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.

Return from False Witness

Matthew 26:57-68

Lent Midweek 3

March 10, 2021

Focus:  God preserves and restores our reputations through the blood of His Son.

Function:  That the hearers speak well of others and of Christ.

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

Return from False Witness

            Many of you likely remember the events surrounding the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.  Festivities had begun in Atlanta, Georgia, with people from all over the globe coming to see the world’s best athletes compete across twenty-six sports.

            But, on the 18th day, a bomb explosion rattled Centennial Olympic Park, killing 1 person and injuring 111 others.  Before long, the FBI tagged a local security guard, Richard Jewell, as a person of interest in the case.  The media took the story and ran with it, portraying Jewell as a failed law enforcement officer who fantasized of being a savior.  They began saying he planted the bomb so that he could later find it and be celebrated as a hero.

            When everything eventually settled, and the facts came to light, it all turned out to be false witness.  The real bomber was a man named Eric Robert Rudolph, who wasn’t apprehended until 2003, a full seven years later. Rudolph not only confessed to that attack, but also three others within two years’ time.  Richard Jewell, on the other hand, could be described as a hero, for having spotted the backpack, alerted the authorities, and beginning to help clear the area of spectators just minutes before the explosion.  His actions that day saved lives.  And yet, his reputation, his life, was ruined.

            And that was over twenty years ago.  The events of this past year have shown us that it happens all the more quickly now.  With social media combining with the need to be the first to report a story, we now live with a mob mentality that destroys reputations within the day!

            The Eighth Commandment simply states: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” – Exodus 20:16.  Most of us learned in our confirmation classes growing up that this commandment is mostly concerned with gossip, that we give false witness by how we talk about others, especially behind their backs.  But in its original context, the simplest meaning of this command actually has to do with what is said in our public courts of justice.  And that’s what we see happening in the gospel text.

            During our Lenten Midweek series, “Return to the Lord,” Rev. Longman continues to help us focus on the account of Jesus’ Passion, His suffering and death, and how God is calling us through that Passion to repent, to turn away from our sins and to return to Him.  We are seeing this through the various events that led to Christ’s death upon the cross, where He bled and died that we might be saved.  We are looking at the sins committed in those events, and how it highlights our own sinfulness, that we may hear God’s call to return to Him, as a loving Father speaking to His child, inviting us to trust in His love, His care, His provision, and His salvation.

            And while the Gospel reading isn’t literally the darkest moment of Holy Week, which would occur roughly twelve hours later, it is indeed dark, putting the wretched depths of man’s depravity on display for all to see.

            On the night of Maundy Thursday, Jesus celebrated the Passover feast with His disciples.  They ate and drank with new meaning in the Lord’s Supper, and as they wrapped up the meal, they sang a hymn together.  After that they walked out to the Garden of Gethsemane where they had planned to lodge for the night.  But it wasn’t meant to be.  Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, brought a crowd of soldiers, maybe the temple guards, with him to arrest Jesus.  And they led Him out of the Garden, taking Him those two miles back into Jerusalem, to the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest, which we believe was within a quick walk of the temple itself. 

            And Caiaphas was ready.  The scribes and the elders were already present.  In fact, the Jewish ruling council, known as the Sanhedrin, with its seventy members, were already there.  Waiting.  Waiting, as Matthew tells us, “seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put Him to death.”

            Ponder that for a moment.  Ponder the depth of our human frailty and depravity, that God might come to us in the flesh, and we would love our sins so much that we would seek to falsely witness, to make up crimes to accuse God of, that we would not have to obey Him, but could keep on keeping on with our beloved sins.

            Maybe it’s even worse, but none of the false charges stuck.  “But they found none, though many false witnesses came forward.”  These men knew that whatever they decided would have to pass muster with the Jewish crowds the next day.  Their accusations must at least sound plausible if they were going to get away with this. 

            It was then that Caiaphas noticed something odd.  The Accused sat there silently.  As the high priest, together with Sanhedrin, they were used to hearing charges.  And every time, whether the charges were real or fake, the accused defended themselves.  It’s just what we do, right?  If someone accuses us of wrongdoing, and we are guilty, we make up excuses.  And if someone accuses us falsely, we rush to defend ourselves.  But not this One.  Not Jesus.  He just sat there.  It gives us a glimpse, that even in this darkness, the chaos of this overnight sham trial, God was still in control.  Jesus was in control.  Nothing was going to happen that Jesus hadn’t predetermined before any of those men or any of their ancestors had even drawn their first breath.

            These men were guilty of breaking the Eighth Commandment.  They were guilty of bearing false witness.  They were even guilty of wanting to kill this Man even though they now existed under Roman law and had no authority to do so.  And that guilt would carry forward as they would bear false witness before Pilate.

            Now maybe we start to feel good about ourselves here.  Most of us have never been dragged into court.  We’ve never even had the chance to give our testimony in the court of law, let alone to bear false witness.  But as Christ elaborates on the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount, so does Martin Luther in his Large Catechism:

It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors.  Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us.  Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others (LC I, 264).

