“Let’s Open God’s Book” | Daniel 12:1-3 | End Times 2

It happened again this week. Someone walked into a location full of people they didn’t know and opened fire, with no goal except to kill as many as possible. It seems entirely meaningless and yet it’s starting to seem like a weekly occurrence. It’s something we are being numb to. In fact, it’s probably not even the biggest news story anymore. What does it say about the times we live in that we are just used to the fact that random people decide to kill random people and it happens all the time all over our country? I’m not a sociologist. I don’t study the trends among the demographics most affected by this. But, as your pastor, I want to shepherd you through these events. We’re going to do that today by looking into God’s book.

Often in church when we refer to a book, we mean the Bible. We’re going to do that, too, but we’re not really referring to the Bible. We’re referring to another book. It’s a book that God has in his presence. He knows their contents. He knows who is written in that book, and it won’t be opened until that last day. This book is mentioned throughout the Bible as the ledger that God will use to know who to give eternal life to. On that day, when he looks into that book of life, will he see your name? Will you make it through these times of distress, awake one day from the dust, and stand before the Lord’s throne to hear your name read?

To get to that day, there’s a story we must live. I can’t tell you every part. Only God knows the whole thing, but I can give you the basic structure and spoil the ending. This story begins on the day of Pentecost. We celebrated that day last spring. On that day, the apostles began their mission of bringing the gospel to the entire world. So, the Word of God went out and spread across the globe. Once that one prerequisite was met, Christians began to wait—for a long time. During that time, much has changed, but one thing has remained the same. It’s the End Times, and God’s church waits for the time when Christ will return. During that time, they have readied themselves.

These End Times are full of trouble. Did you catch that in the words of the prophet Daniel: “There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then” (Daniel 12:1). Jesus confirms this for us: “But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’” (Mark 13:24-25). We’re seeing that trouble now. We’re seeing it every time there’s another mass shooting. We’re seeing it every time that some country in the world threatens to attack, or to impose sanctions, or bombs someone, or whatever. We’re seeing it every time a hurricane strikes, with every fire that burns the countryside—every natural disaster confirms these troubles.

Do you listen to how people respond to these things? It generally goes two ways: despair or fake hope. Listen to how some people responded to the shooting this week: “What can we as citizens do? Vote? I vote! Protest? I show up at protests! Call my representatives? I do that too. And then here we are with more students getting killed while they’re just out living life in a safe place. It’s just too much.”[i] Can you hear the despair? It’s people throwing up their arms in confusion because they can’t change the situation no matter how much they want. Is there an answer? There is. We look into God’s book.

But, there’s fake hope here, too. It’s when people believe that there’s an answer to all of this if we just do this one thing, or elect this one person, or get rid of this policy, etc. You can hear it in this reaction: “If you’re looking for one speck of hope, know that several other countries got sick and tired of this, but they did something, and had dramatically successful results. There is hope for improvement if we ever decide to actually make changes.” Is that really hope? You might be thinking, “No, these people need Jesus.” You’re right. They do. But Christian buy into this strange pseudo-hope, too: “Mass shooting have gone up as church attendance has gone down. Can you not see that if we want these things to stop, we need to get people back into the pews? That’s the only way to fix this.”

Can you sense the futility of all this? This isn’t true hope. New policies aren’t going to fix the world. Electing new politicians isn’t going to stop hate or war. More guns or less guns aren’t going to halt all the violence. And if you missed Daniel’s words, as God gave him this vision of the future, he saw not that Jesus would return to a world of peace and harmony, but one in which things are constantly getting worse: “There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then” (Daniel 12:1). It’s going to get worse. Is there a way to get past the despair and the fake hope? There is. We look into God’s book.

One hymn that we sometimes sing says, “I’m but a stranger here, // Heaven is my home; // Earth is a desert drear, // Heaven is my home” (CW 417). I’ve had people push back against that hymn. They say, “Shouldn’t we celebrate God’s creation? Doesn’t he give us so many blessings here?” But, that hymn is not trying to deny God’s blessing, but is trying to keep you from getting to attached to this world. The distress is going to get worse. As the end comes, more and more mindless, meaningless things are going to happen. Don’t get too attached to this world. You can’t fix it. Nothing you do can save it. And that’s good. Because who would want this to go on forever?

