THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO BE HAPPY…ALWAYS

12.17.17

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1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.
23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

 

When Mandy and I were engaged, we went through premarriage counseling with one of my professors at the Seminary.  It’s something I ask all engaged couples to do.  It’s just a good idea before you get married to take some time and learn from the one who created marriage, how it is going to work out well in your life.  During that class, I remember a list of instructions and encouragements.  And one of the items was: avoid “always” and “never.”  Those two words don’t lead down a good road for a marriage.  They are hyperbolic, exaggerations.  Sometimes you could say “them be fightin’ words.”  They go to the extreme and make a situation worse than it actually is.  You say something like, “You are never home when you say you will be.”  “You always forget to change the toilet paper roll when it’s empty.”   In reality, you were home late 2 or 3 times last week or you forgot to restock the toilet paper roll once or twice recently.  When you use words like always and never, it’s not quite accurate and it heightens tension.

In this section for God’s Word today, the Apostle Paul is giving some instructions in this letter that he first sent to a group of Christians in Thessalonica.  These are quick phrases, almost like Paul is running out of room as he gets the end of this parchment or scroll.  “Pray continually. Give thanks! Don’t quench the Spirit…”   And right there at the beginning is “Rejoice always.”  He uses one of the sweeping hyperboles that you just shouldn’t use.

He has to be exaggerating, right?  There is no possible way that God would have Paul write down in the Bible that we need to rejoice always, be happy all the time.  Doesn’t he know what kind of world we live in?  Maybe he doesn’t understand the kind of 21st Century problems that are consuming us day by day:  mass shootings, bigotry, political divides deeper than the Grand Canyon, financial insecurity, bullying, suppression against all types of races and religions, sexual harassment and abuse, the promiscuous and immoral ideologies about sexuality, the idolization of Hollywood, the greed, the lust, the hate – shall I go on?  When Paul wrote this, it was a different time.  It must have been an easier time.

Well, the same kind of people who put Jesus to death were still trying to remove his name from the earth.  That meant wherever they heard rumblings of houses or gatherings where Jesus was being preached and taught, there they were to threaten, pressure, put down, and persecute.  How would you live if you knew being here might mean you’d would have a target on your back, you could lose your job, your house could be vandalized or burglarized, your family could be in danger, or worse?

Or is Paul one of those guys who is telling this fledgling group of believers and us that we should spend a day in his shoes?  Is he saying, “You have those little problems.  You can imagine what I’ve been through.  I’ve been beaten, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, shackled so many times.  I’m literally in danger wherever I go.  I cannot escape the price on my head.  Seriously, you guys should just relax and count your blessings.  You guys should be content that you don’t have it like me.  You have every reason to be happy. You guys should enjoy your life.  Rejoice always, because you have it pretty good.”

Is this just a Paul thing?  Is he the only Bible-writer that thinks we can “always look on the bright side of life?” Actually, Peter says something pretty similar: “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ…”  It’s in the Old Testament, too: “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.” And “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  Even if this is day where you are facing a huge mess, even if you are in the lowest point of your life, it’s still a time to be happy.  Jesus, himself, had this to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad.”

The whole Bible is full of this kind of language, and every time you come a cross it, does it make sense?  In every circumstance, all the time we are supposed to rejoice?  How is that possible?  How can I rejoice when I don’t understand what is going on in my life, or when I don’t know how to do what is asked of me, when I’m not sure what the next stage has in store, or when my beliefs might get me in trouble?  “Rejoice always?  Tell me how.”

Maybe it’s not a bunch of questions that come to mind when you hear this, but it is the heaps of past unhappiness.  God says “rejoice always,” and the guilt starts to weigh you down because you can probably remember a whole bunch of times when rejoicing and happiness was the last thing on your mind.  You don’t have a smile on your face when the kids are being less then helpful.  You don’t have a smile on your face when you see the gas prices rising.  You don’t have a smile on your face when you see the lines at the store or someone in the line behind you is the chatty type and you have a headache.  You don’t have a smile on your face when you or a loved one gets a tough call from the doctor.

Is that type of stuff a sin?  In light of these words, “rejoice always,” is it a sin to be sad, to deal with depression, to be grumpy, or to react negatively?  Our knee-jerk response would be, “No!  You’re speaking metaphorically.  You are using a hyperbole.  You’re exaggerating.”

But don’t be so quick to say that.  If I’m sad because I have come to the realization that I am not in control of my life, then my sadness is a symptom of a sin called idolatry.  I want to be in control, I want the power, I want to be the god of my earthly life, which means God has to take a back seat.  That sadness is breaking the first commandment.  If I’m sad because someone else is causing me pain and “what in the world is wrong with them and I wish they would just stop or I wish I could shut them up for a while,” then my sadness shows that I’m not loving others as I should.  I’m not being the humble servant God wants me to be.  If I’m sad because my life is not as easy as them and “I just wish I could get ahead and have a few of the things they had,” then my sadness shows that I’ve got some greed and lust and coveting in my heart.  In these situations, God’s Word shows us that we have some work to do.

We can also turn this encouragement into an oppression that never allows real joy.  Instead, we just feel the pressure. “If I’m a Christian I always have to be happy.  I always have to have a smile on my face and tears are not allowed.  I have to prove my faith with my joy.”

But God had Paul record this, not to be an oppressive law to follow or to heap a load of guilt onto our shoulders, but for one main reason.  God wants to draw attention to the improbable and impressive gift we have from his loving heart.  In fact, this gift is so incredible that it can cause rejoicing and happiness every minute of every day God gives us on this little third rock from the sun.

The one way to rejoice always does not come from the physical blessings I have (or the ones you are hoping to have in 8 days).  It does not come from the other sinners taking up space next to me for a few decades on this little third rock from the sun.  Rejoicing does not come from the triumphs and success I have produced with my skills and efforts.  Rejoicing does not come from the positive emotions that swell so much I just can’t keep them in any longer.  The one way to rejoice always comes from the one who is with us.

Do you ever see those videos of a soldier coming back from duty?  The wife and kids are jacked out of their minds to be with their dad or mom again.  Do you think that soldier who is a father of two kids that are finally in his arms is upset or sad at that moment if he finds out all his luggage is lost?  Not a chance.  He his rejoicing because of who he is with.  Do you think those kids are bummed out because of a bad grade or bullies at school?  No.  They are rejoicing because of who they are with.  To rejoice always is not so much about positive emotions or favorable circumstances, but it’s about who is with you.

This time of year is an overwhelming reminder of who that is.  It’s not a funny snowman.  It’s not a jolly man from the North Pole.  It’s not an elf on the shelf.  It’s not a red-nosed reindeer.  It’s not Clark Griswold or Ralphie Parker.  This advent tune we just sang tells the story.   Rejoice! Rejoice!  Immanuel shall come to you oh Israel.  You have a God who came here to be with us, even in the rotten, sinful world, he came to be here with us so that we could be with him forever in heaven.  That song reminds us that Jesus once came to be with us to save us from our unhappy wretchedness, to save us from our sinful sadness, to save us from an eternity of doom and gloom.  He was happy to do it, not because you earned it with your sunny disposition or positive outlook, but because of he loves you that much and he wants to be with you.

