended up living in different states, or whatever. But, God worked it out everything so that on that one night we would sit and talk under the stars about that small grace he had shown to us. That goes for everything in your life. It’s all grace shown to you. That is the heart of your God.

May your hearts be lowly and humble as you see how your God takes care of you and confirm his covenant to you. Christians are the best at giving thanks because they are the ones who see God’s grace behind every blessing. So of course, when they eat and are satisfied they praise the Lord; this food is from him. Of course, Christians want to follow and observe God’s commands so that they can spend their lives saying thanks to God. Christians spend time remembering the Lord, not just with their lips, not just with their minds, but deep in their hearts where they are so convinced that all of this is his grace—the ability to produce wealth, the covenant he made through his Son, the food, the family, the friends, the good times, the tragedies, the abundance, and the wanting.

I want to finish with a parable. There was a farmer in ancient Israel, after the days of Moses, after the days of Joshua, when the land was settled. This farmer had a horse that he had raised from a little colt. He took care of it, fed, groomed it, and sometimes thought about it more like a friend than like a horse. He was thankful for the horse. But one day, when he walked over to the horse’s pen, he found it open, and the horse gone. Some friends came over and they all made a big scene about how unfortunate all of this was and how sad the farmer must be. But, he wasn’t sad. The farmer was thankful and trusted that God was still being gracious to him. One week later, his horse came back. And, the horse had three wild horses with him. The farmer gave thanks to God for being so gracious to him. The friends came back, and they all told the farmer how lucky he was. They said things like, “It’s because you trained the horse so well, that it came back.” But, the farmer knew it wasn’t about it. It was about God’s grace.

Afterward, he set about trying to break the wild horses so that he could use them on his farm. While he was doing this, his son was bucked off one of the horses and he fell and broke his leg. The farmer was taking care of his son when his friends came back. They talked all about how unfortunate it was that the son had broken his leg. It was going to mean less could be done on the farm. But, the farmer just gave thanks He trusted that God was still being gracious to him. A week after his son broke his leg, some Moabites came into the village. They had come to take men and force them to be in their army. When they came to the farmer’s house, they asked about the farmer’s son who was just the right age to join the army, but they didn’t take him because his leg was broken. All of the farmer’s friends came back and talked about how lucky the farmer was that his son wouldn’t have to go to war. They even said things like, “You must have known the Moabites were coming, that’s why you had the horse throw your son.” But, the farmer knew it was nonsense. He knew that God was gracious to him every day of his life and that he that he always had something to be thankful for. That’s why in every situation, he was content, gave thanks to God and trusted him.

Here’s a simple way that you can have the same attitude, the grateful, humble one, God desires. You’ll probably see friends and family that you haven’t seen in a while. They’ll probably ask you how you are doing or how you have been. When those questions come, say, “Blessed in spite of myself.” Take the credit for everything you have and give it to God. You might get some odd looks, but embrace it. Remember the Lord’s grace. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good and his love endures forever. Amen.

“By Scripture Alone” | John 8:31-32 | Reformation Day

Do you think that people prefer freedom or slavery? If you answer the question quick without thinking, I’ll bet that you’ll say, “Freedom.” Of course, we prefer freedom to slavery. We want to be the masters of our own destinies. I’ll bet some of you are itching to throw some Abraham Lincoln quotes at me. And we’re celebrating the reformation, isn’t this a day when we celebrate spiritual freedom? We’re Lutheran, we have the truth. We’re not, as Martin Luther might say, “under the tyranny of the Pope.” We’re free, aren’t we? It’s all well and good that should look at the difference between freedom and slavery, because it’s what Jesus wants us to consider in the Gospel for today. If we look hard at what Jesus says, I think we might see that we’re not as free as we might hope. I think we might even realize that we’re not as Lutheran as we might hope. So, we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to see how when we hold to the principle of by Scripture alone, (1) we know the truth, and (2) we are set free.

Jesus’s words come from the middle of a longer sermon. He’s been going back and forth with his opponents and others. It seems like he’s really coming to a main point in this section, though. Jesus has explained how he has come from the Father to be lifted up to die for the sins of all people. While he’s preaching this, it says that many believed in him. And maybe there was a small kernel of faith planted in their hearts. Maybe that’s why Jesus tells them what he does. Because their response to what Jesus says doesn’t sound at all like a response of faith. Listen to some of the things they say while Jesus is preaching: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” (8:49), “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid” (8:13), or “Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” (8:53). And you can’t miss how the sermon ends: “They picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (8:59).

