God Never Lost Control

Job 38:1-11

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

June 20, 2021

Focus:  God is still in control.

Function:  That the hearers trust in God above all things.

Structure:  .

God Never Lost Control

It’s a question many Christians are thinking about.  It’s a question quite a few have allowed to cross their lips: “where has God gone?  If He were here, if He were with us, none of this would be happening.  Our world is shambles.  This nation is chaotically divided.  And the culture all around us has turned against us.  God must be on vacation.  He’s lost control!”

            In these last eighteen months, we have watched a virus sweep across the globe.  People are dying.  We’ve watched it take over our lives and turn everything inside-out.  A people used to freedom and independence have been forced to give way to new laws, decrees, ordinances, and mandates.  We’ve come to realize that we aren’t in control of our own lives.  Lock it down.  Quarantine.  Flatten the curve.  Global cries of government overreach and tyranny.  Never shake hands again.  Wear a mask.  Zoom zoom.  Get a shot, or two, or three, or annually.  And that loss of control has led to chaos in the Church.  Christian’s fighting amongst themselves.  Gossip, slander, divisions, forming two separate classes within the Church, hating each other.  As we lost control of things out there, we sought to take it here.

            But maybe we lost control before that.  June 26, 2015 is a day of great importance within the Church.  On that day, the Supreme Court of this land ruled on the Obergefell case, in a ruling that immediately made same-sex marriage legal throughout the kingdom.  From my vantage point as a theologian and a pastor who grew up in this kingdom, attending her schools, this case changed the Church’s place in this society practically overnight.  Before that day, we could expect a fairly Christianized culture and worldview.  But after that day, Christians are now outsiders.  Your opinions not only aren’t wanted, they’re deemed hateful and dangerous.  We’ve been excommunicated from the water cooler conversations unless we stay silent. 

On that note, I admit, I don’t preach on homosexuality often.  It’s a sin.  Scripture is abundantly clear on that, no matter how much other denominations seek to twist God’s Word to fit in.  It’s a sin.  And it’s likely that there are people here today who struggle with those temptations, just as everyone of us here struggles with various temptations.  Whichever temptations you find difficult don’t make you better or worse than another.  So for those of you who need to hear that truth, I’m sorry for not telling you.  Now, I don’t have to tell you that it’s pride month.  The celebration of lifestyles that deviate from God’s Word is all around us.  You can’t avoid businesses that promote it by flying their flag; you’d end up starving to death.

But in hindsight, maybe we lost control before that.  The educational system in this land has long been overwhelmed.  The teachings of critical race theory have been growing for the past thirty years, dividing us into groups in ways completely out of our control, ranking and empowering us based on terms like privilege and intersectionality.  For longer than that, the focus us being special and having self-esteem and self-respect have dominated our schools, teachings that stand in direct contrast to all that we know about original sin, our continuing sinful nature, and our calling to not think of ourselves, but to serve others.  And for longer than that, our schools have pioneered the way teaching our children that God didn’t really create all of this.  It’s just an accident billions of years in the making.  And we don’t have to look far to see the results of it all.  Retention of children born in Christian homes is one of our greatest griefs.

But, maybe we lost control before that.  Did you know that the first children slaughtered after Roe vs Wade 48 years ago could be grandparents by now?  So on top of the blood guilt of 62 million dead, there’s the further damage of all those missing people that would’ve been.

“God, where did you go?  Clearly you aren’t in control of all of this!”

Enter Job.  Do you know Job’s story?  A man of strong faith, and great worldly wealth, who hoped in the promises of God.  And yet one day, out of nowhere, the devil waltzes into the heavenly court.  And after God lifts up Job above all men as an example of faithfulness, the devil challenges God. 

“Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have You not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse You to Your face.” – Job 1:9b-12

And so Satan goes to work, killing thousands of his sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys.  Killing his servants.  Killing even his ten children.  Job grieved immensely in response.  He tore his clothes.  He fell to the ground, and he worshipped God.  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh,” (Job 1:21).  The devil’s attempts to drive him away only brought him closer to God.  This, by the way, is how one of our brother pastors in Missouri shared his faith when his toddler’s life was on the line.  And God used that response to draw the doctor closer to Him.

Satan didn’t stop.  He returned to God’s court.  And God, once again, lifted up his servant Job.  The devil took the bait again, claiming that “all that a man has he will give for his life.  But stretch out Your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse You to Your face,” (Job 2:4b-5). 

So again, God permits the devil to act.  And Satan goes out from Yahweh and strikes Job from head to foot, leaving him to scrape his sores with broken pottery as he sat in ashes.  Even Job’s wife told him to “Curse God and die.”  To which he again faithfully responded, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:9b and 10b).

Three of Job’s friends came and sat dutifully with him for a week, in silence!  Truly, sometimes, this is all you can offer to those who grieve.  Because, when they finally break that silence, they prove it would’ve been better for them to have kept their mouths shut.  They speak of things they don’t know, they challenge Job in ways that aren’t helpful.  And then Job rebukes them, and in doing so, does the same.  He says things he can’t possibly know.  And so then Yahweh speaks and rebukes His servant Job.  We had the beginning of that rebuke as our Old Testament text today.

Our culture all around us has rapidly changed over the past couple of generations.  Christianity was the center.  The local congregation was the center of social life.  And now we’re outcasts.  But as we ask our question: “how can all of this be if God is in control?” God answers our question with a question: “Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?” (Mark 4:40).

God is still in control.  He always has been and He always will be.  He created this earth and all that is in it.  He created this entire universe and all that is in it.  The stars rejoice because He made them.  The sea knows its limits because He commanded it.  The devil can’t thwart the faithful, because God is in control.

So let us reflect on Scripture.  Romans 1:18-32 is never read in our churches.  But it most definitely should be.  If you want to know why the culture is going the way the culture is going, open your Bibles and read this section.  Let me pull out selected phrases so you get the picture:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator…since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done…Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

In short, when the sinner loves their sin, and insists again and again on remaining in that sin, the patient Creator and Lord of all eventually gives them the desire of their hearts.  He gives them over to their sinfulness.  And this doesn’t end well.  Our culture seems to be at this point.

Consider also the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:12, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  God opposes the proud, and He brings them low by His own timing, not ours.  And God takes the humble and He exalts them, not by our timing, but by His own.  God is still in control of all things, be it cultural revolutions, wicked governments, or worldwide disasters.

Enter Jesus.  This is a lesson the disciples learned firsthand.  Many of these young men were fishermen by trade.  Their families had made their livings off of the Sea of Galilee for generations.  And yet a storm so fierce arises when they’re out on the water, these men panic, afraid that their lives are lost.  And so they go to Jesus, who is simply sleeping through the whole thing…because He’s in control…and they wake the Master.  And they accuse Him: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38).  He simply rises, and speaks two little Greek words: “σιώπα, πεφίμωσο” and just like that, the storm of the ages not only ends, but the turbulent waters that were flailing in all directions are instantaneously stilled; calm, as though a storm had never occurred at all.

Then Jesus returns the accusation: “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”  And they respond in fear again, saying “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:40-41).  For just challenging our lectionary committee that picks these readings a few moments ago, I appreciate what they’ve done here.  They’ve connected the dots for you to see.  We learn from the Job text that only God commands the sea so that it knows it’s bounds.  And now we learn that Jesus commands the sea.  Therefore, Jesus must be…………God.

There’s another text I want to share with you: Genesis 6-9.  The account of Noah and the flood.  That the hearts of men were evil continually and so God judged the world, commanding the waters into a worldwide flood that wiped out all but eight people, spared aboard the ark, spared through the water, by the mercy and grace of God.  And as the waters left the surface of the earth, God gave Noah a sign of His continuing mercy and grace.  He took Hisקֶשֶׁת , (ke-sheth) and He hung it in the sky.  Hebrew doesn’t have a separate word for a rainbow.  God took His bow; God took His instrument of war, His means of destruction and judgment and He hung it in the sky.  So every time we see that bow, we are called by Scripture to remember the mercies of God.  That He has suspended judgment against the sinner.

And not only that, but as you look at the bow hanging in the sky, in which direction would the arrow fly?  God’s judgment was taken away from us, and the arrow flew straight into the side of His own Son.  Jesus Christ, the God who commands the waters of the sea, in the words of the prophet Isaiah (53:5), “was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.”

Not only is there a stay on God’s hand of judgment, but even greater than that there is a flow of forgiveness that comes from His wounds.  In the death of Christ all the sins of sinful mankind are washed away: our pride, our rebellion, our lust, our know-it-all-ism, our bloodshed.  All cleansed in the blood of Christ.

So consider now the words of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:12-17 –

12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

This is nothing new.  Evil will only get worse as the days go by.  As we wait for Christ’s return, an evil culture not only shouldn’t surprise us, we ought to expect it.  And then we are taught how to live in the midst of it.  Live by His Word.  Live by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. 

Hang up your bows of pride.  We all have them.  And our fellow sinners are caught in the crosshairs.  Hang them up.  We are not called to violence.  We are not called to take control of a society.  They’re not the enemy.

Wherever you get your news from, turn it off.  Seriously.  Peek every couple of weeks just long enough that you know how to pray.  But let’s turn them off.  Acts 1:8 gives us an evangelism model that starts where you are, at home.  And it extends out from there.  Start at home with your family.  Move out into acts of service to your neighbors that literally neighbor your home.  And then move into loving your community around you.  Finally, then, we can seek to in small ways encourage those around the world.  But the instant access to knowledge from all around the globe has so overwhelmed us, that we freeze like deer in the headlights.  We have lost so much time trying to solve the world’s problems, thinking we’re in control, that we don’t even know our neighbors.  Flip it over again.

Love your neighbors.  Live out your vocations.  Serve those people around you.  Serve them by loving them.  Serve them by sharing Christ’s Word with them.  Serve them with acts of service.  Serve them by pointing them to the mercy of God for them, how He has offered them freedom from their slavery to whatever sin they struggle with.  That’s enough to keep us busy for a lifetime!

And if you need still more to do, if you still want to know how the Scriptures say we the Church should respond to a world of ever-increasing darkness, allow me to offer you a crazy-sounding proposal, from Hebrews 10:24-25, “24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”  If you believe the days are growing more evil, as God says they are, it means we are edging closer and closer to Christ’s return.  And the Scriptures teach us that as we do, we are to gather all the more often.  To encourage one another.  To hear the profitable instruction of God’s Word and His rebuke of our errors, and to receive Christ’s body and blood together, as the center of who we are: forgiven children of God, the One who is in control of all things.  God is still seated upon His throne.   So, fear not, and let us gather more often!

