Whatever Causes You to Sin, Cut It Off

Mark 9:38-50

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 26, 2021

Focus:  God gives us a great reward.

Function:  That the hearers salt the earth (fight against corruption while preserving the reign of God).

Structure:  .

Whatever Causes You to Sin, Cut It Off

            Just a couple of weeks ago, we were looking together at some of the difficult words that Jesus spoke in Mark’s gospel.  And today, we’re presented with more.  My time in the Office of Holy Ministry hasn’t been all that long, but already, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about what Jesus said in our text for today: “did He mean it?  Should we really cut off our hand and pluck out our eyes?”

            And I don’t like the usual answer.  The normal response to reading about cutting off your feet here is that Jesus is just trying to show you how bad sin is.  But I think that weakens Jesus’ argument.  If He wanted to show you just how bad sin is, all He’d have to do is tell you that your sins have damned you.  Even just one of them.  You’re dead.  Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden some six thousand years ago.  Or, for us today, He could simply point us to the nearest crucifix, as a reminder of just how horrific our sin truly is, that we killed God with it.

            If you want to get the full picture of what Jesus is saying here in Mark 9, then yes, at least for a moment, we’re invited by Jesus to consider what He’s saying in its literal meaning.  So let’s imagine it together.

            There are many sins that the hand can commit.  One such sin is theft.  When you took your classmate’s pencil from their desk when they weren’t looking, or snagged something from their lunch.  That time you were shopping and “accidentally” slipped something into your pocket.  The punishment for theft in many cultures historically has been to cut off the thief’s hand.  So down you go.  One hand gone.

            Physical violence is another sin we commit with our hands.  How many times as a child did you strike your sibling?  Or hit your parent as they sought to discipline you or even console you?  How many times have you struck an enemy or a close friend?  Each and any of these according to the words of Jesus would qualify as breaking the 5th Commandment.  There goes your other hand.

            Let’s move on to the feet.  One of the blessed gifts that God gives us with our feet is the ability to walk and to go places.  So consider, how many times have your feet taken you places you ought not to have been?  Certainly walking into a pagan temple would be an example, where you would worship an idol.  But what about that time you thought you slipped in and out of the gentlemen’s club unnoticed?  As though God doesn’t see.  What about that time you went to that boy’s house even though you were pretty sure you knew what was going to happen there wouldn’t please God or your parents?  Then there’s those times you’ve wandered into the casino, as though that’s somehow a good use of what God has entrusted to you to put the work of His kingdom.  You know where your feet have gone when they had no business doing so.  And since they were in cahoots together, cut them both off.

            That leaves us with the eyes.  For this example, let’s look no further than last week’s sermon text, from James’s epistle to the churches.  “You desire and do not have, so you murder.  You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”  James gives it two statements.  As does our list of the Ten Commandments, with coveting covering the Ninth and the Tenth.  And yet we do it anyway.  We spy with our little eye something that our heart longs for.  And we want it.  Houses, cars, influence, fancy stuff, food, even basic necessities, whatever it is.  There goes one eye.  Plucked out.

            And then we’re reminded of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, where He teaches us that “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  And yes, we can turn those around.  80% of today’s youth and young adults view pornography monthly.  And yes, you can read porn with your eyes.  There goes the second eye.

            I’m surprised Jesus didn’t add the tongue to the mix, as we lie, and deceive, and gossip, and slander, and poison our relationships in this world.  There goes another.

            If you’re following along at this point, imagine what’s left of you, what do you look like?  We’re just a torso with a head.  And here’s where the picture really pushes us to understand the depth of our sins.  Because lying there, incapable of just about anything, what would we do?  Just as Jesus taught two chapters before, the things that defile the man come from his heart.  From our hearts, from our minds, would still flow thoughts and feelings of hatred for others.  For those who’ve wronged us.  For those who participated in our sins that cost us our limbs.  Even a hatred and despising of God Himself.  We would be so frustrated, so livid with God for our present state.  Rather than blaming ourselves, we’d blame God like Adam did.

            And so your heart, your mind, must be cut off.  And if we do that, we die.  That shows us the purpose of the words of Christ.  Just how deep does your sin run?  Just how desperate should the plight of man in this world be?  One sin would damn us.  And yet, we sin far more often than that each and every day.  Consider, how long would it’ve actually taken for each of us to reach that final spot where we’ve lost each limb?  None of us would’ve escaped childhood.  Would we even last a day?

            And yet, that’s still how we choose to live in this world now.  We’re like that little child who tries to see just how close to the fire they can get before they get burned.  We try to see just how close to the world we can get before we get burned.  And the point of this text is to tell you to stop it.  Because the lake of fire burns forever.  It would be better to enter Paradise lame, crippled, and blind, than to perish forever in Hell.

            And that image brings about another frequently asked question: “does this mean we’ll still have scars in Paradise?  That we can be missing limbs?”  I don’t know the answer to that question, even if my educated guess would be “no.”  I do know that we will be raised from the dead.  I do know that the Lord will put us back together again. I do know that our bodies will be glorified.  I just don’t know what that looks like.  None of us do.

            But there is one glorified Body that we do know.  Allow me to return to one of my opening comments.  Our sins are so horrific that God died for them.  They’re the opposite of harmless.  They aren’t things that should swept under a rug as if they don’t matter. 

            Knowing how bad our sins are, and knowing that the end result would be our everlasting death, God said “no.”  He chose to put an end to our self-destructive ways.  He chose to take your sins and mine and place them on His own dear Son.  Those very same sins that would cost you your hand, your foot, or your eye.  Those very same sins that you often think aren’t really that bad, and perhaps you might even get away with. 

Jesus took all of those sins upon Himself.  And then He was cut off from His own creation.  In place of you.  In place of your limbs.  Jesus was cut off.  As the flogging cut into His flesh.  As the thorns cut into His brow.  As the nails cut through His hands and His feet.  And as the spear cut into His side.  Jesus.  Cut off.  For you.

And after He rose the dead, those scars remained.  In His resurrected and glorified body, the wounds still remain.  As He appears to Thomas eight days after the resurrection, He invites him to take his finger and place it in His hand.  To take his hand and place it in His side.  The cuts that Christ bore for us, He still bears for us.  When the disciples saw their resurrected Lord, they remembered exactly what He has done to save them.  And so it would be of little surprise if Christ our Lord still bears the wounds that cut Him down in the new heaven and the new earth, because those cuts would be a reminder to us of just how great His love is for us, and just what He had to do to rescue all of our members from the pits of Hellfire that we may live and not die.

Believe it or not, the words Jesus uses to wrap up the chapter are even more difficult.  But let me give you a brief description so that you can get the full picture of what Jesus was teaching His disciples that day.

In the Scriptures, in regards to the end of the world and the final judgment, fire actually has two purposes, not one.  There is, of course, the lake of fire and sulphur we’ve discussed already.  But there’s also these words from the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15:

12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

Use those verses to interpret verse 49 in today’s gospel, where Jesus says “For everyone will be salted with fire.”  One of the ancient purposes of salt was to cleanse and preserve.  It could be used to keep something from decaying, from rotting, to fight against corruption.  So both salt and fire bear this quality of cleansing.  That you are salted with fire is to say that the Lord has cleansed you, purified you, as He baptizes His Church with His Spirit and with fire.

Consider the salt in verse 50 then as the Church, all of us.  The Lord has called us to be salt to the earth, that is, He has called you and me into this creation for the purpose of salting our neighbors, battling against sin, death, and the devil.  Seeking to aid our neighbor in the face of temptations.  Sharing with them instead the hope that we have in Christ.  But if we have lost our saltiness, if we are too busy loving the world and its temptations, who then will share Christ with our neighbor?

See how the text flows as a whole unit, almost like a sandwich: on the opening end, the disciples quarrel with an unknown disciple of Jesus who was working diligently to be salt to his neighbor, to cleanse the very evil of demonic possession from him.  Instead, as the middle, Jesus says that any who salt this world, even by simply giving a cup of water to care for His people, are a part of His kingdom.  But all those who seek to harm His people, are enemies that will be destroyed.  And He then warns us that we are at risk of destroying ourselves as He shows us the danger of sin in this world and within us.  For the closing end, He returns to the idea that we are, like that unknown disciple, to care for our neighbors, battling against evil in this world, while having peace among all of those who are in the kingdom. 

