COMING ALIVE

5.20.18 Pentecost B

 

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Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” 

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. 

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ ”

 

Do you know what the Spirit can do?  Have you seen it?  Well, I have, and let me tell you the story.

I was called to be God’s spokesman to his people, Israel.  The hard part of that was not listening to God.  As astounding as his visions were, he was very clear on what I needed to say and write.  The hard part was the people.  You’d think that people who had God’s promises would listen to his Word.  But that’s the thing about people – it doesn’t matter if you’re a descendant of Abraham or if you are foreigner, a king or a slave – we struggle to listen to God’s words the way he wants us to.

After receiving the call from the Lord, he wanted me to say some things to get their attention.  They needed to realize that what was happening to them was because they had neglected God.  And when that happens that means sin is winning in your life.  When sin is winning in your life, spiritual death is not far behind.

See, God wants his people to be different.  When he spoke with them at Mt. Sinai and gave them his 10 Commandments, the arrangement was that they would obey everything.  Well, Israel was kind of up and down on that.  After they arrived in the Promised Land was a good time, but then they got lazy.  Every so often God would send judges to help them get back on track, but the message never sunk in.  Then came the kings.  David was a good one, his son, Solomon, was ok, but only 7 or 8 others encouraged the people to follow God and serve him alone.

To help the people see their sinful ways and the destruction that sin causes, God called prophets, like me, to preach.  I was in Babylon at the time.  Why Babylon, you ask?  That was the punishment God forewarned.  The people didn’t get the hint that sin is not ok with God, so God sent Babylon to conquer us.  Over about a 10 year period, we were exiled to Babylon.  Everything back home, including God’s Holy Temple, was completely destroyed.

I don’t know if you can imagine how downcast and depressed everyone was.  God had told them in the past what their sins would cause, but that didn’t change a thing, so God had to bring down judgment on His own people.  Even in Babylon, I was given the task to point out their wickedness and God’s disappointment.

After years of visions and proclamations of death and doom, came the day when God brought me to that valley of dry bones.  The closest thing you could compare it to here in America would be Death Valley, but even that isn’t a fair comparison.  All around I looked, back and forth I went, and all I saw was death, an utterly lifeless landscape.  It was not an enjoyable place to be.

That is the place where God had a question for me.  “Son of man…” he liked to call me ‘son of man’ because I am just a regular guy and he was not… “Son of Man, can these bones live”?

What would you say? Do you think life could come from a valley of death?  After what had happened with Israel, I had my doubts.  Israel had proven what human people are really like.  People don’t blaze a path to life but a something else, something worse, something deathly.

Israel said they were going to be faithful to God alone.  They said they didn’t want to associate with other sinful and pagan nations and get themselves into trouble.  They said they would remember God’s commandments and his promises.  They said a lot of things.

What really happened?  Their lies lead to idolatry.  When God’s promises were taking too long to come true they found other religions and gods that looked more sensible and pleasurable.  All the things that God had said and recorded for his people took a donkey ride into the desert.  It is tragic to even talk about it.  People, by nature, do not want any part with God.

Do you know anyone like that?  Do you know people who say they will serve God?  Do you know people who promise they won’t follow the wrong crowd?  Do you know some who say they will remember God’s promises, but personal experiences and preferences seem to be good excuses to neglect what God says?  I’m sure you do.  I’m sure you can find someone like that in your neighborhood or your pool of friends.  But I know for a fact you can see someone like that if you take a good look at your own heart.

People haven’t changed much over the last few millennia since I was in Babylon.  The lying still leads to idolatry.  Patience with God’s promises wears thin, so other things can take his place and priority.  Maybe you don’t have wooden gods of Asherah and Baal, but that was not Israel’s only problem.  They got too wrapped up in themselves to pay attention to God’s Word.   And when you put yourself as the be all and end all, don’t be surprised if it all ends wrong.

Do you know what lying and idolatry leads to?  Thinking of my day out in the valley of dry bones makes me remember what the Apostle Paul wrote long after I was gone, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” For Israel, for you and me, and for all the world, those dry bones are about as good as we get.

“Can these bones live?” Only one person knew the answer to that question, so I said, “O Lord GOD, You alone know.” It was at that point that I thought he would give me a clear, yes or no.  But instead, he told me to talk to the bones as if they could hear me.  Just talk!  That was it.

The Lord didn’t tell me to think outside of the box to try or find some new fresh way to connect to those dead bones.  He didn’t tell me about any kind of gadgets and ideas that might work.  He didn’t tell me about computers.  He didn’t say that certain song styles or instruments would raise those bones to life.  He never mentioned a specific style of preaching that would be better than another.  He didn’t tell me about pulpits or pews.  Intrestingly, he also didn’t talk about traditions.  He didn’t say anything about the way it always was.  He didn’t say that the same way is the best way.  He didn’t say stubborn attitudes and unchanging ideas will cause nasty, dried up bones to live.