            We may not have bore false testimony in official courts of the land, but we have borne false testimony in the courts of public opinion.  Every “did you hear?”  Every “you’re not going to believe this.”  Every rumor, every innuendo, every wagging of this tongue to speak half-truths or outright lies about our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Every word of slander, backbiting, and backstabbing.  All too often, we delight in these things.  Rather than bear our complaint directly to our neighbor, confronting them that we might be reconciled, we go to their friends, their family, their coworkers, teachers, and bosses, and we tear them down, destroying their reputation.

            Again, Luther said it this way:

No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe.  No one shall say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false, unless it is done with proper authority or for that person’s improvement (LC I, 285).

            We don’t go to our neighbor one-on-one, talking with them in a spirit of love and concern.  No, rather we have all broken this commandment.  You have broken this commandment.  And we are all deserving of the punishment of death for that sin.  Each of us has, each of us is.

            And so we are invited to hear God’s call.  To hear Him invite us to return to Him.  To see Him lay out a different path before our feet and our wagging tongues.  God calls us to repent, to return from our false witness to the better path that He has laid out for us.  God Himself watches over us, protecting our reputations through the words of the faithful within His Church as they build one another up.

            God invites us to be a part of that good work.  I myself am a wretched sinner.  And yet, many of you have encouraged me.  Many of you have thanked me for my part in our community.  Many of you have spoken well of me to others in your families, or among your friends.  I don’t deserve any of that.  I know my sin.  And I know I deserve nothing good.

            But this is Christ for us!  Christ sat there in the midst of that crowd of wagging tongues, of false witnesses, and He bore it all that day in Jerusalem for each of us.  He bore their lies and their hatred that we would be reconciled to God, restored to our Father.  That He would win forgiveness for our sins.  He bore false witness to forgive our false witness!

            And in light of this great gift, of Christ’s love for us, Christ’s endurance for us, He encourages us to speak the best about others, to protect their reputations, and to always put the best construction on everything.

            One picture of this in the New Testament is from Ephesians 5, where as a husband, I learn that I am to speak of my bride as Christ speaks of His bride, the Church.  I am to present her as “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”  Not only is there no room for false testimony, but as I speak of my wife to all of you, the Church, there’s no room for negative words at all.  She is perfect, because Christ the Lord has spoken that truth into reality.  Imagine, all men doing this!  Imagine, not only men, but all Christians doing this for one another, as Christ’s Bride, the Church, that if there is any such blame, that we would handle it in private, being reconciled to one another, and always speaking well of one another.  Using our tongues to build up, rather than to destroy.

            And we can take it another step further.  We don’t have time for false witnessing, because we’ve been called to be witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead.  We see this in the second reading from Acts, as Paul recalls his own conversion to the faith.  He went from bearing false testimony about Christ and His Bride, the Church, to Ananias telling him to “be a witness for Him to everyone of what you have seen and heard.  And now why do you wait?”  In my podcasting notes this week, I stumbled across similarly bold words in Acts 5:42 spoken of the apostles: “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”  So return to the Lord from your false witness.  Know that your sins are forgiven, and that He has given you new words to speak, words that build up, words that even give life in Christ.

Jesus is the Temple

John 2:13-22

Third Sunday in Lent

March 7, 2021

Focus:  God forgives our sins in His Temple (Jesus).

Function:  That the hearers trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

Structure:  .

Jesus is the Temple

            You couldn’t miss it.  Any guest to the city of Jerusalem knew what the focal point was.  You could see it from anywhere in the city: King Herod’s temple.  It was elevated up on the temple mount.  It was about 500 cubits by 500 cubits, or a square measuring about two and a half football fields.

            As you entered through the gates, climbing those stairs, you’d emerge into the courtyard of the Gentiles.  And if the outside had been impressive, just a large stone structure, the inside was overwhelming.  Lifting your head above the crowds for just a moment, you would see the temple itself with the more privileged courtyards for the women, then the Israelites, and lastly the priests.  Within there, the altar for offerings, and the Holy Place itself.

            But bringing your eyes back down to ground level, this was a busy and bustling marketplace.  People were all around you, moving in every which way, having conversations of all sorts.  The sounds and the smells of animals filled the air.  They were plentiful like you’d just walked into the county fair.

            This was Jewish life.  The temple was at the center of it, because the temple was God’s house in the midst of His people.  And the Old Testament set up a full system of sacrifices that had to be made.  There were the regular ones that were done by the priests simply because they were God’s people.  These happened every day, with an additional one every week, and another every month.  Whenever the holy days, holidays, rolled around, there were more offerings to be made.  The priest also had the special offerings on behalf of the sins of the whole congregation, highlighted by the Day of Atonement once a year. 

And then for the regular people, there were several voluntary offerings that you could make in hopes of receiving the Lord’s favor: burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings.  Then there were also mandatory sin and guilt offerings required whenever the people or the whole congregation sinned.

That’s a lot of animals.  And they all have to come from somewhere.  If you lived nearby, it was easy enough to offer up your own just by bringing them.  But if you had to travel any number of miles to get there, bringing along a sheep just wasn’t all that feasible.  So instead, you brought your coin. 