Isn’t that reason to rejoice every day and always?  Your God came to be with you and promised to never leave you or forsake you until he returns to take you home.  That makes a merry Christmas.  That makes a Happy New Year.  That makes a gleeful Groundhog’s day.  That makes ever single day of your life a day of rejoicing.

And how does that rejoicing take shape?  Today, Paul is not advocating that in every and any circumstance you are ready to burst into the Hallelujah chorus.  But…but, the God who is with us gives us endless opportunities to rejoice always.  Maybe it’s your disposition, how you carry yourself and how people would describe your attitude and temperament.  Maybe it’s your volunteerism.  Maybe it’s your giving heart.  Maybe it’s your positive encouragement.  Maybe it’s your patience and loyalty. But we all have a way, in our own God-given way, to rejoice because God is with us in every single situation you have ever been in and every situation you will ever face in your entire lifetime on this little third rock from the sun.

And so if the day comes where you have to call me to the hospital, rejoice always because God is with us with the gift of his Son.  If you are looking at the impending December 24th with a little anxiety because this is the first one where grandpa or mom isn’t there, rejoice always because God is there with his assurance that not even death can separate us from his love in Christ.  When you are sulking in the darkness of your sin, when you are overcome with the thought that God might not be on your side, when you are hard-pressed with guilt, rejoice always because God proved he is with you when he left heaven for a feed box, for a brutal death, for an empty tomb that opens heaven for, as Paul says, even the worst of sinners.

Today, this is not hyperbole and exaggeration.  You and I have reason to rejoice always because it is not dependent on us.  After all these final instructions, do you recall how Paul ends this section?  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  If you want to know the one way to be happy always, it’s right there:  God is with us and always will be.  Amen.

 

 

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REPENTANCE THE RIGHT WAY

12.10.17

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Mark1

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way” 
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” 

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?  I wanted to make some venison burgers on Friday night.  I was told it’s a good idea to mix a little pork with it first, so I got out our KitchenAid mixer and the meat grinding attachment.  I had used it before, so I started putting it together and grinding some of the pork and venison together.  But as it was going I started noticing some dark spots and it wasn’t shooting out the meat very well.  Mandy came in and asked, “Did you put it together right?”  “Yeah, of course I did.  I’ve done this before.  I know what I’m doing.”  Then, she shows me the spinning piece for the front of the grinder that I forgot to put in.  I had to throw that little bit that did make it through away, because those dark spots were little metal shavings or lubricant that got mixed into the meat because I was missing a piece.  When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?

You’ve done it before.  I’ve done it.  I’ve certainly seen it plenty.  When you have kids, it seems like they will try to make anything work.  I’ve seen Issy and Lute use some of their toys for a whole bunch of different purposes other than just playing.  We expect these kinds of things to work, maybe not as well as it could, but it will at the very least get the job done, so we think.  Then, when it doesn’t happen or someone ends up hurt, you realize that you should have just taken the time to use the right tool the right way.

Advent is all about Christ’s coming.  It’s about preparing for him.  So, getting ready for Christ’s coming means you need to have the right tools and you need to use them the right way. That thought came to mind as I studied the Gospel for today.

People need the right way to get ready for the Christ.  Back then and still today, we could never come up with it on our own.  When it comes to spiritual life, can a person ever legitimately think, “I’ve got this covered.  I can take care of my spiritual life the way I want to with my own abilities and my own thoughts?”  No, if God is the Spirit and he is one who gave us ours, then we need what he gives to keep us spiritually strong and healthy people, especially as we get ready for Christ’s coming.

Do you know how that process works, to be strong, healthy, and fit?  Let’s just talk about it physical terms first. It takes the right tools used the right way.   And it might hurt.  I’m in the middle of that hurt right now.  A few weeks ago, because I was not doing my best in the realm of fitness and health, I started up a workout system called Insanity.  It’s an insane cardio, death-defying 45 minutes 5 mornings a week.  It’s not what a lot of people consider fun.  It doesn’t feel good.  My muscles are being tugged and torn, so that they can be rebuilt.  My lungs are screaming.  My heart is pumping upwards of 180 beats a minute at some parts.  But that’s how you get better.  Combining that kind of regular exercise with healthy foods and, voila, I’m healthier, stronger, and fit.

But it’s not easy. This training system is not telling me what I want to hear.  What I want to hear is, “Sleep in and eat a bunch of donuts and bacon all morning.”  What I want to hear is, “Go ahead and have a third helping.  And when you get done with that, how about some ice cream?”  What I want to hear is, “You will be fine if you just do whatever makes you happy.”

Now, if that’s not how it works when you want to get into better physical shape and be healthier, do you expect that to work when it comes to being spiritually healthy?  Can you expect good results when you don’t have the right equipment, or don’t use the it the right way?

Like I said, God is the only one who can give us the path to a healthy spiritually life, and God is the only one who can show us the right way as we get ready for Jesus’ coming.  That’s what he was doing with a man named John.

Now, John was a recluse who lived in the desert, ate bugs and wild honey, and wore a camel hide around (and I don’t think he was trying to start a new trend). God gave them someone very unexpected.   And John’s job was just as unexpected. His job was not to tell people what they wanted to hear.  His job was not to be a cheerleader for whatever they already had going.  His job was to prepare them God’s way, a way they didn’t expect. Sometimes he said things that the people didn’t want to hear: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” As we get ready for Christ’s second coming, God still gives us a message that is sometimes hard to hear.  “Straighten out!” he says.

When it comes to staying fit, we want to hear, “Eat the donuts and bacon and sit on the couch as much as you want.  You don’t need to push yourself.  You don’t need to go through the pain and exertion.”  But what do you expect will happen when you listen to what you want to hear?  You’re never going to lose those extra pounds.

Spiritually, when you want to be fit and ready for Christ, you can’t always listen to what you want to hear.  God has somethings to say in his Word that might hurt a bit, but it is for our good.  He is straightening us out.  He’s getting us stronger and spiritually healthier.

When he tells us that our devotional life, prayer life, or worship life is sporadic to the point of damaging our faith and the faith of our children, it hurts.  When he tells you or he tells me that my offerings are a meager reflection of what he has blessed me with, that hurts.  When God says that my actions and attitudes are supposed to be a bright, shining light in this world and when he looks he asks, “Why are you living like a child of darkness?  Why, when I listen to the words coming out of your mouth, do I hear praise and cursing?  Why, when I see your actions, do they not resemble the good things I have prepared for my children to do?  Why, when I look at your heart, is it darkened with selfishness and negativity?” – that hurts because I know it’s true.

But that’s not the end of it.  The hurt leads us somewhere.  God does not just want you to hurt and that’s the end.  It’s like a workout.  The diet and exercise done the right way doesn’t end in pain.  The pain in your muscles and the pain of saying no to some of your favorite foods leads to getting more fit and healthier.  That’s how God’s spiritual training works. His Word strengthens us, it turns us into a new direction, a direction that is spiritually better for us.  This new direction is straighter and smoother, even if there is some difficulties in getting there.

For people who are hurting, there is peace.  For people who are sad, there is joy.  For people who are broken, there is comfort. Did you hear that from the Prophet Isaiah, today?  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…  That was also God’s message through John to these people who were hearing some things that were tough to hear.  They had been hurt by God’s message, but God was preparing them for his good news, the good news of a Savior who was coming.