Communing with the Holy One

Isaiah 6:1-8

Holy Trinity Sunday

May 30, 2021

Focus:  God cleanses us and brings us into communion with Him.

Function:  That the hearers participate in communion with the holiness of God.

Structure:  Homiletical Help from Rev. Kent Burreson (https://concordiatheology.org/2010/02/epiphany-5-%c2%b7-isaiah-61-8-9-13-%c2%b7-february-7-2010/).

Communing with the Holy One

            Today’s text is one I’ve heard many times.  It’s commonly read at the ordination of a new pastor in our Synod, or at the installation of a pastor into any of the subsequent congregations that he may serve.  Hannah and I have attended so many of those, meeting and supporting the brethren, hearing those first few words of this text holds a special place for us.

            In the year that King Uzziah died, which would’ve been around 740 BC, God gives Isaiah a special revelation, a vision that we would call a “theophany.”  That comes from the Greek words “qeoj” (God) and “fanoj” (reveal/appear), meaning an appearance of God.  God revealed Himself to the prophet Isaiah.  He appeared to him.  And Isaiah thought he was going to die.

            The Old Testament people of God knew that the temple was God’s holy house, His place here on earth where He dwelled in their midst.  And this vision is no different.  Isaiah is either in the temple, or he stands just outside of it, looking in.  The actual structure of the Temple itself was 90’ long, 30’ wide, and 45’ high.  To compare that to where you’re seated right now, this gym from the west to east is 86’ long, so pretty close, we’d have to add 4 more feet.  For the width of 30’, that would measure from the stage here, to the back of that third row of chairs.  And this gym stands at roughly 22’ tall here by the stage, so you’d have to double the interior height in your mind.  Now, if you’ve got that picture, cover it all with gold!

            Pause.  Isaiah is looking into this temple, where the ark of the covenant would be sitting, which was the throne of God here on earth.  But he sees more than what the high priest would see when he entered the temple’s Most Holy Place just once each year.  He actually sees God seated upon His throne, exalted in every way, an appearance that’s quite literally beyond our imagination.

            The train of God’s robe filled the temple.  That massive golden structure is layered over entirely by the robe of God.  And I’m just going to say this one in passing to pique your curiosity: consider that to be the robe of Christ’s righteousness that now through baptism covers even you.

            And all around the throne of God, Isaiah sees seraphim.  We don’t know much about the angels, their different ranks or classes.  But this is one of those various groups.  We know their appearance is enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the strongest of men.  Flame might even be a part of that appearance.  We also know that they have six wings, two that cover their face, two that cover their feet, and two that they use to fly.

            And as these angels hover around in the throneroom, they start calling out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of armies; the whole earth is full of His glory!”  This seems to be a fairly normal picture of the heavenly throneroom when you skim your way through the book of Revelation that was given to John.  Imagine the angels calling out to one another in loud voices, day and night.  Imagine them using those words to lead one another in praise.  One group declares, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of armies.”  Another group responds “the whole earth is full of His glory!”  You know how this works: Christ is risen!  “He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”  Imagine them chanting those words in chorus with one another, singing together as we do each and every time we gather in the Lord’s house for worship, or around our tables and our beds for prayer.

            Isaiah sees this.  And he freaks out; he panics.  He knows that he’s a sinner, and that as a sinner, a man of unclean lips, he has just entered into the presence of God.  He has seen the Holy of Holies Himself seated upon His glorious and exalted throne.  And just as the sight of one angel makes man quiver in fear, Isaiah sees it all and rightly declares “Woe is me!…for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of armies!”

            As any faithful Israelite would know, a sinner can’t see God and live.  And so he says, “Woe!”  That word is a declaration of condemnation and death.  Isaiah, in one word, has acknowledged his sinful condition, and that he knows, standing in the presence of God, he is about to be judged unworthy.

            But for as surprising as the opening of the vision was, Isaiah was likely shocked even more for what happened next.  One seraph swooped down from on high, lifted up the golden tongs from before the altar of incense standing between Isaiah and Yahweh, and with it, he lifted one of burning coals off of that altar. 

He flew over to the prophet and used that coal to burn Isaiah’s lips.  “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”  Let me again connect you with this vision to Christ.  The incense burned on that small altar in the temple is compared to the prayers of God’s people in the Old and New Testament alike, whether it’s Psalm 141 or Revelation 5.  It’s by Christ’s prayers, standing there before His Father in the heavenly throneroom, that our sins are removed from us.  That work won for us on the cross, is declared for us before the Holy of Holies, the Judge of all creation.

            And so it is true.  Isaiah stands there clean.  Made clean by the works of God, not his own.  And then he hears God call out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  (That little “us” there is my guess for why this reading was chosen for Trinity Sunday, by the way.)  And Isaiah opens his lips in response: “Here I am!  Send me!”  Isaiah’s work in the years to come would not be pleasant, nor would it be profitable.   He’d even spend three years of it naked and barefoot.  But “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news!” (Isaiah 52:7).

            Isaiah’s vision has the theophany of the King, the cleansing of God’s chosen spokesman, and the call of Isaiah into a common union, a communion, with the very mission of God, a participation in God’s holiness.  Only a holy people can proclaim a holy God, and so God has made Isaiah holy and clean, to proclaim His Word to all the nations.

            The goal of all Christian worship of the Holy of Holies, whether it’s in the Old Testament temple, the heavenly throneroom, or the Christian congregation gathered together as we are today, the goal of each is the same: that we may be made clean, cleansed that we may partake of God’s holiness, that we might have a common union, a communion, with our King.

            As we gather together this day, as you walked from your car through those doors, you didn’t do it because you were perfect.  We’re not here because we’ve got it all figured out.  We haven’t come together because our works make us holy before God. 

            No.  As we gather before the presence of God, we stand as Isaiah did.  We come into this house acknowledging our emptiness, our sinfulness.  We acknowledge that we are a people of unclean lips.  And this is true.  God has given you those lips to proclaim His wondrous name.  And yet we use them to weave all kinds of stories and fish tales that bring us glory, rather than Him. God has given you those lips to praise Him before all the nations.  And yet we use them to speak of our idols, the pride we take in ourselves and our own works, or the worries and the frustrations that we allow to overtake us.  God has given you those lips to tell others about the salvation of Jesus.  And yet we use those same lips to curse and swear and lie and deceive. 

            Today, I call your attention to our order of worship.  We’re using Divine Setting Four from Lutheran Service Book.  And in just a few minutes, we’ll join together in the Prophet Isaiah’s vision.  Notice the flow of the worship that lies ahead of us.  If you’re in the bulletin for today, it’s pages 8-9.  If you’re in the hymnal itself, it’s pages 208-209.  After the prayers of the church, we begin the Service of the Sacrament, where we receive the very body and blood of Christ Himself, upon our lips, making us clean.  We come into communion with God Himself.  So the Service begins with the Preface and the Sanctus.  Hear the words.  Notice the flow.  As the seraphim might have done, see the call and the response in the Preface as we proclaim the splendor of God.  Hear the common chanting of the creatures of God as we sing of God’s holiness together in the Sanctus, which means “holy/saint,” and is pulled straight from the words of the seraphim themselves in our Isaiah text. 

Pastor chants Sanctus from Divine Service Setting Four, Lutheran Service Book, pg. 208.

Notice again, how as we speak together the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for cleansing from our guilt, cleansing from our unclean lips just as Isaiah did.  See how in the Words of the Institution, the Words of our Lord call us into the common union, communion, with the Holy One of God Himself, the very Son of God, as the pure and clean people of God.  And then hear the blessed words of the Pax Domini, which means “the Peace of God,” as they declare that you are indeed clean, you are at peace, not war, with this great King.

            As a result of this tremendous, incredible, indescribable gift, we can’t help but speak as Isaiah did.  “Here I am! Send me.”  The Lord has brought us into the communion of His kingdom, His mission, to proclaim His name to all the ends of the earth.  So, whether it’s in the service of Matins, Vespers, or Responsive Prayer 2, we join with Psalmist David (Psalm 51:15):

Pastor chants Opening Versicles from Matins, Lutheran Service Book pg. 219.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

Dry Bones and Great Armies

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Pentecost Sunday

May 23, 2021

Focus:  God raises the dead.

Function:  That the hearers live, an exceedingly great army.

Structure:  This is the historical situation of the text…these are the meanings for us now.

Dry Bones and Great Armies

            Our Old Testament reading today is a fascinating event.  God picks up His servant Ezekiel…read the text, it sounds like He really picks him up…and then plops him down in the middle of a valley of death.  We’re not told the name of the valley.  We’re not even told what’s happened there.  What we do know is exactly what Ezekiel knew and tells us.  He’s surrounded by the dead.  An uncountable wasteland of death.

            And then the Lord asks him a question: “Son of man, can these bones live?”  And if you ask me, I think Ezekiel gave the best answer.  Because we’d look at that situation and we’d say “no.”  Bones are scattered across the ground and dried out because they’ve died, and they’ve been dead a long time.  There’s no hope there.  That place is a place of gloom and sorrow, where none of us would want to venture.

            And yet Ezekiel said, “O Lord Yahweh, You know.”  He dodges the question.  Or, perhaps, better yet, he humbly acknowledges his proper place before the Lord.  Yahweh is God and Ezekiel is not.  Yahweh can do as He sees fit.  Where, for Ezekiel, that place would remain a graveyard with no tombstones.

            And so the Lord calls upon His servant Ezekiel; He equips him with His Word.  That’s what a prophet is, someone to whom God entrusts His Word, to be spoken to whomever God desires it to be spoken.  So God tasks Ezekiel with preaching to the dead.  What would you do, right?  It might seem foolish to us.  It might seem like it can’t possibly do any good.  But when you stand in the presence of God, and He gives you a command, you listen, you obey, you do as you’ve been instructed.

            And as soon as Ezekiel began to preach, stuff started to happen.  As He spoke the Word of God, the valley came alive.  The scene, quite honestly, would probably strike us as terrifying, but it’s actually the opposite.  Bones begin to rattle and shift, and then move along the ground.  The bones that’ve been scattered apart forcibly by death now come back together.  One body shattered and scattered, and now the bones have taken their proper places again.  One body after another. 

            And as Ezekiel looks out through the valley of death, he continues to preach.  And all those skeletons begin to change.  And seemingly out of nowhere, sinew, flesh, and skin come together.  Bones are layered over with muscles.  Muscles are covered by layer upon layer of skin.  And now, lying all around the prophet, legions of lifeless shells.  Empty jars of clay.