Instead, let’s open God’s book. God mentions it in Daniel 12:1—“At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered.” Michael is the only archangel listed in the Bible. As far as we know, he may be the only one. He is listed as a great prince who protects God’s people. Isn’t it appropriate that, according to the apostle Paul, it’s the call of an archangel that we are waiting for: “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

That day the Lord will deliver his people from all of their enemies. This is us looking into God’s book. It’s this book that contains the names all those people God has chosen to be his own. Only these people will be delivered out of the distress of sin, the distress of death, the distress of this world. Is your name on that list? When Jesus calls you before him will your name be found there? Yes. Your name is written in the book of life. It was written there before the world was created. On that day, you will be delivered out of the struggles of this life. You’ll leave them behind.

Even death: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2). The dead will rise. Can you picture how amazing this is going to be. The dust of the earth, once used to shape and fashion Adam, will reassemble itself so that all who have ever lived will be raised. But not everyone will face the same end, some will rise to life, others to shame and contempt. Most importantly, “the dead in Christ will rise first…. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thes. 4:16-17). This is what we see when we open God’s book. There, you find your name written, chosen by God to have faith in Christ, chosen by God to have your sins washed away, chosen by God to be saved on that last day. You will stand triumphant with all of God’s people on that last. Your name is written in the book.

It’s a part of human nature to try and fix this world and rescue it. But you don’t have to try and do that. Your mission is not a mission to conquer this earth in God’s name and make it into heaven on earth. You are on a rescue mission. “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3). Those who are wise through faith in Christ will have join him in heaven, but there’s more. Those who lead others to righteousness, to know Jesus Christ, they will have the special reward of shining like a star. I can’t tell you exactly what that is, but you can picture it, can’t you? This is our rescue mission. We can’t save the whole world. It’s going down in flames. So be it. We can lead others to righteousness. Parents can lead their children. Friends can lead their friends. Relatives can lead relatives. So, friends, don’t be surprised by the trouble of this world. It’s just going to get worse. But, let it encourage you to take up your mission to rescue others and lead them to righteousness. Amen.

 

 

 

[i] All quotations in sermon taken from comments responding to this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/08/us/shooting-california-thousand-oaks.html.

Book Review

Not a Hint by John Ware Hirth

I’ll be using this book in Confirmation class this upcoming year to talk about 6th commandment issues. I’ve been satisfied with how it talks about the issues from a Christ-centered perspective and really tries to get into what the Bible says. I think that it is a great catechetical resource and I look forward to teaching from it. If you end up picking it up, let me know what you think.

BookCoverImage

Review:
I received an advanced copy of this book to read and review. I found the book to be very readable and at a level that the intended audience can understand. There are plenty of relevant stories, anecdotes, and such to emphasize the main points and illustrate what the Bible says.

My favorite part about the book was easily how clearly the author focused on Jesus. Each chapter was brought back to the message of the gospel and how Christ forgives our sins.  I thought that this was refreshing considering that many books that deal with similar issues are heavy on instruction, but light on motivation. This book was not like that.

While not every conclusion of the author will be agreed upon by all readers, he does a good job differentiating between what God’s Word says and what his opinion is. I think that this is important for an author to do especially in such a turbulent culture like ours.

Here are some quotes I really like:
-“It’s is because they don’t last long before they pass away. You have to enjoy them while they are there. Then, they are gone. They are fleeting. They are quickly gone. They’re ephemeral. So are relationships when you’re not ready to marry. But, they can still be beautiful.” (58)

-“Most of all remember Jesus, though. Not as a fearful lawgiver, but as the God who gave himself to take away all your sins and declare you righteous. Remember him and you will be able to say, ‘No,’ to porn and masturbation.” (81)

-“There is one last thing I want to say about this. When you are in school, no matter what kind of school you go to, you will hear your friends talking about sex, dating, etc. in all sorts of ways. They may make fun of you or bully you for what you believe. That doesn’t make them right. It’s okay to walk away from those situations and to talk with some other friends for a while.” (115)

Let me know if you pick up the book and what you think.