Mark quoted these words in speaking about John the Baptist.  Yes, he was unexpected.  Yes, his words were unexpected.  Yes, the people were sometimes hurt by his words.  And yes, God was turning them from the wrong kind of spiritual life.  The hurt was leading to a healthy and strong spiritual life, a life ready for the coming of Christ, a life on the straight and narrow.

That’s what repentance is, brothers and sisters.  It hurts to hear.  There is pain in God pointing out your sins.   There is a burden that becomes too heavy to carry.  And through repentance, God lifts the burden.

But it’s not up to you to do the heavy lifting.  When I began the sermon I said, “When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?”  If you think repentance is your work that God recognizes and rewards, you are using it the wrong way.  If you think repentance is the get-out-of-jail-free card, you are using it the wrong way.  If you think repentance is finishing up the work that Jesus began for you, you are using it the wrong way.

Repentance is simply the Christian spiritual workout.  Through his Word, God brings us to the realization that we are out of shape.  God shows us where we need some work.  He gives the new direction, the new regimen for the healthy, stronger spiritual life.  And he gives us the motivation and willpower to turn things around.  It’s all from him.

And do you know what that will power is?  It’s not that I’m going to look so good for God, that I will be blessed more.  It’s not that my life is going to start getting better and better here on earth.  It’s not that I’m going to be such an asset for the people around me.

Those things could potentially happen, but the real willpower for repentance is that Christ loved you to the point that he was willing to leave heaven for you.  He was willing to carry your heavy burden of sin.  He was willing to live according to God’s perfect expectations.  He was willing to suffer the punishment and pain.  He loved you to the point where his last breath was exhausted from his body, because you could never pay for your sins.  He felt the full wrath of God’s anger against sin, so that you and I would never know what that’s like.  Yes, repentance hurts when God points out our sin and we can only hang our head and confess it, but it will never hurt like the separation Jesus was forced to endure.  He did that for us.

That’s the motivation for repentance.  God has given us this new life in Christ.  God has given us his law and gospel.  God has given us the reality of heaven.  Nothing can take that away from us.  So, the spiritual exercise of repentance helps us on the journey.  It is God’s way of helping stay spiritually healthy.

The way John says it: God is getting us to straighten and smooth the way for Christ because he is coming soon.  Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to try and convince Christ that there are no potholes, unwanted twists and turns in your life.  Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to veer off the wrong way thinking your hard work and confession saves you.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the unexpected message that sometimes hurts, when God points out what’s wrong in my life or what is missing.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the way God takes care of the crooked and rough places of my life with his loving forgiveness.  Preparing for Christ’s coming means continually going through the spiritual exercise of repentance to enjoy the health and strength that God provides.

That is how to use repentance the right way.  God grant it.  Amen.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

12.3.17

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Isaiah 64

1Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

 

This past week I was flipping through Netflix as I often do when it’s getting late and I’m giving Jet his bottle, and I saw the movie based on the book, The Case for Christ.  So, over a couple nights I watched it.  It’s the story of Lee Strobel’s quest to prove Christianity false.  He read the Bible.  He read books about the Bible.  He went to presentations.  He held interviews with professionals in all sorts of fields: psychiatry, medicine, theology, linguistics, archaeology, and on.  He was a raging atheist who was expecting to prove his wife’s new-found faith wrong.  Do you know what happened to Lee?  All his investigating, his interviews, his reading, and research led him to a very surprising, unexpected conclusion: it’s all real.  Christ, his death and resurrection, the Bible, the faith, the church, all of it is real.  He went from a man on a mission to bring down Christianity, to a man with a mission to bring Christianity to all.

Now, I’m not going to say you have to queue it up on Netflix tonight.  I’m not going to say you have to look up Lee Strobel and all his books.  In fact, the doctrine he preaches and writes, isn’t always what you will read in the Bible.  But I will say this, God does not operate according to our expectations.  Lee Strobel expected to prove Jesus and the Bible wrong, but what really happened was so much different.

That is also something Isaiah noticed during his years as a prophet in Judah.  The people of Judah and Israel thought they knew what would happen.  They were God’s people, descendants of Abraham, chosen as heirs of God’s kingdom.  They took that as a license to do whatever they wanted to do, because God would always be on their side.  If you told them that God would allow the Assyrian empire to ransack the north and carry Israel away form their homeland as exiles of war, they would have laughed it off.  “Never!  We are God’s people.  He would never do something like that.”

Well, during Isaiah’s 60 years as prophet that is exactly what happened.  Israel in the north was leveled, never to return as a nation.  The people living in the south, in Judah, were supposed to get the hint that God takes his Word and his people seriously.  He loves like the gracious and all-powerful Father he is, but even a loving father has to discipline and rebuke and train his child.

Isaiah had the job of warning the people of Judah that they too would suffer God’s discipline if they did not take God’s message and his grace seriously. If Judah did not listen, the nation of Babylon would rise up and do the same things that happened in the north.  Judah would be carried off into Babylonian captivity.  But that would not last forever.  God would get his message across to the people and continue to keep his promise of the coming Savior.  In fact, the Savior would come and rescue people from sin and hell.  He would set up a kingdom that never ends.  God’s people, all true believers, would enjoy this promised deliverance for eternity in heaven.  It’s as if God was telling all the people in Judah, through the prophet Isaiah’s message, to expect the unexpected. And then, everything happened exactly the way God had said.  The people in Judah didn’t expect it at all, and yet it was the stunning reality for them.

Expectation vs. Reality is the new worship series for Advent.  As I was looking through the assigned Scriptures lessons for the next few weeks, I kept thinking of the expectations we have and how reality is often such a striking contrast.  It’s kind of like the people of Israel and Judah during Isaiah’s ministry as a prophet.  What are the expectations and then what really happens can be so far apart.

This week in our Scripture readings, the topic is Christ’s coming.  It’s not his coming as a baby in Bethlehem but his coming at the End of Time.  If you think about that is not an odd place to start our preparation for Christmas.  To enjoy why Jesus came the first time, you have to see where it leads.

Jesus came from heaven once before so that God’s promise would be fulfilled and heaven would be opened.  God did what no one expected.  He actually took on human flesh for us so that people could have heavenly bodies forever with him.  That’s the final goal.  That’s where Christmas leads.

So, is that where your focus is right now?  Is that where your eager expectations are aiming?  I don’t know if that is how we operate at this time of year.  There is so much going on, so much to get ready for the next 21 days.  (Yes!  That’s all you have.)  And look how much we do to get ready for that?  People expect so much out of Christmas every year, and the reality is it can never provide what people really need.  We can try and try and try as much as we want, but even a really great Christmas celebration this year can’t fix what’s wrong.

Isaiah writes, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  All our best efforts can’t change the facts of what is going on in my heart and yours.  When the focus is on the present, or all the presents, then we aren’t ready for what’s coming, for who’s coming.

And we fall into this trap all the time.  We get wrapped up with all the earthly stuff, because we expect that the End is far off.  Instead of alert, ready, and watchful for Christ to come back, we are alert, ready, and watchful for the next big deal, for the next party invitation, for the family members to arrive.

It’s like the people of Israel and the people of Judah.  We focus on ourselves. That kind of preparation leads away from our God.  And that kind of self-centered life that leaves Jesus on the back burner leads Isaiah to ask for us, Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?  When you think that our Lord is not vital in your life every day, every hour, every breath, then is it a surprise that he seems distant?  When you put him second or third or 15 down the priority list, what do you expect the relationship will be like?  Not the best.

