“Cage Match: God v. Prophet” | Jonah 3:4-4:4 | Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

When I was a kid, I watched a ton of professional wrestling. I knew it was fake, but it was so fun. Now, admittedly, I haven’t watched any of it in almost a decade, but I still remember a few things. I remember the anticipation that built waiting for that final match of the night, when the two big stars finally faced off, for whatever reason. And, personally, I loved it when they would have a cage match. If you aren’t familiar with the cage match, it went something like this. Instead of a normal, open ring, that a person could get in and out of, they locked a giant steel cage around the ring. The only way out was to win or lose. Otherwise, there weren’t any other rules. It was two competitors laying everything on the line and duking it out to their utmost. It was so much more exciting than an ordinary match. And their was always some spins and twists that were going to happen. Someone would break out of the cage somehow. Someone would somehow sneak in one of those folding chairs. Today, we have a cage match of sorts going on. We’re going to go round after round with two combatants.

In one corner of the ring, we have the Lord, the creator of the universe, ruler of all things, and merciful savior of mankind. Weighing in at exactly 0 lbs., because he’s a spirit, but not immense enough to fill all things. And in the other corner, we have a prophet, Jonah, son of Amittai, from Geth Hepher. His exact weight and height, unknown, because the Bible doesn’t tell us. And I, the reverend pastor Justin Heise, will be your MC tonight. This is shaping up to be a great match, even if it is a little one-sided. And I have to let you know that, if you are just tuning in now, you’ve already missed the first round. But, I’ll catch you up. Jonah’s first strategy was a doozy. He decided that he was going to try and run away, as far as he could conceive of going, but this is a cage match. There’s no escape. The Lord brought him into the ring with a huge twist, he had Jonah swallowed by a giant fish and vomited back up. I know most people think that’s the biggest miracle in we’re going to see, but I can promise you the Lord has bigger things coming. Round one went to the Lord. Let’s get ready for round two.

In round two, we see Jonah taking another strategy, he seems to be giving the Lord just what he wants. He heads to Nineveh and starts preaching there: “On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned’” (Jonah 3:4). I can’t tell you exactly what Jonah’s strategy is here. Maybe he thinks that none of those Ninevites will listen to him. Maybe he thinks that God would never convert an enemy of the nation of Israel, but boy is he wrong! God works Jonah’s strategy for his own good. He’s about to work one of the biggest miracles of all time: “The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust” (Jonah 3:5-6).

The entire city, which was about 100,000 people, repenedt and turn to the Lord. I want you to appreciate just how amazing that is. Once a month, all of the pastors from all of the churches and denominations in Saint Peter get together to make sure we are all aware of anything that might impact all of us. One time, though, we sat down and took the average attendance of all the congregations in the city and compared it to the population of the city, to find what percentage of the people in Saint Peter go to church on Sunday. 18% was what our math came out to. That’s slightly higher than the national average of 15% of the population attending church on Sunday, but still not a huge number. But, consider if every single person in the entire city repented, and not just them, but also the entire city of Mankato, the entire city of Le Seuer, and the entire city of Jordan, plus those who live out in the countryside. That’s still less than the population of Nineveh at this time. Nevertheless, imagine if all of those people listen to one sermon, and God works in their hearts to repent all at the same time. That is an amazing miracle. Imagine how much celebration and joy that should bring to the hearts of Christians, to see people turning to the Lord. But, just wait for round three of this match.

Round three starts on a hillside outside the city of Nineveh. So far, the Lord has won the first two rounds, will his prophet be able to win this third? Let’s look at his strategy:

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.  He prayed to the LORD, ‘O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live’” (Jonah 4:1-3).