            And so the Lord speaks to Ezekiel again, that he would prophesy once more, this time calling out to the “ruach,” which is the Hebrew word for breath, wind, and spirit all wrapped up into one.  Ezekiel, just a man, no more no less than you and me, is told by God to speak to Him, to His Spirit, to command God to act.  “Breathe on these slain, that they may live.”  And so once again, Ezekiel speaks, and the ruach of God fills the valley, fills the people.  And every last one of them comes to life, just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam in the Garden thirty-five hundred years before.

            It’s an incredible event.  And all the way up to verse eleven, we’re lead to believe that this is precisely what happened.  But then God explains, and we listen.  “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.  Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’”

            Ezekiel served Yahweh as one of His prophets in the sixth century B.C.  He began his prophetic ministry in roughly 593, and lasted a little more than twenty years.  Right around the end of his time in the ministry, God used the pagan nation of Babylon to bring about the much deserved judgment upon His own people of Judah.  For generations, they acted faithlessly, fleeing from God and worshipping idols, living however they pleased.  And so in this vision, God shows Ezekiel what is to become of them, and equips him with the message of hope.

            God’s people would be conquered.  They’d be stripped from the Promised Land that God once provided.  They’d be led off into captivity in a far away land.  And there, they’d despair.  There, they’d realize the wickedness of their own ways.  And unlike their sister nation that fell before them, they would see and repent.  They would realize that their ways led to nothing but death.  To be in Babylon is to be as good as dead.  But God is not leaving them in hopeless despair.  He places a Word of hope, a Word of promise, a Word of resurrection into the mouth of His prophet, and then He sends Ezekiel to spread that hope.

13 And you shall know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O My people. 14 And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am Yahweh; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares Yahweh.”

God will yet act for them.  They are dead in their sins and their trespasses and their idolatry.  But God will save them.  God will resurrect their dying flesh.  God will bring them home.  He will place them back into the land of Promise, into the land filled with His promises.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with Pentecost.  Well, for that, let me take you back to what the day of Pentecost was for God’s people. 

As you read through Leviticus 23, you see God lay out for His holy people, all the holy days, the holidays, they’re to celebrate each year.  And they come in bunches.  The holy days are clustered into the first month and the seventh month.  For our purpose today, it’s the first group that matters.  On the fourteenth day of the first month each year, they were to celebrate the Passover at twilight, when the sun goes down.  That’s an annual remembrance of God’s great work of salvation, how He rescued His people from slavery in Egypt.  That feast kicks off then the week-long celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins there on the fifteenth day and spans until the twenty-first day, both of which are specifically seen as holy days upon which no one is allowed to work.

But on the next day of the feast, the sixteenth day, another minor celebration occurred: the Feast of Firstfruits.  On that day, they would elevate the first sheaf of barley harvested that year as an offering of thanks before Yahweh.

Fifty days from that harvest celebration, they would celebrate the Feast of Weeks, also known as the day of Pentecost, which is simply the Greek word for the fiftieth day.

Now, today, I want you to see the connection.  And bear in mind, their days on the calendar began when the sun would set, so, evening and morning, just as the creation account reads.  On the fourteenth day, around twilight, Jesus celebrated the Passover with His disciples, giving them a new feast to celebrate together in His own body and blood.  It is on that very same day then that He is arrested, tried, convicted, crucified, and buried.  Then, on the fifteenth day, that holy day where no work was allowed, His body rested in the tomb.  But, on the sixteenth day, the day of the elevation of the firstfruits of the harvest, God elevates His own Son Jesus, as the Apostle Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:20, 22, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ.”

Yahweh God, the omniscient Lord of all creation, already had this laid out.  That the Passover feast would be replaced by the Lord’s Supper.  That the Feast of Firstfruits would come to tell of Christ the Firstfruit from the dead.  And that the fiftieth day celebration of the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, would one day become a feast to celebrate the Easter resurrection.  A day on which the Church “shall make a proclamation,” (Leviticus 23:21).

But how does that connect back to Ezekiel, to the Valley of Dry Bones?  Well, look around you.  This world is the Valley of Dry Bones.  By all Scriptural definitions of things, we don’t enter this world living, but dead in our trespasses already.  Each and every one of us, sinful from the moment our mothers conceived us (see Psalm 51:5).  We begin as decaying bones, in need of a resurrection.

And that is precisely what Christ gives to us.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” (John 3:5). By our baptisms, and also by the hearing of the Gospel, that wondrous work seen in Ezekiel’s prophecy is done even on us.  In writing the book of Revelation (20:4-6), John refers to the moment you come to faith as the “first resurrection.”

Today, we celebrate Pentecost.  We look back upon that day in history as the birth of the Christian Church, the day that Christ poured out His Holy Spirit upon His people.  The day that His Word began to be proclaimed to the ends of the earth.  It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to create faith.  It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to bring us to repent of our sins, to trust in Christ alone as our Savior, to hear His Word, to receive forgiveness and life.  All these things the Spirit does for us, as God spoke to Ezekiel that day long before saying, “And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live.”  And this is true for each and every one of us gathered together today!

But this isn’t only a two-fold prophecy, fulfilled when God restored Israel in 537 BC and again in your baptisms through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit by Jesus to raise us to new life.  I will be so bold today as to tell you that this is a rare instance of a three-fold prophecy in Scripture.  Maybe it’s the only one!  I haven’t checked.  But Ezekiel’s prophecy clearly points us forward to the Second Coming of Jesus, when He fulfills these words: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.”  As you hear those words, I want you to see Paradise, the promised land of God for His New Testament people.  That the picture painted of the bones rattling and coming together again will happen on the day when Christ breaks open our graves and raises us to life everlasting.  And that’s what John calls the “second resurrection” in his apocalyptic writings.

A few thoughts for you today on the application of this three-fold prophecy.  Through your baptisms, you’ve been raised from the dead!  Not by the words spoken by the son of man, Ezekiel, but rather by the words proclaimed by the New Testament’s “Son of Man,” Jesus Christ.  It’s His Word which gives life to each and every one us. 

And we’ve indeed been raised!  Together, we are an exceedingly great army.  Not to pick up guns and fly bombers, but to wield the two-edged sword that is the very word of God.  We’re called by Christ Himself, commissioned, plopped down into the midst of a valley of death that is the world all around us.  There’s no hope here.  This place is a place of gloom and sorrow.  And Christians often don’t want to venture out in it, for it’s a deadly and dangerous place, seemingly hostile to the Word of God.

            But so the Lord calls upon His servant: you.  And He equips you with His Word.  As Peter proclaimed you “prophets” in the epistle reading today, that’s what a prophet is, someone to whom God entrusts His Word, to be spoken to whomever God desires it to be spoken.  So God tasks you with preaching to the dead.  It might seem foolish to us.  It might seem like it can’t possibly do any good.  But when you stand in the presence of God, and He gives you a command, you listen, you obey, you do as you’ve been instructed.

As you go out into this place, into this valley, you’re surrounded by the dead.  Whether you’re leaving the church doors or walking out the door of your house each day, you walk into a mass graveyard, where there are no tombstones, because the bones don’t even know they’re dead.  And you’ve been commanded by God to proclaim His words of life into that valley. 

And as you do, as you preach, His Word does stuff.  Bones begin to rattle.  What death has shattered and scattered, the Lord begins to bring back together again, reforming those jars of clay.  And God then commands us to be with Him constantly in prayer, inviting us to speak to Him, to His Spirit, to command God to act.  “Breathe on these slain, that they may live.”  And so He fills those jars of clay.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, you have been raised from the dead in Christ!  You are an exceedingly great army.  Take up the two-edged sword of God’s Word, and as you go, always remember “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me,” (Psalm 23:4).  Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

He has Overcome Our Burden

1 John 5:1-8

Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 9, 2021

Focus:  God overcame the world to save us.

Function:  That the hearers love one another.

Structure:  Roughly based on an outline of a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Glenn Nielsen at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

He has Overcome Our Burden

            John wrote, “His commandments are not burdensome.”  Really?  Did any of you hear that and think that the Apostle John had lost his mind?  How many of you would say it’s no burden to keep the commandments of God?  Let’s look at a few:

            Honor your father and your mother.  That’s a good one to talk about on this Hallmarkian weekend, isn’t it?  For some gathered together today, every time one of these holidays rolls around, it’s a burden.  A burden to shop and buy a gift for someone else.  A burden to go out to the restaurant and wait and wait and wait on the busiest day of their year.  For some, even picking up the phone and taking a few minutes for a phone call is burdensome.

            And that same commandment applies more broadly to our government.  Every year, perhaps its every paycheck, our governors require a sacrifice of gold, well, digital currency anyway.  Who here doesn’t consider paying their taxes burdensome?

            Or another, you shall not covet.  We live in perhaps the most marketed-to culture in the history of creation.  Ads bombard you every time you open your eyes or your ears.  They’re on TV, they’re on your web browser.  They fill your social media pages.  They’re plastered across the sides of buses and buildings.  Wherever you go, capitalism once again calls out to you, “surely, you can’t be content with what you have!  You need a new one!  You need this one.”  Being content in this world is a heavy burden, sacrificing our wants to care for another.

            And that’s just hardly scratching the surface of two of God’s commands.  What a burden they all are!  How can this elderly apostle say any different?

            Let me rephrase our thinking on the verse.  A burden in the Ancient Near East was usually a reference to heavy labor, difficult work.  In Scripture, we often see it attached to the burden of an animal.  It’s like the wooden yoke that gets placed around the ox’s head, resting on its shoulders.  The ox then does the heavy lifting, pulling the farming instruments attached to that yoke.  Plowing the field.  Working the land.  Friday was a 20000 step day for me, moving my wheelbarrow up and down a hill over and over again.  The strain of manual labor.

            What makes the commandments of God burdensome is the age-old idea that it’s by those commandments that we must save ourselves.  That would be like strapping a chain around this entire church, fixing it to a yoke on my shoulders, and expecting me to move it.  Pull as I might, these bricks would go nowhere.  And it’s the same when we try to save ourselves by the perfect keeping of these laws.

            But it’s not just these laws is it?  We have many different ways of placing that self-saving burden upon our own shoulders.  I can’t spare any of my time to help you; I just have to keep pulling.  If I study or train hard enough, I can get ahead in my school or career; I just have to keep pulling.  If I can just save up enough money, I’ll be able to retire; I just have to keep pulling.  If I eat right, exercise, and do all the right things, I’ll get to live another day, and then another; I just have to keep pulling.  Man’s goal of living forever is a tiresome burden.

            Now that we’ve reframed the burden, we can begin to unpack how Christ’s commandments aren’t a burden.

            Jesus Christ overcame the world.  For us!  Jesus came into this creation to overcome it.  To overcome sin, death, and the devil. For you and for me!  And He came by water and blood.  That’s a heavy phrase. 