That should make us expect something terrible at the End of time.  For people who do not put God first, can we really expect God to come for us?  It would make a whole lot more sense for Jesus to come against us, for him to destroy us.

Brothers and sisters listen to what Isaiah says.  When you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.  God did not do what we expect.  Yes, there was trembling, but it was the enemies of God.  Satan didn’t stand a chance.  Sin, death, and hell were not a match for Christ when he came down the first time.  He is the Redeemer, the rescuer, the deliverer.  He did not crush us, but the serpent’s head.  That is the reality that exists for you.  Your sins are gone from your record.  Every time you have let the earthy stuff distract you, every time our Lord has been pushed to the back burner, every time we have not lived up to God’s holy expectations, every time has been washed away.  We are cleansed.  We are children of the Most High God.  Isaiah puts it this way. You, Lord, are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

God’s reality for us is better than anything we could ever expect.  Heaven is our home.  Christ made the full payment for us when he came down the first time.  Now, he is preparing the places in paradise for you and me and all believers.  He’s getting ready for his return.

So, we should, too.  Getting ready for that is a little different than the all the stuff you’re seeing lately.  It’s not filling up on all sorts of treats, it’s filling up on God’s Word. It’s not putting up strings of lights, it’s putting up your light of faith.  It’s not giving presents, it’s giving the gospel of Jesus.  It’s not sending invitations for parties, it’s sending invitations to worship.  The Christmas stuff is not sinful, but it can be if it doesn’t leave you any room to prepare for Christ.

All that stuff is very easy to understand.  We see it.  We hear it.  It comes.  It goes.  We expect it every year. But the reality that God has provided for us goes way beyond expectations.  Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

This time of year, it’s good to talk about the End.  It’s where Christmas always leads us.  Through Christ, God tells us to expect the unexpected.  Sinners are forgiven.  Heaven is open.  Our place in paradise is purchased and ready.  Christ is coming to take us there.  Be ready.  Be alert.  As Jesus says, “Watch!”  And as you prepare, use these ancient words from Isaiah as your prayer: Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.   Amen.

 

WHO GETS THE GLORY?

10.29.17 Week 5

STILLDaniel 6

It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps to rule throughout the kingdom, 2 with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. The satraps were made accountable to them so that the king might not suffer loss. 3 Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. 4 At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. 5 Finally these men said, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”
6 So these administrators and satraps went as a group to the king and said: “May King Darius live forever! 7 The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. 8 Now, Your Majesty, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered—in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” 9 So King Darius put the decree in writing.
10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. 12 So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: “Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or human being except to you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into the lions’ den?”
The king answered, “The decree stands—in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.”
13 Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.” 14 When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.
15 Then the men went as a group to King Darius and said to him, “Remember, Your Majesty, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.”
16 So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”
17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. 18 Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep.
19 At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. 20 When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?”
21 Daniel answered, “May the king live forever! 22 My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty.”
23 The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.
24 At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.
25 Then King Darius wrote to all the nations and peoples of every language in all the earth:
“May you prosper greatly!

26 “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

“For he is the living God
and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
27 He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
from the power of the lions.”

 

 

What would possess this man to do such a thing?  He takes a stand that is not popular at all.  He goes up against the governing authorities of his day.  If he won’t amend his way of life to fit in with the norm, the possibility of death becomes much much more likely. And yet, he doesn’t change.  Why?  Don’t you think it has to be something so important and vital that he could not live without it?

That’s the familiar story of Daniel before us today.  He is living and working in the kingdom of Persia.  He is successful, trustworthy, and powerful.  The king of Persia, in fact, had plans to make this exiled Jewish transplant his number two in command over the whole kingdom.

But the other rulers and administrators don’t like that idea at all.  You see, they see something odd about Daniel.  He marches to beat of a different drummer.  He doesn’t play the same political games.  He is honest, humble, and upright.  Ironically, those are not the traits they are looking for.  They want to find a way to get rid of him.

What would possess another man to do something so very similar in a different place and at a different time?  He takes a stand that is not permitted by the church or empire.  If he won’t amend his way of life to fit with the norm of his day, the possibility of death becomes much much more likely. And yet, he doesn’t back down.  Why?  Don’t you think it has to be something so important and vital that he could not live without it?

That’s the familiar story of Dr. Martin Luther.  He is a monk and theology professor living and working in little old Wittenberg, Germany.  He had no power whatsoever, because that was being craved and consumed by the pope and councils in the catholic church and by Charles V, the emperor.  But that did not stop him from going against the grain and taking a stand.  And because he did, here we stand 500 years later in a different place and at a different time in a Lutheran Church.

What made men like Daniel take a stand?   In the 2000 years between Daniel and Dr. Luther, more people were put to the test, more people were persecuted, more people were even killed for standing up in a similar way.  What could cause such an uproar that it shook the whole world back then and still does 2500 years after Daniel and 500 after Luther put up those 95 theses? What was so important to Daniel and Dr. Luther that they could not imagine life without it?

It really comes down to a single question: who gets the glory?  The rulers who were against Daniel wanted the glory and praise for themselves and for the king.  Luther’s opponents in the church coveted and carried supreme authority and control.  The glory and praise always went back to Rome.

Today, the question still remains.  People take a stand – or they kneel – or they take to social media to put the glory, the praise, the attention where they think it should be.  What is important to them, what is praiseworthy, what is vital for life – that is what it’s all about.  And the list is extensive: racial equality, justice equality, marriage equality, protecting our natural resources, the end of sexual abuse, fixing the problem of global warming, education and on and on it goes.  Many of these things are very worthwhile, very important even.  Some would say that life as they know and like it would cease to exist, that the world would be a far worse place without some of these things.  Who is getting the glory, when these are the things upon which people take a stand.

What is it for you?  What is vital and important?  If a person looks at your life or your Facebook posts, what is the thing that you can’t imagine life without?  Is it your family – parents, children or siblings?  Your job?  Your income?  Your personal goals?  Your hobbies and interests?  Your favorite teams?  Your pets?  Your politics?  Your possessions?  Your routine? Your religious observances?

If these are the things most important to you, can any of them give you the peace and security you need? Can any of those ideals or goals lead you in a direction that will always keep you safe from the chaos?  Can any of those possessions and passions stay with you when everything is falling apart, when people don’t like you, and when your life hangs in the balance? Can any of those things to which we give such devotion and allegiance silence the voices of evil?  Can any of those things stand the test of time and cut through the course of history with unequaled power and authority?  Can any of those things shut the mouths of lions?

Then, they obviously should not be getting so much glory.  They should not be such a huge part of life.  They should not be the things that we put on the list of vitally important for my life.  There is only one thing that can be on that list.

Here’s what happened to Daniel.  At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?” Daniel answered, “May the king live forever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions…”

When it comes to the good and honest man that Daniel is, there is only one who gets the glory. When it comes to standing up to the other rulers who are trying to get rid of Daniel, there is only one who gets the glory.  When it comes to shutting the mouths of lions, there is only one person who gets the glory.  It’s not Daniel, but it’s the Lord God who made him who he was.  It’s the Lord God who had the power that Daniel trusted.  It’s the Lord God who had to control over his creation and shut the mouths of the lions.