Man, Jonah is looking defeated! He looks like he is already giving up. Why do you think that is? I’ve got a few ideas. Jonah clearly knows that God is a merciful God. He admits that God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love. Should that cause him to rejoice? Shouldn’t God’s prophet be so excited to see his preaching change hearts? Shouldn’t the repentance of these people bring him joy? But, do you know why it doesn’t? Because Jonah has two problems. First, he doesn’t think that the Ninevites deserve God’s mercy, and he’s right about that. They don’t. But, he thinks that means God shouldn’t save them. His second problem is that while he thinks God’s people don’t deserve his mercy, he thinks that he does. Why should this Gentile nation get to hear about his gracious God? Jonah wouldn’t save these people, why should the Lord?

God’s strategy in this round is a little more subtle. There’s no dramatic miracle, this time. Jonah has already given up. So, the Lord just asks him one question: “Have you any right to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is, “No!” of course, he doesn’t have a reason to be angry. Doesn’t he see that? And now, get ready for a twist. This is where everything changes, because Jonah does something we wouldn’t expect. He tags someone else in. Is that legal? I don’t know, but as the person in charge, I’m going to allow it. Who does he tag in? Well, let me tell you this. If you finish the book of Jonah, you never find out how Jonah takes God’s news. Does he repent himself? Does he stay angry? We don’t know. The book ends before we find out. Because Jonah’s tagging you in. We leave Jonah pouting on a hillside and this cage match moves from Jonah vs. God, to you vs. God. Get ready for round four.

You are probably wondering how you fit into this cage match? How can you stand against the Lord? How can you fight against an almighty God? Because you don’t do the sort of thing that Jonah does, right? But we do. We may not do exactly what Jonah does, but the same sin lives in our heart, this idea that we for some reason deserve God’s love, but that others don’t. I can give you an example. About a month ago, out in our narthex, I had a conversation with one of you. I won’t say who, and I’ve changed what was talked about just a bit, but this is what happened. We were talking about how she had seen a car accident over on Washington, and one of the people involved in the accident was a Somali woman. She was driving the car. Somehow, she and another woman had collided. I don’t know all the details of the accident, but after telling me about she said like, “Most of those Somalis can’t afford to get their cars fixed after something like that. Maybe if they were more like us, that wouldn’t happen to them.”

I don’t include conversations like this to scare you. I don’t want you to think that you shouldn’t talk to your pastor because you might end up in a sermon someday. But, this is worth pointing out. Can you sense what was behind her comment? Because in that moment, it was very obvious to me. She meant that if something bad happened to someone like that, then they probably deserved it. Maybe the people in our community from Somalia deserve to be refugees, to have less money, to be confused all of the time. But, if they could just be a little more American, more Christian, more like us, whatever that means, then everything would be better for them. Because the things I have, the good things that happen to me, those are things I deserve. Behind that comment was exactly what Jonah was saying. Other people don’t deserve God’s mercy, but I do. Whether they are from Nineveh or Somalia doesn’t matter, they don’t deserve God’s mercy, but I do. This is just one example. What about how we don’t reach out to people that live in certain kinds of houses, because maybe we don’t want them at our church? What about how we never talk to our co-workers about Christ, because it just never feels right, and I’m already saved? What about how we get jealous when something good happens to someone else, that covetous thought creeps into our mind, because don’t I deserve it more? These are all different flavors of the same sin, and it affects us all. Round four goes to God. It should. We can’t bring anything to this battle but sin and our own worthlessness. But, get ready for round five.

Round five is the final one. This is the round that will determine the whole match? Who’s gonna win? I hope that you realize you shouldn’t stay in the ring. You’re going to have to tag someone in. Not Jonah. He wasn’t doing much good. Tag in someone who can actually win the battle. Tag in Jesus. Jesus is the only one who can stand against the wrath of God. How is it possible that one person of the Trinity can oppose another? How is it that the Father can pour out his wrath on the Son? How can he who is One and undivided take a side against himself? I don’t know. But, He is the only one who can have victory. That sin we’ve been talking about, that we deserve God’s love, but others don’t, that is not true of us, but it is of Jesus. Jesus deserves God’s love, everyone other person does not. But, here’s Jesus’s strategy in this cage match. He flips that around. He makes himself nothing—deserving of no love—so that you and I receive God’s love. Jesus takes God’s wrath. He takes our sins—every single one, and he eliminates them. They’re gone. That’s it. Victory is won, and Jesus gives it to you. There’s the bell. The match is over. Amen.