Find the book on Amazon here.

“Find the Wisdom of God” | Job 28:12-28 | Confirmation Sunday

I know that this morning there are more people here than just the confirmation students. I pray that as you hear this sermon, God’s Word comes to you as well to strengthen your faith and assure you of his forgiveness. But, this sermon is especially for these seven who will be confirmed. So, for you guys, imagine for the next little bit that it’s just you and me. The parties, the family and friends, all of that is going to come later, but for right now, let it all fade into the background. They’ll be listening to the sermon, but this is primarily for you. Let’s pretend for a little why that it’s just us.

As you guys grow up, what do you envision people saying about you? Do you picture people saying that you’re great at sports? Great at acting and theatre? Great at shooting? Funny? Smart? Rich? When your friends talk about you, how do they describe you? How about your parents and grandparents? If I asked them to tell me what you were like, what would you like them to say? There’s probably more answers to that question than I could guess or maybe even think of right now. What I want to know, though, is where on that list is wisdom? Is it the first thing? Is it somewhere in the middle? When you picture your 20 year-old self, your 30 year-old self, or maybe your 80 year-old self, do you want people to say that you are wise?

In the year 600 B.C., there was a boy who lived in western China, near the Himalayan mountains, who decided that what he wanted from his life was to find wisdom. But, he didn’t know what wisdom was. He didn’t know where wisdom came from. All he knew was that when people spoke of wisdom, they said it was a good thing. So, he wanted it. In an effort to learn more, he went to his parents one night after dinner and asked them, “How do I become wise?” The parents, frankly, were startled by this question. They told him after some discussion that the secret to wisdom was hard work. So the boy set out to work hard on their family farm, and he worked really hard. He really wanted to be wise. Every so often, he would go back to his parents and say to them, “Am I wise now?” His parents would always say, “Nope. Not yet.”

After years of hard work, the boy met a traveling merchant who had come from far away in the West. He wore clothes that were all blue and purple with gold trim. He came with a huge caravan of servants, animals, and stuff to sell. When this boy, now a teenager, when to buy some supplies from the merchant they got to talking. Wisdom came up in their conversation, and the teenager asked the man, “Are you wise? Do you know how a person becomes wise? My parents say it comes from hard work.” The merchant told him, “It sometimes comes from hard work, but I’ve found that it comes from having money. I know I am wise because I have so much stuff and so many people come to me asking how I did it.”

That night the teenager decided to, unwisely, to run away. It hurt him to leave behind his parents, but he had to find wisdom. He didn’t find it on his family farm, so he joined the merchant’s caravan. They traveled west together, over the mountains. As they traveled together, he watched the merchant buying and selling things. He learned how to be a merchant himself. He started to make money. In every village that they came to, he bought and sold items. At first, it was hard for him to make any money, but soon his own treasure began to accumulate.

After a few years traveling with the merchant, he left his caravan to set up his own. He traveled all over the world. To the east he crossed the sea to Japan. To the south, he visited the land of India. To the north, he camped on the frigid plains of Siberia. To the west, he even saw the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. By this time, he was not longer a teenager, but a man—and a rich one. People would come from all over to ask his advice on what things to buy and sell. They want to know what things they should sell in which places. Sometimes, the man would ask those who came to him for advice, “Did you come to me because I am wise?” They would respond, “It’s not really about wisdom. We came to you because you are successful.”

It took a while, but the man eventually learned that being smart and successful was not the same as wisdom. Hard work was not the same as wisdom. He finally decided that there was no wisdom. There was no one who had the answer. He had been all over the world and no one knew what it was or where to find it. They all had their ideas of what it would be like, but no one could know for certain. So, he moved to the city of Babylon. It was a booming metropolis. He set aside his days of being a traveling merchant, and he set up a shop in the city. But, he only worked so that he could go out and have fun. He had decided that if there was no wisdom, then the only thing people could agree on is to have as much fun as possible. So he did. Every night there were new people to meet, new things to experience. He tried everything. He ate until he was sick. He drank until he couldn’t remember the night before. He met women. He partied. “This must be wisdom,” he said to himself, but he could tell those words were empty.