The words of Christ call us to be the Church.  To work together for the purposes of His kingdom.  Not to love the world and see how close we can come to being burned, but to salt the earth, to preserve our neighbors from the corruptions of temptations in the flesh.  We’re salt together, allies against all that would destroy what God has made.  So be at peace with one another.

All Things are Possible for One Who Believes

Mark 9:14-29

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 12, 2021

Focus:  God works for the good of the believer.

Function:  That the hearers listen to the voice of Jesus.

Structure:  .

All Things Are Possible for One Who Believes

            Today we come face to face with difficult words from the lips of Jesus: “all things are possible for one who believes.”  Pause

            Now, there are two ways that we hear that phrase.  The first is much like how Christians often hear Philippians 4:13, where Paul wrote “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  In other words, as a Christian, “because God is on my side, I can do anything!”  And there are Christians of all kinds who fall into this trap.  Perhaps some of you even heard it this way.

            What makes it so dangerous?  Well, two things really.  First, it opens up the door to all sorts of foolishness.  I can stand here and flap my arms all I want, but I won’t achieve lift off.  If I embarrass myself, I can close my eyes and hope to disappear, but everyone else will still see me.  And while some of our foolish acts can actually cause us physical harm, the second danger is worse: there are those who see these words as eliminating the Law.  “Because I’m a Christian, I’m free; I can do whatever I please.”  “I can divorce my spouse.”  “I can resist my governing authorities.”  “I can keep on sinning.”  All of those things are flat-out clearly rejected in the New Testament.  Christians can, and do, still sin.  And to ignore the Law, to ignore our sins, jeopardizes our everlasting life.

            So if that’s not a good way to read these difficult words, what’s the other option?  “All things are possible for one who believes” causes us to doubt.  Perhaps you heard it this way.  “Jesus said all things are possible for me if I just believe.”  “But it sure doesn’t seem to be working out.”  “I’ve been praying for a spouse.”  “I’ve been trying to get my kids to return to Church.”  “I lost my job.” 

            Christians all around us are despairing over the state of things.  Over the tyranny of governments.  Over the failure of science to rescue their lives and return things to normal.  Over the loss of loved ones.  Over anything and everything.  And so Jesus’ words suddenly call their faith into question.  “Jesus said if I believe all things are possible.  And things aren’t working out, so I must not believe.”  And they fall into a crisis of faith.  Doubt overwhelms them.  Despair cripples them.

            Yes, your pastor just suggested that there are two ways we hear those words of Jesus, and yet both of them lead to destruction.  So what are we to do?  Any suggestions?  Any other ideas for how we should look at the words of our Lord?  Pause.

            One of the most important words in hermeneutics, the study of God’s Word, is “context.”  When you want to understand God’s Word, keep it in its context.  Read what’s around it to help you understand what you’re reading.  That’s true whether it’s a challenging text or not, but when the text gets difficult, it’s one of our greatest tools, bested perhaps only by prayer.

            So let’s do our homework on these difficult words of Jesus.  We’ve actually skipped more than an entire chapter of Mark since we met last weekend, moving from the end of chapter seven to the middle of chapter nine.  We missed out on some miracles, but also some other key events to understand today’s text. 

            The first is that Jesus told His disciples, for the first time, that He was going to die and that He would rise again.  That’s in Mark 8:31 and following.  Do any of you recall how the disciples responded to the words of Jesus?  Pause.  Peter takes Him aside and rebukes Him, leading to the famed response of Jesus, “Get behind Me, Satan!  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

            It’s then just six days later that Jesus separates out Peter, James, and John, and the four of them together ascend an unnamed mountain.  And at the top, out of nowhere, Elijah and Moses appeared before them, Jesus’ clothing radiated light, and Jesus Himself was transfigured before them, that is, His very figure, form, changed.  We aren’t told how.  We aren’t told if the change remains visible afterwards.  The other disciples never mention it.

            But as Peter stands in complete and utter amazement, his mouth awkwardly rambling on with whatever words he can come up with, their attention was stolen away by a cloud enveloping them, and the very voice of God calling out from the cloud, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him!”  And just as quickly as things began, it ended.  Elijah and Moses were gone. 

To the first-century Jewish people, Elijah represents the Prophets, and Moses represents the Law.  They didn’t call the Scriptures the “Old Testament” at that point.  That only makes sense when you have the “new” thing.  They called their Bibles, their sacred Scriptures, “the Law and the Prophets.”  So the two men who represent all of the Old Testament stand before them, God the Father points to Jesus and says, “Listen to Him,” and then the Elijah and Moses vanish.  The Law and the Prophets point us to Him; Jesus is the Word made flesh.  Listen to Him. 

And so they descend the mountain back to where they left the other nine disciples and they find a commotion, an argument.  It turns out, while the Transfiguration was going on up above, a man had brought his demon-possessed son to the disciples in hopes that they could cure him.  But they failed.  They’d cast out demons before.  But this one wouldn’t obey them.  The crowds and the scribes were arguing, the boy and his dad hurting, and the disciples just confused by it all.

And then Jesus gets angry with all of them.  We get offended by Jesus calling the Syrophoenician woman a “dog” in last week’s reading from two chapters ago.  But really, how much more severe is this?  “O faithless generation!”  This dad brought his son to Jesus.  The crowds are following Him around to hear His Words and see what He miracles He might do next.  And the disciples have left behind everything.  And He calls them all faithless.

In doing so, He drops two questions on them.  “How long am I to be with you?  How long am I to bear with you?”  The disciples, remember, have just learned that He isn’t going to be with them much longer.  And Jesus reveals His anger at their lack of faith, that it’s a burden upon Him.

The demon has spent years torturing this boy.  Time and time again tried to kill him.  Even on the best days, stripped him of the God-given gift of speech and language, the ability to communicate with his neighbors and his family in words.  The father has suffered alongside his child.  They’ve likely tried anything they could, all with no success.  The disciples were a last gasp of breath.  One final shot.  While we may not understand demon possession in our present congregation, we get long-standing pain.  We know what it is to stand before a doctor and everything they try fails.  And so we see another, and another.  Test after test.  Medicine after medicine.  And it doesn’t help.  It sometimes makes things worse.  And so there we are at the end of our rope, seeing one last doctor, crying out to him, “If you can do anything!”

Anything, right?  At this point?  You’d take even just a little relief.  And so the earthly father speaks to Jesus with the words and despair of years’ long pain and torment.  And it is to this that Jesus speaks our difficult words: “‘If You can!’  All things are possible for one who believes.”

Remember the purpose of the Transfiguration just moments before: “Listen to Him!”  And yet, immediately, when we hear the text, our reaction, our sinful nature, wants to fall right back on ourselves instead.  We look to the verse as what we do.  “Listen to Him!”  Did the dad suddenly stand up, knowing that all things are possible for him, point to his son, and command the demon, saying, “Get out of him!”?  Did the disciples?  The crowd?  Those religious leaders, the scribes?  Did the boy simply rise up and overcome it?  “Listen to Him!”

I propose to you a third way to hear the words of Jesus: that He is the doer.  Those possible things, He makes them possible.  Because He does them.  And He does them for the believer.  He does them for His people.

That appears to be the way the earthly father heard those words.  Because he immediately responds to Jesus in prayer with perhaps one of the most profound, beautiful, and yet simple prayers in all of Scripture: “I believe; help my unbelief.”  “I believe in You, Lord.  I trust in You, Lord.  I don’t know how.  I don’t know when.  I don’t know what.  I doubt.  I struggle.  I don’t get it.  Help me.”  The dad comes before Jesus, acknowledges that he has faith, and that he is yet a sinner in need of what Jesus has to give him.

And Jesus responds.  Just as He did when the Syrophoenician woman pleaded with Him, so He does here.  He sees the faith of His beloved, and He acts with compassion upon them.  Jesus turns to the demon, rebukes it, and it leaves.  It has to.  Jesus is God, and the demon is the creature.  The demon has no choice but to obey.  As the Father said, it must “listen to Him.”

And so the phrase, the difficult words of Jesus, that “all things are possible for one who believes,” is an invitation.  A call to eat not the crumbs that fall to the floor beneath the children’s feet, but a call to you as the children to come to the Master’s table and eat.  Eat your fill.  Syrophoenician.  Earthly father.  Demon-possessed child.  You.  Me.  Come and eat.