But, most likely, you didn’t have the right kind of coin.  It was the Roman Empire, so in everyday life, only Roman currency mattered.  But God’s temple was holy, and the temple didn’t accept Roman currency branded by the images of their false gods called caesars.  So you’d find yourself at a booth with the money-changers who would take your Roman coins and exchange them for Jewish shekels, imageless coins.  You could then take those coins and do business in the market, buying whatever animals that you needed for an offering.

All of that was true at least until Jesus showed up.  One day, He walked into the Temple, saw the same picture we just did, and got angry.  He took some rope and made it into a whip and then just started cracking it everywhere.  He drove all the animals, and pretty much everything for that matter, out of the temple courtyard altogether.  He flipped over the tables where the money-changers would sit.  And He took their money and poured it out onto the ground.

Without a doubt, this was a great disruption of Jewish life.  And in John’s account, the Jewish people challenged Jesus about it, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”  That would be understandable.  Up until that moment, everything was business as usual.  Why did Jesus get so upset?  And who gave Him the authority to shut down the temple business during their most busy time of the year?

The basic answer of the text is the idea of holiness.  There was nothing holy about this crowded chaos inside of God’s house.  It was a marketplace, plain and simple.  People were going about doing worldly things in a place that was meant for a different purpose.

And so Jesus responds to them in a way that confused them, which was pretty typical.  But in fairness, we only know what He meant because the sacred Scriptures tell us.  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Obviously, the Jews thought He was talking about the building they were in, a building that had taken 46 years to date to build, and it wasn’t even fully finished yet.

But thanks to John’s commentary, we know that Jesus was referring to His own body.  When He invited them to destroy the Temple, He was inviting them to destroy Him.  And before too long, they would.  They would arrest Him and hand Him over to the Roman officials.  And at their order, a soldier would even take some rope and fashion another whip out of it, which would crack across Jesus’ flesh time and time again, causing great pain and agony.  And after such torture, they crucified Him, they killed Him.

And when Jesus said He would raise the temple again in three days, He was talking about His own body.  That on the third day after His death, His body and soul would be restored, rising from the dead, breaking forth from the tomb, to declare to the entirety of creation that He alone is King.

But since you already have the temple picture in your mind today, I want to dig a little deeper into this with you.  The purpose of the temple is to be the location of God in the midst of His people, where they would gather for worship and where He had promised to speak His Word to them.

Let’s look at both of those purposes, starting with worship.  In a word study of the Bible, the word “worship” appears 188 times.  And apart from a few outliers, the intent of worship is always the same: it’s focused on the forgiveness of sins. 

In the old covenant with God, that forgiveness was achieved through the sacrificial system.  All those offerings I mentioned earlier, and especially the sin and guilt offerings, actually were good for the forgiveness of sins.  And so the worship of God’s people in the old covenant was an active thing.  You brought your sacrifice to God.  You brought the work of your hands, the best of your flock, and gave it up to be slaughtered.

But remember, the shift of the text is that Jesus is the temple.  So don’t miss out on the grand imagery of Jesus driving all the animals out of the temple.  For once He has laid down His body for us, there’s no more need for animal sacrifices.  Ever again.  They’re done.  And so to have an empty temple with just Jesus standing there is actually a profound image of what was about to become: Christ is the only sacrifice for our sins!  And by His death He took all of them upon Himself.  Yours, mine, and everybody’s.

And that shift continues, with the New Testament continuing to point to worship as being about the forgiveness of sins, which we now have in Christ’s work, not our own.  That’s again the reminder of why in our church architecture the cross hangs above the altar.  The new covenant in Christ’s blood is far greater than the blood of animals from the old covenant. 

And the second purpose of the Temple, is that it would be the place of promise, where God has said that He will speak His Word to you.  In the Tabernacle, and in the earlier days of the temple, that’s what happened.  God would speak from there, from His throne, the ark, to His people the words He wanted them to hear.

And now, in Jesus Christ, in His body as the temple, God spoke again to His people the words that He wanted them to hear.  Every word that flowed from the lips of Jesus Christ was the Word of God promised to them long ago: as Jesus called them to repent, or as He shared with them the good news of His death and resurrection, of forgiveness and life found in Him.

As we think about these purposes, it’s hard not to think of the church we’ve been blessed with.  Today you have a place of promise!  You have a place where you can gather for worship, that is to receive the forgiveness that Christ has already won for you on His cross just beyond that temple mount.  Both through the Absolution and the Lord’s Supper, that forgiveness is made yours! 

You have a place where you know that you can gather to hear God’s Word spoken to you.  Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel.  Every week.  And pastors who proclaim that very Word to you, helping you to better understand and cherish it.  We give the Lord thanks for His holy house here at St. Matthew, for giving us a place of promise, where we know that we can receive His forgiveness and hear His good news!  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

Return to Prayer

Romans 8:22-28

Lenten Midweek 1

February 24, 2021

Focus:  God calls us to pray and provides us with the means to do so, even fulfilling what we ourselves fail to do.

Function:  That the hearers be encouraged to be intentional and frequent in prayer.

Structure:  Rev. Eric Longman’s “Return to the Lord” Lenten series from CPH.