And so when history leads us to a similar man, who gets the glory?   When it comes to boldness to stand up to the corruption and false teachings of the church, when it comes to the authority on which this whole movement began, and when it comes to the message that could not be quieted or quashed in Wittenberg and Germany and throughout Europe, there is only one who gets the glory.  It is the Lord God who stand up to the corruption and false teachings.  It is the Lord God who has supreme authority.  It is the Lord God who has a message that will not be removed from this world until he says it’s time.

500 years later, nothing has changed.  The Lord God, and he alone, gets the glory.  We are not here today to praise Daniel.  We are not here today to praise Dr. Luther.  We are not here today to praise any pastors, teachers, or missionaries who have gone before us.  We here to give all our best praise and glory to God alone.

And do you know why?  It’s not just because he can do cool things like shutting the mouths of lions for a night.  It’s not just because he can turn a lowly priest and professor named Luther into one of the most influential people this world has ever known.  Those things are certainly impressive, but there is more.  God alone gets the glory because of the things we have been talking about this past month, the essential truths of God that have been boldly presented, professed, and proclaimed by prophets and priests of the Old Testament, missionaries and ministers of the New Testament, professors and princes of the Reformation, and still to this day by people just like us.

Remember back to the beginning of this month, what were the children of Israel doing?  Nothing that deserves the glory!  They were wallowing and wailing at the Red Sea.  But God showed them how he saves people when told them to be still and parted the sea, let them go safely through, and then swallowed the Egyptian army up entirely.  Only the Lord saves people.  It’s Christ and Christ alone.   Then, we saw a much smaller group of Israelite people after they had returned from exile.  They heard from God’s Word and saw how it stands alone, not as a book of rules or advice, but as the Words of a God who loves you, forgives you, and powerfully protects you. Only God’s Word proclaims those things for someone no matter what the circumstances.  It’s Scripture and Scripture alone.  Next, we saw King David get a bold promise from God, not because he earned it with a good life or deserved it because he was king.  Instead, God gives his undeserved, unearned, unconditional love to people because that’s who he is and what he does.  It’s called grace and it’s God’s free gift of salvation.  It’s grace and grace alone.  Last week, we saw Abraham get a much bigger perspective than he could ever come up with on his own.  God showed him how when he makes a promise he keeps it even if we can’t understand how or when it will work.  God still does that same work through the Word and sacraments when he plants faith in people.  Only trusting the Lord will give you this bigger perspective and usher you to eternal life in heaven.  It’s faith and faith alone.

Notice, that the focus for Daniel, for Martin Luther, and for us on this 500th anniversary is not “I hope God still gets all the glory.”  It’s not “God should get all the glory.”  It’s not “it would be nice for God to get all the glory.”  It’s not even “I hope God gets some of the glory.”  No! the phrase is: Soli Deo Gloria – To God Alone Be Glory.

This is the God who not only shut the mouths of lions for a night but has also silenced the voice of the one who still prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Lutherans loves to sing it this way: “He’s judged the deed is done. One little word can fell him.”  God not only protected Daniel and Luther from physical danger, but he provided the one word that saves us from eternal danger, CHRIST! We have a God who has stepped into history for us.  He has conquered our enemies.  He has removed our fears.  He has provided an eternal home for his people.  And he gets all the glory.

Daniel was willing to do that even though it meant a night with the lions.  And because he did, do you notice what happened?  The great king of Persia, Darius, wrote to all the nations in all the earth a note this note that gives God all the glory: “May you prosper greatly! I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”

That lowly German professor was willing to give all the glory to God along.  And because he did, do you notice what happened?  With his nail strokes on the church doors 500 years ago, God shook the foundations of the church with reverberations the whole world has heard ever since.

I guess a good question to ask yourself on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is: who will do that now?  Who will be like Daniel and Luther?  Who will give God and God alone all the glory? Who will shout his praise and his glory with their words and in their life?  Who will give God alone the glory by saying God still gives, God still works, and God still speaks?  Who will give the glory to God alone by telling their friends, relatives, and acquaintances that we are saved not by what we do, but by his grace alone through faith alone?  Who will give the glory to God alone by sparing no expense to send well-trained pastors and teachers, maybe even your own children, into our communities across America and around the world with the same message that went out from King Darius: The Lord is the living God and he endures forever… He rescues and saves…?  Who will do it?  Brothers and sisters in Christ, and fellow members of the church of the Lutheran Reformation… we will!

To God Alone be Glory! Amen.

 

A BIGGER PERSPECTIVE

10.22.17 Week 4

STILL

Genesis 15:1-6

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield, 
your very great reward.”

2 But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

 

Last Sunday was a great day.  God’s grace was on display as we talked about this key concept of Grace Alone.  God makes a bold promise to us that salvation, righteousness, and heaven are not based on who we are or what we do but on who he is and what he does for us.  God’s grace was on display when I poured a little simple water and spoke God’s powerful Word on my son.  God’s grace was present along with the body and blood of our Lord in the miraculous meal we call the Lord’s Supper.  Mandy’s parents were here (there’s a pretty amazing story on how that almost didn’t happen).  My parents were here.  After church and Bible study was the 12 o’ clock football game, Packers vs. Vikings.  The Packers were heavily favored to win and take a pretty good lead in the North division.  Then, the game took a turn when Aaron Rodgers broke a collar bone.  It was just that one player in one game, but in that moment, it felt like a dark cloud descended on the Packers’ whole season.  For Packers fans it’s a devastating loss.

But what if we aren’t talking about Aaron Rodgers, the Packers, or football?  What if it’s life that seems to be overcast by bad moments, bad decisions, bad losses?  Does that happen to you?  Do you ever get blindsided by something that seems to bring a dark cloud over everything?  Do you ever lose sight of what God has done, what he is doing, and what he will do for you?

When we see Abram today, he should have been enjoying this amazing moment in his life.  He had just completed a covert mission that Hollywood would make a movie about.  War had come to the Jordan River valley.  King Kedorlaomer and his allies swooped in on the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and sacked their towns.  They took everything: the goods, the animals, and the people.  Among the plunder was Abram’s nephew Lot and his family.  They were carried off as the plunder of war.

One escaped and reported back to Abram the Hebrew.  And he leaped into action with 318 trained men from just his household.  To have that many in his compound tells you that Abram was a powerful and wealthy man in the region.  He gets together his men and 3 of his allies and heads off in pursuit.  He chased down this victorious army and in the middle of the night God gave him an amazing victory.  Abram recovered everything.  He brought everyone back safe and sound.  And when he was offered a hefty reward, he turned it down because it was all in the Lord’s hands.

That’s when you cue the triumphant music, fade out to show all the rejoicing, and roll the credits, right?  That’s what “after this…” refers to.  Abram had been following God.  He enjoyed so many great blessings from the Lord along the way.  Abram should be at one of those high points in life when you just bask in the glow, like when your son is baptized.

But that’s just it!  Abram is grateful for the victory, but there is no son to share it with.  Abram is worried and anxious and afraid that the Lord has run out of time.  He was old.  His wife was old.  The Lord had made a promise that Abram would carry on the line of the Savior.  Abram had the promise from God that he would have a son, but even after this great victory Abram is caught in a moment where the dark cloud was hanging over him.