Jesus came by water.  We can see this as a reference to His own baptism, as He stepped down into the Jordan River, where His cousin John applied the water, where He began His three-year earthly ministry that culminated on the cross.  Throughout all of this, Jesus kept the commandments perfectly on our behalf, taking the yokes off of our shoulders and wearing each one Himself.

Jesus came by blood.  By the time John is writing this letter in the final decade of the first century, the Gnostic heretics have started infiltrating the Christian Church.  They were teaching that everything physical is evil, and everything spiritual is good.  They still have a hold on the Church, even today, as many Christians think the goal is to get out of this failing body and broken world, so they can float around in the spiritual realm of heaven as an angel forever.  These Gnostics succeeded in convincing many Christians that Jesus never actually took on flesh, as that would be evil, but that He was only a spirit who came to free us from this body of death, to show us the way to heaven.  John’s writings fight against this, including right here: He came by blood.  Spirits don’t have flesh and blood as Christ does.

            As we think now to the crucifixion of Jesus, as He hung there still upon the cross, His body already having yielded up His Spirit and breathed His last, the Roman soldiers wanted to check and see if He really was dead so soon.  And so they grabbed a spear and they thrust it up into His side, and out came _______?  “This is He who came by water and blood.”  Jesus shed both of these upon the cross for us that day on Golgotha.  Our sins washed clean by water and blood.

            Our sins, washed clean, by water, and blood.  Baptism.  In those waters, no matter how much water it was, in those waters, you were washed clean.  The Holy Spirit descended upon you, giving you the wondrous gift of faith which only God Himself can give.  And in that moment, whether you were five days old or fifty years old, Jesus claimed your yoke, your burden.  Each and every one of those sins of yours, the ones already committed, the ones you committed yesterday, and the ones that you unknowingly will commit tomorrow.  Your sins forgiven.  Washed clean by the water.

            In that blood, in that meal, no matter if it’s a drop or a chalice-full, Christ’s blood flows from His side to your lips.  The burdens that you bear as you try to rescue and redeem yourself, He takes upon His own shoulders.  Each and every time you partake of this sacred meal, that guilt and shame for your failures is washed away.  Your sins forgiven by the blood of the Lamb.

            And so these three testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood.  The Spirit working through Word and Sacrament to create and strengthen faith, to cleanse sin.  And they agree.  Your burdens are no longer yours.  Jesus took them upon Himself, and He carried them for you.  He has overcome the world.  He has overcome sin, death, and the devil.  He has overcome even you.

            And now, the Victor shares the victory with you.  By that same Spirit, by that same baptism-created faith, Jesus Christ shares with you all that is His.  He overcame the world by water and blood, and now through faithful reception of His water and blood, you have overcome the world.

            The burden has been eased.  The yoke has been lifted off of your shoulders.  The chains that bound your hands and your feet in this impossible-to-escape prison have been shattered.  You are free.  And Jesus didn’t set us free so we could run right back and pick up the burden again, wrapping that yoke around our neck and pulling just a little harder, just a little longer.  We’re not the proverbial dog that returns to his vomit.  We’re not the freshly bathed pig that immediately rolls around in the mudpit.  We’ve been set free, and we’ve been given an entirely new purpose. 

Take a look around you.  There it is. Through faith in Christ, John calls us children of God.  Each of us.  And it brings us back to the opening line of the epistle text today, 1 John 5:1 “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of Him.”  That’s a really eloquent way to say, Christians, love one another.  That’s our task.  That’s Christ’s commandment.

            And it’s not burdensome.  Because as a child of God, as one who has been set free from the bondage to the salvation of the self, we no longer bear a burden.  With that heavy yoke off of our shoulders, we are free to look up and to look around.  (Yes, that’s another way to say: love God and love your neighbor). Our eyes are no longer fixated on our own bellies, or pain, or needs, but on the needs of others.  And caring for them is no burden, because saving them is not our job.

Let me share with you from John’s own examples, how this love for one another isn’t a burden.  In chapter 1, John encourages us to fellowship together.  It’s in those moments, those times, those days, as we stand side by side, serving together, eating together, worshiping together, that we encourage one another in faith.  The small comments that you make one another, the thanks that you share for faithful labor, these things encourage and stir on your brother to continue.

In chapter 2, we are told to abide in His truth together.  Sharing the Scriptures with your fellow Christians isn’t a burden.  They may be your child, your spouse, your neighbor, your coworker.  We live in a world that calls the truth a lie, and so it benefits your brothers and sisters in Christ to hear that they are not alone.

In chapter 3, we learn that we are to lay down our lives for another.  And if we see a brother in need, and we have the earthly goods, we are to care for them.  And this isn’t a burden.  It’s not a burden to send Bibles to Christians overseas.  It’s not a hardship to share a meal at your table with another family.  It’s an act of great love and service to hand a coat or a blanket to the poor.

And before he concludes this letter, John encourages us to pray for one another, boldly declaring that we will have whatever we ask.  The Apostles in the New Testament regularly treat prayer as something that actually does something, that it works.  That God hears, and God answers.  And it’s not a burden to lift up one another before the throne of God.  John even says to pray for a brother who has sinned, and God will forgive.

All of these things and more, as we live together, love together, fellowship and serve together, are not a burden.  They’re gifts of faithful service, acts of love that the Lord blesses His people with.  And so we also encourage one another with this prayer, holding Jesus to His final promises, Amen!  Come Lord Jesus!

Laying Down Your Life in Love for Another

1 John 3:16-24

Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 25, 2021

Focus:  God laid down His life that we may have life everlasting.

Function:  That the hearers lay down their lives in service to one another.

Structure:  .

Laying Down Your Life in Love for Another

            Our text today brings us back to Holy Week, to Maundy Thursday.  As the Apostle John wrote this letter to the churches roughly sixty years after Easter, he reminded them of the mandatum novum.  That’s where we get our English word “mandate,” but it’s also where we get the name “Maundy.”  The mandatum novum, the new commandment of Jesus Christ, as John records it, happens on Maundy Thursday, as He says to His disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another,” (John 13:34).

            Jesus would elaborate on that later that evening, saying, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13).  And within hours, He would go on to show them exactly what He meant, as He willingly laid down His own life in order to save theirs, and ours.  Jesus loves us so deeply that He was willing to give the fullness of Himself, everything for us.  Lifted high upon the cross, we see the love of God for us.

            In this epistle, John then builds upon this new commandment and the very sacrifice of Christ.  It’s His love for us that teaches us what love truly is.  Not a squishy and sappy feeling, not a sexual urge, but a sacrifice.  Laying down one’s life for another.  “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers,” (1 John 3:16; it’s the other John 3:16!).

            Give up your lives, your wants, your desires, in order to serve one another.  That’s the command of the New Testament.  It’s no different than the words Christ preached, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it,” (Mark 8:35).  We’re called not to serve ourselves, but to serve one another.  We’re called to live like this: love your brother and sisters in Christ, serving them daily, and caring for all those in the Church who are in need.

            There are many examples where the children of God here in this place have done very well at this.  When we heard of a couple different illnesses among us this year, many of you reached out to the families.  Many more of you prayed for them.  And you met their needs with love and generosity.  You excel in works of mercy within the community, that when you hear a need, you meet it.  And parents, just about everything you do when you put your phone down is to meet the needs of your children.

            But as is almost always the case for us as saints and sinners, just as often as we live up to the call of God in our lives, we also fail to.  I hear no end of the concern of parents, grandparents, even youth themselves, about the mass exodus of the younger generations from the Church.  And yet, when the Missouri District hosted the Tell the Next Generation Conference, to focus on how we can care for our youth, how we can encourage their faith and equip them to endure the difficult years they’re facing, this gym sat empty.  Four people came.  And it wasn’t just here; out of the 200+ congregations in the district, 63 participants.  Our young people are in need.

            It’s not much different with the Marriage & Family Conference from this weekend.  We all decry the state of marriage in our culture, and the brokenness of families.  But, another opportunity to study God’s Word and see how we can care for the needs of these people, and the gym sat empty once again.

            And you know of many personal moments where you still feel the guilt.  You know those moments in your own life where you’ve seen the person in need, and you kept on going.  We become like the priest and the Levite from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  We can’t be bothered to stop and help.  We’ve all had that thought, “I just don’t have the time.”  “I can’t help them because I have to do this other thing.”  The next time a thought like that pops into your head, pause.  Pick it apart.  Do you truly not have the time?  What’s in the way? 

“If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?”  I can’t apply that verse quite the way John phrased it, because I genuinely believe when it comes to worldly goods, to things like money or food, you all are some of the most generous people in our entire church body.  But what’s John’s point, what’s his argument?  What’s the law of this text?  If we can help our brother and we don’t, God’s love isn’t in us.  If we can help our sister and we don’t, we aren’t laying down our lives. 

If I’m saying I don’t have the time to help, what’s in the way?  Is it that I’m already serving another neighbor?  Or is it that I’m serving myself?  I don’t have the time, because I need to get to the store; I don’t have the time, because I need to make it home for dinner.  Some of the reasons may be valid, like again, if you’re already serving another in some way.  But if we constantly find ourselves failing to help our brothers and sisters in Christ because we don’t have the time, we need to sit down and look at our schedule.  Take a calendar, take your planner, and mark everything.  Am I doing this to serve another?  Or am I doing this to serve myself?  And then take some of that self-service, some of that entertainment, and cut it out.  Die to yourself to serve another.

Some of you are marking up your calendar in your mind right now.  Some of you can think of specific moments from this very week where you failed to serve one another.  You know the guilt, you feel it.  I know some of the times I’ve failed.  I also know I’ve failed even to know where I’ve failed.  I feel the guilt and the weight, the burden of spending so much of my time looking out for myself.  The devil doesn’t even have to take the stand to condemn me, my own sinful nature already does that just fine.

My heart condemns me.  Your heart condemns you.  To you I share the gospel of the text: “whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart.”  Our hearts tell us that we are wretched sinners, that we’ve fallen short of God’s law, of His commands for us.  And our hearts are right.  But God is greater than our hearts.  His forgiveness is greater than our guilt.  His love is greater than our condemnation.  What Jesus did for you on Golgotha is greater than whatever your sinful nature, the world, and the devil would use to shame you.

Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down His life for you.  His death on the cross takes away all of your sins, all of your shame, all of your guilt.  Each of those times that you’ve failed to love your neighbor.  Each of those times where you’ve failed to help the sister in need.  Each of those times where you’ve been too busy to help the ailing brother.  God forgives you!  Jesus died for you.  And you can walk out of here with that little children’s song playing on repeat in your head: “Jesus loves me this I know.”

