GETTING RID OF THE TROUBLE WITH GREED

SERIES: I GIVE UP…the root of all kinds of evil

I give Up

Joshua 7

2 Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, “Go up and spy out the region.” So the men went up and spied out Ai.
3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.” 4 So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”
10 The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
13 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them.
14 “ ‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe the LORD chooses shall come forward clan by clan; the clan the LORD chooses shall come forward family by family; and the family the LORD chooses shall come forward man by man. 15 Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!’ ”
16 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen.
19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”
20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. 23 They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the LORD.
24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.”
Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor h ever since.

 

“Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City! Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!”  That’s a lyric from Professor Harold Hill in the famous musical… anybody know?  The Music Man.  (Stick around for Bible study today and I’ll tell you the story of how I know that)  In the musical, Harold Hill goes from town to town to selling instruments and putting together a band for kids.  The catch is that he’s not a music professor.  He just wants their money and then bolts town.  What’s ironic about the song is that Harold Hill and not the townsfolk is the one who’s got the trouble.

Today, we’ve got trouble, too.  Literally, that’s what the name of this valley is; Achor means “trouble.”  And what exactly is the trouble?  It’s not that the boys of Israel were getting together at the local billiards hall to play pool.  The trouble is the same thing Harold Hill was consumed by.  It goes by many names: greed, materialism, coveting, as the Bible calls it “the root of all kinds of evil.”

If you’ve ever seen the Music Man, then you know that Professor Harold Hill was caught in his act.  For him, the punishment was being handcuffed and forced to lead the unrehearsed and untalented River City Boys’ Band in a song.  It went terribly, but it’s a fictional story where everybody always lives happily ever after.  The parents are all happy that their kids were part of something and had an exciting few weeks.  Harold is released.  He gets the girl.  And the rest is history.

I guess after hearing this section of Joshua 7, you know that the same cannot be said for Achan.  It’s a troubling history to read, but I’m happy God included it in his Word.  Troubling stories like these would not be in the Bible, if God’s Word was a collection of made up fables and feel good stories meant to teach us some moral lessons or motivate a religious following.  God doesn’t hide it, however.  God doesn’t cover up some of the dirty details of human history.  He doesn’t change things so that his Word is less offensive to study.  He gives us the honest truth, with all the troubling details, so that we will see what we need to give up and what we need him to give us.

If I were to ask you to tell me anything about Achor, Ai, or Achan, what could you come up with?  This isn’t the first lesson that we teach in Sunday School, that’s for sure.  But what if I asked you to tell me anything about Joshua and Jericho?  Maybe that’s in your wheelhouse.  The context is always crucial.

Joshua was the man appointed to lead Israel into the Promised Land after Moses died.  It was called the Promised Land because God promised to give it all to his people.  The land, the cities, the crops, the animals, the riches, all of it would be theirs.  But God also said, “The first city that you take is for me.”  That first city was Jericho, with the high walls that came a tumbaling down after the people marched around the city for 7 days and then blew their horns on the final day.  Because God said, “This first city belongs to me,” they weren’t allowed to take any plunder from it.  Instead, God told them to burn it to the ground.

 

Well, everyone listened except this man, Achan, who took a fancy robe, some silver, and gold.  He took it back with him and buried it in the ground.  It seems like the crime is not a huge deal.  No victims because it was all going to be burned anyways.  The stuff wasn’t worth a fortune, maybe about $25,000.  Why does this cause such trouble?

First of all, God told the Israelites not to do it.  And if you haven’t figured it out by now, when God says anything, he is serious about it.  God never has said something that is kinda, sorta important, take it or leave it.  Therefore, it was an offense that violated what God said.

Secondly, Achan’s sin of coveting and greed uncovers the root of a serious problem. See, God had promised the Israelites everything in Canaan.  He had demonstrated his power to keep his promise by giving them Jericho.  By asking for them not to take anything from Jericho for themselves, he was giving the Israelites the opportunity to trust him to deliver on his promise the rest of the way.  In and of itself, God says coveting and greed is wrong, but they also have deep roots that don’t just lead to sinning with possessions but also sins of priorities and trust.  Achan was not just caught wanting and taking something that God told everyone not to.  He was caught loving things more than God. Achan was caught trying to hide from God.  And Achan was caught trusting himself and worldly passions more than God.  So, it wasn’t about the robe, the silver, and the gold.  It was the hearts of his people that God cared about.

God cares deeply for your heart.  He wants you to be with him, both right now in your life and for eternity.  And so he says, “Me first!”  When it comes to your time, your energy, your relationships, and your money, God knows how easily those things can take hold in your heart.  He knows how a little bit of greed or materialism can sink deep roots into your heart and life and take up more space than they should.  God needs to be first.

Some might accuse God of being selfish or petty.  Sometimes that thought might cross our minds.  We might say, “No one is going to be hurt if I’m a little greedy, no one is going to find out if I’m too materialistic sometimes, there are no victims when it comes to coveting.”   That’s exactly how sin works; sometimes it can make so much sense.  And that’s the danger.

Here’s the thing: God does not need your money.  He owns everything already.  But God does want your heart.  God wants your trust, because trust is about more than your schedule for the week, your relationships, and your finances.  Trust ultimately impacts our eternity.  There is only room in our hearts for one object of trust.  It’s either going to be God or something else, and something else always leads to death.

The devil works hard to get us to misplace our trust.  To do that he doesn’t have to get us to denounce Jesus, stop reading the Bible, or never come back to church again.  He can use something that seems so harmless like materialism, coveting, and greed to sink deep roots into our hearts that crowd out our full and complete trust in God.  It’s no wonder, then, that God demands to be first and why he was so upset with Achan’s sin.

Did God go a little overboard, though?  Achan, his family, his animals, his possessions and all that he had were taken to this valley of Achor and stoned to death, then burned, and covered with a large pile of rocks.  But before that do you see how careful God is with Achan?  He didn’t just strike him dead in his tent. God went through this long process of identifying the tribe of Judah, the clan of Zerah, the family of Zimri, and then the guilty man, Achan.  God was being patient with a sinner, urging repentance.  And God’s patience helped Achan arrive there. “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel…” Notice that his confession is not directed to Joshua or Israel, and there’s not a word of passing blame, minimizing his mistake, or justifying himself.  Achan acknowledges what he has done against the Lord and confesses everything in detail.

The root of all kinds of evil is going to lead to evil. Sin is going to grow more sin.  When it shows up here (in this section of Joshua) and when it shows up here (my heart), it’s never a good thing.  God says the wages of sin is death.  So, Achan died because of sin.  That’s the same reason I am going to die.  That’s the same reason you are going to die.  But my death and yours is just going to be one day.  For all who are turned away from sin by God’s loving patience, for all who live in repentance and faith, for all who trust God above all, the suffering of death is just one day.

That’s what Joshua said to Achan. “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.  There is nothing in these words about his eternity.  Now, we can’t say with certainty what was in Achan’s heart, we don’t know for sure where Achan ended up, but we know that God wants people to be with him.  We know that God was trying to accomplish that by leading him to repentance.

Trouble today is far better than trouble for eternity.  Isn’t that the way God still deals with us?  Good days, success and blessings are wonderful gifts from God.  Be thankful when you have them, but those things aren’t God’s number one priority for us.  God wants us to be happy with him forever in heaven.  Very often a dose of trouble today can go a long way in getting us to remember that.  Sadness, hardships, and the like shows us that we are in a broken world and we are broken people.  The time for God’s forgiveness, the time for us to trust him is today.  As much as it hurts God to see us suffering, he will put up with it if that means he will be with us for eternity.