None of the things that people argue about would do anything for those bones.  I am not downplaying what advancements and blessings can do.  But I know for a fact that anything other than the Word of the Almighty God cannot bring life to a place of death.  Nothing but the Word of God can turn a heart of cold stone, to a heart of life….not even a little bit.  The only thing that causes life is God’s Word.  I was there to witness it.

He told me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!  I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’” I did what God told me to do and the results were overwhelming.  Simply put, God’s Word worked.  He’s got the power.  He’s got the Word.  And it works. The bones started flying around. And the noise – millions of bones coming together – was more than anything your kids could produce with their toys.

After all the bones came together, the tendons, guts, muscles, and layers of skin formed around each skeleton.  It was vastly different from when I first arrived at the valley.  Some might say that everything was different, but really it was still the same.  The bones now were perfectly in place with all that is needed for life, but the bodies still lay there, motionless.  They were still just as dead as before.

God had done the amazing work, but there was one thing missing.  The Lord gave me more of his words to speak.  “Come from the four winds, o breath, and breathe into these slain, that they might live.”  The breath was not normal.  In Hebrew, that’s the language that I spoke back then and the one I used to write my book, “breath” is the same word as “spirit.” So, when God told me to call the breath, it was his way of telling me to call for the Holy Spirit.

What I had seen in the valley was death, but with God’s Word and the work of the Spirit, I saw death coming alive.  The multitude of dry bones came together perfectly.  The flesh wrapped them perfectly. The breath came and filled them perfectly. Where death was, God made life.  This is all God’s handiwork, and it is always his handiwork when death turns to life.

There they stood an army to serve its source of life.  God had created a massive group.  When I had seen armies in the past they had a mission to conquer or defend.  This army was no different.  The Lord did this to show me and all of Israel what he can accomplish with his Spirit.  He can make life.  He can make that life achieve his purpose, just as he said.

What I am looking at right now, is not much different than what I saw in that valley.  God has worked another miracle.  I am not staring at random bones.  I am not staring at death, but life.  This is not something you did.  This is the power of God.  The same power that raised Jesus from death to life continues to work today. Through his Word and Spirit, God brings life.

The Holy Spirit came into you the same way I saw him go into the bodies in the valley.  At your baptism, death was swallowed up in victory.  The Spirit planted the life-giving gospel message of free forgiveness through Jesus Christ in you.  Through the powerful Word of God, he keeps faith living and active.  You aren’t a pile of bones.  You aren’t lifeless corpses.  You are the same army that I saw thousands of years ago standing ready to serve your Creator and your life-giver.

This experience in the valley of dry bones wasn’t just for me.  I had to tell all of those people who were in exile with me.  I had to tell them God’s life-giving message.  But, if you are like the house of Israel, then you also might find yourself focusing on the negative side of things.  They said, “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.”  In exile, there wasn’t a lot to be positive about.  They had received a just judgment from God.  They didn’t see the sun rising on a new day.

If you ever feel yourself swamped in pessimism, then listen again to what God told Israel because he says that to you, too.  “O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.”  

Do you know what God did to make this come true? He sent his own Son, Jesus, to conquer the grave, not just for himself, but for all who believe in him. With Jesus’ resurrection, God assures us all that what He told me in the valley is true.  God will open graves and restore life again.

Today is a special festival for you to thank God for life.  When I arrived in the valley, I didn’t see much hope.  Generations after I had gone, it didn’t look like there was much hope for the fledgling church led by the disciples.   But, today there is a different tone.  You are celebrating Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  I was blessed to see firsthand that death comes alive through the Word of God. Generations later, The Spirit brought the same kind of life through the message of Jesus that Peter and the disciples preached.  3000 joined their numbers during that Pentecost celebration.

The promise God gave me in the valley is still life-giving promise for you. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live. The Holy Spirit has not quit yet.  Wherever God’s Word is, there the Spirit will be with his heavenly breath to bring life.  Amen.

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JESUS’ ASCENSION MEANS IT’S TIME FOR MINISTRY

5.13.18 Ascension

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Ephesians 4:7-16

7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”

9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 

 

On a day when America takes time to recognize mothers, we are taking time for this festival called the Ascension of our Lord.  You might think that the two have absolutely nothing in common, that there is no possible way that these two days could ever correlate.  One is about love and sacrifice and selflessness and care and serving, and the other is about Jesus leaving this world to take up residence at his rightful place on heaven’s throne.

But maybe you noticed something as I read through Ephesians 4. Jesus’ ascension is also about love for his people, the sacrifice he made for us, and how his completed work means we now have something to offer others.  There is a word for this kind thing that shows up right in the middle of verse 12 in Ephesians 4:  διακονίας.  That’s the Greek word for “ministry,” or “service.”  When Christ ascended he had some work in mind for us to do.