“Glory in Service to God” | Romans 15:14-20 | Seventh Sunday of Easter

The last couple weeks, I’ve been thinking that anyone who visits our congregation must feel just a little bit awkward. It’s not because you have done anything wrong, so don’t worry about that. But, I am talking about something beyond the normal awkwardness that comes from being in a new place. The main perception of Christians by those in the world is that we want to help people be good or moral. Most people in the world think that Christians exist to live a good life so that they can get to heaven. So, when you come to church, that’s what you would expect to hear. You would expect to hear about what things you should do and what you shouldn’t do. You would expect to hear a lot about what God expects out of you.

So, if that is your expectation as you walk into a church for the first time, how do you react when you don’t hear any of that? I know that I haven’t preached a single time in this Easter season that you should live a good life in order to get to heaven. In fact, I refuse to preach that message. Not only is it against the Bible, but even if preached it, you couldn’t do it. Instead of hearing that you should all be good people to get to heaven, we’ve been celebrating something completely different. Let me just read to you a couple hymn verses that we have sung these last couple months. “Now no more can death appall, // Now no more the grave enthrall. // You have opened paradise, // And your saints in you shall rise. // Alleluia!” (CW 141:3). Or this one: “Those who in a grave might sleep, // One day shall wake no more to weep! // Since Jesus Christ was made alive // We took shall one day be revived” (“Now Christ Has Been Raised from the Dead,” Albertus Haas). Or even this last Thursday at our Ascension service: “Let us gladly live with Jesus; // Since he’s risen from the dead, // Death and grave must soon release us. // Jesus, thou art now our head. // We are truly thine own members; // Where thou livest, there live we. // Take and own us constantly, // Faithful Friend, as thy dear brethren. // Jesus, here I live to thee, // Also there eternally” (CW 452:4). What do you do when you walk into a church, expecting to be told how to be good and earn heaven, but instead you find a bunch of people celebrating the fact that they’re going to rise from the dead some day?

All of this must just be absurd to them. The way Christians are portrayed and talked about in the world is usually that we are hypocrites. And, if you are expecting that we are all talking about how to be good, and we aren’t, then we really look like hypocrites. Or, Christians are portrayed with this or that political position. Or Christians are shown not affirming some sin. None of it is really that positive, but it’s also not at all what we are doing. I am surprised that they don’t talk about what we really preach, because it’s way more radical than all of that. We are here to celebrate the fact that we are going to rise from the dead one day. It’s completely subverts their expectations. We aren’t about earning heaven, that’s already been done for us. We’re all about celebrating our Savior who rose so that we too will rise. If they really wanted to make Christians look bad, they would talk about that—that we spend eight weeks talking about a man who came back from the dead, and one day we’ll do that same. Isn’t that crazier than anything the world says about Christians now? Can just imagine that news report!

Still, the reason that is not our reputation falls on us. If the outside world does not know what we’re all about, it’s probably because we have not told them. Afterall, “how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14). How well have you done at telling other people that you are looking forward to rising from the dead? If or when you tell people about our church, is that one of the things you point out to them? Do you let them know that we celebrate the resurrection of the dead, not just Jesus, but of all who fall asleep in him? Is that in the top five things you tell others about? To be honest, I know it’s easier to say things like, “We’re a friendly church!” or, “We have such interesting sermons!” or “The music is fantastic!” Those things are true, but are they the most important thing? Are they even in the top five most important things about this church? It falls on us that we are not known for celebrating the fact that we will rise from the dead.