One night the Lord appears to Abram and here is what he says: “Don’t be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  It’s a little bit of a pep talk, kind of like the one that all Packer fans need when you see Aaron Rodgers posting pics from a hospital bed after surgery on his broken collar bone.

But kind of like Packer fans who are looking at the probability of the backup leading the offense the rest of the season, this is how Abram responds: “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?  You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

There are plenty of times when we bring our requests to God.  It’s called prayer and it is a powerful blessing in the life of a Christian.  You never have to be afraid to say anything to God. He wants us to pray and he promises to listen.  You can speak to God as much as you want, but don’t make the mistake of speaking for God.  That’s not faith.

But that’s what Abram did.  He said, “Lord, you are not going to give me a son.  You’ve given me power, wealth, influence, protection, victory. Thank you, Lord, but you have not given me a son.  I will make a servant my heir.”  Abram is now speaking for God.  He’s narrowed in on one thing, one way, one path that God has to follow.  Abram points out his plan as if that is the only one God can use.

Do you think Abram is the only one who has tried talking for God?  Or is it possible, probable even, that there have been a few times or more when we have presented God with the plan for my life.  I’d like this job and this income.  I’d like this many kids and this kind of house.  I’d like me and my family to be this healthy.  I’d like my love life to look like this and my social life to look like that. When a few of the things on the list are missing, what happens?  When there is a cloud hanging over you, is there only one way you see that will get you to brighter days?  These are times when somehow, someway we think we can talk for God.

At best, this way of speaking for God is ignorance coming from our puny brains that have such little perspective in this universe.  At worst, it is arrogance coming from our puffed-up self-righteousness.  Either way it’s not faith.  Faith doesn’t bring my plans for my life to the eternal, the all-powerful, the all-knowing, the perpetually-present Creator of all things.  Faith doesn’t make me bigger than God, it enjoys being so so so much smaller.

Here’s the point, some of God’s promises require a bigger perspective. It’s like the floor at the Bismarck airport.  If you stand in one spot, you see some meandering pieces of blue tiles among the tan and brown leading nowhere.  You may also notice some names here and there.  Up close it isn’t much. But if you go up the stairs to get a bigger perspective, you see that it’s the Missouri River and the whole floor is laid out almost like a map of central North Dakota.

Brothers and sisters, the Lord has made some huge promises to you.  This powerful Creator, this unchanging Redeemer, this grace-pouring Spirit has said, “I will be with you always.”  He has assured you that he is your shield and fortress.  He has dedicated himself to work everything in life for your good.  He promises things like joy, peace, hope and eternity.  These are not little promises.  We can’t measure some of these promises over a few days or months.  To see the beauty, we need to step back for a bigger perspective.  We need to see just how big and beautiful God’s promises are.

That’s faith.  It’s not clinging to our plans.  It’s not focusing on little snapshots of my life.  It’s trusting that God is much bigger than you are.  It’s believing that he has a plan much better than mine.  It’s resting still on what Jesus has done.

That’s why God said, “Abram, get out of that tent.  I’ve got a promise that is bigger than you can understand in there.  Come outside with me to the stillness of the night sky.  Abram, you are worried about me giving you one son.  You are talking for me about this one little detail.  Abram, look up at the stars.  You are worried about one son.  You can’t even begin to count them all.  Abram, this is what I’m going to do for you.  This is how big my promises are.”

I know some of you are here today in the same situation as Packer fans, with a cloud hanging over you just wondering how it’s going to turn out.  I know some of you are worried about where your life is going.  I know some of you are wondering about health problems for you or a loved one.  I know some of you are worried about your kids, how they’re doing at daycare or school and how you’re doing as a parent.  Some of you are praying and praying wondering if God is hearing you.  And when God’s promises seem to contradict your plans or the cloudy circumstances surrounding you right now, it’s easy to stop speaking to God and start speaking for God.  But that’s not faith.

That’s why God takes us out of our natural and narrow view.  He works on us like he did for Abram when he took him out to the vast sky full of stars.  He works on us, taking us out into the vastness of his holy Word.  He works to give us the bigger perspective.

Do you know what you are going to see?  Your Father says, “You are going to see that before this world began I knew you by name.  Before I set the stars in the sky, I made the plan and the promise to make you mine.  You will see what happened 2,000 years ago when I gave you the Savior to take all your sins away.  I gave you my Son to free you from the gates of hell.  Get the bigger perspective and see that years ago I did the work to wash you and cleanse you.  I connected you.  I brought you into my family.  Take a step back and see my plan for your future.  I have plans to give you a life that stretches beyond the decades you have left on this earth.  I have plans to cure your cancer.  I have plans to stop your pain.  I have plans to fix your loneliness.  I have plans to give you peace and joy forever in my home for eternity.”

When you have a God who promises that, then you see things differently.  You get a bigger perspective.  When you have a God who does that kind of work on your behalf and in your life, it changes you.  It’s called faith for a reason.  Because it is not based in your plans, on what you know, or on what you do.  Faith is based on God’s plan, on what God knows, and on what God does.

Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.  God changed Abram’s perspective and gave him a bigger view of his promises.  When you have a God who steps into your life with his promises, then you have a bigger perspective, too.  With that trust solely worked by God and grounded solely in him, look what God does.  He puts his righteousness on you.  You look like Christ to him through faith alone.

That’s a word that once caused so much anxiety 500 years ago.  Luther hated righteousness, because it was something you had to work for.  The church told you that to be right with God you had to make yourself right. But God took him out from that canopy the church had erected. God took him out into the vastness of his Word.  God worked through the Word to show Luther a man like Abram, who did not get righteousness by following his plan or even doing God’s work but by trusting God had the plan and God does the work.  God took Luther out into the Word, and there he saw that righteousness is a gift given though faith in Christ. And faith is not what you do.  Faith is not talking for God.  Faith is God taking you out to get his perspective on your life.  Out there God shows you something different than your work or your plans.  Out there he shows you everything he has done for you.  He shows you his promises.  He shows you the Savior providing the full price for forgiveness.  He shows you the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.  He shows you the new life that is yours forever as his child, a new life that loves to leave things in God’s hands trusting that he has it all worked out for me.

That kind of perspective is bigger than anything we could come up with.  It’s from the God who loves you and rescued you.  It’s from the God who has done the work to make you his through faith alone.  Amen.

 

SOMETHING TO STAND ON

10.8.17 Week 2

STILL

Nehemiah 8:2-12

2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

 

A man takes a stand.  He sees injustice and abuse that must be corrected, so he protests.  Little by little the protest grows.  Soon political and spiritual leaders are getting involved.  More than a year passes and it still spreads.  One man taking a stand changes the world.

This was going on long before the American flag or National Anthem was even a part of this world.  We’re not talking about NFL players kneeling or a president tweeting.  Nonetheless, this protest that started 500 years ago followed that now familiar pattern.

It was October 31, 1517, when a lone German theologian and university professor in little old Wittenberg took a stand.  He saw injustices and abuses going on inside of the Roman Catholic Church.  The forgiveness of sins was being sold on a piece of paper called an indulgence.  The Pope was clamoring for money and power and was using his religious authority to get it.  Martin Luther started a protest, not by kneeling or tweeting but by nailing 95 theses, statements for debate, to the castle church doors.  Little by little, with the help of a new technology developed by Johann Gutenburg called the movable type printing press, the protest grew.  Political and religious leaders began to take note.  More than a year passed and then in the summer of 1519, Martin Luther squared off with a popular catholic theologian, John Eck, to debate the things Luther stood for.