That’s how it dawned on me that the two are very similar.  Mothering is a service in a way that it is selflessly serving children for their good.  It is loving care for children so that won’t be tossed back and forth by the waves of life.  It’s helping children grow and mature the right way. That is exactly what Christ’s triumphant return to heaven means for us, his church.  Jesus’ ascension means it’s time for ministry.

As we discuss this ministry we have received from our ascended Lord, I want us to answer three questions: 1) what does Jesus give us for ministry? 2) who does Christ give us for ministry? 3) what is the purpose of this ministry?

If Jesus going back to heaven means that he has left us to do his ministry work, doesn’t that sound kind of hopeless?  Why would a perfect God leave this very important work up to imperfect rebels like us?  But for one it means Jesus is done with his saving work.  He came and did everything that God had promised he would.  He completely finished the work of defeating sin, death, and the devil to open up heaven for us.  We have to also remember that Jesus promised to be with us to the very end of the age.  It’s still his church and from heaven he rules all things for our spiritual and eternal good.  His grace will not leave us.

Paul says “to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” Now it would be nonsense for us to think that we have earned these gifts or achieved them by personal performance. Grace cannot be earned or deserved in any way.  Grace is not based on your performance. Jesus, the one who descended to earth to be the Savior from sin, the conqueror of hell, the crusher of Satan, he loves you and has an endless supply of grace for you because of who he is and what he has done.

His grace also supplies everything you need for this ministry.  Paul quotes from the Psalms to prove this point.  “When he ascended on high…he gave gifts to his people.”  What are these gifts we’re talking about? God’s gifts are the things and abilities he gives you to serve him, to be involved in ministry, to care for others.

He might give some of us talents in music or abilities with our hands to build or fix things.  He might give some of us administrative minds for group work and others jolly personalities to be warm and caring.  He might give some of us courage and optimism to press on and stand up against negative doubts and worries.  He might give some gifts at one time in life and then change the gifts at another time.  But the key that Paul wants us to know is that Jesus gives every one of us gifts.  It’s personal for each of us so that we can serve him and one another.

Now, it doesn’t make much sense at all that Jesus would ascend to heaven to watch over his church and give you the gift of being a good communicator so that you will use that gift to spread gossip and rumors. It doesn’t make much sense that Jesus would give you a knack for fixing things so that you would only fix your things.  That would be similar to a mother neglecting her children’s basic needs. Jesus would never give you gifts and abilities for sinful or selfish purposes.

And yet as he looks over his people today, does he see his gifts being used properly?  Does he see his gifts being used faithfully and regularly?  Or is it easy for us to fall into the devil’s trap and treat our abilities and talents that come from the throne of God as if we can do whatever we want?  If gifts come from God’s grace, then shouldn’t we use them for his glory?  He doesn’t owe us these things, gifts are from his hand so that we use them as his children should. If we don’t do use his gifts properly then he certainly has a good reason to remove them from us, wouldn’t you say?  If a mom is going to neglect her children’s basic needs, those children will be removed, right?

But the amazing thing is Jesus still has grace for us in this ministry.  We may prove too often that we are selfish, but Jesus proves his grace all the more.  He rolls the selfishness away by continually providing the gifts we need for his ministry, to serve him and others.

Now, the next question is who does Jesus give for ministry?  We’re on verse 11, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” 

Jesus was thinking of you when he ascended, because he knew that you would need more than certain talents and abilities.  He knew people would need a regular diet his Word and sacraments to create and strengthen faith all over the world.  Jesus knew that only his Word and sacraments could have the power and comfort to accomplish his saving work.  He knew that his word had to spread.  And so Jesus provided servants to do just that.  Today, we call them pastors and teachers.

These representatives and servants are trained and sent from Jesus through his church to serve his people.   No, that doesn’t mean there is some divine factory somewhere that miraculously churns out pastors and teachers every year.  Well, I take that back; actually there is.  It’s your homes and congregations just like Our Saviour’s.  That’s where God finds his next generation of called servants for his work. He watches over your homes and finds boys and girls who love him and his Word.  He finds ways of instilling the desire to serve when kids see parents serving in ministry with their talents and abilities on committees or helping out at events. He finds ways to motivate kids when called workers carry out their service with the joy of Jesus every day.  He prepares kids just like ours at our Lutheran prep schools and high schools, our Martin Luther College, and our Seminary.   And then Jesus does something incredible.  It happened yesterday at MLC and Thursday, May 24th at the Seminary.  He’s going to give these servants places to serve his people. It’s incredible how he takes care of his church.  Ever since he went home to heaven he has given gifts to his people and given servants to serve his people, because Jesus works through us, his people.  He gives pastors and teachers the powerful gospel message with his powerful promise to work through our feeble efforts to feed and nurture and build his flock.