Return to Prayer

            How many of you are comfortable with your prayer life?  How many of you would say that you pray everyday?  Or that you spend enough time in prayer with God?  Even those simple questions evoke the Law within some of us, crushing us.  For some, we know we don’t spend enough time in prayer.  But if you were answering “yes” to those questions, let me challenge you to hear this word from the Lord from 1 Thessalonians 5:17 – “pray without ceasing.”  Now, let’s try those questions again.  How many of you are comfortable with your prayer life?  How many of you would say that you spend enough time in prayer with God?

            In our Lenten series, Rev. Eric Longman is giving us the opportunity for this reflection.  As the Lord has first invited us to pray, so Rev. Longman is inviting us today to “Return to Prayer.”  As he structured our service, he gave us three Scripture readings to consider, each of which have something to teach us about our life of prayer.  So let’s spend a little time learning from each of our texts.

            We didn’t include the Old Testament reading from Genesis 32, but it’s a text you’re probably familiar with.  As Jacob, Esau’s twin, is fearfully getting ready to meet his brother for the first time in years, the first time since he swindled him out of his birthright and snatched away his sacred blessing, he sends his family across the Jabbok River to camp for the night.  But he remains.  And in that state of alone-ness, he wrestles with God.  All night long.  Now, I rough house with my kids sometimes, and while that’s not as intense as a legit wrestling match, I’m tired after a few minutes.  But Jacob fought for hours and he didn’t give up.  Even at the end, when daylight has appeared, Jacob declares “I will not let You go unless You bless me.”

            Now, we know it’s God because Jacob tells us so, in God’s Word.  He names that place Peniel, “face of God,” for the specific reason that he got to see God face-to-face and he lived.  Many commentators will even go as far as to suggest that Jacob wrestled with Jesus, with the pre-incarnate Christ, the Son of God.

            What can we learn about prayer from a text like this?  Perseverance for one, like Jesus’ Parable of the Persistent Widow.  She keeps pestering the judge until he has enough of it and finally gives her her request.  So Jesus teaches us to be persistent in our prayer to God, who isn’t some aloof judge, but our loving Father.  If a judge who couldn’t care less gives the persistent woman what she needs, how much more will the Father who loves and cares for us give to us what we need?  And so as Jacob wrestled with God all through the night, we are led to know that we can wrestle with God in prayer all the time.

            But that wrestling goes both ways.  In fact, God’s wrestling with us is probably the bigger thing we can learn here.  As we’ll talk about in just a bit with the Epistle text, we don’t how to pray or what to pray.  And yet God hears us.  And He helps us.  Through prayer God actually works on us, shapes us, crafts us into His children, His disciples, His slaves.

            For through our trials and temptations God builds us up.  Just as He built up and blessed His servant Jacob.  We ask God for the things we think we need.  We struggle and fight as God doesn’t answer our prayers the way that we wanted Him to.  We groan aloud under the strains and the stresses of this life.  We long for God to just be clear with us.  To just tell us what He wants from us.  But in all of this, God shapes us.  Through this prayer, through this wrestling, God is forming us, making us to be more and more in the image of His beloved Son, Jesus.

            It’s in these moments that God takes our perspectives, our worldviews, our perceptions, and reorients them.  He takes us from being selfish, and He turns us outward, to be selfless.  He takes our constant state of anxiety and worriedness, and He teaches us to see that there are others in our lives who are in need, overcoming our worries by teaching us to serve those around us.  We think we’re the primary actor in our prayers.  But we’re not.  God is, as He rescues us even from ourselves.

            I’d guess most of us present here never received prayer training.  No one sat down with you to teach you how to be a prayer warrior.  No one sat with you for hours in prayer together.  We get uncomfortable if the prayers of the church last for anything more than a couple of minutes, or if the silent confession of sins lasts for more than a moment.  We’re not ready for that battle!  And for as poor of job as we do getting ourselves to even the point of praying, we really aren’t all that sure how to pray. 

            We struggle with it.  What do I say?  Does it have to be fancy or formal?  What if my words aren’t good enough?  Will God still hear my prayer?  That’s where our epistle text comes in.  For here we learn that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

            Those words are a great comfort!  What do I pray?  What happens if I just can’t think of anything?  God steps in.  Paul uses that language of intercession.  The Spirit intercedes for us.  Picture it this way: you’re there in class and your teacher calls on you with a question.  And you have no idea.  You don’t the answer.  You probably weren’t even paying attention to the question.  And then your friend steps in to help, raising their hand, giving the answer, and taking the heat off of you.  Or maybe it was your boss and a coworker.  Really, any public speaking example could probably be used.  Or the parent asking the child “who did it?”  Or if we’re standing before the judge, at a loss for words.  We know what it means to be speechless.  And as we stand before the Lord, that’s exactly how we find ourselves.  Feeling the pressure.  Feeling the heat.  Not knowing at all what to say.  And in steps the Spirit!  And He intercedes for us, He speaks to God the Father on our behalf.

            Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ through the ages felt they weren’t good enough to speak to God directly in prayer.  And so they’d pray to a saint, hoping the saint could relay the message clearly to God Himself.  While that’s really bad theology, the picture is still helpful.  We don’t know how to pray to God.  But He does.  And so He takes our imperfect words.  He takes our grumbling, grunting, and groaning, and He translates it into perfect speech.  The Spirit who knows you because He lives in you, communicates to God all that you are and all that you need.

