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Born of Water and the Spirit May 31, 2015

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John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday

May 31, 2015

An Updated Version from June 2-3, 2012

Focus: God gave His only Son and poured out His Spirit that we may believe, and that by believing we may live.

Function: That the hearers, by faith in Him, may see the kingdom of God.

Structure: Questions and answers.

 

Born of Water and the Spirit

 

The Apostle John is one of the few writers in Scripture who comes right out and tells us his purpose.  Near the end of his gospel, he tells us that these things “are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”

John’s gospel is unique in many ways when compared to the other three.  We believe that John wrote sometime in the 80’s near the end of his life, some 50 years after Christ, and a couple of decades after our other gospel writers.  Because of this, he had the opportunity to focus a little differently than the others.  He starts his gospel by opposing Gnosticism, a pagan belief that was creeping its way into Christianity by that time.

But in our text today, we notice another difference.  John didn’t worry about the sacraments.  The other gospel writers tend to be quite clear when they talk about baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  But by this point, the sacraments are so ingrained into the life and practice of the church, John doesn’t have to focus on them.  He can make small references that his readers will pick up on.  For example, in his account of Jesus feeding the five thousand, Jesus tells them that He is “the living bread that came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”

And in our text today, we’re going to talk about being “born of water and the Spirit.”  Baptism is a vital part of our life as Christians.  Here at St. John’s we are blessed with the number of baptisms we see each and every year.  And we will continue to be blessed with a couple more next weekend.

But when baptism becomes so common, we run the risk of forgetting its importance.  If we don’t stay focused, if we don’t really look at it from time to time, it becomes routine and gets lost in the shuffle.  So today, as John alludes to the importance of baptism, we refocus.

Just prior to this, Jesus had turned water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana.  He cleansed the temple that had become a marketplace.  And He enraged the Pharisees by claiming He could rebuild the temple in three days.  And as John put it, “many believed in His name when they saw the signs that He was doing.”  But Jesus knew their hearts, He knew man.

And so we get a transition, to another man, another Pharisee.  We are introduced to Nicodemus, not just a Jew, not just a Pharisee, but one of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin.  But he’s also not like most of the Pharisees.  He’s starting to believe.  He comes to Jesus and calls Him “Rabbi.”  He admits that Jesus has come from God on account of the miracles he’s witnessed.

Rabbi is one of the many functions Christ had in His ministry.  You and I know all about the others.  But Nicodemus wasn’t quite there yet and so Jesus was fine playing along.  If you want to treat Me as a Rabbi, then I’ll be your Rabbi.  Rabbis teach, so, let Me teach you.

When you know what Rabbis do, Jesus no longer seems to be making some random comment.  Instead, what He says is meant to elicit a question, to bring about the thinking and learning process in Nicodemus.  It wasn’t the part about seeing the kingdom of God that caught Nicodemus’ attention.  It was the phrase “born again.”

Not knowing the gospel as we know it, he comes up with a logical thought.  How can an old man be born again?  If you know how birth works, you know it’s not possible to go back into the womb.  So that’s his question.  And it prompts a teaching moment; it allows Jesus to share the gospel.

“I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  It’s one of those moments where John points to a sacrament without actually saying it.

So let’s hash it out; what is baptism?  In this text alone, Jesus provides multiple details.  It’s water.  Water is by far the most common thing on this earth.  Something like 60% of our body, as well as 70% of the earth’s surface, is water.  According to health and diet experts, you should probably be drinking at least 64oz. of water a day.  You swim in it and sometimes it even falls on you from the sky.  Another function of water is that we use it regularly to stay clean, from showering to washing our hands.

All of these things correlate to why water is used in baptism.  It’s so common, there’s no excuse to not have any.  As we use it to clean, we can also see in our baptisms a sense of washing, or regeneration, that in our baptisms, our sins are forgiven, and in Christ we have become white as snow.  Martin Luther spoke of baptism as something we should remember daily and that we should daily drown the Old Adam within us, that sinful self.  Professor Kolb at the seminary always reminded his students that your daily time in the shower, as the water pours over you, is a perfect time to remember your baptism, and what it is that Christ has done for you in that water.

Baptism is also Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is strongly at work in baptism.  If the faith is not already present, the Spirit creates it.  If the faith is already present because the Spirit already created it, then the Spirit works in the baptism to strengthen that faith.  As we read last weekend, Jesus told us that it was both necessary and good that He depart from us; because in parting, He would send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, to us.  He has sent the Spirit to us, who has created faith in us and also sustains it.