Now these servants are not perfect.  I can personally attest to that.  But that’s what makes it easy to be a pastor and teacher.  I personally know what sin is and I personally fight temptations just like you.  I know the burdens of guilt and the problems of sin very well, and I know the solution can only be the grace of Jesus, his death and resurrection.  I know how Jesus can change lives because I know what he has done for me.  By God’s grace, as your pastor, I get to see his Word work in your lives, too.  I get to see God’s law crush sinful pride and self-righteousness.  I get to see God’s gospel soothe the aching heart and restore the broken spirit. I get to see how God’s Word gives you the humility and confidence to fight against sin and how you use your gifts to serve our Savior.  With apologies to mothers, there is no greater job on this planet than to be a servant of the Savior Jesus.

That being said, it doesn’t mean I’m on some kind of pedestal.  I’m not closer to God.  I’m not better at serving.  I’m a sinner who has been trained and called to serve in this ministry full-time.  You are a sinner who is just as vital to the ministry even if you aren’t serving full-time.  You are a child of God, and the last time I checked that means you get to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  You are a part of the service, the ministry, that God carries out through his church.  You are a crucial part of the body that needs all the parts to work properly.

That leads to the last question: what is the purpose of this ministry?  Why did Jesus ascend to give us gifts and abilities, to give us servants of the gospel?  Paul answers that for us: “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”

Ministry is all about serving God and one another. See when you have a ministry it’s not about a church building or list of projects or finances.  It’s not about a pastor or teacher.  It’s not about this talent or this ability. It’s not about emotional worship or the biggest, best events.  The ministry is about Christ. It’s about serving Christ, who is the head, and serving others, those who are either in the body of Christ with us – we call that the Church – or those who we pray might join us in this body of Christ.

If you want this body of believers to be strong and grow, it takes work.  As Jesus sits on his throne in heaven he gives you gifts, and he wants you to use those gifts. That’s ministry.  That’s service to our King. And that kind of ministry never stops.  As Paul says: speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. The truth is we don’t earn or deserve anything from God, but that didn’t stop God from loving you and giving you his own Son.  The truth is Jesus is the Savior for us.  He is the conqueror for us.  He is the ruler for us.  He is the head and by his grace we are the body.  That’s the truth at the center of our ministry. And so we work together as the body by doing what the head tells us.  We use his Word of truth and his gifts with his servants to accomplish his ministry.

That’s how the body of Christ is built up. And it’s a beautiful thing when it’s working.  Sometimes it means larger numbers of people and sometimes it doesn’t. Certainly, we want to reach more people, but growing in ministry can happen as each body member gets stronger in faith and uses their gifts more. Paul says it this way: From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.  Ministry happens when each part does its work.

Growing in ministry also happens as we band together to fight off all the errors and assaults that come our way.  Using God’s Word and serving one another in love will strengthen us to defend our ministry against the devil, the world, and our sinful natures.  As that ministry work is done: then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

Kind of sounds like what a mom does, she helps her kids grow so they won’t be tossed back and forth by the storms that come in life.  Today, thank God for moms.  But don’t forget to thank Jesus for ministry, the service that we all have to do.  Jesus gives us the gifts, the talents, the abilities to carry out his work.  He gives us the servants like parents and children but also full-time pastors and teachers.  And he gives us the real purpose for all our ministry: to equip all God’s people so that the body of believers is built up.  That’s not just a job for a caring mother.  Because of Jesus’ ascension we all get to be a part of ministry.  God grant it.  Amen.

YOUR REAL TEST IS JUST BEGINNING

5.6.18 Easter 6B Confirmation

1 John 4:1-6

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
4 You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

 

Jakob and Hunter, I bet you’re glad to finally be here. You’ve been studying God’s Word with me for two years, and with your parents and Sunday School teachers for a lot longer than that. Then, this past Thursday you had the Examination…ation…ation…ation. You sat in front of your family and some members of the church and faced a thorough body of questions. I’m sorry I couldn’t be here, but I saw it on FaceTime while I sat over in the parsonage basement. I told you before and Pastor Wolfe said it again Thursday night that it wasn’t a test, but I know it felt like it. You were still up front, and you still had to answer questions all on your own. I’m happy to say you both did well. I know how much effort and interest you put into your studies. And everyone there Thursday found out how much study you put into your examination. Hours and hours, right?  That’s good.

So now, maybe the last thing you want to hear this morning is that your real test is just beginningYou see, there’s a growing thought in Christianity that confirmation is maybe not the best thing for young people. This whole day looks a lot like the end of something, doesn’t it? You’re done studying! You’ve accomplished something. We put you in robes, we have a reception.  Your family throws you a party where you get cards, money, and presents.  I remember it well.

But confirmation is NOT a graduation. Confirmation prepares you for the testing that you have to face and have to do for the rest of your life. For far too many people, the day you are now having is the height of their faith and knowledge of God’s grace. They worked their way up to this day, with studying, memorizing, praying, worshiping, learning…  And then they stopped. They stopped reading God’s Word. They stopped gathering together for Bible study, and then all too often, even stopped coming to worship.  And do you know what happens to your faith when it isn’t fed by God’s Word?  (whistling sound down) Statistics tell us that about 4 out of 10 people confirmed in 8th grade are no longer attending church by the end of high school.