It’s a call not for us to do anything, but it’s for the Lord to fill us with Himself.  We don’t come here, we don’t gather in this space to eat the fruits of our own labor, to pridefully boast of our own works, or to somehow show ourselves as worthy before the Lord. 

We come here, we gather together here, praying the same words that that father spoke, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  “I trust in You Lord.  You are my God.  I still sin daily.  I still struggle to trust in you above all things.  I still look to this world for pleasure, and hope, and comfort.  Help me.  Save me.  I can’t save myself!”  We come and humbly place ourselves at the Lord’s feet.  We empty ourselves by confessing our sins and our doubts and our failures as we’ve continued to try to save ourselves.  And He fills us.  He fills us with His Word.  He fills us with His forgiveness.  He fills us with living water.  He fills us with His own body and blood.  He fills us with promises of life and hope and salvation and Paradise. He fills us with all good things.

Let’s close by reexamining the two questions He asked them that day.  “How long am I to be with you?”  What has He promised you?  What’s the answer?  Pause.  Always.  “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20).  And forevermore in His Paradise.  “How long am I to bear with you?”  What has He promised you?  What’s the answer?  Pause.  He bore our sins, all of them, upon His shoulders.  He took the weight of all our guilt and He carried it up Golgotha and was pierced through for it.  For the sins they had committed already.  For the sins of Adam and Eve.  For the sins you committed last week.  For the sins that any future generation may yet commit.  He bore all of them.  He bore with us through all time.  Until?  Until He comes again.  And on that day, He will cast off sin from His creation forevermore.  And when that occurs, the Lord will bear with us no longer, for we will be perfectly His.

God is Near to Us

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 29, 2021

Focus:  God is near to us.

Function:  That the hearers keep their souls diligently as they teach their children Jesus.

Structure:  This is the historical situation in the text…here is the meaning for us now.

God is Near to Us

            That last paragraph of the Old Testament reading is enough Law to kill us and every generation ever to walk this earth. 

Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children—

That paragraph killed Israel.  Called to keep their souls diligently lest they forget all the things that their eyes had seen.  But they didn’t guard their souls diligently.  And they did forget all they saw.  And they forgot to teach their children and their grandchildren.

They forgot the roaring voice of God at Mt. Sinai, with the trumpet blast, the cloud of devouring fire and smoke that descended upon the mountain height.  They forgot watching Moses walk into that cloud, only to reappear again forty days later.  They forgot the face that radiated light.  They forgot the heaps of quail that piled up all around their camp.  They forgot how the ground opened up and swallowed Korah’s rebellion whole.  They forgot how God drew water for them out of a rock.  They forgot the staff that budded, and flowered, and almonded overnight.  And I wish I could say they forgot the bronze serpent, but they didn’t, they kept it and worshipped it as a false god of their own making, calling it Nehushtan.

They didn’t keep their souls diligently, so they forgot the things their eyes had seen.  And so those things departed from them just as God said.  The miracles of God, the provisions of God, left them.  They were no longer His people.  That’s what’s at stake, that’s what’s on the line.

And that last paragraph doesn’t just kill them.  It’s enough Law to kill us abundantly over and over again.  The Hebrew text is emphatic, what we have as “take care,” and also “keep” in verse nine are both the same Hebrew verb, repeated to drill the idea home.  The verb is rmf (shamar), which means to “guard, watch, observe, or keep.”  Guard your souls diligently.  Keep your souls diligently.  When you put the watchmen on guard, it’s their duty to protect the city from invasion.  They’re the first line of defense against the thief, the wild beasts, or the army coming from outside the gate.  If the watchmen fail, the city is harmed, if not destroyed.

Now, there are things we keep diligently.  We guard our homes diligently from intruders to keep ourselves and our families safe.  We watch our 401(k) portfolios diligently to make sure we stay on top of the market and can retire someday.  We diligently observe the feasts and the celebrations of our culture to enjoy fellowship with the world.  We are diligent to keep stockpiles of supplies on hand so that we’re prepared whether there’s a natural disaster or another run on toilet paper.

But when it comes to our souls, how are we doing?  Do we remember how evil God said earthly governments would be?  Do we remember that the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour?  Do we remember that the thoughts of our own hearts would be nothing but sinful all the time?  Or as watchmen, have we fallen asleep?  Is the city of our soul under siege?

How many of you have opened your Bible today?  This week?  Can you even remember the last time?  How many of you sat around your table and talked about God together, or as you were out walking or playing?  How many of you sang hymns and spiritual songs as you went about getting ready today?  Or as you were stressed and anxious earlier this week?  How many of you spoke words of encouragement to a fellow Christian?  Prayed?  Fasted? 

And what about teaching the children?  Israel failed at that; how about us?

We’re really good at teaching our children.  There’s a reason your children like the Chiefs.  Starting two weekends from now, most Christians in this community will spend more time watching football than they will guarding their souls or teaching their children about God.

We teach our children diligently to pursue their passions.  As the mob of children swarm the soccer ball, we lay out in our minds the next twenty years of athletic prowess as we’ll cultivate in them a love of sports.  We make those first day of school signs, anticipating all the academic success they’ll have, and how important it all is so that someday they can go to college and be successful in this world.  We teach them how to chase after their dreams.  We teach them how to be happy.  We teach them how to have all the things we didn’t have.

We teach them by our own living what’s important in life.  They see that entertainment is a goal to strive for.  They see that money is a god to be worshipped and feared.  And that the self is most important above all things.

But do we take the time to teach them about the things God has done and promised He is still doing?  Do you remember last weekend’s call?  At the end of both Sunday services, I asked for volunteers to teach Sunday School.  Care to guess how many people stepped forward?  Pause.  I shared the research that indicates that a youth who has a good relationship with at least five adults in their congregation is significantly more likely to remain a Christian after moving out of dad and mom’s house.  And I asked for adults willing to interact with our youth through teaching, mentoring, or simply spending time with them.  Care to guess how many people stepped forward?  Pause.  The answer to both questions is “zero,” by the way.

Do you care?!  Does it matter to you that out of this year’s class of seven confirmands, three of them haven’t been back?  Or that from last year’s class, we haven’t seen five out of the seven all summer, or only one of the class before that?  Do we care that those classes are each roughly half the number of children that we baptized to begin with fourteen years prior?

Now, maybe you don’t believe Sunday School and youth group are the answer.  Maybe you don’t think separating Christians by their age group is beneficial like America is obsessed with.  You might just be surprised to find some agreement in that thinking.  But those conversations didn’t happen, either.

And what’s the danger to all of this?  If we don’t keep our souls diligently, we will forget.  And the things of God will depart from our hearts.  After several generations of forgetting and failing to prioritize, Generation Z, today’s youth, is the first group in America’s history where Christianity is the minority.  We’ve done that.  We forgot to keep watch.  We forgot the promises of God as we obsessed over fitting in with the world, and the things of God are now absent from so many of our families and our homes.

“Do you as the people of God promise to nurture this child’s faith by your worship, your instruction, and your love?”  “We do.”  Do you remember those words?  With every child we baptize, there’s some sort of congregational promise, a promise that you make to that family and to that child, that you will help raise that little one in the faith.  Let your “yes” be “yes.”  Be people of your word.  Honor your pledge.  This is a family.  These are your children.

How do we do that?  What do we teach them?  For Israel, the thing that showed God was near to them was the wisdom of the Law.  By delighting in His Word and following His commandments, their society would be one drastically different from the world around them.  And this was their witness to both their children and the other nations.

How do we know that God is near to us today?  Because He came down!  The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, that God Himself chose to humbly become a Man, a Boy, a Baby in Mary’s womb.  Jesus dwelling among us.  The fruit of those thirty something years of His life among men, and of how He perfectly delighted in that Law of God, was that He took that humiliating execution and turned it into a life-giving tree.  Jesus Himself now invites all the nations to draw near to Him, and to His blood, and to be washed clean as He restores their soul.