The third part that Christ includes in this passage in John is the notion that baptism is necessary.  “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”  We see similar statements elsewhere in Scripture.  And this is precisely why we as Lutherans believe baptism is a sacrament.  We define sacraments as things that meet three criteria.  First, that it was commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ.  Second, that the forgiveness of sins, through Him, is offered.  And third, that it is connected to a visible element.  Thus we come to baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

A common question from that: is baptism necessary?  Because Christ commanded it, we say yes.  But truly, it’s the wrong question.  The Ethiopian eunuch got the question right in the book of Acts.  “What prevents me from being baptized?”  If a person doesn’t have faith, the Spirit works through baptism to create it, to begin that new life.  But if they already have faith, baptism should be desired.  If you have faith in Christ, you want the gifts He has to give you, which most definitely includes baptism, faith, forgiveness, and life.

We learn other things about baptism elsewhere in Scripture.  Matthew 28 instructs us to baptize all nations and to do so in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Paul in Romans 6 teaches us that baptism connects us to Christ, that in our baptisms we are buried together with Him.  In baptism, we are bound to Christ’s death on the cross, thus also connected to Him in His resurrection, that we too will be raised and walk in a newness of life.

From passages such as these, we learn that baptism isn’t something we do, but rather something God does to us and for us.  It’s His work, not ours.  He creates and sustains faith through the outpouring of His Spirit.  And He forgives us of our sins through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ.  So as we observe Trinity Sunday, we can see the entire Trinity is at work in our baptisms.

As we return for a moment to the text to wrap up, we see that Jesus calls Nicodemus “Israel’s teacher.”  There’s a connection there to Nicodemus calling Him “Rabbi.”  The one responsible for teaching the people needs to know what to teach.  So Jesus gives him another piece.  He tells him that “the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have everlasting life.”  He connects back to Old Testament history with Moses, and forward to Himself on the cross, to the gift of forgiveness that God offers to the world for any who are “born of water and the Spirit.”  And that most definitely includes you and me.  “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”

 

 

The Work of Miracles May 24, 2015

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Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost

May 24, 2015

 

Focus:  God is working through us to share the good news.

Function:  That the hearers proclaim the good news with confidence.

Structure:  Walking through the text.

 

The Work of Miracles

 

I don’t think we do it justice.  Sure, we’ve given it its own day on the church calendar.  But I don’t think that fully expresses just what a day this is.  Here we are, some fifty days after the resurrection, celebrating Pentecost.

I just don’t think the disciples get enough credit here.  I don’t think God gets enough credit here.  All too often, this is seen as just another day, just another Sunday morning, just another chapter in Scripture.  But it’s not.  Pentecost is one of the greatest miracles in all of Scripture.  So let’s set the stage.

It was just about two months ago.  In His last days with His disciples, knowing that death was imminent, Jesus began to teach them the big picture.  No longer did they only discuss miracles, prayer, and love, but now they began to discuss the end times.  Things like, there will be wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6) and you will be persecuted for your faith.

And then there’s the betrayal, the Last Supper, the arrest, the trials, the mockery, the torture, and the death of Christ.  And where are the disciples to be found, but scared, fearing the Jews to the point that they had locked themselves in a house.

And that’s where the resurrected Lord finds them.  Hiding, hiding in fear of persecution and death.  The church, as small as it was, had scattered.  The others who were following Jesus before have either abandoned the new faith at the sign of His death, or they’ve fled to other neighboring countries to avoid facing the same fate.

But not the eleven.  I can’t tell you why.  I’m not sure if they were so dumbfounded by recent events that they felt lost, confused, and without purpose.  I’m not sure if they felt that they somehow had to remain close to Christ, even though they thought He was dead and gone.  Or maybe God just did His thing and persuaded them to stick around.

However it was that it happened, on the third day, Christ rose from the dead.  And where did He go?  He appeared in that home, despite the locked doors.  He greeted them, He ate with them.  And before He departed, He left them with this message:  “And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.  But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” – Luke 24:49

That’s just peachy.  Remain in Jerusalem?  Remain in the city where everyone wants us dead, crucified just like You were?  Here we are, hiding in fear of the Jews, and you want us to stay?

And then we come to our text from last week, from the ascension.  Just before departing from them again, Jesus says to them: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  -Acts 1:8

Now that’s a mission statement.  You’re going to start right here in Jerusalem, with the very Jews that you fear.  And then you’ll work your way outward to the surrounding communities and you’ll keep going until the whole earth has heard My good news.

Shortly thereafter, they cast lots and replaced Judas among the disciples with Matthias, so they numbered twelve again.  And then we come to our text, we arrive at the celebration of Pentecost, which was an Old Testament holiday known as the Feast of Weeks.  This feast, celebrated fifty days after the Passover, was originally a harvest festival, but became a celebration of God giving the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

And so here we are, at Pentecost, and we find the disciples together again, in a house, by themselves.  Sound familiar?  But then we get a miracle, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, just as Christ had promised.