To compound this issue a little, I have had plenty of conversations with you about, “How can we get more people to come to church?” Or, “How come our numbers are going down and not up?” Or, “How come we aren’t baptizing more babies?” Or something like that. It’s a real concern. This congregation has existed for 151 years, we want it to still be here in 151 more. But, is that going to happen in people don’t know what we’re about? What’s more, is that going to happen if we aren’t tell people? I know that we do plenty of things to connect with people in our city. We have soccer camp. We do Easter for Kids. And so on. I am not downgrading the importance of those programs, but if you are relying just on your pastors or your outreach committee, then this church will probably die. Worse than that, the people of our city won’t hear the gospel.

The statistics behind all of this is just staggering. Whenever new members of a church are interviewed, the reason they came to church in the first place is almost never a postcard they got in the mail, a program they sent their child to, or because some random person knocked on their door. 90% of people who came to a church for the first time came because a family member or a friend invited them.[1] That makes so much sense, too. If you are going to go somewhere new, or take up a new hobby, or visit someone for the first time, it’s so much easier to do it if you have someone with you who has done it before. Coming to church works the same way.

If you have ever felt discouraged that people aren’t coming in the doors because of our programs, you probably should feel discouraged. We put way too much emphasis on that small 10%. Because it takes away the edge that comes from ignoring the 90% we’re missing. It’s like this, imagine that your house is falling down and you know why it’s happening. It’s because the house is old and no one is upkeeping it. The walls are rotten. Water pours in the roof. If you aren’t careful, you’ll take a wrong step and fall straight through into the basement. But, instead of fixing those problems, we just decide to put some nice flowers out front and call it good. Those flowers sure help the house look a lot better, don’t they? But they don’t do anything good for the actual problems. Even if we are talking just about that 10%, last October we had a special event to focus just on learning how to spread the gospel. It was called “Praise and Proclaim.” We have over 700 members in our church. Do you know how many people from our congregation came to help spread the gospel in our city that day? Less than 10. I don’t think that this congregation always has a heart for sharing the gospel with other people.

My friends, I know you have failed to invite people to church or to tell them about Jesus. I know that you have not had boldness. I know that you have you have not felt excitement when you’ve had the opportunity to share the gospel. The boldness, fearlessness, and excitement—that sense of glory—cannot come from me telling you to go out and do these things. It can only come from me reminding you how much you have gained as a follower of Jesus. Your savior has taken all of your sin, even this one, on himself and died for you. He was beaten bloody and spikes were driven through his hands and feet. He hung on that cross, and he did it for you. Then, he rose again, and he did that for you, too. It’s why we are singing so many songs of praise today. Jesus has risen from the dead, and we will, too. You will be raised from the dead one day. Everlasting, immortal life is yours by faith. All of this you have gained without earning it, without working for it, and no one can take it away from you. And even by giving it away, it will not be diminished.

In our Scripture lesson today, Paul calls this his glory. This message of Jesus Christ is his glory. His life revolves around it. There is nothing he loves more, and he desired nothing else but to share that message with others: “I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me” (Romans 15:17-18). Paul loved this so much, that his greatest pleasure was to find people who had never heard the gospel, or had never heard of Jesus, and to be the first person to tell them about the Savior: “From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known” (Romans 15:19-20).

Paul did not glory in his service to God because of some special gift given to him. This glory sprang out of his desire to thank Jesus for what he has done. I ask that you would also let thanks pour from your heart. Glory in your service to God. Go and make known that we gather here to celebrate the resurrection of the dead. Because if the world does not know that’s what we’re all about, they probably don’t know the gospel. We’re not far off from where Paul was in his culture. We are surrounded by people who do not know the real Jesus. You can be the ones that tell your family and friends for the first time that Christ is their Savior. You can be the one that invites them to worship here with you. This is your glory, my dearest friends, that Christ is known to you, and you can make him known. Glory in your service to God. Speak of what he has and will accomplish in you. You are going to rise from the dead. Go preach the gospel. Amen.