He does.  He truly does!  God loves you!  “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us.”  He made us His.  His family, His children.  John uses that language again and again in this chapter.  Three times in the opening two verses we are called children of God.  In verse seven, he addresses us as little children.  And again here in verse eighteen, he calls us little children.  Children of the heavenly Father.  Part of His family.

And so John seeks to encourages us to live as those children, as that family.  He calls us to live by the command of Christ, which is seen so often throughout the New Testament: love God, and love your neighbor.  Here he phrased it this way: “believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.” 

One final note on this text for you today: the command is to love your brother.  It’s a reference to those within the Church.  We are to die to ourselves in service to other Christians.  Looking back at Maundy Thursday, Jesus said to them, “34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another,” (John 13:34-35).  We don’t lay down our lives in the same way Jesus did.  He’s God, and His death takes away the sins of the world.  But we are called to lay down our lives for each other.  And the way we help each other in times of need, the way we forfeit our own interests to help others, is one of the greatest evangelism tools we have.  We see that in the early Church in Acts 2, as they gathered together daily and held all things in common, the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

One of best ways we can love people outside of the Church is to truly love one another inside the Church.  The state of the family in America is disastrous.  People long for that community, that love, that’s missing in their lives.  And so if they see it here, some will be willing to hear the hope that you have, because they want the love that you have.  And that’s when we get to point them to the greatest love of all, that Christ has laid down His life for us all.

Finding Satisfaction in Your Toil (Chapel Sermon)

Colossians 3:23-24

LHSKC Chapel

April 19, 2021

Focus:  God rescues us from the endless cycle of death.

Function:  That the hearers serve God wherever they go.

Structure:  .

Find Satisfaction in Your Toil

            When I was about your age, a Sophomore in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  I dreamt of playing in the NHL.  I thought of going into computer programming, making video games, or perhaps being an accountant of some kind.  And then my older sister invited me on a retreat for high schoolers.  It was called TEC, Teens Encounter Christ.  It took up a whole three-day weekend, starting with Die Day as we talked about Christ’s death on the cross, then Rise Day, looking at the gift of Easter and the resurrection, and then Go Day, as we were sent back into our families and schools to serve the Lord.

            That retreat forever changed my life.  I was a Christian.  I was the quiet kid who followed directions and always got the work done.  But my faith at that point was pretty similar.  I went to church because my parents taught me this is what we do.  I worked hard in confirmation classes and did all that memory work because I was a good student.  But it wasn’t really my life.  Jesus didn’t really seem to matter in the day-to-day grind.  At least, He hadn’t.

            TEC #88, as it was called, because it was the 88th time they’d done it, hit me.  The Gospel hit me.  I came out of that weekend seeing more clearly than ever just what it was that God had done for me: everything!  He created me, cares for me, loves me.  So much that He sent His own Son to die for me.  I’d heard all of that before, but hearing it all again and again transformed me.  I came out of that weekend thinking if God has done all of this for me, I should spend the rest of my life serving Him.  And at the time, I thought there was only one way to do that, because no one had ever told me any different.  So I went to the senior pastor of my church, Rev. Dennis Kastens, and I told him I wanted to become a pastor.  It definitely made his day, as my home congregation hadn’t produced a pastor for the church in a long time.  So he guided me, told me Concordia, NE was the place to go.  So I went, I studied, and then I went and I studied again at seminary.  I’ve learned a lot about Jesus and my faith has grown a lot along the way.

            And I want to share with you today one of the simplest, but profoundly life impacting things that I’ve learned.  God has put each and every one of us here for the same two purposes.  Do any of you know what they are?  Pause.

            Here’s the answer from Jesus Himself, Matthew 22:37-39:

37 And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

            Love God and love your neighbor.  That’s what we’re here to do.  It’s really simple, but it shapes our lives in every way.  As a youth, I thought I had to be a pastor to serve God.  And while it’s true that we need pastors to continue serving the Church, providing Word and Sacrament, you don’t have to be a pastor to serve God.  You can serve God in just about any job out there.

            My wife, Hannah, is a stay-at-home mom.  That’s a job that the American culture hates.  I’ve heard many times that women who want to stay home and raise their kids are a giant step backwards for feminism and an insult to all the women who’ve fought so long and so hard to change a society. 

Hannah studied.  She went to college.  She graduated with a degree in Elementary Education, an emphasis in art, and her Lutheran Teaching Diploma, meaning she was able to be called to serve in Lutheran grade schools around the country.  And, for a couple of years, she did.  But when she held our oldest daughter Talia in her arms, everything changed.  She knew that that task, that work of raising a child was important, and that she could serve God doing that.  And she’s been doing it ever since.  She’s even now taken that skill set she learned in college and is applying it in our home as she homeschools our oldest.

            Her job has no pay.  No income.  Mine does.  But that doesn’t make either job better or worse than the other.  I get to share the gospel in my job everyday as I serve God and His people in the Church.  But guess what?  So does she.  We have four daughters, and each of one of them is a creature that God has created and loved, whom Jesus died for.  And she gets to share the gospel with them everyday.  I serve God and my neighbor in my job.  She serves God and her neighbor in her job.

            Reese mentioned to me that you all recently had the chance to think about your dream job.  What were some? Pause, and with each answer, show how they can serve God and their neighbor in those places.

            This is what we see in the epistle text from the Apostle Paul: “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.   You are serving Christ.” 

            We work, not for ourselves, not so we can buy bigger homes, flashlier cars, nice clothes, or a new PS5.  We work each and every day for Jesus, for the Lord.  When you get up in the morning, and get ready to come here for school, you are serving the Lord.  When you pay attention to your teacher in class, you’re serving the Lord.  When you do your assignments, you’re serving the Lord.  The things that you’re learning here and now, are tools that help you serve others.  And you’re finding out which of those tools you’re good at using. 

Some of you love math and working with numbers.  Some day, you’ll serve the Lord by helping your neighbors, maybe with their taxes, or keeping a balanced budget so your boss’s company can continue providing a product or service to the whole community, and incomes to their other employees that help them serve and provide for their families.

Others of you enjoy music, and will be able to provide comfort to those who are lonely or despairing.  Some like science, some history.  Some of you enjoy the work you get to do with your hands, whether it’s art or wood.  You get to take these interests and skills and build upon them each day.  You’re serving the Lord now, right here, right where you are.  To the rest of the world, it’s a grind.  Get up, get ready, work hard, stay awake, do the homework, and crash at the end of the day.  Wake up and do it all over again.  And the question comes up almost every day: “what’s the point?!” 

We are called to be holy as the Church, as Christians.  That word means “set apart.”  Your life is not like that of the world around you.  You serve a King, the King.  And He has given your life purpose.  You are His hands and His feet, loving and caring for His creation.  And that includes the people around you, but also the whole of creation as we consider the animals, the plants, everything.  God made Adam and Eve to care for it all.  And as their descendants, that task is ours, too.

And we hear from Jesus in that gospel text we had from Matthew 6:

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The aim of American life is happiness whatever the cost.  The daily grind goes on so you can buy bigger and better stuff.  It doesn’t change from being a teenager to being an adult.  The daily grind is much the same.  And the toys just have higher price tags as we seek to entertain ourselves to death.  But that’s just it: none of these things last.  The PS5, the car, the house, the boat, the retirement package, it all withers and fades with time. 

We are called specifically not to work for these things.  Do not treasure the things of this world.  Treasure the gifts of Christ.  He has forgiven all of your sins.  He has defeated death for you.  So even when this life ends, when this world ends, and is passed through fire and all our earthly goods are burned up and consumed, we live on.  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

That Easter greeting is our hope.  That’s our treasure.  That we live because He lives.  You have the greatest gift ever.  You get to live forever!  And so we look at the world and our lives differently.  We don’t have to worry about squeezing as much pleasure out of this life as we can before we die, because we have a treasure in Paradise that never ends.  So our focus instead is on sharing that gift with others.  Taking that hope and that promise of the resurrection and sharing it with our neighbor, that they too, may receive the gift of life that never ends.  And there will be no lack of joy and happiness in the new creation.  You can share that good news with your neighbors next door, with your friends, with your family, with your coworkers.  It’s not a future thing.  You don’t have to wait for life to begin; you have it now.  Serve God today.  Share Christ’s love today.  And every day, for as many days as the Lord gives you in this place.  And know that through Christ, you get to inherit His kingdom without end.

The Resurrection Changes Everything!

John 20:19-31

Second Sunday of Easter

April 11, 2021

Focus:  God promises to raise us from the dead.

Function:  That the hearers overcome their fears through the promise of the resurrection.

Structure:  Diamond – many facets, same message.

The Resurrection Changes Everything!

            Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

            Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

            Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

            And that changes everything!

            That’s the message for us today.  It’s the message for us tomorrow.  It’s the message for us each and everyday until God the Father chooses to send Jesus back into this creation one final time.

            His resurrection changes everything for us.  It overcomes all obstacles; it defeats all enemies; it eradicates all fear.  When you’re afraid, remember, “He is not here, for He has risen,” (Matthew 28:6).  When you’re worried, remember, “He has risen; He is not here,” (Mark 16:6).  When you’re at that point of despair, thinking life is at its end, remember, “He is not here, but has risen,” (Luke 24:6).

            That’s what we see in our gospel text today.  What makes these men, these eleven fearful cowards, change?  The ever-bold Peter, suddenly silent.  The power-hungry sons of thunder, James and John, quivering in their sandals.  Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael, hiding behind lock doors.  Matthew, Jude, and the other James and Simon, fearful that their lives are in danger.  Thomas, doubting everything he’s seen and believed these last three years. 

Together, that’s where they all are.  They’re grieving the death of the Man they had set up on an earthly throne in their minds.  Their beside themselves, with no idea what to do today, tomorrow, or ever again.  What can they do?  Where can they turn?  Is it safe to go outside?  Is it safe to go back to their families?  Can they fish again?  Is a tax booth still available?  Will leaving the region of Judea be good enough to give them a life of peace?  Or must they abandon the Roman Empire altogether if they want a fresh start?

What takes them from that point where they’re fearfully huddling together locked away out of sight, to the point where they’re so boldly willing even to die?  What gives them courage in place of thoughts of safety?  What gives them purpose in the place of doubt?  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  One Man bypasses their defenses, skips that locked door altogether, and simply appears in their presence, declaring “Peace be with you!”  And it was.

The disciples saw the resurrected Jesus.  They laid their eyes on their risen King.  They reached out and touched, they dined with, they spoke to, and learned from the Man they watched die.  Just days before, beaten, bleeding, suffocating, hanging there limp on a cross.  No one survives that.  No one comes back from that.  But this Man did.