            Your prayers do not have to be perfect.  I’ll confess to you that I’ve been tempted for many years to stand up in worship for the prayers of the church and pray like this: “Dear Jesus, thank you, for everything. Amen.”  Your prayers don’t have to be lofty or lengthy to be heard.  You are a dear child asking their loving Father.

In part, that’s why Jesus gave us as His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, to teach us how to pray.  When we pray it together soon tonight, listen to the words.  Look at the form.  See the petitions that you’re actually asking.  We call upon the Lord as our Father, who loves us.  We speak of His promises, of His actions, and ask that He would include us in it all.  We ask for our needs.  We ask for forgiveness of our sins, and for His help in forgiving others.  We seek His protection against temptation and against the devil.  And we praise Him for all His goodness and might.

Speaking of Jesus, this brings us to our gospel text.  Jesus gave the disciples such a small task.  “Sit here.”  Stay awake; keep watch.  Just sit here.  That’s actually not a bad posture of prayer.  Our culture teaches us that silence is uncomfortable.  But God’s Word doesn’t.  In fact, it’s probably a good thing.  Just like a husband can’t actually listen to his wife and get to know her better if he’s too busy talking himself or thinking about how to fix what troubles her, so we can’t hear the Lord if we’re too busy trying to craft whatever we’ll say next.  Just sit here.  Be still.  Be silent.  And know that the Lord knows you.  And know that the Lord fights for you.  That’s the beautiful message Moses gives to the terrified Israelites as Pharaoh pinned them against the Red Sea: “Yahweh will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” – Exodus 14:14.

But we learn more of this from Jesus’ prayer in the text.  As He prays, He lays down, face to the ground.  We’ve lost this posture as the Church.  Priests in worship used to do this.  I don’t know, maybe they still do in other churches.  We can’t even be bothered to kneel in prayer anymore.  Maybe that says something about our pride, I’m not sure.  But Jesus’ prayer teaches us that when we pray, we’re to be completely humble.  It’s the posture of a servant before a king.  Jesus shows His humility, His obedience to His King, to His Father, as He lays Himself face down on the earth. 

And He teaches us the same thing in His words.  Jesus, the God Man, knows what must take place over the next 24 hours.  He knows of the betrayal of Judas.  The trials before the Jewish court, Herod, and Pilate.  He knows about shame of mockery, the taste of another’s spit, the bruises from fists, the gashes from thorns, the wounds from lashes, and the holes from nails and a spear.  He knows that those who are crucified die slowly from the crushing weight of their own flesh upon their lungs.  And so He prays from that position of complete humility asking His Father to spare Him suffering if at all possible.  But He then says the words that can and must shape our prayers, also, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”  Jesus sought to save you, to save us.  And He prayed to His Father that very night, that His will would be conformed to His Father’s and for the Father’s will to be done.  Just like He taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer.

Our prayer life shows our faith.  Plain and simple.  We are called to trust in the Lord above all things and for all things.  We are called not to fear, not to worry, not to be anxious.  We are called to give ourselves to Him completely and to hear His Word always.  And we fail.  Again and again, we fail.  But what we couldn’t do, Jesus has done for us.  Where we failed, He was perfect.

“God commands you to pray, but He doesn’t leave you alone with it.  The command simply brings you to the foot of the cross, where you can look up and see the Gospel reality that covers your shortcomings.  Know that your prayers are a means by which God is forming and molding you, and that He will intercede where you fall short.  When God calls you to pray, He provides the means to do so, and He even fulfills what you are unable to do.” – Rev. Longman

May these teachings of God’s holy Word lead you to “Return to Prayer.”  Encouraged and emboldened by persistent wrestling.  Comforted that the Spirit can interpret even our groans and add to them all that we need.  And humbled by the humility of our Savior, who so willingly obeyed His Father’s will, that we might be saved.

Do Not be Deceived

James 1:12-18

First Sunday in Lent

February 21, 2021

Focus:  God brings forth life.

Function:  That the hearers are not deceived.

Structure:  Sermon outline from Rev. William Carr (Concordia Seminary professor).

Do Not be Deceived

            Today’s theme throughout our Scripture readings is unmistakable.  Testing.  Trial.  Temptation.  Over the last two months, we’ve read bits and pieces of the gospel account from Mark 1 already.  The only recently-new verses today are the two in the middle, dealing with the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness.  Matthew and Luke record that, too, but noticeably, in their longer tellings, Satan leaves.  We don’t see that in Mark’s account.  Because he leaves that open, we’re invited to read that the entire earthly ministry of Jesus is one filled with trials and temptation.  And as Jesus would say, “a disciple (pause to gesture towards the gathered Church)is not above his Teacher.”

            We’ve faced some trials lately, haven’t we?  How many of you are tired?  Warn out?  Burned out?  We have tumbled into a pandemic together.  I can’t say we’re out of it yet, as there’s no sure end in sight.  How many of you are tired of wearing a mask?  How many of you are stir crazy and sick of seeing the walls of your own home?  And if the pandemic wasn’t enough, it had to happen during an election year!  How many of you are burned out from listening to the seemingly never-ending political posturings of this land?