But maybe you’ve noticed something about this sermon so far.  We’ve heard about sin that so often sends it’s roots out into my heart and takes hold of me turning my trust in God to trusting myself or my stuff.  We’ve heard how that caused trouble for Achan and for all of Israel.  We’ve heard about the trouble that happened on that day in the Valley of Achor for that one guilty man.  But how do we get out of trouble?  How do we give up this sin?  How do we get what we desperately need from God?

Well, there was another man who had a day of trouble.  He didn’t deserve any of it.  It wasn’t forced on him, but he willingly took it.  And he did so that we would not have an eternity of pain and trouble.  Jesus, the perfect Son of God, took our troubles on himself and suffered our punishment.  The root of all kinds of evil wrapped around him and held him in its clutches so that it wouldn’t hold us anymore.  Jesus went into the valley of trouble for us.  That is how God took care of our trouble, so that we can have joy for eternity at his side.

Do you want to give up sin?  Do you want to give up the coveting, the greed, the materialism, the root of all kinds of evil?  This is how!  This is how God did it.  Jesus fought off every temptation.  He fought off the devil.  He was the perfect One, the righteous One, the holy One.  And he gave it all to us.  His death takes away all of those sins and all of those roots that try to crowd out our faith and trust in Jesus.  His death removed all of them and replaces them with his perfection.  Your sins are gone through faith in him.  God gives you a new life through Jesus, apart from sin.

Let me say that again!  APART FROM SIN!  That’s how to give up the materialism.  It’s not fear that you might end up like Achan.  It’s not trying to earn something from God.  It’s that the material cannot give you what Jesus does.  He gives you a life apart from sin.  He gives you an eternity apart from trouble.

God cares about your heart so much that Jesus came to save you from those roots that lead to evil.  God cares about your heart so much that he patiently leads you to repentance.  God cares about your heart so much that he has an eternity free from trouble waiting for you.  Amen.

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MERCY IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE

makings of ministry

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

 

I remember very vividly 4 or 5 years ago an older man coming up to me in the church basement, saying, “Pastor, that devotion you wrote for the newsletter is crazy.  That has to be impossible!”

If you thought last week’s message was shocking, what are you thinking now as we take a look at how Jesus continued this sermon in Luke 6?

If you remember, last week Jesus said that everything in your life is at peace and going well, that you are blessed when you are poor, hungry, sad, and persecuted.  His purpose for saying that was to show us that the proper priorities for life are not earthly possessions and worldly desires but a spiritual relationship with Jesus, a heart of faith, and the eternal home of heaven.  I don’t need to rehash the whole thing, you can go online and check out the video on our website/ Facebook.

This week, however, Jesus takes it up a notch, don’t you think?  Maybe you are thinking that the older gentleman I spoke to before church that day was right, what Jesus says here is impossible.  I mean, there are plenty of places in the Bible where God says something that causes people to scratch their heads.  If God has put faith into your hearts that doesn’t mean all the questions just disappear, does it?  If you trust and rely on Jesus then there is still room to grow in his Word.  And today, that’s what we need to do, because what Jesus says seems to be impossible.

Let’s just summarize it:  Love your enemies.  Love the way Jesus uses it is not even close to love the way our world uses it.  Our world says ‘love’ when it talks about pets, food, sports teams, and famous people.  That’s not love to Jesus.  Because love is not selfish.  Love is not a fuzzy feeling.  Love is not lust. Love is not following someone on Instagram or Facebook.  Love is not wanting more of something for yourself.  Love is making a sacrifice.  Love is caring enough to forgo something that would benefit you so that someone else can benefit.  Love is serving selflessly the needs of others.  Love is compassion.  And the only way we could ever know love is because God is love.

And when Jesus says ‘enemies,’ he’s not talking about the people who aren’t friends, like relatives you don’t know very well, neighbors you haven’t met, coworkers that you don’t really talk to except the casual “hello.”  Jesus is talking about the relatives who bad mouth you to the whole family and try to turn them against you.  Jesus is talking about the neighbors who are actively and maliciously trying to make your time in the neighborhood worse.  Jesus is talking about the bullies at school.  He’s talking about the coworkers who want you gone for good.  Jesus is talking about the people you know who are out to get you.  He says, “You need to love them, sacrifice what’s good for you for their sake, do good things for them, pray for them, and let it go if they hurt you or steal from you.”

As Jesus says later, it is really easy to love people who love you.  Even sinners, the real lowlifes, the castoffs of society, the ones who are looked down on, even they know how to love and care about the ones who are loving and caring towards them.  Jesus says, “What credit is that to you” three times.  You aren’t impressing him or unbelievers when you only care about the people who show they care for you first.  Jesus wants all who are listening to him to understand that the goal is to show love, do good, and be generous to people who do not deserve it.

Let’s just be clear here.  Jesus doesn’t say that evil is good.  He doesn’t say that we just have to suck it up when terrible things happen.  Jesus is not saying that if you are being abused, raped, or your life is in danger that you should do nothing. But he is saying that it is not your job to get even, ever.  It is not your responsibility to retaliate or avenge any wrongs that you have to endure.  If that seems weak and humble and lowly, good.  Those are defining characteristics that Jesus wants you to have.  Just last week, if you remember the Apostle Paul reminded us that when we are weak, then we are strong because we are relying on God’s grace and Christ’s power to work in us and through us.

Jesus goes on later in verse 37 to warn against being judgmental.  This is not at all talking about sin.  So, you better know the difference.  Sin is what God says is wrong.  Look at his commandments; disobeying them is sin. Period.  But living with the hypocritical attitude that puts all your personal preferences, opinions, and ideas on par with God’s moral code cannot be condoned.   That’s what Pharisees did, and Jesus bluntly says here, you cannot judge people that way.  Your default setting must be compassion, forgiveness, and love.  If you aren’t willing to live that way every day, then why should God treat you any different.  He should judge you, condemn you, and destroy you.

And finally, in verse 38 Jesus says to be generous.  Think of measuring out wheat here.  Jesus is saying use a good honest scale, press it down a couple times and shake it together so that you aren’t skimping at all, and even let it run over a little bit.  Having a generous heart will not only be good for others, because as Jesus says, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  In essence, if you are generous, then others and God will be generous to you.

This all sounds fine and good, until you realize that Jesus is not saying this is what you should expect from others.  He is not saying that you should wait for other people to treat you this way.  Then, and only then, you can go ahead and treat them well.  No, that’s not the golden rule.  Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  “Treat others the way I want them to treat me?  I think that is putting the wrong person first.  I just don’t think others are going to treat me the way I want them to, so I’ll just change that a little bit so that I make sure I am not being neglected.”  But that’s not the way Jesus wants it.  God never puts himself first, so do you really think it’s excusable to put yourself first?

What that man said to me years ago in a church basement kind of sounds right on the money.  Jesus is describing and teaching a way of life that seems impossible for us.  And if it seems downright wrong to you, then how could you ever be a child of God?  Because God’s children want to be like their perfect Father.  They want to listen to their Lord and Savior.  They serve willingly because the Spirit lives in their hearts.

Brothers and sisters, it is impossible for us to find our way into God’s family by following what Jesus says here.  But what is impossible for us is not only possible for God, but it is exactly what he does for you.  Right there in the middle of verse 35 Jesus says it so well, “the Most High…is kind to the ungrateful and wicked… your heavenly Father is merciful.” Mercy is another one of those beautiful Bible words that explores a concept so foreign to us that only God can show us what it is.

Think of a gunman who shoots up a school full of kids, think of the sexual predator, think of the worst bully, think of your fiercest enemies.  You kind of want to see them suffer.  They have ruined so many lives, they need to know what it is like.

That’s not the way God sees it.  He sees someone who is ungrateful and wicked but who needs kindness and love.  He sees someone who deserves punishment for all the wrongs they have done, but he doesn’t do it.  He sees a sinner who needs a Savior.  God sees everything that happens, and he has the love to forgo any punishment.  He does not thirst for blood.  The psalmist tells us, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” [1] That’s mercy.  It sounds utterly impossible for us, but not for God.   Instead of giving us the very well-deserved punishment for sin, which is called hell, his grace sent Jesus.