One took a stand with the church.  That means he had the authority of the church leadership on his side.  He had tradition on his side.  He had the majority on his side.  The other took a stand with  something different.  He had a different, a better authority on his side.  And because of that, he didn’t need the church, the pope, tradition, or the majority on his side.  He had God’s Word, and that was good enough for him.  Because when you have Scripture, you have the power and authority of the eternal and almighty Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And that is all you need.

And so with a brash boldness, this is one of the things Luther said at that debate, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.”  Realize that in 1519 nothing could have been more controversial than that statement.  Why was Luther willing to make such a claim?  Scripture and scripture alone makes someone able to take that kind of stand.

A long time before this there was another man who took a stand on God’s Word. We hear about him in the Old Testament reading.  His name was Nehemiah.  He was a Jew employed by the king of Persia as his personal cupbearer.

Nehemiah lived during the period in Israel’s history after the Babylonian captivity.  At this time period God was using the Persian empire to plant the remnant of his people back in Judah.  There were different phases of this restoration project.  First, a group went back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That was in the 530s BC. Next, about 60 years later, Ezra, a gifted priest devoted to God’s Word and teaching it, came with another group to help the on going rebuild and to focus on the spiritual restoration.

More then a decade passed and it was Nehemiah’s turn.  Negative reports about the walls of Jerusalem had reached Persia’s capital of Susa where Nehemiah was carrying out his role for the king.  That’s where Nehemiah stood up.  It wasn’t a protest, but this cupbearer goes up before the king and asks him if he could go back and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  A pretty bold move, but that hand of God was with Nehemiah and the king agreed, even providing safe passage and materials for the project.

Although there was a lot of opposition from neighboring nations, Nehemiah just kept standing on the Lord’s promises and power and went about rebuilding the walls until they were completed.  And the Lord blessed his work.  The temple had been rebuilt, and although not as beautiful or as extravagant, it was a constant reminder that God keeps his promises, that they were home, and that worship was central to their life.   The walls of Jerusalem were solid again.  The remnant of Israel was safe in their homeland at last.  It wasn’t a large group.  Nehemiah records the number was over 42,000.  And they did have to share their home with the people who had taken up residence in their absence, but they could handle it because they were back.

It was after Nehemiah completed his work when all the people gathered for a special day, a day when Ezra, the devoted priest from the second trip, and Nehemiah stood up with a few helpers – literally, there was a huge wooden platform built for the occasion.  Ezra and his helpers did not stand up to give a motivational speech about how to take advantage of this second (more like 300th) chance.  They didn’t stand up to hand down Jewish traditions that couldn’t go overlooked anymore.  They read and instructed from the Book of the Law (first five books written by Moses) from sun up to noon.  6 hours!  (Imagine if I would try that today?)   And the people watched and listened attentively as if they were watching their favorite show on TV.

And do you know what happens? The people start weeping.  Ezra and the Levites are in front of all the people standing up with God’s Word, and they all start wailing. This really isn’t all so surprising because God’s Word stands out with his power and authority.  God’s Word stands alone.

You see, the people were now face to face with what God says.  Over in exile and even when this group returned up to this point, they did not have a regular diet of God’s Word.  And do you know what happens to people who don’t have regular contact with God’s Word?  You start coming up with what matters all by yourself.  You start to think, “No one gets to tell me what to do or what to believe.  I’m just going to trust my feelings, I’m going to listen to my instincts, I’m going to rely on my reason, I’m going to build on my experiences. I’m going to do what works for me.”   That was the trap that led Israel to the exile in the first place, and you can still see people fall into it today.  The next time you are in a conversation that involves spiritual matters listen to how many times sentences, even sentences that come out of your own mouth, begin with “I think” “I believe” “I feel” rather than “Scripture says.”

I think this remnant of Israel gives us a pretty good idea of what happens when God’s law intersects with people who like to focus on their own ideas and beliefs.  We cannot stand.  We fall down with tears in our eyes. Because what we think or what we try doesn’t work.  Every single person at that gathering in Jerusalem saw that vividly.  Israel tried their own way.  And where did it get them?  Their home was taken away.  The capital was destroyed.  Even the sacred Temple of God was leveled.  They were exiled foreigners.  They couldn’t do anything about it.  They had to wait for the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians.  They had to wait for permission to go back.  They had to rebuild the temple, the city, its walls, and their homes.  The whole thing was a mess because they didn’t care for what God said.

Now, they were hearing it and it hit them hard.  God’s law has a way of doing that to people.  By nature, we are born with this idea that we have to work hard to get ahead.  It’s not a surprise, then, that people want to trust my feelings, listen to my instincts, rely on my reason.  Because it makes sense to us that those things will lead in the right direction.  It’s not a surprise that a whole bunch of churches and religions have come up with something similar, is it?  By nature, we think we have to earn a reward, we have to earn a relationship, we have to earn a better life.  But the people gathered around Ezra and Nehemiah were realizing it just doesn’t work. God’s law was crushing their ideas of what “I think” what “I believe” or what “I feel.”

I find it really interesting, then, how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stand up there in front of all these wailing people and tell them, “Be still, for this is a holy day.  Do not grieve”  Were they just supposed to act like none of it happened?  The generations of disobedience, the annihilation at the hands of foreign powers, the exile, the return to the Promised Land only to find it occupied by others – they were supposed to forget about all of it?  They were just supposed to forget about it all?  Yes!

But how?  Because those words of the law were not man-made traditions or popular ideas.  They were not the commands of an angry judge or a tyrannical emperor. They were the words of the Lord God. The God of power and grace.  The Creator.  The Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The God who delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.  The God who fought for them against the Egyptian army by walking them through the Red Sea on dry land and leaving all the Egyptian army dead at the bottom of it.  The God who led the conquering tour over all the nations in the Promised Land and gave them this land flowing with milk and honey.  The God who promise deliverance to his people.  The God who loves his people like no one else can.

You see, they could let all the past go, they could dry their tears, their hearts could be still because what they heard that day.  Luther could take a stand because it wasn’t his ideas.  We can still stand on the very same thing today, because it these words are not man-made laws and traditions, but the law of God.  And he doesn’t just give us his law, but also his gospel – faithful promises to fulfill those laws perfectly, to forgive you entirely, and to save you eternally.  This book with its complete fulfillment of all the laws, with its grace and forgiveness, with its Savior sent from heaven to free us from the hell, is  the Word of God.  It is not developed by us, because we know the kinds of things we come up with.  This book is completely unnatural.  It’s something that no one has ever come up with.  And in every generation humanity has proved to be incapable of coming up this kind of thing.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stood up with God’s Word.  Scripture alone stands up and rises above.  It rises above the popular voices and trends in the world around us.  It rises above the man-made traditions and interpretations in the church.  And it stands above the self-centered feelings, reasons and experiences in our own hearts.  That day with all the remnant gathered in Jerusalem, they got a glimpse of how God’s Word stands alone.  Because it showed them their God, his power and authority, his love and forgiveness.