            Add to that an uncertain economic environment, where we can’t be sure if businesses will be open or not, stocked or not, if the power will stay on, or if our jobs will remain ours.  And then there’s the explosion of racial tensions.  An explosion of rioting.  An explosion of violence in so many different forms.  We’ve faced any number of trials over this last year.  Some we’ve endured well.  Others caused us to turn against each other and eat our own.

            And all those things are worldly trials, which still rage onward and will until Christ returns.  But we’ve begun to face a very different kind of trial, a trial more in tune to what the Scriptures actually warn us about.  I’ve invited you to take a look behind the curtain before.  Go online, dig around, read a few comment sections.  See what people think about you for believing in Jesus.  Listen to the foaming hatred they spout.  Witness the cries they make even for violence.  I’ve read enough.

Ten years ago, you had to go online for that.  Within the last five, we’re starting to see it in public and in the news.  We’re bigots.  Hateful, misogynists, a group whose beliefs pose a danger and threat to a peaceful and unified world.  The buzzword word in recent years has been “tolerance.”  But it’s a one-way street.  If the culture can label you anything negative, and they have, they don’t have to tolerate you.  Here’s the phrase: “it’s not intolerance to hate the intolerant.”  Restated: because you believe in God’s Word, which has things to say about man and woman, marriage, life, conception, and a whole bunch of other things, you are a hateful evil.  Once that rhetoric becomes normal, it’s a very small step to thinking it’s okay to purge said evil.

That’s the way of the world, the world that stands opposed to Christ and all that He holds dear.  Our brothers and sisters in persecuted lands know these trials.  They’ve lived them.  They’ve endured them for centuries.  And they’re praying for you.  As we ought to pray for them.

In his letter, James assumes you’ll endure.  He assumes you’ll pass the test and receive the crown of life everlasting.  He assumes that you’ll be the firstfruit of creation, in other words, that you’ll faithfully share the gospel that there may be other fruit yet to come.

But the trouble is: we’re not so sure.  And if we’re honest, we’ve been carrying these doubts around since long before 2020 came.  I asked a group of church members recently how many of them are excited to tell others about Jesus.  Care to guess how many of them were?  Pause.  Zero.  How about you?  Pause.  Why?  How could we have such wonderful good news to share, and not want to share it? 

A brother pastor I once served with set up an illustration: he went to his local Dairy Queen and made a pretty sizable pre-paid gift card and let them keep it on the register.  He told his congregation that dessert was on him.  And when they were there, they could let other people know, and he’d pay for theirs, too.  I have no idea how much money that children’s message illustration cost him.  But a bit of free ice cream had people excited.  How much better are the gifts Christ offers?

But therein lies the difference for our unexcited group.  If they told others about free ice cream, that would be one thing.  But when they tell them about Jesus, the response is often anger or disgust.  The American Church, with all its prominence in this land, has been ashamed of the gospel my entire life, and I’m a part of that.  We don’t tell others because we don’t want to endure trials.

Verse sixteen is the swing verse in this text.  “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.”  That’s the only thing James actually gives us to do in this text.  Don’t be deceived!  All this evil, all these trials, all this difficulty is not God tempting us.  It starts here (pointing to self).  Temptation comes from here.

Everything else in this text is simply the way things are.  James recounts the bad ways of a fallen world.  And he contrasts that with the good ways of the God who makes us new.  Consider the contrast of verses 14 and 15 against 18:

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

18 Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.

What does our will do?  Our will, our desires are evil.  Our hearts are filled with it, from anger to lust, from revenge to greed.  Fear of just about everything.  The trials that you and I face each day start here (pointing to self again).  And that desire tempts us.  And the temptation turns into sin.  And sin turns into death.  And that’s happened to every man who has stepped foot on this rock save One.

But God’s will!  It’s by His will, His wanting that you’re even alive.  He wanted to make us.  Our want brought sin, but His want brought life.  And so you have!  He has brought you forth, not just as a creation, a creature, but more than that, as a child.  For James says that “He brought us forth by the Word of truth.”  Jesus.  By Jesus, God has not only created you, but He is reforming that darkened, bleeding heart. 

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from Thy presence,
    and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation,
    and uphold me with Thy free spirit. (Psalm 51:10-12)  Amen.

You know that tune, those words.  That’s His Word, straight out of the psalms.  Every good gift is from Him.  He gives life.  He sustains life.  He conquers sin, death, and the devil for you by the blood of His own Son.  He has taken your sins away.  He has taken your shame away.  He strengthens you.  He feeds you.  He cares for you.  He makes your heart clean!  While we pray that these worldly trials would end before Christ returns, if they do, it would be His gift.  Should this pandemic go away, it will be by His hand.  Should the explosion of violence end, it will be His cease fire.  Should politicians ever get along, it would be His miracle in contrast to the Tower of Babel.