And what exactly did Jesus do. Well, it’s not like we were on his side.  Sin makes us hostile enemies of God.  By nature we are born on the wrong side of that relationship.  Jesus did come here to find all the people who were on God’s side so that he could save the ones who earned it.  No, Jesus came to a world full of enemies.  And he came here to love us, not wanting his own personal gain but caring and sacrificing himself for us.  He came here not to judge us and condemn us, but to forgive us.  He didn’t come to see how much he could get out of us, but he came here to give us everything he had.  He didn’t love the loveable, because the loveable do not exist.  Instead, he loved us so much, that he died to make us loveable to God and heirs of his kingdom.  God’s mercy didn’t punish us.  His grace sent Jesus to take the punishment for us.  God’s mercy doesn’t send us to hell.  His grace gives us the gifts of forgiveness, life, salvation through Jesus, and the faith to hold on to him. God’s mercy and grace is the only way we have eternal life with God in heaven.

God’s mercy and grace is also the only way we can have his kind of life here on earth.  What Jesus says today sounds impossible.  “Love your enemies…Do to others as you would have them do to you.” But it’s not impossible for him.  That is exactly what he did for us.  And when he put the Spirit in your heart, when he took up residence in your life, don’t you think he gave you the abilities to carry out this God-pleasing life?  Don’t you think that faith in Jesus makes you different now?  Don’t you think that God’s love has worn off on you a little bit so that you can look at others in a new way?

Of course it has.  Love, good, prayer, humility, forgiveness, generosity… where else do you think this world should find those attributes than the children of the God who shows us exactly what those things are?  And that is exactly what makes our ministry here so powerful.  We have the God of unmatched mercy.  We have the God of generous grace.  We have the Savior of selfless service.  So, that is what our lives and our ministry will look like.

That man said I was crazy and it must be impossible.  It’s not at all a surprising statement.  Do you know what I told him?  I said, “It sure is impossible for us, but not for Jesus. And guess where he is right now?”  Do you know that answer to that?  Through faith, Jesus is right here (heart) and here (in the Word) and here (among us).  So, that means with God’s unmatched mercy in us, we can love our enemies. God grant it.  Amen.

 

[1] Psalm 103:10

WHAT’S YOUR FILTER? for fishing?

makings of ministry

Luke 5

1 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

 

A filter is an important item for your home.  It’s supposed to catch all the pollen, spores, bacteria, and garbage that is invisible to your eyes but bad for your body.  The filter catches all that stuff so you breathe in only what is good for you.  If you forget about the filter, then the good and the bad can both find their way into your body.

The same is true for your soul.  There’s a lot of invisible stuff floating around out there – ideas, beliefs, thoughts, opinions, world views.  Some are good for you heart and soul and some are toxic, but these things are everywhere.  They are in homes, at school, at work, in churches, at the mall, the coffee shop, the Y, the park, on TV, online, and even originating in your own head.  And these things that are floating cover every single topic imaginable from politics to sports to relationships to race to religion to family to friends to work to money to sex to crime to society and on and on.

We all have these things floating around us.  Some of it makes it into our hearts and some doesn’t.  So, my question is what’s your filter?  What stops certain things and lets others through?  The reason you and your neighbor and your cousin and your coworkers and the politician and the guy on the news and the famous athlete don’t say or like the same things is because you all have different filters. So, what’s yours?

Maybe you’ve never thought of that before, but this thought came to mind as I studied the Gospel from Luke 5.  What do you listen to?  What are you devoted to?  What’s that one voice that will make you, like Peter, go fishing?

A couple years ago I heard a pastor talk about a few of these filters that people use.  Some people have a “father filter.”  What they heard growing up seems right because mom and dad said so.  Your dad was a big baseball fan, particularly a Brewers fan, so you are a Brewers fan, too, not because you have spent time research the teams and see who you like, but because that’s all the baseball you watched as a kid.  Maybe you grew up going to a Lutheran church, so that’s why you are here, not because you’ve tried out a bunch of churches but because that’s just what mom and dad did.  You have a “father filter.”

Some have a “famous filter.”  Famous people are so talented, and they have a voice and thousands of followers on twitter.  They got famous because of what they do and say so there must be something to it.  If they say it, it must be right.  If someone at the Grammys or Academy Awards says something, if Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, or Stephen Colbert, if Donald Trump or Nancy Pelosi, if LeBron James or Aaron Rodgers says something, they’re popular and it must be important or valuable.  You have a “famous filter.”

Then, other people have “a religious filter.”  They have their church and their pastor and that’s that.  A pastor studies a lot and reads a lot and he must be right about religion.  And the church would never veer off and lose sight of its overall mission to build on the solid foundation of Jesus and his Word.  The church would never become more interested in being a social club or a political power.  You have a “religious filter.”

And maybe the most famous is a “feelings filter.”  “I just feel it.  I know it in my heart. I sense it.  I’ve experienced things.  It doesn’t matter what they say on the news, what mom and dad say, what the church says, I know what’s right for me.  My feelings have never misled me.”  You have a “feelings filter.”

But there’s a problem with all these filters.  They’re flawed.  You know they are.  Look back in history.  Study what famous people have said.  Recall what mom and dad said.  Think about things that pastors and churches have said.  It’s not all stuff that’s good for you.  How did slavery exist?  How was segregation ok?  Why does racism and sexism still live on?  Famous people, church people, moms and dads let it through the filter.  Think about your own feelings.  Anyone remember some of the feelings they had when they were a kid, a teenager, a fresh college graduate?  A lot of those things we don’t even remember or care about anymore.  So, why would we think our feelings are flawless now?

Peter had filters, too.  He grew up in Galilee.  He learned from mom and dad, likely.  He spent time on the water, figuring out the fishing techniques, maybe from dad, like his dad before him. Who knows?  He heard from Jewish religious teachers in the synagogue.  He experienced the influence of the Roman government from the soldiers and tax collectors.  He developed some of his own boisterous and outspoken ideas.  It doesn’t really matter what time or place you grow up or live, the filters are there.

And then this day arrived.  Peter is cleaning his nets with his brother and some buddies. Maybe he’s muttering to himself, like a fisherman does who has just been shut out.  He might be thinking that dad’s advice didn’t really pay off too well.  He might be thinking there were using the wrong casting technique.  He might be thinking about what his wife will say when there’s nothing to eat or their finances get tight. (This is what he did for a living.)  These are all the different things that might be floating around.

And there’s another thing floating around.  It’s Peter’s boat, just off the shore, because Jesus is in town preaching.  He’s powerful and poignant and penetrating.  Peter had heard and seen him before.  He was introduced a while back by his brother with help from another man who spent time around the water, John the Baptizer.

And Jesus isn’t like anyone else.  No, Jesus is different.  His teachings, his voice, his viewpoints have authority.  He heals the sick, the diseased, and the demon-possessed.  He changes water to wine.  With Jesus none of those filters are needed.  You don’t need what mom and dad said.  You don’t need what the famous people were saying.  You don’t need what the religious leaders are teaching from their own ideas or interpretations.  You don’t need what your heart and feelings are coming up with.

Peter had all those filters.  His own feelings, the common knowledge of fisherman, the things he likely learned from dad and his dad before him were saying, “No more fishing today.” But there is another filter here.  It’s a filter that Peter cannot come up with and cannot find from a sinful world.  It’s right there in verse 5. (pg. 9)  “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.  But because you say so…”  “Jesus, all these other reasons, all these other ideas seem like they should work all the time, but they are flawed compared you.  If you say it, Lord, I don’t need any of them.”