And that promise hasn’t changed.  Jesus continues to draw the Church near to Himself.  He has promised you that your sins are forgiven.  All of them.  If you’ve failed to guard your soul in the past, He’s forgiven you.  If you’ve been anxious over the things of this world, He’s forgiven you.  If you’ve failed to teach your children, either by your words or by your lived life, He’s forgiven you.  No matter how dark the sins of your past, no matter how badly you think you failed, look to Him.  He promised.  Even in the face of those who were killing Him, He pleaded for their forgiveness.  Your sins are forgiven.  Each and every last one of them. 

And while that time of His earthly ministry did come to an end, and He has ascended up into heaven, He is still near to us.  As He promised His disciples just before His ascension, “Behold, I am with you always even to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20b).  Jesus continues to dwell in us, to be the head as we are the body of Christ.  Jesus continues to be with us whenever two or three gather in His name.  He continues to hear our prayers and He continues to intercede on our behalf before the Father.

Jesus is with us in Word and Sacrament.  The mark of Christ is placed upon you in the waters.  You are sealed, you are made His.  And in this precious meal, Jesus is bodily present.  Somehow, beyond our comprehension, the bread is His very body.  The wine is His very blood.  Given for you.  Shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  In your hand, crossing your lips, touching your very tongue.  You are His.  He is near. 

This is true for you.  And it’s true for your children.  And it’s true for your children’s children.  All whom the Lord Jesus chooses to draw near to Himself.  The Bible uses lots of imagery to show us what this looks like.  This makes us new creatures, who have put on the new self, who have put on Christ.  This makes us a city on a hill, lights to the world.  We “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9).  Many who see us and hear the Word of Him who dwells near us will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

We all know people who’ve left the Church, who’ve wandered from the faith and forgotten the things that God has done for them.  And because of this, the gifts of God are no longer made manifest in their lives.  They’ve joined with our other neighbors who love the world and its ways rather than God and His ways.  But, we don’t give up.  Not while they still draw breath.  Together, the Church loves and serves our neighbor, showing the world that God is near to us.

Guard, watch, observe, and keep your souls diligently.  Know that there are enemies who seek to destroy you and rob you of the forever dwelling that Jesus has promised to you.  Fill your days with the things that matter; be filled each day with Christ and all He gives.  And take those gifts, take those promises, and make them known to your children more than you would make anything else known to them.  For He is near, just as He promised. 

We Will Serve the Lord

Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 15, 2021

Focus:  God is victorious over sin, death, and the devil, that we may share in His victory.

Function:  That the hearers serve Yahweh with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Structure:  .

We Will Serve the Lord

            At this point, I haven’t eaten at a buffet since pre-COVID.  That’s one area my wife just isn’t ready to venture into yet.  But I do miss eating at places like HuHot, Golden Corral, or well, any pizza buffet.  But when you go, how well do you eat?  You pile up your plate with all the things that look pleasing to the eye.  You return to your table and eat your fill.  You get up and you do it all over again.

            And, on one of those two, or three, or four plates, you sprinkle a little bit of healthy stuff.  A little broccoli or a little salad.  And we do it telling ourselves that this makes it all better!  But, at the end of the meal, as we pay the tab and head to our homes, do we really want to know how many carbs or calories we just ingested?  Did that little dose of greenery undo all the harm we just wrought upon our flesh?

            I contend with you today that this is how we’ve been viewing Jesus for longer than I’ve been alive.  This world and the desires of our sinful flesh are the buffet.  And we indulge, we imbibe, we gluttonize ourselves on all the riches, luxuries, comforts, events, and lifestyles of this world that is perishing even now.

            We fill our lives with chaos: plates so full there’s no place for rest.  Trusting in mammon to carry us through.  We believe our hard work not only puts a roof over our heads, but food on the table, gadgets in the hand, smart devices so our house is ready at our beck and call to do whatever we please.  We worship the idol of stuffitis so deeply that we don’t know even see it.  It’s just part of who we are.  But it’s okay, we’ll sprinkle a little Jesus over it and sanctify the whole thing with an hour of worship every couple of weeks. 

            And whose voice is it that we hear?  What are the things that you fill yourself with each day?  Which news channels do you trust?  Which radio stations do you tune in to?  Which songs do your airpods pump into your brain?  What podcasts are you learning from?  TV shows to pass the time?  What kinds of things do you have memorized because you’ve spent so much time in them?  But it’s okay, we’ll just sprinkle a little Jesus over it to sanctify the whole thing by saying a prayer or listening to a Christian song.

            And if it weren’t bad enough that we do it to ourselves, we do it our children as well.  Now, in fairness, what chance did they have?  They learn by imitating.  They saw us busy and stressed, so they figured that’s what life is.  And so they’re busy and stressed.  It’s no longer recreational sports.  The pickup game on your local street corner died with my childhood.  You can’t just play now whenever you want to.  It’s practices and games every day of the week.  And we can’t just do one activity, we have to be well-rounded!  So pick two, or three, or four plates to juggle.  But it’s okay, because we’ll just sprinkle a little Jesus over it to sanctify the whole thing…well, maybe…I mean, nobody’s really got any time for that.

            God rescued His people.  God heard their cries, their pleas for salvation from their oppressors in the land of Egypt.  The taskmaster.  God crushed him.  Almost literally!  Consider the ten plagues and how the people watched on as these great miracles unfolded before their eyes.  Consider how He obliterated the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, just moments after His own people crossed it on dry ground.  Consider how He fed them for forty years with food from above.  Consider how He personally led them in battle to drive out the enemies, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Jebusites, the Perizzites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, all so that He could give them the land that He had promised to them some 700 years before.

            It’s in that moment that Joshua stands before them.  The enemies are defeated.  The Promised Land is now theirs.  They’ve seen the goodness of God, they’ve tasted from His bounties.  And Joshua now lays a challenge before them: whom will you serve?

Now therefore fear Yahweh and serve Him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve Yahweh. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve Yahweh, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh. – Joshua 24:14-15

            Hear as Joshua challenges them: consider what happened to your parents.  They chose to abandon Yahweh.  They chose to worship a golden calf.  They chose to long to return to throws of Egypt.  They chose to chase after the other gods worshipped by this world.  How’d that turn out for them?  The choice is yours.  God gave you this land.  God put you here, settled you here.  If you want to go back and worship the false gods that led to the demise of your ancestors, go right ahead.  If you want to worship the false gods that couldn’t protect this land from Yahweh’s onslaught, go right ahead.  But not me.  I won’t.  My family will serve Yahweh.

            You might remember that Joshua was one of the twelve spies, whom Moses sent ahead to spy out the Promised Land and to bring back a report of the land, the people, the cities, and the food.  Ten of the spies returned giving a negative report, stoking the flames of fear among the people of God.  The cities are too fortified.  The people are like giants.  They are too many for us!  “They are stronger than we are” (Numbers 13:31).

            Only Joshua and Caleb stood strong giving a positive report about the promises of God. 

The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land.  If Yahweh delights in us, He will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.  Only do not rebel against Yahweh.  And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us.  Their protection is removed from them, and Yahweh is with us; do not fear them. – Numbers 14:7-9

            The people responded by picking up stones to kill Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb, and only by a theophany, that is an appearance of God before them, were they stopped from that wicked act.  And yet, several years later, an aged and near-death Joshua stands before them, in the Promised Land, which is now theirs, just as God promised.

            And they respond to the challenge rightly in words, remembering all that Yahweh has done for them, and saying “Therefore we also will serve Yahweh, for He is our God.”  How did they do at keeping that pledge?  Pause.  The next several hundred years show them moving further and further away from God, rejecting His leadership, no longer teaching their children His ways, serving and worshipping other gods.  And it all eventually leads to their destruction.

            God has richly blessed us in this land, positioning us to be a beacon of light bringing the gospel to all nations.  And yet, where are we?  Look around you: is this land serving the Lord?  We frequently pray for God to bless America, but are we also willing to admit that the Lord has every right to judge America?

            This is a challenge set before us.  (Hold up Bible.)  Is this all that God is?  Just a collection of stories, bound up in one place, stored in here for safe keeping, but with no ability to impact our day-to-day lives?  Or is this book how the sovereign King of heaven and earth chose to make Himself known to us that we might see Him, and hear Him, and live in Him, while He continues to do what He chooses to do around us as He cares for His creation by creating life and taking life, by blessing and cursing, and by redeeming and judging?  And if that’s true, which the Christian faith confesses that it is, what does that mean for how I am called to live my life right now?