A mighty wind filled the house, and tongues of fire came to rest upon their heads.  That’s a hard sight to imagine isn’t it?  And even though this connects to John the Baptist saying that “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11), that wasn’t even the best part.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”  This is one of the spots that this miracle is downplayed today.  There are some who simply discredit it, but there are others, like the Pentecostal church, who connect this to the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues.

But this isn’t that.  Speaking in tongues is a true gift of the Holy Spirit, you’ll find it in the New Testament, but it required another gift from another person, the interpretation of tongues.  If that gift was missing, then your gift of speaking was worthless, because no one could understand you.

But this isn’t that.  We have at least fifteen different nationalities represented among the group.  Bear in mind, this is a major Jewish holiday, just like the Passover, and so surrounding Jews flocked to Jerusalem.  And they’re here, and they all hear.  Each of them hears the disciples speaking in their own native tongue.  This isn’t speaking in tongues.  Nor can we can’t simply downplay this by saying the disciples each knew another language.

This is a miracle.  The Spirit has enabled these men to speak a universal tongue, to speak in a way that each person hears and understands in their own language.  No such event has happened before or since.  This is truly a unique miracle in the history of the church.

And while many were amazed, while many marveled at this miracle, others still sat there and said, “they are filled with new wine.”  That’s probably the dumbest excuse they could’ve come up with.  Let’s discredit them by saying they’re a bunch of drunkards.  But how many people do you know that when they get drunk actually start making perfect sense?

And so Peter takes advantage, he starts to speak for the group, ensuring them they aren’t drunk since it’s only nine o’clock in the morning.  And he begins with the Old Testament, he shares with them from the prophet Joel and then going beyond our text for today and into next week, he tells them about Jesus.  He tells them of Christ and what He has done for them by dying and rising again.  And he concludes by saying that “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.” (Acts 2:39)  And Luke tells us that about three thousand were baptized that day.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, Pentecost marks the day when the Christian church began.  And I want you to look back on this day, to reflect on this day and take heart, be confident because of it.

So often, fear overcomes us, too.  Those disciples who had locked themselves in a house because they were afraid, those disciples were the founding fathers of the church.  We’re talking about the early church leaders.  They, too, had moments of being overwhelmed with fear.  And yet Christ comes, the Spirit comes, and they grant us comfort.

They feared persecution.  Yet, when they overcame that fear in Christ and stepped outside, miracles started happening in their very midst.  The gospel was preached and the church flourished.  It’s ironic, Satan actually uses our feeling of comfort, of being comfortable, to hinder sharing the good news.  And when that comfort’s removed, when the church realizes that all she actually has is the good news of a Savior, and believe me that’s enough, she wants to share it.

So even in the midst of one of the greatest miracles in church history performed by the apostles themselves, there was opposition, foolish as it was.  So we can only expect that when we go out, when we share the good news of a Savior and His love with our neighbors, with our friends, with our coworkers, with people in Rochester, the Twin Cities and around the world, we can rest assured, we will meet opposition.

But we may also rest assured knowing that it is indeed God who does the work.  It is by your baptism that you can share God’s love with others.  And even then, it’s God working through you.  Because even this, one of the greatest miracles ever, was done by God.  The disciples didn’t have to be perfect.  They weren’t.  They were afraid.  And yet it was God who gave them courage.  It was God who gave them strength.  It was God who gave them the gift of speech and told them what to say.

Take heart, brothers and sisters in Christ.  This is a day we celebrate.  It is the Feast of Weeks, a harvest festival and the celebration of the giving of the law.  It is the very beginning of the Christian Church.  But it’s also great comfort and reassurance to us, that God is indeed at work among us.  That His gifts, His love, His sacrifice, His forgiveness, and His salvation are overflowing all around us.

Love Each Other May 10, 2015

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John 15:9-17

Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 10, 2015

An updated version of the sermon from: May 12-13, 2012

 

Focus: God loved us so much that He gave up His Son for us.

Function: That the hearers love each other as God first loved us.

Structure: .

 

Love Each Other

 

Over the last couple of weeks, our Scripture readings have focused a lot on love.  That really comes as no surprise, as love is a major theme throughout Scripture, especially in John’s writings.  But it does pose a challenge to us.  What is love?  Do we even know anymore?

We all love a good story, whether it’s a book, a movie, or something else altogether.  And it doesn’t matter how old you are, we all like to get wrapped up in the plot.  If it’s well done, we can get lost in the story for hours and not even notice that time has gone by.

Most of these stories have a common theme.  Fairy tales make it quite obvious: love.  How many fairy tales revolve around a princess just waiting for her Prince Charming, her knight in shining armor to come and sweep her off her feet?  They call it true love.  And it usually ends in them riding off into the sunset and living happily ever after.