And look what happens. Moments later, Peter, his brother, and his buddies are out in deep water fishing.  And they catch such a large number of fish that their nets begin to break.  So, Peter and his brother, Andrew, signal their business partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they fill both boats so full that they begin to sink.  It’s astonishing.  It shouldn’t have worked out this way.  You don’t go out in the middle of the daytime.  Other fishermen, the lessons from dad, his own experiences and feelings knew that.  But none of that mattered now, because of what Jesus says.  His Word is the best filter.

When Peter sees all this going on, there is one thing on his mind. He falls in front of Jesus with this request, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”  Peter knows that all of his filters are letting in some of that toxic stuff.  His family, his own feelings, even being really religious can’t save him.  In fact, sometimes those things can hurt, because they leave you all alone.  They leave you with nothing but your sin.

And that’s a tough realization.  It’s hard when you recognize that all your best efforts and ideas, all the popular trends and cultural norms, all the traditions and lessons learned from mom and dad, even devotion to some churches and religious teachings won’t be able to get rid of my sin.  All these things that we make so important to our existence, in the end, cannot keep out what is toxic for life. And that’s not a good place to be.  Peter says, “I am a sinful man.  My filters are all off base.  My ways aren’t working.”

Jesus’ response to Peter doesn’t make a lot of sense.  He says, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”  He says, “Simon Peter, don’t let your sins deter you.  I want you.  I have you.  And I have work for you to do.”  Amazing, isn’t it?  A man who realizes that there is so much wrong with him, that acknowledges he doesn’t have anything good to offer, that admits he hasn’t always used the right filter, the Lord Jesus loves him and wants him.

So guess what Peter, his brother and their buddies do?  They started fishing again.  No, they didn’t get back in the boat.  In fact, “they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.”  Why?  Because they had this other filter, the best filter.  They had Jesus and his Word.  They had a life and a purpose with Jesus.  The boats and fish couldn’t give them that.  Their own ideas, the popular trends, and the family traditions couldn’t give them that.  Peter went out fishing because Jesus said so, and he caught an astonishing amount of fish. And when Peter was getting dragged down by his feelings filter, Jesus gave him his Word again to filter out all the fears and the faults so that Peter would follow him for more fishing.

The question that comes to mind is: what’s your filter?  If it’s the father filer, the famous filter, the religious filter, or the feelings filter, then I’m not surprised if you sound like Simon Peter saying, “Go away from me, Jesus.”  Those filters are flawed.  They want nothing to do with Jesus.  They want you to stumble and fall in sin.

But in steps Jesus with a different filter. One that actually works to get rid of guilt.  One that actually works to remove the sin that is so toxic to us.  He says, “Don’t be afraid.  I love you.  I forgive you.  I want you.”  See, Jesus gives us his Word so that our feelings won’t drown us.  He gives us his Word so that popular ideas and famous people tweeting won’t deter us.  Jesus gives us his Word so that religious ideas and teachings that are floating around won’t clog up our hearts.  He gives us his Word so that family experiences and tradition won’t determine what is most important to us.  He gives us his Word so that we can go fishing.

Ask any fisherman.  They don’t have just one bait for one fish in one spot.  And they don’t just go out one time.  Not a chance. They have a whole arsenal.  They have different poles, lines, setups, baits, techniques, and all that stuff.  They go out in the morning, the evening.  They go to this lake, that river.

That really is what ministry is all about, and that’s what devoted disciples do.  We use what Jesus says.  We go fishing for people who are snagged by their feelings filter, their father filter, their famous filter, or their religious filter.  We use the gospel in lots of different ways like worship services, Bible basics classes, outreach events, camps, community service.  You use it here, in your home, at work, at school, on the world wide web.  And you use the gospel with all kinds of people – friends, relatives, acquaintances, and neighbors.

And why do we do all of this fishing?  It’s certainly not because of my feelings, my family experiences, my religion, or all sorts of famous people.  It’s because of a filter that has no flaws.  Remember Peter fishing in the boat and then going fishing for people?  It’s because Jesus says so. And that’s the only filter needed for fishing.  Amen.

NO LIMITS TO CHRIST’S LOVE

makings of ministry

John 2

1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, x why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

 

This past week I was at a home missionary conference in Atlanta.  Atlanta is massive.  The metro area has over 6 million people, the ninth largest in the States.  We have 8 churches in that area, including a new mission right in the middle of the city.  8 churches for over 6 million.  It’s a good location for a conference about the mission work we have and the work missionaries do here at home in America.  And so a conference like this one was the kind of place where it is easy to see God at work for his church.  These are often so uplifting and joyous and motivating.  It’s a reminder of what God still does and accomplishes through his Word.  He saves people, unexpected, undeserving people – you and me.  When I attend those kinds of things, I pray that it will help not just me but all of us here in our service to the Lord and Bismarck.  Our Lord can do it.

And then, we arrive in a place where the mission work doesn’t seem so great.  It’s little Cana for a wedding.  Jesus is an invited guest.  In is a small, rural community Jesus has to know the family somehow, and a close-knit group having a happy celebration would customarily go on for several days or more.  Music, dancing, speeches, food, wine.  We’re told Jesus’ mother is there and that she notices a problem.  She brings it to her son’s attention because she knows whose Son he really is and what he is capable of doing.  It might seem like a little thing in a little community, but Jesus will prove that it’s not.

Jesus responds directly but respectfully.  The Son of God is here for one thing, so everything he does has to fit into that purpose and that timing.  His time to do what only he is capable of doing “has not yet come.”  That’s a good reminder that we don’t get to tell God what to do and when to do it.  Even if you are his earthly mother or a dear blood-bought brother or sister, we do not tell the Lord his business.  We make requests, we send prayers and petitions, but we do not selfishly demand or instruct our Savior.  We wait for him, and his answers will always come at the best time.

The time always comes when God answers, and his time arrived here in Cana, as well.  Jesus tells the servants to fill these six massive jars that can fit 20 to 30 gallons in each one.  Water goes in, the usual purpose for the jars.  But wine is what the master tastes.  I found this description of what happened: “Water heard the voice of its creator and blushed.”  Whatever kind it was, it was the best wine because that’s how God answers – with the best…always.

But I have to wonder why?  Don’t you?  A family runs out of wine at their wedding celebration?  That’s not life-threatening.  That’s not even life-altering.  That’s not calamity.  That’s not catastrophe.  That certainly doesn’t put anyone’s eternity at risk.  But even this simple item, this very small detail is one our Lord is capable and mindful to handle.

There are probably plenty of things, positive or negative, that we consider far too mundane to bring to the Lord’s attention: a scrape, a full bowl of cereal, a letter from a friend, a small schedule change, a trip down the street, a lost toy, a brief weather change, etc.  Or how about this?  Do you sometimes worry about money?  House payments, bills, credit card balances?  Do you fear you’re losing a close friend, who is drifting away from you?  Do you fret about your kids and what kind of world they are going to have in 50 years?  Is your day chalk full of endless tasks and responsibilities that you kind of start the day with a pessimistic outlook right off the bat?  All of these are relatively small and daily things that we deal with.  It can be easy to think, “I shouldn’t bother the Lord with these types of things.  He’s got depressed people, diseased people, dying people, abused people, persecuted people – all sorts of big-ticket items to handle.  My little thing is something I should probably take care of.”

Brothers and sisters, Jesus turned water into wine on the last days of a wedding in little old Cana.  He cares for your every need, right down to the daily bread that he taught you to pray for.  The small things like scrapes, a schedule change, something lost, a brief change in weather, the money issues, the drifting friendship, the changing and chaotic political situation – Jesus turned water into wine.  He can handle the little things.  The big things like diseases, he can cure them, or he can give the strength and humility to cope faithfully.  The loss of a loved one is when his Word can prove to be a mighty fortress even as waves of grief come attacking. Calamity and catastrophe can serve his goal of redirecting people’s attention.  He can also speed recovery and return any people and any place to stability and normalcy.  His love stretches that far, over every single aspect of your life.  You and I have limitations, his love does not.  And we haven’t even spoken of the greatest thing.