            That’s been the internal struggle for me for the last few years now.  That’s what led me to the topic I presented to the youth who attended Higher Things last month, which you can study yourself from our YouTube channel, called “The Daily Life of a Christian.”  In short, it’s this: if we’ve been called to take up our cross and follow Jesus, to die to self and live for others, to lose this life in order to have life, why does our daily grind look and feel so much like the pagans around us?  It’s just another way of saying, why are gluttonizing the buffet and thinking it’s okay to sprinkle it with a little Jesus?

If the devil took his fist, if he mustered all the power he has together against this land, against Christians living in this place, would we stand?  Could we stand?

He hasn’t.  Not even close.  The devil’s work among us has been that of a crafty serpent slithering through the Garden and challenging God’s people to doubt the truth of His words and His faithfulness.  And we’re dropping like dominoes.  For a generation now, we’ve been asking over and over again why our children are leaving the Church.  I’m no longer asking that question.  I can see the “why.”  I can see the struggle as they come to confirmation class, hearing the words of a dusty book and then getting confirmed by saying they’re willing to die for this faith, all the while having no intention of returning to this place again.

I no longer wonder why.  We’ve taught them that they can just take their American life and sprinkle a little Jesus over it, and it’ll be good.  And they’ve come to realize that the American life they love and adore and spend every waking moment in is in total conflict with the Christian faith.  They’ve so filled their plate with the worldly life, that a little sprinkling of the good gifts of God in Word and Sacrament leaves them feeling empty.

We have failed to show them that the faith actually matters.  We haven’t given them anything to sink their teeth into.  Their lives look the same as their neighbor’s.  So what’s the point?  Without a point, without something that matters to them, they don’t keep fighting. 

It’s not all doom and gloom.  So I’m not going to sprinkle you with a little Jesus at the end of this sermon.  Jesus Himself encourages us with these words from Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  The gates of hell shall not defeat the Church.  What does this mean? 

If you study the gates of a city in the Old Testament, it was the place where the business of the city was conducted, where the elders gathered together and discussed politics, that is, the running of the city.  The gates of hell, that is all the scheming, plotting, and destructive endeavors of the devil and his minions from the city engulfed in eternal flame cannot defeat the Bride of Christ.  The Church will not fall.  The Church cannot fall.  Because Jesus is already victorious.  He has already overcome.

Indeed, all who stand firm in the Church until Christ returns and deals death it’s final blow will be saved.  And not just those who stand.  Those whose wrinkled faces lay sleeping in their Bibles.  Those who lay downtrodden and bleeding as they cling to the cross.  Those who look beaten down by doubt as they kneel humbly in prayer.  Those who sit starving in chains as they cling to the chalice.

The opening hymn today declared Christ’s victory and our share in it.  The invocation then pointed us to our baptisms as we were united with Christ in both His death and His resurrection.  The Confession and Absolution then took Christ’s blood shed for you upon the cross and made it yours, declaring Christ’s victory over your sins and death.  The Psalm then reminded us that God remembers His covenant forever (point to Lord’s Supper).  The salutation reminds us that this sovereign and victorious King is with us even here, even now.  The Collect announced that God lives and reigns forever, and that we get to live with Him.  The Old Testament reading pointed to God’s victory at several moments in history, real battles and real people.  The epistle text reminds us that though the days are evil, Christ shines on us, and then gives us ways by which we can daily shine upon one another.  The Gospel text points us to the very body and blood of Christ shed for us, making that forgiveness so very ours that we can even touch it, see it, smell it, and taste it, shattering the devil’s seeds of doubt.  The Creed serves to remind us of all the good things that God has done for us from the moment of creation right up to now.  The hymn of the day then was our prayer for God to equip us for the battle before us this day, while closing with the reminder that God has crushed even our deaths and will raise us up again on the last day. 

Do I need to keep going?  Can you see how the liturgy serves to fill us?  There’s a real intentionality behind it.  As we continue worship today, see the victory of Christ as it is spoken to you again and again in the liturgy.  Hear the promises of God declared to you from one another in word and song, just as Paul encouraged in the epistle text.

If you missed my announcement a couple weeks ago, I’m staying put, and I want us to wrestle through this topic together.  I want to work on this fight together with you, my family, here at St. Matthew.  How do we so fill our own lives each day with the words of Christ and the blood of Christ that we might spend our lives sharing in the suffering of Christ and the goals of Christ?  And how do we do the same for all people who gather here, regardless of their age, showing them they’re soldiers in God’s kingdom right now? 

Fill yourselves each day, fill your plate each day, with the words of God, through prayers, reading and memorizing Scripture, singing hymns, and coming to the place of promise, where He has promised to feed you with His own body and blood.  What we are filled with ends up being what we have to share with others.  As we are filled with Christ, we share Christ with one another, encouraging one another in this fight, and we share Christ with our pagan neighbors, that they too might hear of His salvation.

Let us join with Joshua and Israel, and all Christians who have gone before us in saying, “We will serve the Lord.”  And may God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit keep us faithful until the day of His coming.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Ephesians 4:1-16

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

August 1, 2021

Focus:  God made us one in the very body of His own Son Jesus.

Function:  That the hearers maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Structure:  diamond – many facets, same message.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

            As I was studying today’s text from Ephesians 4, a consistent theme appeared again and again.  I got a little lazy and copy/pasted the text into a word counting website, but it confirmed it: the word “one” shows up more than any other.  Ten times.  The next most common word “body” appears four times and builds on that very same theme.

            Two weekends ago, we studied from the second chapter of this epistle.  And the theme was the same there, too.  I preached focusing on these words from 2:14: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”  The problem of our sinful flesh to be dealt with is our divisiveness, our hatred, and our disunity which manifests in so many different ways.

            And I invited you to consider the divisions in your own life.  Where sin was seeking to separate.  And together, we rejoiced that Christ has taken all of that hate and hostility away from us.  By His death on Good Friday, He has torn down our dividing walls.  He has made male and female one again.  Jew and Gentile are now one together.  One body, one church.

            And so here Paul pleads with the Church to live this, to live as one.  He urges us “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  What the Spirit has bound together, we are called to maintain.  That reminds me of the words Jesus spoke in Matthew 19:6 as He taught the Pharisees about the evils of divorce.  Speaking of husband and wife in marriage, He said: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”  What God has joined together, what the Spirit has bound together, we aren’t to take apart.  So, let’s look at Paul’s list of things that are one.  We’ll see 7 of them in total: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.

            One body – Paul starts with the point he is striving to drive home; he starts with what the Lord has made one.  The Jews and the Gentiles are now one.  Just as in marriage husband and wife are no longer two, but one, now, so also is Christ made one with His bride, the Church.  They are no longer separated, but together.  This is a theme of Paul’s in many of his epistles.  In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, he spends entire sections drawing out this picture for us.  Think of your body and how if functions.  How you consist of many members, and they all work together.  When your mouth eats, it does so for the sake of all the members.  When your heart beats, it does so for the sake of all the members.  Detached and separated, an eye or a limb would wither and die; but together, as one, they build one another up.

            So it is as the body of Christ: separated from Christ, we wither and die.  But, together, as one body, the body of Christ, we build one another up.  We each have different roles as different members of the body, some to be pastors and shepherds, feeding you regularly with the Word and Sacraments that God has so richly given; some thrive in teaching, or generosity, or helping, or administering, or exhorting, or generosity, or leading, or doing acts of mercy.  All together, we serve one another, forgive one another, encourage one another. 

            And Christ is our head, our groom, the One who regularly and fully gave of Himself in order that we would be cared for.  Seeking not what would be good for Him, but what would be good for His bride, the Church. 

            One Spirit – The world is not full of multiple spirits sent from God, each acting and working however they please.  There is but one Holy Spirit, sent by God the Father and God the Son with a specific purpose, to work through the Word of God to create faith in us sinners.  In this creation of faith, either through the hearing of the proclamation of the Gospel, or through the precious waters of baptism, the Spirit unites us to the work of Christ in His death and in His resurrection.