 

[1] The Inviting Church, Roy Oswald

“May God Open Your Eyes” | 2 Kings 6:15-17 | Sixth Sunday of Easter

 

לֹא־אִירָא מֵרִבְבוֹת עָם אֲשֶׁר סָבִיב שָׁתוּ עָלָי׃
[1] I know those words don’t mean much to you. You were probably thinking, “I hope this isn’t going to be one of those kinds of sermons.” And it won’t be. I think that those are wonderfully comforting words, especially concerning what we are going to talk about today. I think that loneliness is one of the defining characteristics of our time. Last year a survey was done of 20,000 adults, which isn’t necessarily a very large group of people, but even within that group, 54% said they almost always felt lonely.[2] That study also revealed that even when people are surrounded by others, they feel like the people aren’t actually there. They’re physically present, but not engaged. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that this problem isn’t getting better. The study also found that the younger the person, the more lonely they are. This isn’t a sermon about loneliness. But, I think that loneliness is something that truly affects Christians, and something that maybe confuses them more than anything else.

If you are a Christian, doesn’t it make sense that you should never feel lonely? You know that Jesus has promised you, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Amen? End of the sermon? Does that solve the problem? Not at all. In fact, I think that it makes the problem worse for some people. They hear that Jesus is with them, but they don’t feel it, understand it, grasp it, maybe even believe it. It leads to worse feelings of isolation. Not only do they feel lonely, but now there’s something wrong with them as a Christian. They might think, “Everyone else can sense God’s presence, but not me.” And it leads them to despair. I said before that this isn’t a sermon about loneliness, and it isn’t. Loneliness is just one example of how this works. What if someone feels guilty about something they have done, and they know God’s promise. He says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). But, they don’t feel forgiven. The burden doesn’t feel any lighter. Or, what if a parent raises their child up to know Jesus, trusting in his Word: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6)? Then their child goes off to college and their faith isn’t so important.

Can you sense what I am getting at? This is what Elisha’s servant is struggling with in the lesson today from 2 Kings 6. The prophet Elisha has spent his ministry directing messages from God to whomever he sends them. Often, this turned out to be the king of Israel, and sometimes he would give him behind the scenes information about enemy troop movements. So, if the king was planning to travel somewhere, or send his army somewhere, Elisha could tell them where there was or was not enemies. It’s one way that God was protecting his people. But, if you were from an enemy nation, it was so frustrating. So, the king of Aram finally decided that someone had betrayed him. But, his troops tell him that’s it’s Elisha—Elisha tells the king of Israel “the very words you speak in your bedroom” (2 Kings 6:12). The King of Aram plans revenge, he surrounds the city where Elisha is, and that is where our story picks up.

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. ‘Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?’ the servant asked” (2 Kings 6:15). Can you sense the issue here? Elisha and his servant had delivered messages to protect God’s people over and over. That’s what God does. He protects his people. The servant was trusting in a promise like that: “The Lord protects and preserves them—they are counted among the blessed in the land—he does not give them over to the desire of their foes” (Psalm 41:2). So what should he think when there’s an army camped around his city in the morning? Doesn’t it seem to him like God has forsaken his promise? Doesn’t it seem like the God, who would protect his people, has failed to protect them?

This is one of the hardest things about being a Christian. Whether we are talking about loneliness, forgiveness, raising children, or facing an army at your doorstep, God gives us his promises, and he doesn’t always seem to keep them. And then, what does that mean for some of the biggest promises God has made. What if God doesn’t seem to keep them? Because that’s exactly how it seems. Can you scientifically test whether God actually parted the Red Sea? Can you go back in time and be there the moment that stone rolled back from the empty tomb? What if God promised to come back for us, but now it’s been 2000 years? This is not just a problem with some of God’s promises, but all of them. What do you do if you it doesn’t seem like God keeps them? All Christian must wrestle with this problem, otherwise we’ll end up broadsided by something.