And His resurrection changed everything.  The very fact that Jesus could overcome even death, it gave new meaning to the lives of the disciples.  Everything He taught them was true.  Everything they witnessed Him doing those last three years was real, and it all pointed to something far greater than they had ever imagined.  Jesus has promised that on that cross He was taking away the sins of the world.  And that’s precisely what He did.  And so when He says, “Peace be with you,” it truly is.  Not peace as in quiet.  Not peace as in a good night’s rest.  True peace.  War ended.  Rebellion ceased.  Their sins put them at odds with the very God who created them.  And now, through the sacrifice, the blood shed of Jesus Christ, those sins are gone.  The peace treaty has been signed.  God and man are reconciled together, again.

And before He ascended into heaven, He gave them a mission, a task, a purpose.  He gave their lives new meaning.  It wasn’t really new, as He taught it to them before, that they should take up their cross and follow Him, losing their lives in order to find life, and not being of the world, but only servants in it.  And so He does again, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:19-20).  Christians, disciples, are not here to live for themselves, but to serve others, and to share the gospel with all people.

It took them time to learn this.  They spent those next few weeks continuing to hear from Jesus, to learn from Jesus how all of Scripture pointed forward to this.  Not to an earthly kingdom, filled with power and might and glory and riches and honor and fame.  But to a peace with God that surpasses all understanding.  To a hope that cannot be taken away from you, no matter the circumstances in life.  Because as Christ lives, so we live.  His life is ours.  What happens to Him, is true of us.  So as He died to Himself, we die to ourselves.  And as He was raised from the dead, we will be raised from the dead.  As He cannot die again, we cannot die again.  As He is immortal, and lives forevermore, so we are immortal and live forevermore.

This changes your life now in every way imaginable.  Name your fears, and pit them against the promise and the hope and the reality that is the resurrection.  None of them can stand. 

Like those first disciples, many disciples of Jesus have feared the repercussions of following Him.  Like those first disciples, many disciples of Christ have shared in the sufferings of Christ, as they lose everything in this life for the sake of His gospel.  House and home, goods, fame, child, and wife.  Skin from their body, blood from their veins.  Whether it’s the people of Gwoza fleeing into the mountains of Nigeria from Boko Haram, or the martyrdom of a missionary like Beatrice Stockli, many of our brothers and sisters in Christ have known this all too well. 

Why are they so willing?  Why do they cling to this name, to this Jesus, when all they’d have to do is curse Him, and they’d be left alone?  They know that the resurrection changes everything.  Many have learned through their suffering that there is no need to fear death.  For in death, as Job said, “after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,” (Job 19:26).

Over this past year, we have learned just how much people around us really fear death, as we have lived in fear of an illness that the eye can’t see.  The “land of the free” was suddenly willing to give up nearly all of its freedom to be safe from death.  But it is once again that same fear.  To fear the pandemic is to fear death.  To fear any illness is to fear death. 

The resurrection changes everything!  We don’t need to fear death; we’re called not to.  If we die, we get to be with Christ.  So we have the freedom, even in a pandemic, to live our lives in love and service toward our neighbor.  We can share with them why we aren’t afraid.  We can share with them the everlasting hope that we have, the confidence that we have.  And even if you argue that you’re isolating and social distancing out of love for your neighbor, you can still serve them, and still share the gospel with them.  Many Christians in this past year have been quite creative in finding ways to do just that.

And that goes not just for a pandemic, but any illness.  Any medical trial.  We still have photos of our oldest daughter, Talia, just hours after she was born, hooked up to as many wires as you can imagine, to the point where she looked more machine than child.  We’d never been in a NICU before.  We’d never had a child so small to care for before.  But in that moment, where everything seemed to be going wrong, the Lord was with us.  His promise was as clear to us as ever.  She was His.  She is His.  And had she not survived that week, she would’ve been in His arms, instead of ours.  And while we would’ve grieved, at the same time, we still know there’s no better place to be. 

For a long time in this land, Christians have struggled with sharing the gospel for fear of offending someone.  Fear of what they might say, of what they might do.  And that fear is getting worse for many with each season that passes.  But consider this: the resurrection changes everything!  What do you have to lose?  Really, honestly, consider it.  What do you have to lose?  If they reject you, if they unfriend you, if they hate you, if they fire you, if they suspend you, if they banish you, if they arrest you, if they even shed your blood, Christ is still risen!  Your hope still stands!  Life is forever yours.  The kingdom is forever yours.  The God who created and owns all things is forever yours.  And those people are the ones who are so desperately in need of that help, that Word that you have, that good news of resurrection.  Because without, they are the ones who are about to lose everything, not you.

So whether it’s a fear of illness, poverty, loss, or whatever it may be, the promise of the resurrection changes everything.  Should I die of hunger, I’m with Christ.  Should I die of homelessness, I’m with Christ.  Should I die a martyr’s death, I’m with Christ. 

In a way, we’ve truly been made invincible.  The world can’t touch us.  The devil can’t touch us.  The grave doesn’t concern us.  For if we die, we rise!  That’s not permission to go do foolish things with your life, but to live out the purpose to which Christ has called you, to love God and to love your neighbor.  To serve the Lord by sharing the gospel with everyone around you.  Because one way or another, you get to live forever.  Imagine for a moment the terror that mindset could strike in the heart of our enemy the devil, when he comes to realize that his power is spent, and that you belong to God forever.

And so we boldly stand alongside the Apostle Paul, proclaiming that “to live is Christ, to die is gain,” (Philippians 1:21).  The resurrection changes everything!  If we die, we get to be with Christ, which is better by far than this world.  And if we live another day, that’s another day to serve God and serve our neighbor.  Can you see that?  That truth is at the center of everything.  This is our life in Christ.

            For Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  And as we go about serving Him each day, let us together hold Him to His final promise: “Amen!  Come Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)

Return to Truth

John 19:1-16

Good Friday

April 2, 2021

Focus:  God makes us righteous through the holy, precious blood and with the innocent suffering and death of His own Son, Jesus Christ.

Function:  That the hearers would be pierced by the depth and seriousness of their sin and be comforted by the death that took those same sins away.

Structure:  Return to the Lord Lenten series by Rev. Eric Longman.

Return to Truth

            Last week, in our final Lenten midweek service together of this season, our Gospel reading came from the end of John 18.  We ended with hearing Pontius Pilate rhetorically utter the words: “What is truth?”  Perhaps the better question would’ve been, “Who is truth?”

            Let’s read the verses that we missed in between that reading, and our reading for today, from John 19:1-16:

19 Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged Him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head and arrayed Him in a purple robe. They came up to Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck Him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing Him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the Man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.” The Jews answered Him, “We have a law, and according to that law He ought to die because He has made Himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 So Pilate said to Him, “You will not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You and authority to crucify You?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered Me over to you has the greater sin.”

12 From then on Pilate sought to release Him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this Man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” 13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he delivered Him over to them to be crucified.

            “So he delivered Him over to them to be crucified.”  Pause. We are invited to consider that brutally glorious moment at the center of creation’s history.  We look on as the Truth hangs on a cross, bearing all the sins of the world upon His own shoulders, that He would reconcile us to God the Father.  Jesus Christ is Truth incarnate, in the flesh.  As He said it Himself just a couple of days before, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

            This Lenten series has reflected on God’s call to us through the prophet Joel, that we would admit our sinful natures, and return to the One who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13), the One who loves us, provides for us, and sent His Son to die for us, because He “relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13).  God’s call for you today is to return to Truth, to turn to Jesus Christ, for He is your very life and your salvation.

            Last week, we saw the Jewish ruling council, together with the high priest, Caiaphas, dragging Jesus off to the governor’s headquarters, to stand trial before Pontius Pilate.  They insisted that He was a wicked criminal, although they presented Pilate with no evidence.  As Pilate tried to set Him free of Roman charge, to give Him back to the Jews, they revealed the desires of their wicked and sinful hearts, claiming they brought Jesus to Pilate because they themselves don’t have the authority to put someone to death.

            What was Pilate to do: put to death a Man he believed was innocent, or watch a riot break out among this crowd, likely leading to even more death?

            Everything was working according to plan.  Not Pilate’s plan, not Caiaphas’ plan, but God’s plan.  A plan that He had put together from before the time when He even created the world.  A plan of salvation made necessary by the devil’s twisted webs of temptation.  A plan that would include a battle between the offspring of the crafty serpent in the Garden, and the offspring of that first woman who lived there.  A plan that required the heel of the Son of Man to be bruised, but in that serpent’s strike, it would be the very thing to finally crush the head of the serpent’s offspring, stripping death of its power forevermore.  This plan would play out upon the cross of Golgotha, with Jesus at the center of everything.

            We continue to see Pilate trying to appease and settle Jesus’ accusers.  He sends Him off to be whipped and beaten.  While away, we know what the soldiers did to Him.  How they clothed Him in a royal, purple robe, fastened a crown of thorns upon His head, and beat Him with hand and fist.  They spit on Him, they mocked Him, and they flogged Him.

            Now, under Roman rule, a person was either flogged or crucified.  No ordinary man received both because the body just can’t take it.  And so Pilate likely thought this would do the trick, this would appease the angry mob around his quarters.  “I find no guilt in Him,” says the man who flogged Him till He was near death, with just enough life still in Him that He might recover if left alone.

            The plan of God was in motion.  There would be no stopping it, no changing of the outcome.  Jesus must die.  And so that same angry crowd that demanded the release of the insurrectionist Barabbas no more than an hour before, now cried out the most vicious cry of all, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!”

            And it’s not just the crowds that chanted it that day.  You and I are guilty of it as well.  Our sinful nature rises up against Christ, even as He seeks to draw us back to Himself.  God’s Law demands of us, and we want no part of it.

            “You shall have no other gods.”  That’s fine, I can live with just one god; but it’s going to be me!  I will live my life however I want, pursuing my dreams, and caring for myself.  This Man wants to be first in my life?  There’s no need for that, away with Him! Crucify Him!

            “You shall not misuse the name of Yahweh your God.”  Ha!  I will curse and swear if I want to.  And if I want to take His name in vain, that’s just what I’ll do.  Crucify Him!

            “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” You can’t tell me what to do!  I work hard all week long; I’m going to sleep in on my Sunday.  I don’t have the time to pray to You, or read some dusty Word You left behind.  I can’t be bothered with those things: away with Him!  Crucify Him!

            “Honor your father and your mother.”  “You shall not murder.”  “You shall not commit adultery.” “You shall not steal.”  “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”  “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20).  I can’t be bothered with all those ancient and outdated rules, either.  Crucify Him!