            One hope – Paradise with Christ.  Life that never ends.  A new heaven and a new earth where sin and death are no more, where pain and suffering and tears are wiped away.  This is the promise of God for you.  It cannot be taken away from you, which is why Paul says it “belongs to your call.”  This hope, this promise is yours through faith in Christ.  When that one Spirit made you a part of that one body, this one hope was made yours.  In the waters of that one baptism, you were sealed as a child of God. 

            One Lord – Just one.  Not many.  There aren’t thousands of lords.  There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ.  A lord is one who rules over another, or a master.  And Jesus rules over this creation, over heaven and earth, with mercy and grace.  He truly knows you, and cares about you.  He hears your prayers and answers in kind.  He sees your sin and forgives it.  Gone.

            One faith – People in this world have faith in all sorts of things.  The word faith comes to English from the Latin word “fides” which meant “trust.”  To say “I have faith in something,” is to say that “I trust in something.”  People put their trust in many worldly things, and even other people.  But none of these can grant life.  None of these can sustain life for anything longer than a brief moment in time.  There’s only one faith that endures: the faith we have in Christ.  Through this faith, which the Spirit created in us, we receive all that is good from our one Lord Jesus Christ.  Faith clings to the promise in which we hope.

            One baptism – This is one where I want to spend a little more time today, as we rejoice at two baptisms in our congregation together this weekend.  To baptize is to wash.  That’s what the Greek word means.  And just like we can put our faith and trust in all sorts of things, but only one matters, we can wash lots of things, but in the end only one washing matters. 

            Our one Lord Jesus Christ won for us on the cross the forgiveness of sins.  All of them.  And it’s by His grace that He chooses to share that forgiveness with us in our lives.  Taking a grand scale, universal event, and making it personal, making it ours.

            This weekend, God welcomes Bradyn and Simeon into His kingdom.  The Spirit creates faith in the creature.  God the Father adopts that creature as His own precious child.  And as Paul says in Romans 6, we are buried with Christ in our baptisms into His death, and thus we are also united with Him in His resurrection.  That’s no ordinary water!  When the Word of God is connected to that water, we have this tremendous gift of God. 

            Now there’s no doubt that what we believe about baptism is one of the most divisive things among Christians today.  Many Christian churches in America won’t baptize a child, instead waiting for the child to reach a certain age and level of comprehension.  So why do we?  In less than two months, why will we have baptized five infants in our congregation?

            Let me summarize that for you with four key points:

            First, who does the work?  When a person is baptized, is it something God does for them, or something they do for God?  The Bible teaches us that salvation is a gift of God, not something that we can earn or achieve ourselves.  We are dead in our trespasses, but God rescues us from it.  That’s Ephesians 2.  And Peter, in his first epistle (3:21), shares with us the account of how God worked through water to save Noah and his family, and he then says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.”  Plainly.  Simply.  Baptism is salvific.  It saves.  So if it saves, it can’t be our work, it must be God’s.  Thus, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, or even how much they can comprehend.  It’s God’s work, done for our benefit.

            Second, we know from Scriptures like Romans 6:23, that “the wages of sin is death.”  We die because we sin.  And sadly, children do die.  They, too, are sinners in need of a Savior.  So we don’t stand in the way of God doing His saving work through the waters of baptism.

            Third, we do see infant baptism in Scripture.  The Great Commission tells us to baptize all nations, not all adults.  Luke and Paul both record accounts of entire households being baptized.  When we consider Cornelius’ household in Acts 18, as a Roman centurion, it would’ve been a full house, not just with his own wife and children, but also the families of his servants.  And they’re all baptized that day, with no exceptions made.  Then there’s also connection to circumcision.  In the old covenant, you were brought into God’s kingdom on the eighth day after birth through circumcision.  You didn’t choose that, it was done to you, for you, marking you as holy and set apart to the Lord, one of His people.  Baptism is that same sort of entry into the new covenant that we have in Christ.  Where you are marked, both upon the forehead, and upon your heart, as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  That mark is why we continue to make the sign of the cross even as we grow up, we’re remembering our baptisms.

            And fourth, infant baptism was the practice of the early church.  There are lots of quotes from the early church fathers in the first few centuries after the resurrection about baptizing children.  My favorite is from Cyprian of Carthage around 253 AD.  It connects to what we were just talking about, but let me read it to you:

As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born…

            So, today, we argue about baptizing a baby at six months old or ten years old.  The early church argued over whether to wait eight days, or not at all.  That’s a fascinating shift that doesn’t even begin to occur for over a thousand years.  Now just for fun, according to our church records, we have one member who was baptized the day she was born, and a total of 26 of you who were baptized within a week of your birth.

            Now our seventh and final “one” of the text, there’s One God and Father of all – again, our culture scoffs at this idea.  But there’s just one God, not millions.  And He is Father of “all.”  God is the Creator of all that we see and know.  He made this world and everything in it.  And even to this day, He still takes care of His creation, even those creatures who rebel against Him.

            We’ll let that conclude our study of Paul calling us to be one today.  We are one, one body, through the blood of Jesus Christ.  All of our hostility and hatred has been done away with in His flesh on the cross.  Dead and buried.  Our dividing walls are torn down.  And we’re called, as Christians, as followers of Christ, to now maintain this unity which the Spirit has given us through His Word and Sacraments, to do so with humility, gentleness, and patience, as we bear with one another in love.  What the Spirit has bound together, let us not take apart.

Christ Himself is Our Peace

Ephesians 2:11-22

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

July 18, 2021

Focus:  God has torn down the walls of hostility in His Church.

Function:  That the hearers dwell in the peace of Christ.

Structure: Dr. Jeff Gibbs homiletical help and chapel sermon from July 2015.

Christ Himself is Our Peace

            The world is divided.  Fractured.  Broken.  What God once made as good and pure and whole, is now dying.  What God once made as perfect, is now failing.  What God once made united, is now eroding.

            This has been true ever since the devil snaked his way through the Garden of Eden.  On that day, he put division between God and man, between husband and wife, between Caretaker (point up) and creation, and between caretaker (point to self) and creation.  And these divisions, marked with fear and hatred, greed and the lust for power, have rumbled on ever since.

            It was the curse of Eve in the Garden.  Once united as husband and wife, the two becoming one flesh, a perfect picture of unity on earth, where they felt no shame, and cared for one another, rather than themselves.  But from that moment on, she would desire her husband, not as a reference to good and pleasing physical attraction, but in the same way that sin desired to master over Cain in the next chapter.  Eve would desire her husband’s calling and authority.  And Adam, in response, would rule over her.  And not in the sense of the good and caring dominion that God entrusted to him, but with the anger and despising of someone focused on preserving their own power.  This hostile dance has been done by every couple the world over.

            Or the united kingdom of God’s holy nation of Israel.  They enjoyed the prosperity and lushness of the Promised Land for three and a half centuries before demanding a king, but even then, they largely enjoyed peace and unity for the next century.  Until the third king died, and the kingdom split.  Over the next two centuries, these two new nations would find themselves locked in an almost perpetual war with one another, growing to hate one another, even though they once called each other “brother.”  Come the New Testament era, you know this division as the separation of Jew and Samaritan, with Jews from Judah, and Samaritans from Israel.

            There’s another similar divide that goes further back.  When Noah, his bride, and their three sons, with their brides, all stepped off that ark, there was one family.  One house.  And yet over time, divisions arose among brothers.  Ham was cursed, Shem was blessed.  Ham’s descendants would serve the others.  And as they began to spread across the globe, very few remained united to the true King, to God alone.  This divide is visible throughout Scripture, and one we know now as Jew and Gentile, Jews being the people of Judah, the people of God, and Gentiles being those from any other nation under heaven.

            It’s into this last divide that Paul casts this letter to the Church in Ephesus.  Stationed up on the east coast of the Aegean Sea, a church plant of the Apostle Paul during his missionary journeys, this group of Christians consisted primarily of Gentiles.  We see immediately in the text what the fight was over.  The circumcised Jews versus the uncircumcised Gentiles.  There was a constant pull, a division, peer pressure.  If you really want to be Christian, you have to be circumcised.  If you really trust in God, you have to obey His Old Testament Laws.

            So Paul writes this letter to those Gentiles, the ones being ostracized and rejected because they don’t measure up to the expectations of the popular kids.  And verse twelve is a reminder of just who they used to be.  “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  It doesn’t get much darker than that.  Separated from God.  Alienated, or foreign, to the Church, the people of God.  Strangers to the promises of God, simply not knowing.  They were once without God.  They were once without hope.