But, here’s the thing. We are starting in the wrong place. In the world, scientists make guess based on evidence and try to confirm their guesses, but not in Christianity. God doesn’t tell us to do experiments with our faith. There is no answer to your loneliness behind the scientific method, or to your forgiveness behind some hypothesis, or whatever. God doesn’t give us a book of science experiments. He gives us a book of promises. God does not want to give you proof. He wants to give to you trust. That is the key concept here, and it’s the difference between Elisha and his servant: “‘Don’t be afraid,’ the prophet answered. ‘Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ And Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (1 Kings 6:16-17).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I just told you that God doesn’t care so much about giving us proof, as he does about giving us trust. But, you’re thinking, “Well, how come Elisha’s servant got to see proof of all the angels around them?” It’s a really good question, but what the servant saw was not about proof. Yes, his eyes were opened and he got to see angels, that’s great and all, but what about the army? Was God going to send all of those angels out to fight the army and destroy them? No. Not at all. This wasn’t about showing the servant how he was going to win the battle. He was just showing him that he could win the battle. But that wasn’t how he did it. When the army charged, Elisha asked God to strike the people blind. Almost like the blindness taken from the servant was given to the whole army. Unable to see, they scrambled to find their way. Unable to see to whom they were listening, Elisha led the army into the city of Samaria and they were captured by the army there.

God didn’t need all of the angels that he had at his disposal. He used just one ordinary man. The servant saw those angels, not as proof that God would win the battle, but in order to take away his fear, in other words, to help him trust. Many Christians are looking for evidence. They want to see the proof behind what the Bible teaches. Some even think they have that, but it isn’t the point. God doesn’t really give us proof. It’s just not about that. Instead, God gives us what we need to take away our fear, to build up our trust. Because at some point you realize that, no matter how much evidence you would see, it would never really be enough. God knows that, too. So, he takes us in the other direction. He brings us to trust him so that no matter what the evidence says, it would never be too little.

So, how does this help with loneliness? How does this help with forgiveness? How does this help when your child is wandering away from the faith—or whatever else the situation might entail? What does this have to do with the weird Hebrew stuff I said at the beginning of my sermon? My friends, faith is trust. It is not so much about having the facts, as it is about knowing that the one who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23). He has never once abandoned one of his Word. They have never fallen to the ground. When God doesn’t give you proof for his Word, which is going to be most of the time, still trust him.

God didn’t need his angels or a mighty army to conquer your heart. He needed something ordinary like human language or the water of baptism. Then, you spiritual blindness was taken away. Your heart was conquered by God, even though it may doubt, even though it may not see proof, even though it may not always feel the way you thought it should. God has opened your eyes so that you can see the spiritual reality around you. I don’t mean that you can see chariots and horses, I meant that you trust his promises. Friends, this is true faith: God has resurrected your heart through the message of Christ’s resurrection, and now, even in the face of your mind’s objections or any fears, it trusts and hopes in that message. Do we see proof? No, but we have the Word which crushes doubt. Are we sometimes afraid? Yes, but God gives us perfect love that drives out all fear.

We’ve talked a lot about the servant, but I want to finish by talking about Elisha. When he was surrounded by an army, and his servant comes in freaking out, convinced they’re doomed, what did Elisha do? It seems like he doesn’t even think about himself. He just focuses on his friend. He says a prayer for him. He asks that his eyes be opened. But, what about Elisha? He didn’t see the chariots or the horses. He didn’t want proof. He trusted that God would deliver him from that situation in whatever way that he would. Could he deliver him by destroying the approaching army with a band of angels? Sure. Could he hide Elisha away somewhere so they couldn’t find him? Sure. Could God allow Elisha to die and deliver him from the enemy into heaven’s paradise that way? Of course. In the face of whatever came his way, Elisha trusted God. May God open your eyes, too.

So what was the Hebrew I said at the beginning? It’s from Psalm 3:6, “I will not fear though tens of thousands rise up against me on every side.” It’s a prayer of trust, that even if I would be surrounded by more than 10,000 soldiers, and the odds seem awful, and every human hope seems lost, I will not be afraid. God has opened my eyes to his promises. May God open your eyes. Amen.

[1] Transliterated: Lo ira merivivot am asher saviv shatul alai. Also, Hebrew is read from right to left—backwards to English speakers.