I don’t want that to happen.  Your brothers and sisters in this family of God don’t want that to happen.  God certainly doesn’t want to see his young children turn from their loving eternal Father.  That’s why I think this section from 1 John is great for you and all of us today. The Apostle John tells Christians that our whole life is one of testing.  It’s not like God has his red pen out, watching and waiting to whip another check mark.  But there are certainly many opportunities in our life of faith to be tested.  It’s good.  It helps us grow.  Like lifting weights, it’s hard but it makes your faith stronger.

What John is talking about here is that as we live in faith we also need to test for something, the truth. We need to test the voices that we listen to. Are they speaking from God or from God’s enemies? When our testing shows that we have found a pastor or a church that speaks the truth, then we will listen gladly and faithfully to the Lord. Here is how John puts it: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

The whole concept of “fake news” has been in the headlines for the past two years, but fake news is nothing new. Even in the church, false teachers have been around as long as there have been teachers of God’s truth. In the time the Apostle John wrote these words, fifty or so years after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, the “fake news” was a denial that Jesus was both true God and true man. There were other “religious” people coming up to Christians to convince them that what the Apostles said about Jesus wasn’t entirely true. Specifically, back then, they were combining Bible truth with Greek philosophy to highlight that the Christ was only a spiritual thing. He wasn’t actually human, just looked like it. He didn’t actually die, just made it look that way.

So the Holy Spirit gives believers here an easy way to test for the truth. Verses 2 & 3: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit [every person] that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” Jakob, Hunter, and everyone here, your lives have to be a life of continual testing based on this same truth. If someone comes to you with a good sermon, nice worship, cool programs, a good philosophy, an amazing opportunity that sounds so good… but they don’t acknowledge Jesus, they aren’t coming to you as God’s messengers.  They aren’t helping you for eternity.

Today we don’t run into Greek philosophy so much. I think the biggest false teaching you will face is not a denial that Jesus is human.  The biggest false teaching is that Jesus just isn’t that important.

Atheists, agnostics, and rationalists, and humanists say you don’t need a savior because either there is no such thing as heaven and hell or we all end up in “the good place” anyways because you try to be good and divine beings, whoever they are, care about you. Some churches and pastors will teach you that the Bible is just a book that you have to search to find your own truth. Some teach you to add to what Jesus has done for you in order to make it to heaven.  Some teach you that being a Christian is all about God’s great blessings and how they can all be yours if you make the right choices and commitments.  Others say that your feelings and emotions are what bring you close to God.  Even your own brain and sinful heart will try to teach you that you’ve got it all figured out. Do you notice what’s wrong there?  Jesus isn’t that important.  He’s not the beginning, middle, and end.  He’s not the foundation.  He’s not the champion.  You are.

Jakob and Hunter, more than ever you need to test the spirits. Test the people that will try to influence you and “educate” you.  Test the teachings to see if they stand on the Savior who lived, died, and rose to save you from hell.  Test the churches to see if they are built on all of God’s Word or just some of it.  Test churches on Baptism and The Lord’s Supper to see if they say the arrow is point up – it’s something we do for God – or if the arrow is pointing down – something God’s grace does to us and for us.  Test things with this blessed faith in Jesus that God himself has planted in your heart.

Because your trust in who Jesus is and what he did is the most important thing God will ever give you. You know about Jesus’ miraculous birth, his perfect life, his innocent death, and how he did all of that to save you from sin.  You know that your sins condemned you to hell, but Jesus’ work and promises carry you to heaven. You know you’re saved by his work and not your own. You know the Bible is the Word of God and the trustworthy source of truth. You know that the stone was rolled away.  Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed! You know it and believe in it.

But the world denies it. The world makes Jesus less important, or it removes him altogether.  John calls that attitude toward Jesus the “spirit of the antichrist.” Now this isn’t the Antichrist with a capital “A” in 2 Thessalonians. That’s a real person and a real office that we can cover in a different sermon or Bible study, but John is talking about the same mentality: the desire to make Jesus less important or replace him altogether. With your own good habits and works. With sacrifices that you make instead of the sacrifice Jesus made. With pride in yourself and how you do you. With the rules of society or the manmade traditions of the church. That’s the spirit of the world.  It is not for Jesus.  It is against him, making him less important or totally replacing him with something more socially acceptable.

Today you are making a promise to be different from that – to stand before God and your families and your whole congregation and be willing to say no to the world. It’s not a vow to take lightly. In this vow you are saying, “I’m willing to be different. I know that Christ has set me apart in faith, made me a child of God.” You’re saying today that you will keep on testing everything you hear and read. Everything the world and your neighbors and your teachers tell you is right. You’ll compare what people say to what God says. That’s what you’re committing to today. To be faithful to God because you recognize the great gifts of forgiveness and faith that he’s given to you first.