If there was kernel of faith in their heart, Jesus is trying to protect it. He does that with a warning and a promise. He gives them law and gospel. (It’s almost like Jesus is a good Lutheran.) He 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” (8:31-32). They were questioning his teaching, and so he points it out. There’s the warning for them. Are they really holding to his Word? Are they really believing in his teaching? Because that is the only way that they can know the truth. It’s only through his teaching that they can know the truth about themselves and the truth about God. Were they really holding to that? Jesus wanted them to examine themselves and see if they were truly his disciples, to see if they really know the truth, to see if they were truly free.

If they examined their hearts, they would see that they weren’t free. They were in a slavery that was crueler and nastier than we can imagine. Isn’t it obvious from their objections to what Jesus says? It’s like they skip over his point altogether because they’re trying to win the argument. They aren’t concerned with being right, so much as looking right. So, they said, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” (8:33). They can’t see what is false behind their words. They are asserting that what truly matters is their descendancy. Abraham is their forefather, and that gives them a leg up spiritually. It’s was like their get into heaven free card.

They couldn’t see the truth, that they were really enslaved. So, Jesus points it out to them, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (8:34). Here was what they had missed. Here was the truth that they needed. They hadn’t held to Jesus’ teachings, because Jesus wanted them to see their sin. He wanted them to know what kind of lives they were really leading. Or rather, what kind of life they were being led to. Because he was talking to slaves. Their wills, their desires, their thoughts, emotions—even their souls—their entire being was controlled by sin. There was only one way to be free from that, and Jesus would give them that truth, too.

But that truth would only come through him. That’s why he talked about slaves and sons. A slave can’t free another slave. Only someone with true authority could do that. Could they see that truth? “Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:35-36). Abraham was a sinful man. You can go to the book of Genesis and read about how he committed one sin after another. How could Abraham set them free from their own sin? Abraham didn’t have that authority. That was authority that only came through the truth, and the truth came through Jesus Christ. So, here he was, the Son, God’s only begotten, with the truth and authority to set them free from their sin.

It is that very truth that we celebrate at the Reformation. By God’s grace, he has given us faith to hold to the teachings of Christ. By this faith, we are Jesus’s disciples. But, we should not think that we can’t end up like these opponents of Jesus. Our hearts are sinful like theirs, drawn to our own understanding of things, and even fighting against Christ’s teachings. We live among sinful people who have no regard for God’s Word and would gladly convince us that God’s Word is untrue. Our greatest enemy still prowls around, longing to take away the truth from us. Christ wants you to know the truth. He wants to be his disciple. And so he takes you and he establishes you in his Word. He roots you in the truth, in himself, so that you will be unshakeable as you trust in him.

He makes you his disciple, and teaches you to treasure the truth. His Word is the one sure place that you can find words that are always right, always true, always powerful. These are the words that carry along with them the promise of the Holy Spirit. These are the words that will show you how great a sinner you are, but how much greater a Savior Jesus is. That’s the truth. It’s why we hold to the Scriptures with all that we are. There is nothing more important than the teachings about Christ. This is a gift he has given us and no matter what another church body or religion or the world says, we will not give it up. Let them try to take it from us. We would rather be Christ’s disciples.

I get the sense that I should quote Luther, since it is Reformation day. Here’s what Luther says about this topic: “From the beginning of my Reformation I have asked God to send me neither dreams, nor visions, nor angels, but to give me the right understanding of His Word, the Holy Scriptures; for as long as I have God’s Word, I know that I am walking in His way and that I shall not fall into any error or delusion” (LW II:268). That’s a confidence that we can have, too. As long as you hold to Christ’s teaching, you are his disciples. You know the truth. Not a truth, not a falsehood, not something that will change like the wind, but rather the unshakeable, steadfast facts about your Savior.

By Scripture alone, when you hold to that truth, you become Christ’s disciple, and he makes you free. He takes you from the realm of slavery to sin and into his realm, the Kingdom of his Word. Friends, this is the only true freedom there is. Picture freedom the way Christ does. It is not being able to do whatever you want, it is not accepting every idea that wind blows in. True freedom from Christ is remaining in one the one place of Christ’s Word and never departing from there.

Abraham could never bring true freedom to those Jews, but the Son could. It was the Son of God who had the authority to set them free from their sins. That’s the whole reason he was talking to them about how he would be lifted up. He would set them free from their sin by being lifted up on a cross and hanging there until he died. Was Abraham lifted up for them? He wasn’t, but Christ would be. That was the one truth they needed to be set free from their slavery. His teaching was the only way it would come to them.