While that makes for good entertainment, or as the guys say, a chick-flick, unfortunately, stories like these give us an inaccurate view of love.  They portray love as an emotional high, a feeling of bliss, like floating on Cloud Nine.  It’s sublime happiness.  But how many marriages end a year or two in because the couple comes down off of this emotional high?  It certainly contributes to our nation’s ridiculously high divorce rate, which is somewhere around 50% of marriages.  They don’t understand that life indeed is full of challenges and that there will be rough moments in every relationship.  That’s what sin does.  That’s what happens when two sinners live together.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in our vocabulary.  You can love your spouse.  You can love your children.  You can love God.  You can love a good story.  You can love Taco Bell’s Dorito tacos.  You can love sinning.  You can love money.  You can love a sport.  You can love pretty much anything.  I think you get the point.

But the Greek language had four words to describe love.  Agape, phileo, storge, and eros.  Definitions of these words aren’t always mutually exclusive, as they do occasionally overlap in meaning.  But for the most part, they’re unique.  The romantic kind of love of fairy tales and newlyweds is eros.  It’s all about passion and attraction.  And while that certainly is a gift of God and adds to a marriage relationship, you won’t find it in the Bible.

Storge describes natural affection, the love you have for your whole family.  It only appears a couple of times in Scripture.  Phileo is a love along the lines of friendship and loyalty.  We see it in words like philosophy, which is the love of wisdom or in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia.

And lastly, we have the love called agape.  While agape and phileo are occasionally used interchangeably, agape tends to mean unconditional love.  It’s the love of God for us as His people and it’s the one that’s been coming up in our texts of late.

I know you’re not all Greek scholars, but the point of the little Greek lesson today is to help us identify how love can differ.  The most common love in the world around us is selfish.  How many relationships are formed merely so that we can benefit from them?  We don’t say we love something unless it somehow brings us pleasure or happiness.  We don’t usually say we love someone else unless that relationship has some benefit to us.  That also ends up being the way fairy tales portray true love.

So do we really know what love is anymore?  Thankfully, God has left us with some examples.  I want to do a men’s retreat sometime soon looking in depth at God’s calling for men; being the Christian head of a household, being a loving and faithful husband and father.  There’s no shortage of Scripture to back this up.  In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he said that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

That’s a difficult verse for us to swallow, but it deals with love, specifically the love of God.  Throughout Scripture, God portrays Himself as our Father.  And Christ portrays Himself as the groom, with the church as His bride.  Family relationships, things we can comprehend and understand.  So to Timothy, if you don’t take care of your own family, you clearly don’t comprehend the message of God’s love and salvation.  You don’t get the relationships He has used to express Himself to you.

In this way, we can look at the relationships in our lives today to help us better understand what love is.  We’ve already looked at fathers, and we can look at mothers, too.

We can come up with a whole slew of things that mothers do for us.  Whether it’s the way they care for us when we’re just little babies to how they always seem to know just how to make us feel better.  Mothers and fathers both have that willingness to go through just about anything for their children, making sacrifices, enduring the lack of respect and appreciation that too often comes when their children hit puberty.

Most of us could come up with examples of agape love, of unconditional love that we’ve been given in our lives.  We could certainly share stories together about the kind of love many of you have given to someone else.   It’s a good reference to the love we see in our text; however, before anyone accuses me of building up egos too much today, we need to remember that our love is tainted by sin.

The greatest moms and dads the world over aren’t perfect.  And that’s why the Bible points us to the One who is.  “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”  That’s the agape love of God in this text.  It’s the unconditional love that only He can have for us.  It’s the agape love that Paul talks about in his letter to Rome:

“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by His blood, will we be saved through Him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life.”

 

That’s the unconditional love of God, that while we were still His enemies, He sacrificed His Son to forgive us and save us.  It’s the unconditional love as He showed through the prophet Hosea, who illustrated God’s love to Israel through his role as a husband to Gomer the prostitute.  No matter how many times she abandoned him and went away with other men, Hosea went to her as God comes to us.  He forgave her and took her back, as God does for us.

That dear brothers and sisters, is the true agape love of God, which He has so graciously poured out on all of us here today.  Through the waters of Holy Baptism, He claims us as His own children.  And every time we pray, read the Bible, or anything else that brings our thoughts to Christ, we see the ultimate in love and sacrifice.  A willingness to sacrifice it all for someone you care about.

It is from this love that Christ then issues the command from our gospel today.  “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.”  He roots the command in what He’s already done for us.  It’s not just a random command to go and do something.  It’s connected and flows from His love that He’s already most graciously given to you and me.  We love one another as He first loved us.

What is love?  What does it look like?  It’s putting everyone else before yourself.  If your neighbor is hurting, care for them.  If they’re in any kind of danger, lend a hand, or more.  If they’ve wronged you, it means no grudges, but forgiveness.  If they fail to respect you or appreciate you, it means continuing to love them anyway.  It’s commitment, care, communication, and Christ.  If ever you want to know what love looks like, look no further than the cross.  As God first loved us, so we love one another.