Now if you’re going to do all this testing, you’re going to need the standard to judge by, an “answer sheet” you could say. You know where the answers are, right? In the Bible, God’s holy, inerrant, eternal Word. So read it! Read your Bible. If you need help with that, ask what your parents do. I’ll show you what I do and what I use to help me. Check out our church Facebook page where I post devotions almost every day.  Go to our WELS website.

For years you’ve spent an extra hour a week studying the Bible with other people. Don’t give that up now. Make Sunday morning a two-hour time with the Lord. Come to adult Bible study where the Lord uses his Word to continue your growth and development so that you can be a better and better tester of truth.

You can keep reading your catechism, too. It’s not a textbook, and it was never meant to be a textbook. I almost wish we didn’t use it that way. That little blue catechism is filled with God’s Word in a really organized layout. Let it be the blessing from God that it can be. Read it. Review it. Rejoice in the good news of Jesus that fills it.

By the way, this is not just stuff for two teenagers.  This is how God works for all his people.  He’s not an ogre, trying to ruin your life with all this studying and testing.  He’s your Father trying to keep your life from ruin.  Use his Word, that is where your Savior Jesus is.  It will be a blessing to you.  That’s God’s promise.

You think today is about the promises you two are making.  But God has so many many more promises for you.  Listen to this one from God in 1 John 4:4: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them [false teachers, enemies], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

God is in you and that means all the false teachers and all the temptations of this world cannot beat you.  God is greater.  Jesus came to overcome all of them, and he did.  That’s the love God has for you, and that is the love that God has put in you.  It rolls away all the hatred and doubt and worry.  God’s love in Jesus is everything you need.  The one who is greater than all the world keeps you in his hands and guides you in all you do.

You have successfully finished catechism class. Those tests are over, but your real tests are just beginning.  But you don’t need to worry because God has overcome them for you. To him be the glory. Amen.

 

LIVING THE CONNECTED LIFE

4.29.18 Easter 5B

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John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

 

Spring is a beautiful time of year.  The days are getting warmer and longer.  The trees and bushes are budding.  Some of the early flowers are coming up.  Nature is coming alive.

But as much as the signs of life are all around us, there is the other, darker part of Spring.  What about all the decay?  Sure, there is grass that is popping up green, but that seems to ignore all the dead grass that needs to be raked up, bagged up and taken away.  Sure, the trees and bushes are budding, but I also had my kids gather up bunches of twigs and branches that are not.  They have broken off the tress.  And do you know what those twigs and branches are good for?  Fire!

That darker part of Spring is not just evident in nature.  There is clearly decay and death in humanity.  This world isn’t a very fruitful place, because there are connectivity issues.   What I mean is people are separated from the One who gives life; branches are broken off all over the place.

Do you know why there is this problem?  Has God lost that loving feeling?  Is he trying to destroy everything he sent Jesus to build?  Is Jesus simply less effective in this world now?  Is God’s law and gospel not powerful enough to reach people as it once did?  Is the resurrection less amazing 2000 years later?  No!  Nonsense!  The problem is not in God.  The problem is with branches who just aren’t connected to the vine.

Statistics show that it’s happening a lot. One of the fastest growing religious groups is the “nones” – those that have no church affiliation.  They make up 1/5 of the US population and 1/3 of those under 30, and the numbers are rising. That’s a whole lot of separation from the vine.

How do you react to those kinds of statistics?  What do you think when you see a whole lot of fallen branches out there that are gathered for the firepit?  “I’ll bring the lighter fluid.  If there are people who want to be separated from God, if they want to ignore the life God gives, if they want to serve only themselves, then let them!”  Maybe some of you aren’t as harsh.  “I would try to help some of those broken branches that I know, but I’m not sure I know what to do.  I don’t think I know enough, or I might say the wrong thing.”  Or maybe some of you can’t add that to the list of your concerns.  “I have too much of my own problems to think about the connection my friends and family has with the vine.”

As much as we can look around and shake our heads in disgust at all the broken branches around us,  what does that accomplish?  Not much.  In fact, it kind of proves that maybe we don’t have to look so far to see the separation that sin causes.  I don’t need to look around at those other people at work, at school, and around the neighborhood to know that the connection to the vine is not where it needs to be, that there are some pretty battered and bad-looking branches that are heading for the burn pile.  I can look at my own life for that.  So can you.

And what do we see when we look at our branch?  You probably are like me and see someone who doesn’t always value just how important the vine is.  You’re too busy admiring your branch to look at the vine that much.  You probably see some little buds that withered up or broke off.  Good works that you didn’t do, because whatever the excuse was at the time.  You probably see some scarring to the bark, where you got hurt by someone and you still hold a grudge.

That’s not the connected life.  That’s the kind of branch that is heading to the firepit.  And you know, trying harder to produce more is not going to fix the connection to the vine.  Trying to fill your branch with more fruit will not get rid of all the places that are broken, scarred, and unproductive.