While I was at this conference, I worshiped with maybe 50-70 brothers and sisters from all over our church body. We heard the law and gospel inspired and written by God.  We ate and drank the bread and wine, which is, as Jesus instructs his true body and blood for our forgiveness and nourishment.  I heard other pastors talking about meeting atheists in their communities who, over time through the power of God working through the Word, were completely changed into believers.  People who hated God and refused to acknowledge that he even exists are now musicians, elders, leaders, and inviters for God and his church.  I heard about pastors meeting all sorts of people out at community events, in shops, at neighborhood parties, at kid’s sporting events, or during community service project, and those relationships sometimes lead to people taking a BIC (Bible basics) class and membership in the eternal family of God.  I heard about not just pastors but members of these home missions who jump right in and help set up for worship in rented spaces, who bring invitations to work and parties, who develop friendships with the idea that they want to live forever with friends and neighbors in heaven.  The only way that is possible is to introduce them to Jesus.

“What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” This is something so massive and limitless that it’s hard to put into words.  God’s love is not just able to turn water to wine.  Jesus’ love is not just good for serving at weddings.  See, this miracle is great and there are many more, but miracles aren’t the big thing. John goes on to describe the big thing at the end of his book in John 20: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” God’s love can turn dirty, stinky, gross hearts like yours and mine into cleansed and purified hearts that believe in Jesus.  Jesus’ love serves us the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, given to spare us from the punishment and pain of hell so that we can live with him forever in heaven. His Word and the sacraments have that kind of power.  His love has that kind of desire.  There are no limits to what God has accomplished for us.

His grace will not run out like the wine at the wedding.  I hope you noticed just how much Jesus provided.  If things were wrapping up in a couple days maybe 10 more cases of wine would do the trick.  That’s 120 bottles, each at 750 mL.  Quick math and that would be about 24 gallons.  That would be one of those stone jars.  Jesus did 6 times that amount of the best wine the master had tasted.  Brothers and sisters, your Savior knows how to provide for your earthly life.  He knows how to provide your eternal life.  He knows how to do these things abundantly, without limits.

This good news strengthen, builds, and encourages people.  This kind of love is going to work in hearts just like it did on the disciples.  They kept following, kept learning from, kept believing in, and kept serving the Lord.  And that’s the prayer for us, as well.  That must be why someone recommended the second reading for today.  This is God inspiring the apostle Paul’s prayer for believers in Ephesus and believers here.  It’s worth another look, from Ephesians 3 (7 and 8 in the worship folder):

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Jesus’ power is not just in this place where we hear his mighty Word.  It’s wherever he is.  It’s in Cana and Atlanta.  It’s in Sterling, Menoken, Mandan and Bismarck.  Jesus’ love is not just in this place where he feeds us with his body and blood.  He puts his love in your heart through faith.  His love shines through you, so it’s wherever you go to and serve others in his name, for his glory.  His love is where you work, where you study, where you relax, and where you play.  His love is where you eat and where you rest.  His love is at work in every situation you deal with.

There is also a great reminder here in what Jesus did and didn’t do.  He did change water into wine, but he didn’t fill the jars with water or take the water to the master. He told the servants to do that. Jesus’ love changes us from bystanders to servants who draw from his immeasurable grace and mercy, and then give it to others.

But that’s not the limit either.  His love is active way beyond just you and me. It extends wherever sinners are finding forgiveness in him, wherever the troubled are given peace in him. It reaches those who otherwise have no reason to hope, no possibility of contentment. His love is wherever the gospel is proclaimed. Yes, in keeping with his unlimited and immeasurable power, the love of Jesus is “so wide and long and high and deep,” in this life it’s impossible to fully know it. It even reaches countless souls you and I will never meet until we sit down with him and all his beloved at the bountiful heavenly wedding banquet.

Brothers and sisters, today in little old Cana we see one of the things that makes Jesus’ ministry so powerful.  It is his unlimited love.  But that’s not just in Cana, is it?  Through faith in him, his love is right here and right there.  And when you have his unlimited love in your heart, he involves you.  You already have what he gives you – and it’s a limitless supply – now start serving.  Amen.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

 

Light in the Darkness

Luke 2:41-52

41 Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. 43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” d 50 But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

 

During the Christmas season, there are times when you have to say, “You don’t need to know.”  You come home from a trip to the store with some bags and of course the kids notice and ask, “What’s in the bags?  Anything for me?” “You don’t need to know.”  A spouse opens up a gift that seems pretty expensive and blurts out with a bewildered excitement, “How much did this cost?”  “You don’t need to know.”  Some family members who said they weren’t going to make it for a visit during the Christmas season show up unexpectedly, and you say, “What in the world are you doing here?  I thought you couldn’t make it this year.  How did you work this out?”  “You don’t need to know.”

There are also times when that seems to be the response from God.  Certain things in the Bible often raise questions for me.  Doesn’t that happen to you?  I want to know more about the circumstances, people, or a doctrine so that I can understand my life, the good and bad, better.  I want to know how to figure things out or what to tell people who are bothered by questions or problems they are having, but it seems like God is content to say, “You don’t need to know” to some of the questions we might have.

Can you understand why that is the case?  I’m not God and I cannot begin to understand everything he does or everything he knows.  How could I understand all the bad things happen in this world, to those close to me, to me?

There are some examples in Scripture of some who wanted answers and thought they deserved better from God.  And from what those sections describe, I don’t need detailed answers for every single bad thing that I see on the news or experience in my life.  I need the simple, straightforward, universal answers. I need to be reminded that I’m not God.  I’m not the one who is in control of all things.  If there are problems and pain all I need to know is that the cause is a world that is dark with sin.  Sin is at the root of every single bad thing that happens.  And sin is not God’s fault, it’s mine, yours…ours.

And if I want to find the answer, the solution to sin, there’s only one simple, straightforward, universal answer for that.  It’s Jesus.  That little baby of Bethlehem wasn’t born so that we could have an entire category of music that takes over the radios from Thanksgiving to New Years.  The eternal Word did not take on human flesh so that we could have a time of year to be off from school, get together with family, share some memories and eat way too much.  The Son of God who came from heaven down to earth did not take up residence here only for us to have a brilliant and inspirational life coach.  Or any of that other stuff that people want Jesus to be.

He came here to be the one answer for our sin.  He came here to destroy the devil’s work.  He came here to make peace for sinners and his Father.  He came here to open the gates of heaven.  He came here so that we could have good news that no one can take away from us.  He came to bring us out of our own darkness so that we could live in the light and also shine with his light for others.

How’s that for keeping things simple, straightforward, and universal?  Every page of Scripture is an answer to what is wrong with me and this world: it’s sin.  It’s the darkness we make by doing what God forbids and not doing what he commands.  And every page of Scripture is an answer to what takes the darkness of sin away: it’s Jesus.  He’s the light that dawned on Christmas and has been shinning brightly through the Word ever since.

But then we arrive at this sixth day of Christmas, and those questions start coming back again.   If the entire Bible is written by God and given to point people to our Savior, then why don’t we have more about Jesus from 0-30 years-old?  What was it like to teach baby Jesus to walk, to talk, to eat solid food, to potty train?  What was his first day of school like?  Did he always get straight A’s?  What was it like to be friends with the Son of God?  What did it look like for a perfect Jesus to make it through the tumultuous teenage years?  Did his voice ever crack?  Did he play an instrument or sing in the choir at synagogue?  What was his favorite sport?  Did he hit a home run every time he batted?  It’s astonishing how little information we have about the upbringing and growth of Jesus, isn’t it?