            Were.  Past tense.  They are no longer without hope.  Because verse 13.  “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  Jesus Christ is their hope.  He is the One who stepped into this giant mess of a world to put an end to our petty earthly divisions.  The Gentiles were far off, foreign, alien, strangers, without, apart, separated.  But Jesus brought them near.  And He did there on Calvary.  He fulfilled the promised prophesy of Him from Isaiah 49:6, where God said of the Savior who was to come:

It is too light a thing that You should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make You as a light for the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

And so it did.  So He did.  That Greek word for “Gentiles” can also be translated “nations.”  Jesus brought them near to Himself.  We picture the cross on the hill, with His arms stretched out, and we talk about how we are welcomed at the foot of the cross.  But it’s not just for some.  Jesus brought all of creation near to Himself.  As we’ll see in VBS in just a couple of weeks, Jesus’ crucifixion draws Latin America to Himself.  Jesus’ suffering brings Eurasia to Himself.  Jesus’ blood brings Africa to Himself.  Jesus’ death brings Asia to Himself.

In His flesh, He broke down the dividing walls of hostility.  Male and female.  Jew and Samaritan.  Jew and Gentile.  Slave and free.  Shem and Ham.  Adam and Eve.  You name the hatred.  You name the divide.  He took it.  He took it upon Himself on the cross, and He took it with Him into the tomb in His death and burial.  Our sins, our hate, our divisions, all forgiven; hostility broken down, crushed by His sacrifice.

In our sinful world, Church unity appears to be a very fragile thing.  The blood of Jesus brought the Gentiles near.  And yet the Jews clung to their old ways.  They demanded that an old sign be kept.  Circumcision was the point of entry into God’s kingdom.  It was a reminder, a literal marking of the male body to remind God’s people whose they were.  And not only that, but also of the promise that God had made them.  That through the gift of marriage, through the gift of sex, through the line of His people, would come a Savior.  Every act of unity between husband and wife bore with it that promise, pointing them forward to the Messiah. 

But, now that He’s come, that mark is no longer of benefit.  It no longer points forward to a promise.  The Savior is here, so look to Him.  He has abolished “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two.”  In His death, He killed the hostility.  In His crucifixion, He brought peace.  Reconciling the two divided groups into one body, and then together reconciling them to God.

Dead men don’t preach.  Right?  Dead men stay dead?  They don’t talk?  But this One did.  On the third day, Jesus rose from death.  On the third day He appeared to His disciples and preached a simple and profound truth: “Peace be with you.”

In this still-broken world, things erode, they fall apart.  Sometimes no matter how hard we work, it just isn’t going to be enough.  But in Christ, it is.  In Christ, we have peace.  This is why today’s text began with the word “Therefore.”  It follows the verses before it.  And those verses you know so very well:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. – Ephesians 2:8-10

Our works aren’t good enough.  But His are.  And our salvation, our reconciliation, our peace, is not our own.  It was won by Him for us.  It was won by the pouring out of His blood.  It was won as He broke down all hostility in His own mortified and mutilated flesh.  So the disciples after Easter had peace.  Reconciled to God and to one another.  So the Jews and the Gentiles had peace.  Reconciled to God and to one another.

Even in our day today, as sinful hostility rages on in the world around us, we see those divisions spill over into the Church.  The Genesis 3 battle between husband and wife continues.  God’s Word establishes that husbands have the responsibility of leading their homes, being heads of their families.  Our culture hates that, as does our sinful flesh.  So we see it again and again rearing divisions in the Church.  We’ve seen many recent bouts of freedom vs. fear.  One political party vs. another.  One nation against another.  You name it.  Name the division; name the hostility; name the hate.

In our sinful world, Church unity appears to be a very fragile thing.  But the blood of Jesus kills all that division, all of that hostility.  This is why Paul would write to the Galatians (3:28) words that are sadly frequently abused, but true nonetheless, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Husband and wife are reconciled to one another, and reconciled to God.  Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another and to God.  Christians living in this land and Christians living in the Middle East are reconciled to one another and to God.  The dividing walls are torn down.  The blood of Jesus has drawn us all near to Himself.  And we are now fellow citizens with all the saints who have gone before us.  Not of a worldly kingdom, but mutually, together, both, all citizens of God’s kingdom, which knows no end.  There is no stranger here.  There is no alien among the baptized.  We are built together into one body, the very body of Christ.  Now we are the holy temple, indwelled by the Holy Spirit.  God with us.  In our very midst.

Jesus took all of our hatred and all of our divisions to the cross.  And He bore them through death into the tomb.  So we might say that empty tomb isn’t all that empty.  Yes, Jesus rose!  Yes, Christ is risen!  Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia! But the tomb, the place of His burial, still bears the remains of all sin.  Gone from you is the hatred.  Gone from you is the hostility.  Gone from you are all sinful divisions.  He took it all in His body and destroyed it all in His death and by His resurrection.  And He bears it no longer.  So neither do we; we bear those things no longer.  When the devil tries to snake those divisions back in among us, when the hostility begins to rise, pray to the Lord to help you leave it in the tomb.  And instead hang all your hope on the promises of Christ, that you are forgiven, and that together, we are drawn near by His blood.  And may that be so again here in this place, in just a few moments, as we are drawn together by His blood. 

God Keeps Sending

Ezekiel 2:1-5

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

July 4, 2021

Focus:  God graciously and patiently continues to send His Word to His creatures.

Function:  That the hearers take the Word of Christ and share it with their neighbors.

Structure:  This is the historical situation in the text…here are the implications for us now.

God Keeps Sending

            As we sit here together today, in His house, to receive His gifts, gathered around His Word, we get to learn a little about the character of our God. 

            In our Old Testament reading, we learn of the call of God to the priest named Ezekiel.  That God would take this exiled priest and turn him into a prophet.  The year is roughly 593 BC.  At the time, the holy nation of God, the people of Judah, have fallen prey to Babylon.  They’ve been raided and pillaged, and many of their people carried into exile in a faraway land, the priest Ezekiel included in that first wave.  And God doesn’t hesitate to share the reason why this has all happened to them: they’re a nation of rebels, they’ve rebelled against God.  They and their fathers alike transgressed against God up to that very day.

            You can see it.  Scattered across the various books of the Old Testament.  The last several chapters of 2 Kings gives you a good enough look at the problem.  Under their recent kings Manasseh and Amon, they’ve chased after false gods; they’ve bowed down to Baal and Ashtoreth.  They’ve built altars in Yahweh’s temple to make sacrifices to the stars.  They’ve offered up their children as sacrifices to Molech and Chemosh.  They’ve practiced fortune-telling and consulted necromancers.  Yahweh was forgotten.

            But even in the midst of all this rebellion, God chooses to place His Word.  A Word of restoration, a Word of hope, a Word of promise.  And He places this Word into the mouth of Ezekiel, sending him to proclaim it amongst the rebels.  But before he goes out, God gives him a parting note: “whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house, they will know that a prophet has been among them.”

            Whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.  God knows His creation.  He knows the creatures that He has made.  He knows the hearts and the minds of those that He called to be His own.  And He warns His prophet ahead of time, that he is to speak the Word of God, but it doesn’t mean that the people will actually listen.

            This isn’t the first time that God has sent His Word to these rebels.  Only six weekends ago, we saw God call, commission, and send His servant Isaiah into the midst of the rebellious house of the northern kingdom of Israel. 

From their very beginning, their origin as a split kingdom in 932 BC, they had rebelled against God. Their new king Jeroboam was so concerned and jealous of the temple, fearing that if his people traveled into the southern nation of Judah to worship Yahweh, they’d never come back.  So he built two temples of his own, one in Bethel just by the southern edge, and one in Dan to the north.  And in these temples he erected two golden calves for the people to worship.  The books of Kings go on to describe this as the sin of Jeroboam, that he made the people abandon God and worship these false idols.  Every last one of the eighteen kings that would succeed him followed in his footsteps, and was judged evil in the sight of Yahweh.

And yet, to them God sent Isaiah.  And Hosea, and Joel, and Amos, and Obadiah, and Jonah, and Micah, and Elijah, and Elisha.  And there were far more than that, too, they just didn’t end up with books of the Bible named after them.  Over two hundred years, God’s patience endured with the people of Israel, and He sent His Word to them, to that rebellious house, over and over again.