[2] Found here: http://fortune.com/2018/05/01/americans-lonely-cigna-study/

“We Have the Mind of Christ” | 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 | Confirmation Sunday

Each year we have a special Sunday when we recognize those young people who have studied God’s Word in order to become adult members of our congregation. It’s an important Sunday for so many reasons, but I’ll just list a few. First, it helps everyone in the congregation to remember how important Christian education is. Whether you are a parent or a grandparent, getting bogged down by sports, grades, extra-curriculars, jobs, etc. is a very real condition. Sometimes, I get the sense from our parents that they’re just run ragged by everything. And, without downgrading any of those things, I think that can be a pretty effective tool of Satan to keep you from seeing one thing, and that is how well you are passing on your Christian faith. Confirmation Sunday is a reminder and encouragement for all of us to make sure we’re doing that. Second, this Sunday gives us the opportunity to pray for these young people specifically. Young people need our prayers. Pastor Degner once told me that young people have it harder today than ever before. I don’t know if that’s exactly right, but he was smarter than I am, so I’m just going to agree. Pray for these students. Even after today, continue to pray for them.

But there’s another reason, too. Confirmation Sunday may be one of those few times in your life when you have a sermon that is directed just at you. So, while I know everyone else is going to be listening, I want you to know, Marty, Hunter, and Tate, that this sermon is mostly for you guys. I want everyone else to listen and learn what God has to say, too, but I wrote this with you in mind. I don’t have time to cover everything that we talked about in catechism classes, because you have been learning this stuff for three years now. But I want to remind you of some of the most important things. These are things that I want you to take with you for the rest of your life. Sometimes we adults take people your age too lightly. We sometimes treat you as if this time of your life doesn’t matter or as if everything is going to change anyway. I’m not going to do that today. The things I am going to tell you in this sermon, and the things that you will promise before your congregation and your God later on are not temporary. These are life-long matters. They don’t go away. It would be really hard for me to tell you to remember it all, so I won’t. But, remember the most important parts.

In my life, I have a rule. When I buy clothes, I always buy earth tones. That way, my clothes almost always match. Sometimes I wear way too much brown, but otherwise it usually works out. I think it flows from a general philosophy I have about life to avoid being flashy. I just tend not to be a flashy person. I’m pretty average looking. I make bad jokes. I listen to calm blue grass music. My favorite food is probably everyone else’s favorite food: pizza. I think that’s okay—especially for a pastor. Imagine if it was different. Imagine if I wore the nicest, trendiest clothes. I was just ripped, looked like I spent most of my time in the gym. I was the funniest, cleverest preacher in the whole world. I was super charismatic, and people just loved me. To some that might sound nice, but I think it’s a trap. Maybe what it would come down to is this: what if people joined this church because they liked me? I think that would be awful. In those cases, I would have been a reason that people missed the real reason our church exists—to trust in Jesus.

I know that it may sound like this is just another excuse for me to avoid exercising and continuing to eat lots of pizza, but it’s just another way of saying what the apostle Paul does:

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).

Paul was also not a flashy pastor. He says that he wasn’t a good speaker, some people think he may have even had a speech impediment. He didn’t try to impress people with his beautiful words or his amazing knowledge. He could do miracles, but he didn’t, because that wasn’t the point. The point was his weakness, and he didn’t try to hide it.

Weakness is something that our society hates. I bet, it’s something your brain is even trained to hate by this point in your life. I bet you hear in school that you need to try and get rid of weakness, to overcome it and defeat it. I don’t think that’s bad, but I want you to know that you will never be able to get rid of all your weaknesses, and that is a good thing. Your weaknesses are something to boast about. People should not come to this church because of how flashy and amazing their pastor is. I hope they don’t. Instead, I will boast more and more about by weaknesses. I want people to see them. I want people to know that I am not the best, the smartest, the coolest. I am a weak, mortal man, but Jesus isn’t. In spite of me and my weaknesses, Jesus has shown me grace and uses me to preach his Word. I am not Jesus. I love him. I want to be like him, but I am so far from being him. Yet, I am so happy to have him show through me.