The only way a branch stays attached and healthy is from what the vine provides.  That’s why Jesus says today, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”  Christ makes you who you are.  Jesus cleans up the scarring, the withered buds, and the snapped off edges.  Jesus connects you to God’s eternal family.  Jesus makes that connection strong and secure, your branch is healthy and nourished. This is the cleansing we have in Christ through Baptism.  This is the cleansing he gives us through faith in him.

You have his Word as the one who conquered death.  Christ Is Risen. He Is Risen Indeed!  You have his living and endure Word as the God who left heaven to save you from hell.  You have his Word as the spotless Lamb of God who made the perfect sacrifice for your sins and mine.  You have his Word as the light of the world that removes our darkness.  You have his Word as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep only to take it up again.  You have his Word as the vine who always supports and sustains. Jesus gives you his word and it makes us clean.

Now, the vine is not going to change what he provides.  Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” Jesus doesn’t tell us today, “I was the vine for your branch back when you were trying really hard to stay connected.”  He doesn’t say, “I will be the vine for your branch again when you start making some changes in your life, when you adjust your attitude.”  And Jesus doesn’t say, “I am a vine, but there are other options.  You can choose what you like.”  Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m a vine, and I’m totally cool with it if your branch isn’t too connected or very fruitful.  I can tolerate and ignore pretty much anything.  NBD.”

You won’t hear those things from Jesus….EVER!  But you do hear him say, “I am the true vine…”  “If you are struggling with addiction or some past mistakes, if you have some scarring that hurts, if you are worried and afraid, bitter and angry,  if you have some jagged broken parts,  if you are letting some other things get in the way of what’s most important for your life, if you have been admiring your own branch a little too much,”  then Jesus says, “I am the provider of forgiveness and compassion, and my supply will never run out.  I am the nourishment that keeps you alive forever.  I am the support and stability that you need.  I am the foundation of your faith.  I am the source of your salvation.”

If Jesus is the true vine, you hear what he calls you, right?  “…You are the branches.”  The vine is absolutely, 100% the reason for the branches and the support and feeding of the branches.  And when branches are connected to the vine, then there is life. Branches will show the signs of life, won’t they?  That’s just part of the connected life.

Jesus says, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” God has done the work so that you are connected.  Part of the connected life is the fruit.  Jesus is living in us and gives us the power and strength to do what he says joyfully and naturally.  He is working on us to prune away certain things that are damaging to our branch.

The connected life means doing what God calls productive: (keeping the 10 Commandments) proper priorities where everything is lines up behind our relationship with Jesus; prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God in all circumstances; gladly studying the Scriptures and attending worship often; showing honor and respect to parents and other authorities God has placed over us; valuing the lives of others the way our Creator does; using the gift of marriage and sex the way God made it; helping others with their possessions; defending and encouraging our friends and neighbors; being content with what God has given us.  The connected life is going to be connected to God’s commands bearing fruit.

The connected life is also going to look for opportunities to reach some of those are not a part of the vine.  See, we know who the vine is and what he does.  We know that there is life, fruitful, abundant, and eternal life being connected to the vine.  But there are some who do not know or care.

God has brought us in.  He has made us branches of the vine.  So each one of us personally knows the kind of power the gospel has to destroy death and bring life.  Each one of us personally knows the kind of power his gospel has to build and strengthen, to produce fruit.

The connected life is going to give us a new way at looking for separated branches.  Rather than looking for the lighter fluid, rather than looking for excuses to avoid them, we look for ways to show how great our vine is.  We look for ways to show that life connected to him is not wasteful or suffocating, but fruitful for eternity.

That’s the kind of ministry we have here.  We are connected to the vine by the power and grace of his Word.  We are connected to the vine, which means we will bear fruit.  And that certainly doesn’t mean that we will start admiring how good of branch we are.  Instead, it always goes back to the vine who makes us who we are and gives us the joy of the connected life.  Jesus says,  “This is to my Father’s glory. That you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

Brothers and sisters, now is not the time for fewer branches connected to the vine, but more.  Now is not the time for fewer Christians built off of Jesus, but more.  Now is not the time for fewer students in Sunday Schools, our Lutheran elementary schools, and our ministerial education schools (MLS, LPS, MLC, WLS) but more.  Now is not the time for fewer teachers and pastors, but more.  Now is not the time for fewer people in our churches.  Now is the time for more.  Now is the time for the connected life where we get to glorify our living and enduring vine, Jesus Christ, and we bear his fruit.

God grant it.  Amen.

LIFE WITHOUT IGNORANCE

4.15.18 Easter 3B

 

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John 10:11-18

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

 

They say, “Ignorance is bliss,” but I’m not so sure.  Is it really bliss to not know what turn to take when you are in a new place?  (running in Miles City, MT) Is it really bliss to not understand what is causing your sickness or pain?  Is it bliss to not have all the information that was covered in the last unit before the test?  Is it really bliss to not know what is causing problems between you and your spouse or your children?  Is it really bliss to misunderstand the real problem in your life?  Is it really bliss to not recognize that the biggest, most soul-crushing, most peace-removing, most fear-creating, most life-draining problem has already been completely taken care of for you?  Is ignorance bliss?