When he had been living in Babylon for a few years, he met an official in the emperor’s court. This man was highly respected by everyone. He was known for his ability to interpret dreams. He was known for having the trust of the most powerful person in the world. He was known for being a vegetarian of all things. But, most of all, he was known for his wisdom. His name was Daniel. He came into his shop one day to browse and see some curiosities from around the world. The man introduced himself, and when he learned that he was talking to Daniel of all people, he couldn’t help but ask the question one more time. This man was called wise by everyone. Certainly he knew what wisdom was and where to find it.

“Most excellent Daniel,” the man began to say, because that’s how you were supposed to talk to important people, “I have been all over the world. I have met people in the east, the west, the north, and the south. I have sought wisdom in hard work, in riches, in pleasure—no matter where I go, whom I talk to, or what I know, I cannot find it. Surely, you must know. What is wisdom? Where can I find it?” Daniel stroked his beard. He looked longingly toward westward.

Then, he said, “Wisdom is not the sort of thing you will find on this earth. It is worth more than all the gold in the world. You cannot buy it with jewels or silver. No creature could come up with it on their own, though many have tried. Even if you could travel to the afterlife, beyond death, and come back, even then you would not learn of it. But, I do know what wisdom is. I know the only One who understands wisdom. ‘The fear of the Lord is true wisdom’” (Job 28:28).  The man stared at Daniel. The answer seemed wrong. But, he couldn’t help, but he couldn’t help, but press on.

“What do you mean? What is fear? Who is the Lord?” he asked Daniel. Daniel stayed in that shop for a long time that day. He told the man a long story. It started way back with the beginning of all things, and even looked to the future. The story told about sin, about the failure of human beings to find any sort of wisdom or value by themselves. It told about how a nation of people had been driven from their homeland into exile by their God, but that this wasn’t an act of wrath, but one of love. The best part of the story though was when Daniel talked about the “Son of Man.” (Daniel 7:13) He was the one Daniel feared, but not in the way a child fears the dark. It was reverence. It was awe. Daniel longed for the Son of Man who would come to take away the sins of the whole world. “That is wisdom,” Daniel said. “True wisdom is to believe in the one God will send to save us. Now you know it, and where to find it.”

My friends, you have been blessed to spend time studying God’s word. You know what the Bible is about and why it is so important. Don’t lose focus on that. If you do, you might go out to seek wisdom in other places. But if you want to know how to be wise—wiser than most adults, wiser than most of your teachers, knowing how to live a good life with those around you—then you need the Word of the Lord. I know you will be tempted to look in other places. I know you already have been tempted. Some of you have already thought you could find true wisdom in popularity, in having fun, or being the best at something. But it’s not there. In your life, you might seek wisdom by falling in love, by trying to earn enough money, or through drugs or alcohol, but it’s not there.

There is only one way to wisdom. “God alone understands the way to wisdom; he knows where it can be found” (Job 28:23). So praise God that he has made known to us the way to wisdom as well. That is what you have been studying for the last three years. The way to wisdom—what it means to receive grace and faith from God. It is only by that grace and faith that you come to know the Son of Man—Jesus Christ. It is through him that all of the benefits of wisdom become yours—righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:31). Find this wisdom of God. Seek it with all your heart. Believe in the Lord.

One more time, imagine what people say about you. Imagine what you want them to say about you. Do you want them to say that you are a wise person? I hope so. Not because you everyone to think you are so amazing, but because you know what true wisdom is. The only true wisdom is faith in Jesus. Today, you will let everyone know that the best thing, the most important thing, in your life is wisdom. You are going to stand in front of everyone here and say that you would rather be a wise person who believes in Jesus than anything else. You would even rather die. May God give you the grace and faith to say those wise words you soon will, “I do, and I ask God to help me.” Amen.

“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.