Wouldn’t this time period of Jesus’ life help struggling parents what to do with their kids?  Wouldn’t this part of Jesus’ life help struggling kids how to have respect and obedience for their parents?  Wouldn’t this time of Jesus’ life be helpful for a lot of things?  Why not more?  All we have is a very brief mention of Jesus at 8 days old being circumcised, Jesus at the temple when he was 40 days old meeting Simeon and Anna,  Jesus as maybe a 6 to 20 month-old kid when the Magi come for a visit (more on that next week), and then this section in front of us today when he is 12.

God is content to say, “You don’t need to know.”  And the reason why we only need these few events and details of Jesus childhood is because of what Jesus was here to do.  Jesus was not here to write a book for struggling parents or children.  Jesus was not here to come up with a teenager’s guide to high school.  There are some sections of the Bible that can help people in all sorts of circumstances, but the main thing is to know who Jesus is and what he does for us.

That’s why this section of God’s Word that gives us such a brief glimpse of Jesus tells us everything we need to know: Jesus was taking care of business, every day and his Father’s way.

We hear that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover every year.  And that’s exactly what we need Jesus to do for us.  He needs to keep the law that God gave in the Old Testament 100% perfectly.  Those ceremonial laws for Jewish worship were given by God for the people of Israel, so that they would be a light to the dark nations around them, so that foreign people would notice that there is something different about Israel and their God.  The problem was that the people of Israel did not always follow these laws very well if at all.  And that leads to the other reason for all of these special worship and festival laws and customs. They were also given by God as a promise that the Messiah was coming to forgive, deliver, save, and restore people.

These two little verses that seem so insignificant tell us so much about Jesus’ childhood and his life as our Savior from sin, death, and hell.  Every day he was following God’s laws.  Every day he was obeying his parents without a single sideways glance or disrespectful grunt.  Every day he was putting God first.  And he was doing that every day for all the 4, 5, 6, 12, 18, 24, 33, 42, 58, 67, and 92 year-olds who fail every day to obey God and those in authority, for those who fail to keep God as the number one priority, for those who fail to worship the Lord every week, for those who fail to keep God’s name holy, for those who fail to love their neighbor as themselves.  Every day Jesus was taking care of business, he was living as our perfect substitute who walked this world in our place so that some day we could walk in his place in heaven.

He was also taking care of this very important business his Father’s way.  When Mary and Joseph realize that Jesus is not with them, they react like every parent.  They search the big group of relatives and friends.  When that’s not successful, they take off for Jerusalem because this is worse than that Home Alone movie when the little boy, Kevin, is left all alone.  Kevin was in his house.  He knew the territory. He knew the neighborhood and the neighbors a little bit.  Jesus was in Jerusalem, not Nazareth where home was.  This is a huge city for a small-town kid.  I think we call understand the parents’ angst.

But the child was not lost.  He was not missing because of a conniving scheme to get away from mom and dad.  After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.  When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”  You can here a little bit of an irritated mother in Mary’s words.  She knows who she is talking to.  She’s seen him every day of his life as the perfect Son of God.  But this seems like a stretch to her.  Jesus had not done something actively against them, but these words still seem to show her shock and anxiety that her son could go three days without his parents.

But this is where God doesn’t want to keep us in the dark.  This is where we need to hear the child Jesus explain who he is.  Mary says, “Your father and I…”  to which Jesus responds, “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  Mary and Joseph are focused on their relationship to Jesus as his parents, his caretakers, his nurturers, his providers, but Jesus knows the whole time that his relationship to the Father in heaven is the priority.  It’s not that Mary and Joseph don’t matter.  Far from it.  But he knows why he’s here.  Jesus was here to take care of business his Father’s way.

Almost all the English translations say “my Father’s house,” but interestingly the Greek word for “house” is not in the text.  Literally, Jesus says, “Didn’t you know that it is necessary for me to be about my Father’s things.”  God’s business was that Jesus would fulfill all of the prophecies and laws for us. God’s business was to save the world through Jesus the Christ, his one and only Son.  God’s business was to put perfect Jesus in your place so that our sins would be removed from us and eternal righteousness would be put in their place.

And so that’s why Jesus gently, lovingly, and respectfully reminds Mary and Joseph whose he is.  He is God’s Son.  And in so doing he reminds them what his business is here in this world.   God lets us in on a little detail that Mary and Joseph don’t understand what he was saying to them.  It had to be difficult to raise the Savior, who doesn’t have the same life goals as normal children, but who also has to be a normal child to understand us and what we go through.

This is why Jesus quickly gets up and proceeds to go with them back to Nazareth.  Mary and Joseph are his earthly parents and there is a commandment about parents and authorities that we break far too often that Jesus needs to keep perfectly for us, because he is our Savior who is here to take care of the business of our salvation.

There are definitely times when we want to know more, we want God to let us in on some more information about the Bible, about our lives, about this world, about so many things.  But for all those times when God says “You don’t need to know” we have this beautiful section of Scripture recorded for us.  God says this is Jesus.  This is the one you need.  He is the one who took care of your business every day of his earthly life and just the way God needed him to do it so that we could be saved eternally.  I don’t know about you, but that’s more than enough for me to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for my entire life and for eternity.  Amen.

THE WORD BECAME FLESH

 

Light in the Darkness

John 1

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 

When I was a kid, we used to do this thing on Christmas Day where my brother, sister, and I would look for a small pickle ornament that was hidden somewhere in the Christmas tree.  Have you ever heard of this before?  There are a lot of hypotheses as to how this ever became a thing to do at Christmas, but the one that my mom taught us seems logical.

Putting an evergreen tree up in your house became a thing around the 15th century in Germany.  It’s a symbol for the tree of life.  And so they brought this tree in their house at Christmas because Jesus is the Life, he gives us the gift of life, and he will bring us to heaven where, as the Bible says, we will enjoy the tree of life forever.  And they decorated this tree sometimes with candles because Christmas is all about the light that shines in the darkness.   Their ornaments on the tree were cookies, apples, and other fruits and vegetables because the tree of life is something that we will eat from.  That’s why a lot of ornaments nowadays are round balls that look like apples and pears.  So here’s where we pick it up with this pickle thing.  My mom said, according to tradition, that the pickle was the last ornament hung on the tree.  It was hidden and then the game was that whoever found it first would get an extra present.  So that’s why we did it as kids.

We read through this Christmas gospel from John 1 every year on Christmas day, and it’s straightforward and clear language.  There are no big theological words here, just plain normal words that we use all the time: “beginning…the word…with God…was God…”  But there is something hidden in here that is a lot more profound than getting an extra little present.  Because hidden in these words is the greatest Christmas gift we have.

The true gift of Christmas is not a great man, a miracle worker, or compassionate leader, because it is something far greater.  John wants us to see just how great it is and so he goes way back to the very first words of the Bible, “In the beginning…”  But John goes ever further back than Genesis, to a time where was no earth.  What was there? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  God was there before Genesis 1.  And God was not alone.  The Word was with God, but the Word also was God.  Jesus is one of the persons of the eternal Triune God.  Astounding to think that Christmas started before Bethlehem, before the shepherds and angels, before Mary and Joseph.  Because the one whose birth we celebrate today, has no beginning.

But why did he have to be born here in this world?  I don’t claim to know anything about engineering, but when an engineer designs a machine, he has a specific job that it is designed to do, right?  That machine does not need to do anything nor everything.  It has a precise purpose.  When an architect sketches out a building it is to fulfill a certain function.  If it’s a church building it will look one way, a house another, a store still another.  Likewise, when God made this world and put us here, it was for a specific purpose: to love our maker, to give him glory as an unequaled powerful and loving God, and to be a blessing to our fellow human beings.  We were designed in the image of God to reflect his love, care, thoughtfulness, and productivity.