            We rebuke God; we despise Him for His Law and for His Word.  We reject His leading in our lives.  Our sinful natures want nothing to do with Him.  Paul rightly says that we “are hostile to God, for [we do] not submit to God’s law; indeed, [we] cannot” (Romans 8:7).  It isn’t just our present culture that despises Jesus, the Truth.  Our sinful nature rises up against Jesus, the Truth, as we put our hands over our ears and shout out again and again “Crucify Him!”

            But Truth isn’t so easily silenced.  Truth echoes in our ears even as He hangs lifeless upon a cross.  Truth slips past our defenses as the Word of God works to soften our hardened hearts.  As we cry out all the more in our anger and our rage, Truth whispers gently to us.  Someone must die for our sins.  It’s the only way out of this mess.  And Jesus has come for precisely this purpose, to be crucified for us.

            Behold the Man!  Look to the cross, to the One who hangs there on it, as He bears your sins, as He takes your punishment.  “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind (Isaiah 52:14)…He was despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

            Look at this Man!  Look at your God.  Beaten, bruised, bleeding, suffering.  “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4)…He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5).

            He dies for you.  He carries your griefs, your sorrows, your sins, and your guilt.  And as we grieve the depth of our sins this day, as we mourn the loss of our King, as we wonder why it had to be this way, Truth proclaims: “It was the will of Yahweh to crush Him; He has put Him to grief (Isaiah 53:10)…He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).

            Your Lord.  Your Savior.  The One who came into the flesh so that He could die for your sins. The One who kept the Law so that He could stand in the heavenly throne room before the perfect God of all creation as your intercessor, the perfect and holy high priest who makes atonement for your sins.  He willingly poured out His soul unto death so that you would have life.

            And so the Holy Spirit, who has created faith in our hearts, and sustains that faith even today, brings us to repent, and with a softened voice, cry, “Crucify Him.”  Not in anger.  Not in rebellion.  Not in disgust.  But because the Holy Spirit has led us to realize that there was no other way.  As the Prophet Isaiah put it, “All [your] righteous deeds are a like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6).  We’ve come to realize that we can’t fix it; we can’t be good enough; we can’t keep the Law perfectly without sin; we can’t win salvation for ourselves.  Whatever good things we might do in the eyes of this world are completely overshadowed and drowned out by the wicked, wretchedness of our sinful natures.

            Speaking of how hard it is to be saved, Jesus said in Matthew 19(:26), “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  With God, you can be saved.  But someone must pay the cost.  Someone must shed the blood to make us right again.  Someone has to die.

            And that someone is the Truth, Jesus, who lived the perfect life that we couldn’t.  He has taken all of your sins upon Himself, and He took them to the cross, delivering you from the wrath of God.  In exchange for your sins, in the greatest trade ever made, Jesus gives to you His righteousness, His perfect life, asking that we would simply trust in Him, and let Him do the work of saving us.

            Therefore, as you “survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of Glory died” (LSB 425:1), may you hear God’s call to return to Him, return to Truth, to trust in the One who has promised you life and salvation.  Consider the words of that hymn:

See, from His head, His hands, His feet

Sorrow and love flow mingled down!

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown? (LSB 425:3)

            And now, may the peace of God, which has been granted to you through the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, keep you focused on the One who lived, died, and rose again to secure for you salvation and life everlasting.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Return to the Kingdom of God

John 18:28-38

Lenten Midweek 5

March 24, 2021

Focus:  God calls us into His kingdom.

Function:  That the hearers participate in the reign of God by caring for others inside and outside the congregation.

Structure:  Return to the Lord Lenten series by Rev. Eric Longman.

Return to the Kingdom of God

            A pastor is called in the middle of the night to a nursing home in rural Wisconsin to offer the Commendation of the Dying for an elderly man of the congregation as he nears the end of his life.  His words bring comfort and peace to the gathered family, as they in turn share stories, comforting one another, awaiting dad’s final breath.  Welcome to the Kingdom.

            A young mother tentatively steps into the narthex of a small congregation in Kansas.  The electric company is about to turn off the lights as she hasn’t been able to pay the bill in months.  A member of the church altar guild who just happened to be there serving at that moment, sits down with her, listens to her story, prays with her, and then calls the electric company and pays her bill in full.  Welcome to the Kingdom.

            A homeless man is found sleeping on the sidewalk in front of an urban church in Georgia early on a Sunday morning.  The elder who finds him welcomes him inside, provides him with a bag full of groceries that other members had donated to help those in need, and invites him to stay for worship.  Welcome to the Kingdom.

            A little girl in Lee’s Summit plays with the child that lives across the street, and as they play, and laugh, and talk, she shares with her friend the love she has for Jesus.  Welcome to the Kingdom.

            Our theme this evening is “Return to the Kingdom of God.”  But that very title demands us first to answer a question.  What is the kingdom of God?  And our Gospel reading from John 18 shows us how Pilate failed to understand what that kingdom is and really looks like.  And honestly, it’s often difficult for us to understand, even though we’re part of the kingdom.

            Our Lenten series has given us the opportunity to focus on how the Lord calls us.  We have sung again and again those words from Joel 2:13, “Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.”  We’ve looked at our sins again and again, encouraged each week to return to Him.  Today, specifically, that invitation is that we would return to the kingdom of God, and our three Scripture readings lead us to consider just what that phrase means.

            When we hear the word “kingdom,” our minds almost instantly jump to a physical place.  To a territory ruled by a king, to a castle and its surrounding lands.  So for some, hearing the kingdom of God may have you thinking of the church building, that God’s kingdom is somehow contained within these walls.  Now there’s truth there, as God does some of His most visible and obvious work right here among us.  But the kingdom is not limited to this building.

            Others may think that the kingdom follows a person.  Many in the church today view the kingdom of God as being centered around their pastor, on someone they see as one of God’s most devoted servants.  And while God can indeed work even through us, we have all heard stories of pastors who became so engrossed in their sins and human weakness that they had to be removed from their office, leaving behind a scandalized and grieving congregation.

            Others may think of the kingdom of God as a heavenly kingdom, looking forward to the day when we get to be forevermore in His presence, under His protection, whether that comes with our death, or with His Second Coming.  But this view is also lacking.  Jesus Christ broke into this world; He took on our flesh; He died for our sins.  And He did all of that right here, in this world, within His creation.  You can visit the town where He was born.  You can visit the community where He grew up.  And you can even go to see the place where He was crucified, and roughly where His body was laid to rest.  When we stop and consider it, all of those things wouldn’t have happened outside of the kingdom of God.

            So if it isn’t these things, if the kingdom of God isn’t the church, or the pastor, or even heaven, where could it possibly be?

            That’s the same question we see Pontius Pilate grappling with.  In the wee hours of Friday morning, the Jewish Sanhedrin turned Jesus in.  They betrayed Him into the hands of the gentile lords, to this Roman governor.  And there was no doubt among them about their intention.  Nor did it take Pilate long to figure it out.  Time and time again, he sought to de-escalate the tension of that day, but he couldn’t. 

            He asked for their list of charges against this Man.  And instead, they simply said “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.”  We won’t give you an answer, just trust us.

            So Pilate commands them to handle this affair themselves, judge Him by their own laws.  And here he learns the gravity of the situation, as they reply “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”  Under the Old Testament laws of the nation of Israel, it would’ve been; the punishment for blasphemy was death.  But they aren’t under those laws anymore.  Because of their past faithlessness, that kingdom died, and they are now part of a different kingdom, with a king who is not the Heavenly Father, but a man on a throne with a laurel wreath placed upon his brow by other men.  An emperor.  Just another in a long line of caesars.  And under his law, the Jews do not have the authority of capital punishment.  That would have to be decreed by Pilate.  Now he begins to see just what he’s dealing with.

            So Pilate heads inside and questions Jesus.  “Are You the King of the Jews?”  No point here in beating around the bush; right to the point.  But Jesus won’t answer the question, in part, perhaps, because He knows He and Pilate are working with very different understandings of what it means to be a king.  Jesus’ kingship simply doesn’t match with Pilate’s expectations.  So He could’ve admitted His position as King over heaven and earth, but Pilate would’ve only understood it as a bid for political power within the Roman empire, or even a coup to overthrow the empire.

            So Jesus instead answers a question with a question, trying to draw Pilate deeper into the conversation.  “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about Me?”  But Pilate wants nothing of it, declares himself not a part of the Jewish community, and then demands to know what Jesus has done that has left them all so thirsty for His blood.

            So Jesus explains His kingdom in our earthly terms.  “My kingdom is not of this world.  If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.”  I can only imagine that statement made no sense to Pilate.  A kingdom not of this world?  What’s that even supposed to mean?  Even Jesus’ own disciples still didn’t grasp this, as one of them did seek to fight for Him that very day, unsheathing his sword, and swiftly relieving the high priest’s servant of his right ear.  Jesus’ kingdom is greater, bigger, more important than anything in these disputing earthly kingdoms.

            “So You are a King?” is the only reply Pilate can muster.  And then Jesus reveals His kingly purpose, “to bear witness to the truth.”  Pilate again replies in a way that shows us he doesn’t understand any of this, as he speaks the modern question, “What is truth?”

            We know how the rest of it plays out, and we’ll gather together here again in a week’s time to read more of this truth from God’s Word.  And it’s through this truth that the Holy Spirit teaches us about the kingdom of God.

            The kingdom isn’t a place to be located or drawn out on a map.  The Greek word for a kingdom, basileia, can also be translated as “reign.”  And that helps us understand it all the better.  We’re talking about the reign of God, the reign of our King, which points us to His rule, and thus to what He has done in that rule, and to what He is still doing. 

            The kingdom of God, the reign of God, is not limited by geographical boundaries.  It’s not even a ethnic group of people.  The reign of God is about Jesus.  It’s about His work of dying on the cross to forgive our sins, and rising again to give us life.  It’s about the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, through whom our King invites us together, encourages us, and builds us up.

Some of you could relate to the opening illustrations.  You’ve been there.  You’ve been the grieving family or the one with basic needs to be met.  Some of you have been the ones to provide the comfort, the listening ear, or the assistance.  Those were real life illustrations of the reign of the God.  His love for the broken and the hurting.  His care and provision for those who are in need. 

We can see the reign of God playing out where the love of God is being shared.  All of those many moments spent in prayer for those who are sick, and the gift of those who care for them in their need.  All those who volunteer to help stock a food pantry and then interact with the families who come in for that support.  The intentionality of starting up a preschool so that we can share the good news of Jesus with the children of our community, and by extension, their families as well. 

God calls us to turn away from the unnecessary busyness of our American lives, constantly running every which way, and always left wondering what we’ve actually accomplished.  He calls us to slow down, to take a breath, to pray, praise, and give thanks.  He calls us to be a part of His kingdom in this place, His reign within our homes, within our church, within our community.  He calls you to bear witness to the truth of the work that He has done for your neighbor in and through Jesus Christ, and the work that He continues to do for them.  He calls you to be the hands and the feet, the ears and the eyes, the mouth and the tongue, that shares His love with others, whoever our neighbors might be.