And so we lean into Him.  More than that, we entrust ourselves to Him entirely.  James begins the letter by writing: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”  I don’t know what you’ll have to endure in 2021.  But I pray that the trials you’ve endured in 2020 have been God’s way of strengthening you.  If you come out of these worldly troubles with patience, hope, and the ability to lose things in this life without throwing a fit, He may just have prepared you to endure trials for His name in years to come. 

We endure the temptations, tests, and trials in this world, whether we face them because we are Christians, or because are sinners.  And while those are different trials, in either we can share the hope that we have in Christ.  Why don’t you give up?  Why don’t you quit?  Why won’t you abandon your faith?  Just recant!  I can’t.  I know what is to come, and it far outshines any danger or loss in this world.  As Christians, we endure, we resist, with patience, contentment, and even joy.  Because we know that Paradise awaits us.  Christ is for us.

James’ assumption is true.  He knows his hearers will endure, because He knows that it’s God who strengthens them to do just that.  And so he also wrote: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls,” (v. 21).  God has put His Word inside of you.  His hope, His gospel.  He has placed His very self in you.  And He is faithful, He can endure all things, and by His death on the cross, He has already shown you that He is strong enough.

God, Don’t You Care?

Isaiah 40:21-31

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 7, 2021

Focus:  God renews our strength.

Function:  That the hearers trust in the Lord through every doubt.

Structure:  Walking through the text.

God, Don’t You Care?

            “My way is hidden from Yahweh, and my right is disregarded by my God.”  Why did you bring us out of Egypt just to die at Pharaoh’s hand anyway?  We’ve got nowhere to go; we’re trapped!  God, don’t you care?  We’re starving!  At least back in Egypt we had meat to eat!  God, don’t you care?  We’re dying of thirst here!  Moses, did you bring us out into this desert just to kill us off?  God, don’t you care?  Day after day, month after month, all we have to eat is this manna.  We’re sick of it!  God, don’t you care?  We can’t go into that land, the people there are bigger than us, stronger than us.  Surely they’ll kill us!  God, don’t you care?  We’ve been wandering this wilderness for nearly 40 years.  What’s the point?  God, don’t you care?

            Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

That’s how the nation of Israel got it’s start.  Constant grumbling against God.  At best, it was complaining, but at its worst, it was an outright rejection of God.  As I was doing the podcast Bible study on Numbers this week, you actually see Israel get so fed up with everything that they reject God and His servant Moses, deciding to choose a new leader who will lead them back to Egypt.

            And when Moses and Aaron, Joshua and Caleb, stand up against the congregation, telling them not to fear, but to trust in Yahweh, Israel responds by picking up stones to kill the four faithful men among them.  That’s the dangerous extreme to which doubt can lead a sinner.

            Seven-hundred years later, not much had changed.  Israel may have a home, but they still doubt.  They have been unfaithful to God for generations and they now dread the might of the enemy nations all around them.  They fear that they are losing their homes, their livelihoods, and their country.  And so they doubt.  They blame Yahweh.  If He were really such a great God, if He were really so all-knowing, none of this would be happening to us.  He’d help us; He’d save us!  God, don’t you care?

            And as history progresses, it doesn’t change.  When we come to the disciples of Jesus, sons of that same nation of Israel, we see the same behaviors and attitude.  As the twelve of them are gathered together with Jesus on a boat, a storm comes up against them.  And despite their experience on this sea, they’re overwhelmed.  After their own efforts to save themselves, they realize they’ve failed.  They’re about to lose the boat and be drowned with it.  And so they call out to Jesus, who somehow managed to sleep His way through all of this chaos, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” – Mark 4:38.

            And as history progresses again, it still doesn’t change.  As we come to our present day, it’s still the same thing.  When things aren’t going just the way we think they should, doubt attacks faith.  We blame God for whatever is happening to us.  We hit hard times financially, whether it’s the loss of a job, or the crushing weight of debt upon our shoulders.  We’re stricken with a health crisis, and we can’t understand why the diagnosis would happen to someone faithful like me, or to someone so young with so much life left to live.  We are confronted by that moment of death in our family, and in our grief we blame God like Martha did, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” – John 11:21.  And despite being the wealthiest nation and people in the world, we’re also ranked top-3 in depression and loneliness whether you calculate simply by the sheer number of afflicted people or by the percentage of the population.  And in any and all of these dark times, we find ourselves asking the same question, “God, do you care?”

            I’m here to tell you that the answer to that question is “Yes!”  God does care.  And He is here.  If you’re in the midst of any of those things, or any other situation where sin is throwing you into doubt and despair, which is all of us, this text from Isaiah is for you, just as it was for the people of Israel.

            The chapter began:

40:1 Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

            That last line is gospel, by the way, but we’ll come back to that.  For in our reading today, God is making a very profound point that we must hear and understand.  He is infinite.  He is all-powerful.  There’s nothing He doesn’t see.  There’s nothing He can’t do.  Look at the text.  Hear His response to you.  “Do you not know?  Do you not hear?” 