One of my favorite verses in the whole Bible is in this section. It’s probably the most important thing I try to do as a pastor: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). For the apostle Paul, for me, for this congregation you are joining, everything is about Jesus Christ who crucified to take away our sins. My friends, do not rely on yourselves. Don’t not seek flashiness. Certainly, seek to overcome your weaknesses, but don’t be ashamed of them. The world is going to tell you a different message. In fact, I bet your parents, your family, and friends are going to tell you a different message. But, that’s the way of the world. That way doesn’t lead to wisdom or knowing Jesus. It leads to confusion. It may even lead you to unbelief and eternal death.

I told you earlier that I want you to remember the most important parts of today. Here’s the first thing. Remember this. Don’t forget it. Know nothing except Christ crucified. Jesus has saved you, not only from your sin, not only from death, not only from Satan, but also from the lies of this world. He has saved you from the emptiness of needing to be the best, the smartest, the flashiest. Honestly, God doesn’t really care about those things. In heaven, he’s not going to say, “Welcome to heaven, you’re here because you so funny,” or good at track, or video games or whatever. Everything revolves around Jesus Christ, who was crucified for you. It is this that gives you value, dignity, and something to boast about. Remember this: know nothing except Christ crucified. Nothing else matters. Let your life be about Jesus, so that others can see him through you.

To accomplish this, the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom. You’ve spent three years building yourselves a foundation on God’s Word. It is through this that God has made you wise. It’s through his Word that he has given you the mind of Christ. Think about it this way. Imagine that your whole life you have lived in a dark cave, deep underground. There underground, you are chained to a wall, unable to move or leave. All day long, you stare at the cave wall across from you. But, it’s not as boring as it sounds. Because somewhere behind you there’s a fire, and people come and make shadows on the wall. You don’t know who they are. You don’t know what the shadows mean. You and your fellow prisoners sit and talk about the shadows. You talk about who might be making them. You try to figure out just what it all means. But mostly, you’re just guessing.

Then one day, in the darkness of the cave, you feel someone unsnap your shackles. Your legs and arms are free for the first time ever. You hear a voice that says, “Follow me,” so you do. You follow the person up the wall you used to be chained to. You see the fire there that lit the wall you spent so much time staring at. You’ve never seen anything like it before, but it suddenly becomes uninteresting to you. For the first time, you see a passageway that leads out of that room in the cave. The voice you’re following says, “This is the way.” As you walk out the passage way, everything begins to change. At first, it’s really dark, but the further and further you get out, the more light you see. You notice something you never have before—colors. Soon, in front of you, there’s the brightest light you have ever seen. Then, for the first time, you step out of the darkness and into the light. The world explodes with colors all around you. The sky is blue. There’s fluffy white clouds floating overhead. The sun is casting a beautiful yellow light all over a field of the greenest grass ever. There’s flowers that are blue, purple, red, orange growing everywhere. It’s overwhelming at first, and it should be. You’ve never seen anything like this before. All you’ve ever known is shadows on a cave-wall. This is the reality.

At that point, do you decide to head back into the cave, rechain yourself to the wall and stare at shadows again? How could you do it? You’ve seen the truth, that Christ has been crucified for you. God has led you out into the light, so that you know him, and it’s changed everything. He has revealed to you this fascinating mystery about how he saved the whole world. I know you may be tempted to go back into the dark, to stare at the wall and talk about shadows again. But, by faith in Jesus, you have seen the light. In fact, you have been given the light. You have the mind of Christ. This is the second thing to remember. Take this home with you today: You have the mind of Christ. You know what Jesus stood for, and through his Holy Spirit and his Word, he is guiding you to know just what life looks like following him. It might not be flashy, but that’s fine. Because in this world of color, he’s the Sun that illuminates everything. My friends he has illuminated you.

12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words…. we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13, 16).

Know nothing except Christ crucified. You have the mind of Christ. Amen.

“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.