Imagine that freedom in your life. The freedom to call the false things false, and true things true. That is part of the freedom of trusting God’s Word. So that when you hear the devil telling you lies, like “Your God is not pleased with you,” or, “You can get away with doing that, no one will know,” you, O disciple of Jesus Christ, holder of the truth, can show him he is wrong. In the world, when you hear lies all around you, lies like, “You’ll be happy if you can just buy this thing,” or, “Christians are unloving if they point out sins,” you can recognize the lie behind those words. When suffering and heartbreak enters your life and your heart whispers, “God must not love me anymore,” or, “I must try harder to please God,” even then you can see all of that is false. Because Christ’s teachings show you the cross, they show you his unearned grace given to you, they show you that you are free people.

You might be surprised to learn that the Bible has instructions for people who are slaves. The instructions, though, are not to try and run away because slavery is evil, or to begrudgingly serve and make life difficult and unhappy. In fact, it’s the opposite, in the book of Colossians it says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:22-24). But, maybe that doesn’t surprise you. Those people, even though they were slaves on the outside, on the inside they were free. They knew the truth, that they had an eternal inheritance from the Lord. So, they could serve and work as slaves, confident in the Lord.

One last Luther quote: “You must bear this in mind. ‘Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ Both hell and death are his masters. He cannot escape them. How, then, can I become free? Men answer: ‘I will erect a chapel, endow an eternal Mass, go on pilgrimages, fast, become a monk, etc.’ But Christ says, ‘That is [not] the right way! No, let Him who is called the Son of God deliver you from sin; then you are free. If you give yourself to Him and let Him set you free, all is well’” (LW 23:411). Friends, it is by Scripture alone that you learn the truth and are set free. Rejoice in that truth and freedom. Happy Reformation day. Amen.

“The Servant is the Greatest” | Mark 9:30-37 | Pentecost 17

When I was a counselor at Camp Phillip, I once had a difficult cabin. I remember it just because it was so difficult, and most cabins weren’t like that. All ten of my campers were in fourth grade, and they were having a great time the first day. We swam, we sang, we played games—all around fun. The morning of the second day, we had a Bible study about how we were once God’s enemies, but because of Jesus, we are now God’s friends and friends with each other. It was about how Jesus brought us peace. That Bible study was the first thing we did. The next thing was outdoor sports. I don’t remember what the game we were going to play was, but I do remember it wasn’t boxing. Even though that’s what my campers thought it was. Maybe I missed the tension brewing between these two, but by then they were ready to let it out. I had to pull them apart and take one to the nurse. Afterward, I talked with both of them and I asked them if they remembered what the Bible study had been about, and they remembered, but they were too ashamed to tell me.

Sometimes people just miss the point like those campers. It didn’t make sense for them to hear about God’s peace for their lives, and then to take their fists and punch each other. But they did. They missed the point. And the disciples in our Gospel do also. They’re going through what you might call their “seminary training.” This was a special time in Jesus’ ministry when Christ spend time alone training his disciples, because he knew what was coming. He knew that he would die, rise, and ascend. He was preparing them to take up their ministries after him. We even know what he was teaching them about: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” Jesus was going to die for the sins of all and rise again. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus didn’t talk about his death and resurrection as much. He was focused on preaching and healing. But, now as his ministry comes to a close, he was very focused. He was very clear about his mission.

The disciples don’t get it. Mark evens explains as much: “They did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” They had seen Jesus do so many things. He was their friend, their role model, and more. Of course, they would respond with distress and sorrow, but it led them to fear and not to understand. They didn’t even want to ask Jesus more about it. They didn’t ask Jesus what it meant that he was going to die. They didn’t ask Jesus what it meant that he was going to rise. They didn’t ask what it meant for them. Instead, they tried to figure it out on their own. They stepped out of this grace-filled conversation from their Lord, and into one driven by selfish ambitions and pride. They started arguing about which of them was the greatest. Was it Peter? Was it John? What is James? They all had good points for why it was them.

Jesus knows what they are arguing about. So, he asks them. I bet the silence was deafening. It was less embarrassing for them to say nothing to say, “Well, Jesus, we just heard about what you came to accomplish for the entire world, and we were trying to figure out which one of us would be the most important after you were gone.” So, they say nothing. They sit there in shame. They didn’t get it. Shouldn’t it have been obvious to them that being the greatest was not the point? They had just heard how Jesus had come to serve the entire world, but they weren’t willing to serve. Instead, they wanted it to be seen how important they were. Forgotten was the great act of service by their great Master, so they could figure out who had the highest rank.