            I grew up in St. Louis as a child.  And one of popular attractions there is the Arch.  You cram into a tiny elevator and are lifted 630 feet up into the air, where you get walk through that top keystone.  And both sides are lined with windows so that you can look out and see for miles.  But when you look down, you see people.  And from that viewpoint, they’re so tiny.  They look like little ants crawling around the Arch grounds.  That’s the picture God gives to us in verse 22.  From His perspective, from His viewpoint, we are small.   This earth is small.  Our seemingly earth-shattering and doubt-inducing problems aren’t too big for Him.  That’s not to say they’re not still problems for us, but just inviting us to see things from a bigger picture, to look beyond ourselves and beyond our present moment.

            Those princes and presidents that we fear? They’re here today, gone tomorrow.  Again, from the perspective of eternity, their rule lasts for but a moment, just a short and fleeting breath and then they’re gone, blown away by the wind like the autumn leaves from your trees.  None of them come remotely close to God’s power.

            And then the Creator invites you to look up.  “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these?”  Tonight, before the sky is clouded by fireworks, look up in the night sky.  Count the stars if you can.  And know that there are many more than that.  Can you, with all your ingenuity or with all your sin, reach those stars?  Can you care for them?  Can you destroy them?  God made them, named them, and He still cares for them.  As the preacher of the book of Hebrews began that sermon, he was Holy Spirit-inspired to say that Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of His power.” – Hebrews 1:3

            God is everlasting.  He never wearies, He never tires.  He created for six days, and then took one day off to set an example for us.  But on day eight, He went back to His good work of creating, caring, and providing, and He’s been doing it ever since.

            His understanding is unsearchable.  We can’t comprehend why God does the things that He does.  We don’t know why He chooses to allow the things He allows.  I don’t why He created the devil, why He allowed Adam and Eve to reach out their hand to touch that forbidden tree, or why He even put it there.  I don’t why my sin persists.  I don’t know why when I confess it, when I lay it before the cross, that almost as soon as I’ve put it down, it’s tempting me again, consuming my flesh and my soul.  I don’t know why God allows your family to suffer today as you are, while that family over there He allows to suffer in an entirely different way. I don’t why some and not others. 

            But I do know that He cares.  For something as little as a grasshopper like me, His care is infinite.  His love for you is infinite.  And that’s what we had appearing in the beginning of the chapter, in those opening words of comfort from our Lord.  That God’s people “received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” is gospel.  I know it doesn’t read that way, but it’s another way of saying exactly what God said in the words immediately before it: “her iniquity is pardoned.”  And the words just after it are the prophecy of John the Baptist who would prepare the world to see her Savior.

            Reflect on your sins.  The ones from the past that still haunt you.  The guilt you still feel.  The ones that you brought with you this morning to confess before Christ our Lord.  The ones that you’ve committed since then, to wherever your mind has been wandering in these last ten minutes.  Round ‘em up, count ‘em up.  Weigh them if you can.  For all of those sins, you’ve received double.  Not double punishment; double pardon.  Christ’s forgiveness is greater than your sins. 

            In that, we see the love of God.  Imagine looking at the ant on the ground, or the spider, and thinking to yourself, “I sure love that little creature.  I know it doesn’t deserve a home, but it can live here with me.  I know that if it had its way, it would bite me, hurt me.  But I love it anyway, so much so that I’ll give it everything I own.  Even my own life.”  Yeah, that sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

            And yet, o grasshoppers, that absurdity is the love of God for us.  At the root of Israel’s doubts, of the disciples’ doubts, of our own doubts, we ask the question, “Does God really care?”  He does care.  He does love you.  And He loves you with such an intensity, with such a profound depth, that He gave you everything He had.  He shows His love for you by laying down His life for you.  He died for you. 

            Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of the entire world.  Jesus died on the cross to forgive us even of our doubts, of our fits of anger and blaming Him and thinking He doesn’t care.  He died for us, as little as we are, as insignificant in the big picture of creation history that we are.  He died for us! Pause

And He rose for you.  We don’t deserve life.  But we have it, as a gift.  We don’t deserve forgiveness, but we have it, as a gift.  We don’t deserve to get to live forever in the home that He is preparing for us, but we have it, as a gift.

Now I don’t want you to misunderstand the promise at the end of the text.  Your renewed strength, your flying like an eagle, running without growing tired, and walking without fainting, probably isn’t what you first think it is.  The surface reading of the text might suggest that in moment of your conversion to Christianity, you can now run a marathon and not even be tired at the end.  That’s not what God is promising you.

He is promising you a different kind of endurance.  How does the child get through that moment of fear of the monster under their bed?  How does the child get through the peels of thunder that rattle the windows?  They cling to Mom and Dad, they trust in someone they believe is bigger than their fear and their doubt.  How do you and I get through all the difficult moments that we face in this life, whether we deserved them by our actions, or if they’re simply happening to us for reasons we can’t begin to understand?  We cling to the One who created us, to the One who died for us, to the One who rose for us, to the one who is infinite and thus bigger than all our fears and doubts.

For at the end of our doubts, lies the enemy of death.  If it’s financial woe, starvation leads to death.  Homelessness leads to death.  Terrible medical crises are concerning because they might lead to death.  And the true fear of loneliness, depression, and despair is that feeling that no cares, and no one will notice as we die alone.

We endure these things, we endure all things in this life, by clinging to our Father and to His promises.  For even if why die, we live.