When Luther stood up to what the church was teaching, when Luther stood up at the debate in 1519, he wasn’t standing on his own.  He was standing on the same platform as Ezra and Nehemiah, the authority and power of a God who still speaks.  And so he didn’t budge.  Even though he was declared a heretic and an outlaw really for the rest of his life, he never backed down.  He kept standing on God’s Word.

500 years later, we still stand on that platform.  We stand on the law and gospel.  We stand on the Word of the Lord who rescues his people from sin, death, and the devil.  We stand on the Word of God that wipes away tears and makes our hearts still.  Amen.

WHOSE FIGHT IS IT?

10.1.17 Week 1

STILL

Exodus 14:1-31

Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. 3 Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this.
5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” 6 So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. 8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. 9 The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. 17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. 18 The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

 

A quiet, calm lake can be a soothing sight, but this lake was not calming anyone’s heart. The people of Israel had joyously left Egypt behind.  After 400 lost and restless years of slavery, God had provided the way out for his people.  His love for them had not been forgotten.  His unequaled power did not fail them.  The ten plagues were disastrous for Egypt, but while wreaking total havoc for them, the plagues gave the Israelites new hope. Where peace was nowhere to be found, their hearts were put at ease.  They were going back home to the Promised Land of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… until they reached that lake.

Under God’s instruction, the prophet and leader of the people, Moses, had directed this massive nation of people to an area that was impassible, so they thought, on dry land.  It was at this time that the Egyptians came back into the picture.  Pharaoh and his Egyptian army were hardened with rage against God and his people, and this frenzied foe was now coming to either get them back or annihilate them if they disagreed.  It was a paralyzing situation: the lake on one side and the army on the other.  You can hear them hopelessly crying out against the Lord and his prophet, “Lord, why?”  “Moses, what have you done to us?”

Their struggle to find peace had led the people of Israel to question God, even to levy accusations against him, as if fighting God can help in such grim circumstances.  Isn’t it shocking what people will do when they are afraid and looking for a way out?  People think they can fight against God to achieve the peace they want, but instead they go further into the restless storm.

There was a man who struggled with this same thing.  He cried out to the Lord with the same hopeless taunts as the Israelites.  “Lord, why are you doing this to me?”  He fought for peace.  He even left his course of study to be a lawyer, thinking that a more religious path of service would calm him.  Off to the monastery he went only to find that the church was not helping people find peace.  Instead, this man named Martin Luther found God to be an ominous judge who demanded more and more and more from his people.

It was like he was right there with the people of Israel.  The waves of fear and guilt crashing him on the one side and something like an army of Egyptians was the church crushing him with fierce demands on the other.  No help was found.  God became the accused.

And this was the situation for not just this one man, but for all the people.  The corruption of the church at the time was teaching people to earn God’s attention and forgiveness with more and more good.  It was never enough.  You always had to do more for God, for others, for the church.  God was never satisfied with you.  He was never willing to give peace until you made the effort.  You had to fight for it.

How well does that work?  I don’t think it is that farfetched for us to relate to these struggles.  We do this to ourselves all the time.  Like the Israelites, we levy accusations against God as if we know better.  An illness strikes at the wrong time. “God, why are you doing this to me?  You know I don’t need this right now.”  A relationship with a family member goes sour.  “Lord, what did I do to deserve this?  Why can’t you make them understand things from my point of view?”  A problem arises at work or for your kids at school.  “Lord, you say that all things work for the good of your people.  How in the world is this good for me?” You watch another terrible news report.  “God, you say you are in control, but how can this help our country right now?”  It’s like we are right there with the Israelites crying out against the Lord, fighting him.

And you have learned the results of this kind of fighting, haven’t you?  In the midst of fighting there is no peace.  When God is your opponent, there is no positive outcome.  Do you know why?  He doesn’t lose.  A holy God doesn’t get things wrong and he doesn’t make mistakes.  Sinful people do. We do.  And so how in the world could we ever think that fighting against God is going to work for us?  It’s utter nonsense.  There is no peace for people who think God is the enemy.

That’s why people often go down the road Martin Luther took.  If fighting against God is not going to achieve the peace they want, then try fighting alongside God.  That is ultimately what Luther was learning in the monastery: God is with you when you are doing good things for him and for others.  That is the basics, not of the Bible, but the basics of works-righteousness.  And we can get caught in this trap, too.  If an illness strikes at a bad time, I can pray more and that makes God happier with me and then he heals me.  If a relationship with a family member goes sour, I can put on my humility (people call that being the bigger person for some reason) for a while and ask for forgiveness.  That will get God’s attention and I can trust that he will take care of it.  If a problem arises at work or for your kids at school,  you can practice patience and perseverance just like God wants you to.  That will get you out of the problem and bring the peace you are looking for.  If you watch another terrible news report, you can send money to help the devastated victims.  God says that if you sow generously, you will reap generously, right?

We convince ourselves that we have helped God achieve the calm, peaceful stillness that we crave.  We convince ourselves that the Lord plus my prayers, plus my humility, plus my service, plus my offerings is what gives me hope and joy in life.  It’s like thinking that God needed help from the Israelites to fend off the Egyptians, as if God needed their game plan for crossing a lake on dry land.  This, too, is utter nonsense. This kind of thinking leads to the despair that Luther lived with.  How can a sinful person help a holy God?  You can try.  There are plenty of religions and churches that have told their followers to do exactly that, and many still do, but the result is not peace.  The result is never-ending desperation to help the God who doesn’t need one single thing from us.

So, what happened to the Israelites?  They found peace…on the other side of the lake while the entire Egyptian army drowned at the bottom of it.  Their fight was not against God.  God is not the enemy.  And God proved once again that he didn’t need any help.  He took care of them the way our loving God takes care of us.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.  It was his fight and his alone. Our Lord didn’t lose.

What happened for Martin Luther?  He found peace…outside of the never-ending cycle of works-righteousness.  God was not his enemy either.  And God did not need any good works to love Martin Luther.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.  God simply opened the truth to him that we are saved not by what we do but by what he has done and him alone.

So, what has happened for you?  You aren’t up against a lake and the Egyptian army.  You aren’t up against any false teachings in our church.  However, the enemy is the same, still prowling around. Behind that army and behind any false teaching is the serpent who is cunning and crafty and has been ever since he first tempted a man and his wife in the Garden of Eden.  Behind our accusations against God and behind our feeble and frantic attempts to help God do his work is the enemy that has plagued us since day one.

And still…still there is peace for you.  Our Lord does not fight against you.  He does not fight alongside of you, as if he needs your help with the enemy.  Brothers and sisters, The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.

 

That is exactly what happened on Calvary’s cross.  You and I could do nothing against our enemy, the devil.  So, the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, went to battle for you.  He crushed the serpent’s head with his perfect sacrifice.  He removed our sins with his perfect forgiveness.  He closed the doors of death with his glorious resurrection.  Heaven is yours because the Lord Jesus Christ fought for you and it was Christ alone.

This doesn’t mean the battles are going away.  The Israelites had many many many more run ins.  They faltered and failed all over the desert and in the Promised Land.  The disciples had Jesus there, God’s Son in the flesh, and they still struggled.  Luther’s anxiety over sin never went away.  We have the same fight every day.  But whose fight it is?  Who is going to fight for you every second of the day?  Who has given you the dry ground that leads to the other side where there is no enemy, only peace and joy. Who has set your heart at rest and still will for eternity?  It’s Christ and Christ alone. Amen.