But quite quickly after we were placed into this paradise, we failed to keep God’s image.  We did not live up to our purpose.  That is why we needed God to become man.  We couldn’t fix ourselves and get rid of the brokenness.  We needed the one who made us to fix us.

There is another reason we needed God to come here.  People often look at God as distant or hidden.  Sure, he says he is watching over you and helping you, but sometimes it’s hard to see.  It seems like God is way off in his perfect home not having a clue how hard it is to live as a human being in this dark world.  Christmas shows us that our God knows and understands us better than we often think.  If we say, “God, do you know what it is like to face endless temptations,” Jesus says, “I can recall more than 30 years of experience fighting off the devil with my thoughts, words, and actions.”  If we say, “God, do you know what it is like to be so scared that you can barely function,” Jesus replies, “I can relate from that night in Gethsemane where my sweat was drops of blood and my prayers begged my Father to change the plan.”  If you say, “God, you can’t understand what it is like to have family and friends let you down again and again,” Jesus answers, “Do you remember my disciples Denying Peter, Betraying Judas, Doubting Thomas?  I think I get it.”  Even if you say, “Jesus, do you know what it feels like to carry a burden of guilt and shame?  Do you know what it is like to feel like God is against you, like he has abandoned you,” Jesus responds, “I can understand better than you, because I carried the burden of sin for the whole world.  My Father would never abandon you, because when I was on the cross paying for your sins, he abandoned me.”

And still another reason we needed God to come here.   The God we have is so huge and powerful and divine and vast and mighty and holy and eternal and on and on and on, that we could never begin to comprehend him.  That’s pretty clear with this title before us today, “ λόγος.”  What does that even mean?  It can be translated “word” or “statement” or “communication.”  But we’re not just talking vocabulary here; it’s the message or the embodiment of an idea.

How can we possibly understand a being that could call all things into existence simply by speaking?  That’s why smart science people have tried to answer that question by saying he didn’t.  Their brain power is too small to understand how this world came into being.  Jesus is so far above us, so much beyond us, we cannot grasp the breath of his knowledge or the limitlessness and eternity of his power.  The title “the Word” wraps all of that up in a package that says we have an awesome God.

But we need to understand him, at least to some extent.  We need to know what he wants and does not want of his creation, how he feels about us and our sins.  So, we needed him to reveal himself to us, that we might understand what he wants us to know.

To really understand someone requires words.  Imagine you are walking through a park or the mall.  You see a man in his 30s.  Just by looking at him, you come to some conclusions.  He has no ring on his finger, so he’s likely not married.  He has a big beard, a plaid shirt, and tight jeans, so you conclude he’s a millennial hipster.  He’s eating a sandwich with lettuce, tomato, mushrooms and pickles, so you assume he is dieting or a vegetarian.  Just by looking at him, you can figure out a few things.  But would you say you actually know him?  I sure hope you’re not the judgmental.  To really know him would require a conversation with WORDS.  So, when Jesus is called “the Word,” the Spirit is telling us he is the way God reveals himself to us.  He is how we get to know God.  We can sure look at things in Creation and deduce that God is powerful, wise, and creative.  Yet only in looking at Christ Jesus can we really see what is in God’s heart.  Only in looking at Christ can we see that God is loving, that he doesn’t wish to destroy sinners, but save us.

And so, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Jesus came.  The hidden God became known here among us.  God “made his dwelling” here.  I like how that is the past tense.  It means God did that in the past.  He came here once, but he didn’t stay because that was not the job.  The job wasn’t to make this place his home.  It was just a dwelling.  The Greek word means “to live in a tent.”  It wasn’t permanent.  The Word became flesh so that he could remove the darkness we made.  The Word became flesh so he could reveal himself as the God who loves us.  The Word became flesh so he could save us from sin and open up the doors to a new home.  The first time, God came here to dwell with us, so that there would be another time where God could dwell with us, when we are taken to his home in heaven forever.

There is only one way that eternal life in heaven can be ours.  There is only one way to be on God’s side, a child in his eternal family.  John says that you cannot be born “of natural descent.” It’s not about having the right parents or genes.  John says that you cannot have this by “human decision.” That means you don’t decide to make heaven your home.  It is “of God.” Heaven, being part of God’s family is a gift given by God.  And he does it this simple yet amazing way.  Through the written Word, the living and active Word of God, the Spirit creates faith in us and ties us in faith to the incarnate Word.  They are inseparable.  To be in the Scripture is to be in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Apart from Scripture, you are apart from the Word.  That’s why we join in worship, why we encourage Bible study, why you read your Bible at home and have devotions with your family.  Because without the written Word you don’t have the incarnate Word, who came to remove our darkness.

So here we are today, marveling all over again at the miracle of the Incarnation, taking in that Word of God.  Brothers and sisters, hidden in here is something better than a pickle in a Christmas tree and an extra little trinket.  Hidden in this Word is the eternal Word who took on human flesh to save us.  Hidden in this Word is the greatest gift we could ever have: the Light of life that drives away the darkness of sin, death, and hell.  Hidden in this Word is the eternal Word who took up residence in our hearts so that we could be called “the children of God.”  There is no greater gift at Christmas than this Word:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

…to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Merry Christmas.

 

LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

 

Light in the Darkness

Isaiah 9:1-7

1 Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.

 

What is the meaning of Christmas?  I’m sure you have been hearing a lot of options.  Ads and little jingles are saying that Christmas is all about gifts, presents, decorations, food, parties, yada…yada…yada.  Your Spotify or iTunes playlists are singing about reindeer, a fat-bellied, jolly, man in a red jump suit, a snowman, and on and on.   And how about all the Christmas movies?  A few weeks ago, I went with my 5 year-old daughter 3 year-old son to see the new Grinch movie.  It was a fresh take but similar to the one I grew up with.  The Grinch hates Christmas, so he steals everything from the Whos down in Whoville.  But to his surprise, they still wake up on Christmas Day and gather together to sing.  Do you remember the song from the Dr. Seuss version?  “Fah who foraze! Dah who doraze! Christmas Day is in our grasp! So long as we have hands to clasp!”  …and later “Fah who rahmus! Dah who dahmus! Christmas Day will always be! Just as long as we have we!” Seeing and hearing that completely changes the Grinch forever.  His heart grew three sizes that day. The meaning of Christmas is you don’t need presents, decorations, and food; you just need hands to hold.

That pretty much sums up the way our culture talks about the meaning of Christmas.  It’s sappy, sentimental, and tugs at your emotions.  It says as long as we have compassion and kindness with family, friends, and those around us, then the world will be a better, brighter place.   That sounds so warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?  The meaning of Christmas.

And then we hear these classic words of Isaiah 9 that always come up at Christmas time: “For to us a child is born , to us a son is given…” and everything seems right in the world.  But this section of the Bible is so common at Christmas, maybe sometimes we don’t even concentrate on what it’s saying and the meaning of it.  For example, did you notice how Isaiah chapter 9 begins with the word “nevertheless?” That means to understand Isaiah chapter 9, you have to look at what comes before it.

And here’s the situation surrounding Isaiah and his beautiful Christmas prophecy.  Judah is the land where he is living, and it’s an ugly mess.  The people were threatened by a foreign nation that specialized in terrorism.  The Assyrians loved to send a message by chopping off heads of conquered foes and piling them up in pyramids to let everyone know who was in control.  Isaiah tells us that the world was full of racism, mostly against the Jews because there was something different about them, their religion and laws.  Isaiah says there was a problem with elitism.  That means the rich had no mercy and compassion for the poor and destitute, even taking advantage of them.  People didn’t care for one another but were always fighting “neighbor against neighbor.”  Divorce was on the rise.  Immorality was the norm. People struggled with addiction as some were known as “heroes of drinking wine.”