But, we shouldn’t think too little of the disciples, especially not before recognizing that we do this same thing. We miss the point too. Jesus tells us, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all,” and we give his words lip-service before going home or work or school and contradicting it. Or what else is behind the argument of a husband and wife, except that one believes they are more important than the other? What else is behind an attitude of a student who takes his ball and goes home because the other children won’t play the way he wants, except that he believes what he wants his more important? What else is behind that irksome feeling you get when something at church is not done the way you want, except that you believe what you think is better? What if they took a poll at your work place about who the hardest worker, the most well-liked, or whatever, wouldn’t you want the results of the poll to be you? So that everyone can see that you are the greatest.

If you want to see an example of how convinced people are that they are the most important, just look at what happened in the NFL last weekend. If you didn’t know about this, there was a controversy about whether NFL players should stand for the national anthem. Some players chose to kneel as a form of protest. But, take a step back from that and consider the responses from different people. No matter what their position was on it, people have been willing to get into other people’s faces about it on the news. People have been willing to go on Facebook and Twitter and say just what they’re thinking. Can you sense how convinced people can become they’re ideas are the most important, that their ideas matter more than the other side, or my neighbor, or my country’s leader or the NFL commissioner? In all of that, do you get the sense that people are doing what Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all”?

Admit it. Sometimes people just miss Jesus’s point. Sometimes, you miss Jesus’s point. You want to be first, and you want to show that you deserve to be there. You want to be the greatest, and you want to convince everyone else that you are. How does Jesus respond to this? He responds in the best way. He doesn’t point to himself, and say, “Guys, don’t you realize that I am the greatest?” Then, he would be doing the same thing they are. Jesus doesn’t start posturing. He doesn’t pull rank. Instead, he says, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” The disciples attitude, and ours, toward what it means to be great must be changed, in fact, it must be radically reversed. The person who is first, is not the one who towers over others with intelligence, position, or ability; the one who is the greatest is the one down in the dirt, who sympathizes with others’ needs, who helps everyone in any way possible, who isn’t out for themselves. The servant is the greatest.

Jesus doesn’t point to himself, because he doesn’t have to. If you look through all of history, can you find anyone better described by the words, “Servant of all,” than Jesus? This is exactly what he was teaching the disciples, and it’s what he is teaching us today. Jesus served you by being born as a tiny baby. He served you by living a perfect life in your place. He served you by dying on what should have been your cross. He served you by rising again. Jesus is down in the dirt, sympathizing with our every need, helping everyone in the best way. Jesus is the servant of all. And he’s your servant. He takes care of your greatest need by giving you forgiveness and eternal life.

Then, “[Jesus] took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’” Does it fill you with joy how often Jesus seems to be surrounded by children? Is that so fitting? That he can just pull them into an embrace, and talk to them, and bless them. How fitting is it that Jesus loves children that much! He uses one of them as an example. Jesus wants his disciples to see how much he, the servant of all cares about even just one person, even just this child. They can take their focus off of themselves, and put it onto a little one like this.

You have been served by Jesus, the servant of all, the one who is first because he became last, and now he points out how you can do the same. You don’t need to focus on who is the greatest. Instead, you can focus on the little ones, welcoming them in Jesus’s name and so welcoming Jesus himself—and even the Father. Who are these little ones? They aren’t just children. They’re the weak in the faith who need your encouragement. They’re the sick who need your words of comfort. They’re the ones who have gone astray. I bet you can think of someone who you haven’t seen in church for a while. And of course, they’re the children. Have you considered how they think and feel? Have you considered what example you are setting for them? They are the ones Jesus would have you serve, and by serving them you serve God.

While I was preparing this sermon, Pastor Degner and Pastor Nass reminded me of an excellent motto: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” That’s what Jesus wants you keep in mind, too. He doesn’t want you to think you’re worthless or useless, in fact, he wants you to forget yourself. He wants you to put your focus on serving those who need to be served—to feel what they feel, to know their needs. Who is the greatest? It doesn’t need to be me or you. We don’t even need to worry about the question. We can put our focus on those who need our service and finding the way to help. Spend some time thinking about that this week. Who is someone that needs your service? You serve your Lord by serving them. Amen.