Rejoice dear brothers and sisters in Christ, for you are subject to the Kingly rule of the One who created you, the One who by His blood redeemed you, and the One who sanctifies and keeps you in the one true kingdom.  For He is the best King in all of creation.

Not the Kingdom We Were Expecting

Mark 10:32-45

Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 21, 2021

Focus:  God calls us to a very different life.

Function:  That the hearers follow Christ.

Structure:  Monologue (preached as though I’m John Mark, who wrote this gospel account).

Not the Kingdom We Were Expecting

            Even though I was there, I’m still at loss for the right words to describe what was happening in that very moment.  On the one hand, we were excited.  And that’s an understatement.  We were overjoyed!  Our Messiah was here!  In the flesh.  Right there in front of us.  Quite literally, in front of us.  You could tell He was on a mission.  And there was nothing we could say or do that would stop Him from going to Jerusalem that day.

            And that’s kind of the point.  I mean, over the few weeks leading up to that moment, Peter had learned that Jesus was the Christ, the One, the Anointed One that our families had been waiting for for more generations than I could count.  That He was finally here! 

But immediately after that, there were so many ups and downs.  First, He’s the Christ.  Then He tells the disciples He’s going to die.  Then He takes Peter, James, and John and they go up on a mountain together, and God speaks to them from heaven, declaring that this Man is no ordinary man, that He’s the very Son of God.  And in both those cases, He told the apostles they couldn’t tell anybody, at least, not right away.

            And so here we were in the midst of a parade, marching our way toward the holy of city of Jerusalem, where God’s own throne was still sitting.  And Jesus, well, He was clear out ahead of us all.  He was determined, He was going to Jerusalem.  I remember the apostles that day.  They were amazed, amazed that Jesus could march with such confidence right into the nest of men who hated Him and wanted to kill Him.  They were impressed by His zeal, but they were also concerned because of those three times He had predicted those same men would kill Him.

            And it wasn’t just the Twelve surrounding Him as we marched, but a whole crowd.  I was just a boy at that time, running around trying to keep up.  So I heard them, I heard the conversations, the things they muttered to each other.  The crowd wasn’t impressed.  I mean, they were ready to follow Jesus, but maybe not there, maybe not to that place.  They’d seen His miracles, many of them were healed by Him, fed by Him.  They loved Him.  But like the apostles, they saw a fight coming, and it scared them.  Okay, it scared us.  I wanted to follow Him to, but maybe this wasn’t the best idea.

            No, in order to understand that moment, I need to take you back to some of the events that happened just before it.  You need to understand our perspective, what we were expecting of the Messiah.  See, it’s easy for you today, you’ve got the New Testament, that we brothers recorded for you, so that you too could come to know Him as we eventually came to know Him.

            But it took us a long time to get there.  We had the Old Testament, and with it hundreds of years of interpretation, traditions, passed down by word of mouth from father to son, and to his son after him.  And there really wasn’t much doubt.  Well, there were a few people who gave up hope altogether.  But for those of us who still believed, we were waiting for the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would sit on the throne of His father David.  So, we were expecting a King, a conqueror, like all those deliverers in the book of Judges.  Thanks to our many sins and constant complaining to God about our lot in life, we were being oppressed again.  And every time that had happened before, God sends a champion, a deliverer, someone to free us from our bondage and give us peace in our lives again.  And there’d be no one greater to do that than the Messiah.  We were anticipating a rebellion.  The disciples thought they would take up arms.  We were going to fight, Rome was going to fall, and we’d live free.

            It didn’t seem to matter how many times Jesus told us the opposite.  Let me explain.  Two things happened right before we left for this journey, and two more things happened on the way, that will help you understand the bigger picture, the picture we missed.

            First, as the crowds gathered around Jesus, parents were bringing their little ones to see Jesus.  He was a hero to us, someone we could look up to.  These parents wanted their children to be part of Jesus’ new kingdom, to enjoy that life and that peace that He would bring us.  But the Twelve, well, they thought it was a waste of time.  War was brewing, it was coming up on the horizon, and Jesus just had better things to do.  These children couldn’t recruit an army, and they certainly wouldn’t be of any help themselves.  Sure, they could help in the future, give them ten or twenty years.  But in the present, the immediate moment, us kids were worthless. 

            But Jesus rebuked the Twelve.  He surprised them.  And His words have stuck with us ever since: “Let the children come to Me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” (Mark 10:14-15).  First, they were stunned that He was willing to make time for these little ones and to bless them.  But Jesus pushed it even further, and said that we must realize that we are worthless if we want to be a part of His kingdom.  That in order to be saved, we must empty ourselves, admit that we have nothing of any value to God, just as those children had no value to offer an army.

            And then, just as we starting out on the road, a rich young man came and bowed at the feet of Jesus.  The apostles were impressed by him.  And more than that really.  This man was the opposite of those kids.  He had everything to offer to a budding army.  He was young, of fighting age himself.  And he wanted to know what he had to do to live forever.  That would’ve been an easy recruit.  All Jesus would need to say was “fight for Me.”  Plus, all of his wealth could’ve provided for the army, buying supplies or arms.  Or in the future, he could’ve helped rebuild our long-lost kingdom.

            But Jesus’ stunned us again.  Do you know what he told the man to do?  “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me,” (Mark 10:21).  The very thing we thought made this man worthwhile to Jesus’ kingdom, Jesus told him to get rid of.  That his wealth wouldn’t help, but was getting in the way.

            And just as the first time, Jesus pushed it a little further.  He told the Twelve that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” (Mark 10:25).  That left the brothers dumbfounded.  They thought you could buy your way into the kingdom.  They thought that if you were doing the right things, living life the right way, God would bless you with material wealth.  So this man was a good man, this man had it all.  And if he couldn’t get in, what chance did anyone else have?  But Jesus was correcting us again.  That we have nothing to offer Him.  We bring nothing to the table.  We can’t get in.  But He can bring us in.  That He would bring us in.

            Then while we were on the road, and Jesus was up ahead of the crowd, James and John caught up with Him.  They asked that when He came into His kingdom, they could sit at His right hand and His left.  Now you all are nice, you tend to give the disciples the benefit of the doubt.  But James and John weren’t talking about Jesus’ heavenly kingdom.  We were on the road to Jerusalem.  We all thought a battle was coming, that this was Jesus’ rebellion, and that He would soon sit upon the throne of David once again.  James and John wanted the places of highest authority in Jesus’ new earthly kingdom.  They wanted to receive power in Jerusalem.  That’s an interesting phrase, for in just a couple of months, the Father would give them a very different kind of power in Jerusalem.

            The rest of the Twelve caught up and overheard the conversation.  And they got upset, because they wanted those places of power for themselves.  Peter, James, and John have been favored for so long, it was time for someone else to have a shot at it.  But Jesus stunned them again.  He told James and John that they would the drink the same cup and have the same baptism as Christ Himself.  And Jesus wasn’t referring to wine and water, although we get that, too.  Jesus was referring to His suffering and death, that James and John would suffer for the cause, as would we all.

            And again, Jesus pushed it further:

You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

            I hear you all know how governments lead just as well as we did, with the same kind of power we were hoping to have.  But Jesus told us it’s the opposite.  If we want to be great, we have to serve.  If we want to be first, we must be last.  Just what kind of kingdom was Jesus planning to build here anyway?

            The whole crowd got in on the last event.  There was a blind man by the road, a man named Bartimaeus.  And he’d heard all about the miracles of Jesus.  So, when he heard He was near, he started hollering, trying to get Jesus’ attention.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” – (Mark 10:47).  And just like the apostles had rebuked the parents and children earlier in the day, now the crowds rebuked this man.  Again, what use would a rebellion have for a blind beggar?  He couldn’t fight, and he had no money.

            But Jesus stunned the whole crowd this time.  He stopped.  The Man on a mission who couldn’t be stopped, stopped.  And Bartimaeus came up to Him, and asked Him for a miracle, that he could see again.  And just like that, Jesus healed him, and Bartimaeus joined in with the crowd, following Jesus to Jerusalem.

            It took us a long time to get it.  The week that was coming destroyed all our hopes.  Our Messiah, our Deliverer, our Savior, arrested.  I was there that night.  The soldiers stripped me of my robe as I fled into the night.  And then they killed Him!  Crucified Him! 

And He let them.  He took it, like it had to happen.  Because that’s the truth.  The hard truth that it took the Church a long time to grasp: Jesus came to save the world not with swords and spears, but with His own blood.  Jesus came to save the world by giving His life for us, that our sins might be forgiven.  That me, and you, and all people might have peace with God through the events of that holy weekend, through His dying and rising again.

Following Jesus isn’t what the world expects it to be.  It wasn’t then, and from what I can see of this world now, it hasn’t changed much in the two thousand years between us.  We expected power, authority in this world and life, to wield it over others.  We expected to be wealthy, to be healthy, to be fed.  That if we would live in a godly way, doing the right things, saying the right things, that God would bless us with abundance now.  We thought that by following Jesus this earthly life would be glorious.  We were wrong.  And if you find yourselves thinking that way, know that Jesus’ sacrifice covers that sin of yours, just as it did for us.

Jesus called us to live for His kingdom.  He called to give up our hopes and dreams, to give up our pursuits of ourselves and to lay it all down for the good of the Church, for the good of one another.  We were called to lose our lives if we wanted to find life.  We were called to serve if we wanted to be great, to be a slave if we wanted to first in the kingdom.  None of this made sense until we lived it. 

We saw the Church grow over the next few decades.  We saw grown men risk everything to tell people a simple truth.  We saw people give their lives as they tried to save the lives of others by the power of His gospel.  That’s right, the Twelve did receive power in Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost, as God poured His Holy Spirit upon them, and gave them the ability to perform miracles of healing, and to bear witness to the greatest events in the history of creation.  To preach the greatest word ever spoken, that Jesus Christ gave His life to save ours.

Know that He did that for you.  That He suffered and died upon the cross so that you would be set free from the oppressions of sin, death, and the devil.  And that now, since He has risen from the dead, and lives forevermore, that He has called you to live forevermore.  That together you might receive all that He has to offer through His Word, through wine and water.  And you are called, not to live for yourselves, but for one another.  You are called to give of yourselves as a servant, a slave, in His kingdom.  To lay down your lives and to risk everything to share that simple truth of Christ and Him crucified.  And I pray that we may one day see one another, living a glorious life together with our King in His Paradise.