Terrorism, racism, elitism, moral decline, political chaos, addiction – does this sound familiar?  The truth is the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Isaiah described the gloomy scene as he saw it more than 2,700 years ago, and it’s still pretty accurate now.   Turns out God know us really well.  This world doesn’t look much like the one he made.  This is the result of what we have done to it.

And so, Isaiah says that we are people “walking in darkness.”  The word “walking” there means to “walk in the way of;” it can be translated “to follow.”  And the word “darkness” is the common word that refers to something that is not filled with light.  Symbolically, it can mean the parts of my heart and life that aren’t bright, like “distress” or “dread.”  So, Isaiah is saying this is not something that we were forced into, against our will.  Darkness is often something we choose to walk around in, like taking a casual stroll.

Jesus said the same thing in one of our earlier lessons from John 3.  He says, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light…”  And if we examine our own heart, we have to admit it’s true.  When someone wrongs us deeply, we have this urge to hold onto the grudge or seek revenge, rather than forgive them.  When we have a juicy bit of gossip, there’s a part of us that would love to share it a few times.  We say that honesty is the best policy, but if being dishonest will get you ahead – like a free meal at a restaurant, a better grade on a test, a better perk at work – then we prefer the self-serving dishonesty.  My friends, why would you think that humanity can rid the world of darkness, when I can’t even begin to rid my own heart of darkness?

And then, there’s the other word for darkness that Isaiah uses.  He says we are “living in the land of deep darkness.”  This is the Hebrew word, “zalmavet.”  It’s the more poetical word that means “death shadow.”  You might be familiar with this word from another place in Scripture. The Good Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, is where the psalmist says, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  Maybe you can look around this world and say, “Yeah, there’s some darkness, but it’s not completely corrupted.”  But the darkness is not just something that we walk around in, it is also coming for us, looming like this death shadow over everything.

That’s the mother of all dark problems that not one of us can solve.  You can run 5 miles a day, eat healthy, and use products that counteract signs of aging, but the shadow of death is chasing you.  We can cure cancer.    We can crack down on gun violence.  We can stop abuse.  All we’ve done is put off the inevitable. We haven’t really made the world a brighter place.

Like I said, we live 2,700 years after Isaiah.  All these advances in technology, sociology, and in governments – the invention of democracy – s0 now we don’t have terrorism, we don’t have racism, we don’t have political chaos, now we don’t have economic problems, we don’t have people struggling with addictions, or do we?  The world is a dark place, and everything that mankind does to try and rid the world of darkness fails.  Merry Christmas!

It’s a pretty gloomy message, if that’s all that Isaiah tells us.  But he goes on; chapter 9 starts with “nevertheless.”  And Isaiah reveals these two brilliant conclusions to the phrases in verse 2:  people have “seen a great light…a light has dawned.”   I hope you notice that this light is not something the people produced by holding hands and singing around a tree.  This light is not a program or policy. It just appeared; it “dawned.”  What is the light?  It’s a person.  “To us a child is born, to us a son is given.”  The light is a human baby boy, but he’s no ordinary baby boy, because Isaiah continues “the government will be on his shoulders.”  It’s not a government.  His job is not to be a king for just Jews.  The administration of the entire universe is his responsibility.  That is something no human being can handle.  So, Isaiah tells us this human baby boy is also God.  He emphasizes that fact with these four titles.  He is the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  We don’t have time to dig into the beauty of these divine titles, but each one can only be applied to God.

Wonderful Counselor – he is the one who gives perfect advice because he knows absolutely everything.  That doesn’t apply to Oprah or Doctor Phil or anyone else.  Only God knows everything.

Mighty God – this little baby will accomplish things only God can do.

Everlasting Father – the author and source of all life, and he has been doing it for all eternity with the love and compassion of the perfect Father.

Prince of Peace – he is able to create perfect harmony, even between the Holy God who hates sin and the people who sin every day.  This Hebrew word for “peace” is “shalom.”  It also has the idea of making everything whole and complete.  He can take any and everything that is broken in your life and put it back together forever.  This is what the angels sang about that first Christmas.  Only God can do this.

The Light of the world is God in human flesh to free us from the darkness of sin.  That is who lies in the manger.  The Light had to be both God and human.  He had to be man to deal with the darkness of the mankind.  If God wanted to tell us how to think about darkness and sin, he could have used a normal person to give us his laws, which show us how to live a bright, beautiful life.  But then again, he did that with all those prophets and we still choose the darkness.  If God wanted to give us an example of how to live a bright life, he could have sent us an angel to show people how compassionate, thoughtful, and selfless we need to be.  An angel would show us how to use our entire existence to give God glory.

No, that wasn’t going to be enough. We needed all the darkness to be snuffed out completely.  Normally, we think of a light being snuffed, but we needed the darkness – sin and that death shadow – to be snuffed out and removed.  That required the Light to be God and man.  The Light needed to be man so that he could be pay for sins.  The Bible says, “the wages of sin is death.”  The Light needed a human heart, so that it could stop beating.  The child needed blood in his veins, because the Bible says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”

The Light also needed to be God for the payment to have enough value for the sins of every man, woman, and child who ever lived.  We all understand that a trade needs to be two things of equal value.  You can’t get away with trading a Christian Yelich card (great baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers and MVP of the NL) for a T206 Honus Wagner from 1909.  One is maybe 5 bucks and the other is over 3 million.  If the one who died on the cross was just a man, then an equal trade is one other person.  But if the one who died on the cross is not just a man but the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace that is a sacrifice that is extremely valuable.  It’s so valuable, in fact, that the Apostle John wrote in one of the lessons that we read, “Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

My friends, the only gift that matters for us at Christmas is this Light, God and man to free us from the darkness.  Christmas was not given to us to be sappy and sentimental.  It’s not supposed to be a distraction from the darkness.  It’s not just nostalgia with all the lights, cookies, carols, and parties.  See, here’s the facts. I cannot save myself.  I cannot overcome temptation enough.  I cannot fix the relationships I have fractured, including the one with my Creator.  I cannot outrun the shadow of death, even if I fulfill a New Year’s resolution to get in shape.  There’s too much darkness in here.  And you have it, too.  We are in desperate need of the Savior from all the darkness.  That is what Jesus came to be.  Christmas is Jesus saying to us, “You all are so broken, so utterly incapable of cleaning yourselves up, that I had to come into this world to save you.  The situation was so dire and hopeless, that I not only was born for you but I will die to completely remove all darkness from you forever.” That is what Christmas is about.  The angels said so: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you.”

But this Light of Jesus Christ does not just save me from the darkness.  Isaiah says the Light is going to build people into a new nation. “You have enlarged the nation…” he says, which, from the context, is a reference to believers.  In using that terminology, Jesus intends that the relationship we have with him will create relationships with each other.  Do you remember hearing that already tonight?  The Apostle John wrote, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”  God doesn’t want his people walking in his light alone.  If you consider yourself a Christmas and Easter type of person, God’s gift of this Light in the darkness is for you, so that you can walk in his light with others.  Believers need the encouragement of fellow Christians as we roam through a world that is still covered in darkness.  One of the main places that happens is here, in this place of God’s light.

So, are you still looking for the meaning of Christmas?  You’re not going to find it from the pen of Dr. Seuss, from your playlists on Spotify, from a TV special, a movie or a shopping mall. The meaning of Christmas comes from God. It isn’t sappy nor sentimental.  It is his honest truth from the one who loves you more than anyone, because he was willing to do more for you than anyone could.  The world is full of darkness, and we contribute to it without any way of piercing the darkness.  Nevertheless… NEVERTHELESS! A light has dawned.  Christ was born to you.   Walking in his light gives you peace, joy, hope and love this world cannot give. It’s your free gift now and forever.  Merry Christmas!