That wasn’t the first time, either.  Nearly a hundred years earlier, God’s people rebelled against the prophet Samuel, declaring they wanted a king for themselves so they could be just like all their neighbors.  They rejected not just the man of God, but God Himself.  God was their King.  But they rebelled against Him.  And even though God warned them what their wickedness would bring, they insisted.  A nation born in rebellion.  And so Saul was anointed king in 1048 BC. 

If you remember the book of Judges, it covers the time before that, from 1371 – 1048 BC.  And there we see the same pattern repeat itself a dozen times (start at bottom).  The people in times of peace and comfort rebel against God.  And so He gives them up, He allows foreign nations to oppress them.  And then they cry out and they call to God in repentance.  And He sends them a judge, a military champion, a deliverer who sets them free and they enjoy peace again, for a brief time.  And as the cycle repeats, God sends another judge.

Nor was that the first time.  Think of the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings.  God sent Moses to rescue Israel.  God sent Aaron to rescue Moses at the burning bush.  Before that, God’s patience endured for years as Noah built the ark, having opportunity to share God’s Word with his neighbors during that time.  And prior to that, we see the rebellion of Adam and Eve, and yet into their midst, God promises to send a Savior.

At least four thousand years of rebellious houses in the making, and yet God still did it.  His patience endured.  He fulfilled His Word.  He remained faithful to His promises.  And on that blessed night, He sent a messenger to carry His Word to a young girl and to a man just getting started out on his own, a Word that forever changed the world.  Nine months later, He would send messengers to bring the good news to a field of shepherds.  And those shepherds were made proclaimers by the angel army.  They ran into Bethlehem and they shared the good news.

Simeon and Anna in the temple.  John the Baptist preparing the way.  God continued to send His Word, continued to send His messengers, now even to boldly proclaim that the Word of God has taken on flesh, becoming a man, tabernacling with us. 

Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, stepped down into this rebellious house knowing full well that that rebellion would crush Him.  And it did.  We still hear the screams and taunts of Good Friday as the crowds rebelled against Him: “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!”  Rebellion against the one true King, rebellion against the very One who had come to give them life.  The earthly king of that region merely stepped aside and gave in to the rebellion.

His head scarred by our insults.  His body lashed, flogged, for our sport.  His hands and feet pierced by our transgressions.  And so the patient One, God who became man for us, was nailed to a tree. 

He came not as a judge/military champion/deliverer as they knew from their old stories.  He came meekly, humbly, willing to lay down His life, willing to take the beatings of our rebellious mob.  And as He breathed His last under our mocking breath, this world was forever changed!  For from those wounds, we are healed!  Jesus, the Word become flesh, through His death crushed our rebellion.  And He gave us peace.  Peace, true peace, as in the end of war, a time of peace.  Peace between God and men.  An end to our sinful rebellion.

But that’s a now and a not yet.  We have peace with God now, but it isn’t complete just yet.  As we wait for Christ’s return, this rebellious house continues to rebel.  Jesus prepared His disciples for it, and He sent them out.  Much like He warned Ezekiel, so He warned them: “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them,” (Mark 6:10-11). (Pause.)  Not everyone among those rebels will hear the Word that you deliver.

But as the angels turned a group of ordinary shepherds into proclaimers who’d speak God’s Word, as Jesus turned a group of fishermen into those who would be fishers of men, and as God took a priest and anointed him a prophet, so God has done even to you.  You are sent ones.  The Apostle Peter wrote about us, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9). You are prophets of God, given His Word to speak into the midst of a rebellious house.

And make no mistake, that’s what this land is.  Just as the nation of Israel was born in rebellion, so was this land.  If we take Romans 13 seriously, that resisting our governing officials is resisting God, then this nation was born in open rebellion against God. 

And nothing’s changed.  Consider some of the major cultural movements of your lifetime.  The general rebellion against all authority figures from the 60’s and 70’s, where you “just gotta stick it to the man.”  The woke movement of this present day that seeks to cast off just about any institution or hierarchy, and labels God’s Word “hateful.”  The last two generations have rebelled against “organized religion,” anything that remotely resembles their grandfather’s church, and instead they now say they are “spiritual, but not religious.”  This has led to the rise of all kinds of idols and pagan worship.  Literally.  Satanic cults.  Worship of the old Norse gods like Thor.  And roughly 1 out of 100 Americans is Wiccan, practicing witches.   

We can turn into the home, where our children buy into the lies of our culture, that their parents are stupid, and then we pay universities our life savings to trash the faith of our kids.  We buy into the lies of our culture that every teenager will rebel against their parents and that every Christian falls away during the college years, but “it’s okay, they’ll return.”  They’re not returning any more.  And if God permits this government and nation to endure, if He grants them His patience a little longer, how will they be remembered?  America’s legacy will be like Canaan’s.  They’ll be known as the land that sacrificed her children to their idols.  The Canaanites had Molech and Chemosh.  Today, it’s disguised as health care and liberty.

Let me paint it for you a different way.  Many Americans right now are afraid about the future of this nation.  They are concerned and worried that it’s going to turn into a land of socialism, a land where they’re not free, a land where intolerance and hate run the show.  They picture it like Venezuela, where hyperinflation struck at record levels and even though everyone’s a millionaire, people are digging through the garbage for food.  If that happens here, O Christian, O prophet, O fisher of men, what is your job?  What is your task?  What are you called to do by Christ Himself?  If America goes down the sewers, you are called to share His Word in the midst of a rebellious house.

But let’s say things go the other way.  The tensions around us ease, liberty wins, and life continues as we’ve known it for the most part for several generations here.  Comfort and luxury, a chance to achieve your dreams.  If that happens here, O Christian, O prophet, O fisher of men, what is your job?  What is your task?  What are you called to do by Christ Himself?  If America remains on top of the world, you are called to share His Word in the midst of a rebellious house.

Do you see it?  Can you hear it?  Whether this land is thriving or dying.  Two more years or two hundred more years.  Your role is the same.  Your call is the same.  In his letter to the churches, Peter calls us “exiles” three times.  The unknown preacher to the Hebrews says that the Old Testament faithful considered themselves exiles, longing for a better country, and that God indeed has prepared a city for them.

God’s patience yet endures.  God continues to send His Word out into the midst of a rebellious house.  And you are the messenger.  Two weeks ago I encouraged you to turn off the news.  Now I’m saying it again: stop being concerned and worried and stressed out about how the rebels will rebel next.  Focus on your neighbor.  Turn your attention to those with whom you can share the Word of God.  Some will hear it, some won’t.  Some will probably even persecute you for it.  But there we hear our epistle, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:10).  When we are weak, we lean on Christ, not on ourselves.  We trust in Him to save us.

For the sake of Christ.  He continues to share His Word with us.  He continues to pour out Himself upon us.  As we gather here today, we receive His gifts.  We, in the midst of another rebellious hour in our lives, another rebellious day, another rebellious week, we come here to hear His Word proclaimed to us.  God sends a messenger, a deliver of the goods, right here into your midst.  He has given you two servants, whose sole job it is to make sure you have God’s Word and Sacraments.  God continues to send His Word, Jesus, to you.  And we have been blessed during this pandemic to go from receiving the Lord’s Supper every couple of weeks, to receiving it every week.  God, the Word incarnate, tabernacling with us, placing His very body and blood upon our lips.  As He cleanses us from our sins, as He takes our rebellion upon Himself, and replaces it with His peace which surpasses all understanding.

God has taken this exiled priest (point to all people gathered), and turned him into a prophet.  And you’ve heard His message: “whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house, they will know that a prophet has been among them.”  It’s our job to tell them.  It’s His job to put an end to the rebellion.

God Never Lost Control

Job 38:1-11

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

June 20, 2021

Focus:  God is still in control.

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

Structure:  .

God Never Lost Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communing with the Holy One

Isaiah 6:1-8

Holy Trinity Sunday

May 30, 2021

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

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

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

Communing with the Holy One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

Dry Bones and Great Armies

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Pentecost Sunday

May 23, 2021

Focus:  God raises the dead.

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

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

Dry Bones and Great Armies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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