Turns out that it’s not.  And so, we try to convince ourselves that we are not ignorant.  We try to make sure that we have it all figured out.  If some questions arise, then we make sure we have good places to find the answers that we want.

This is exactly the way the Pharisees operated during Jesus’ day.  They were the religious gurus.  They knew all the laws and had all the answers.  So, when they heard that a man who was born blind was healed on the Sabbath, they had some questions.  And when they heard that it was Jesus, they were more than upset.  “Healing? On the Sabbath?  What is this world coming to?  This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath…We know this man is a sinner.”  No ignorance there.  They knew it all, supposedly.

But later when Jesus finds the man he healed, he says, “…I have come into this world so that the blind will see and the those who see will become blind.”  His point is that those who are ignorant of Jesus will be brought into the know, and those who think they have it all figured out, in reality, have no spiritual insight at all.

Some Pharisees hear what Jesus says and thought it was absolutely ludicrous.  They retort,  “What? Are we blind too?”  They didn’t see it, couldn’t see it.  They were ignorant of Jesus, thinking that they had all the answers.

This is the context that leads Jesus to start talking about sheep and shepherds.  Sheep have the reputation of being stubborn, ignorant animals, and that can lead them into dangerous situations.  That’s why they need a shepherd.  They need one who knows them, knows their wayward tendencies, knows their foolishness, and knows how to care for them.

It’s great that sheep like us have a good shepherd.  Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

I absolutely love to hear how much Jesus loves us and cares for us.  How about you?  This section of Scripture is so comforting that way.  But this next line is one that makes you stop and think: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me –  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…”  There is no ignorance with Jesus.  He knows us.  He knows EV – ERY – THING about us.  He knows …all of it.  You cannot hide it.  He also knows his love for you and how he saved you from your ignorant, dangerous sin.  He stepped in for you.

But then there’s this line “my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…”  Sheep do have the reputation of being dumb and ignorant to their surroundings and any kind of danger.  But when it comes to the shepherd – there is no ignorance – they know their shepherd.  You can look up YouTube videos of it.  Strangers call the sheep and they don’t even look up from grazing, but when the shepherd calls…they look up, they bleat, and they start running toward the shepherd. The shepherd did the work to get that close familiarity.  He brought them into his flock or he reared them and made them accustomed to his voice.

So, I guess it makes me wonder, how’s that going for you?  Do you know your shepherd?  Can you tell when it’s him or someone else?  Can you answer questions people have about Jesus?  about the Bible?  about faith and spiritual life?  Can you talk about Jesus and the Bible with the same familiarity that you talk about your family, your work, and other passions you have?

Or is it possible that sometimes we say, “Ignorance is bliss?”  Have you done that before?  Have you made excuses for not knowing your Good Shepherd the way you should? Sometimes we come up with some doosies.  Maybe you have tried some of these:

“I did that already.  Isn’t that what catechism class is for?  I studied a lot back then, but that was my graduation from studying passages and reading God’s Word so much.”   Does that work for your job?  “Oh, well I studied that type of stuff in depth when I was 13.  I don’t need to study the new developments in technology, laws, code, systems.  I’ve got it all from when I was 13.”  Yeah right!  The same is true for Catechism class. It is just the beginning.  The problem is laziness, apathy, ignorance, prioritizing or just plain old stubbornness.

The Good Shepherd responds, “Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.  But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

“I get it.  I should study what Jesus says so that I can hear his voice better, but there are a lot of voices.  It’s hard to make sense of them all.”  That’s not really a good reason to neglect the place where your Savior’s voice is heard. If anything, that is a huge reason to get into his Word even more, to hear what he says and not what others say about him.

The Good Shepherd calls, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  He says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,  now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” 

“But I’m so busy with kids, work, and all the stuff that goes on.  I’m so drained. I try to make it to worship, but that’s the best I can do.” During the business of life is exactly when we need the Shepherd.  He’s got the right perspective for us.  He’s got the right goals for us.  He’s got the nourishment that sustains us.

The Good Shepherd says, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

“Pastor, I just don’t think it’s my job to know all this Bible stuff so much.  Isn’t that your job?  I’ll call you if I need anything.”  I hope you realize that God did not write the Bible just for pastors.  He gives his law and gospel to everyone.

The Good Shepherd reminds, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

These kinds of excuses prove that we are sheep who are lacking – whether we want to admit it or not.  Too often, we live as ignorant sheep, and it is not bliss at all.  It’s dangerous.  It’s destructive.  It’s leading right to the open jaws of the wolf, who wants nothing more than to munch on lamb chops for eternity.

Jesus is not ignorant of all this.  He knows the situation, that sheep wander, that sheep are helpless, that sheep without a shepherd will die.  So, the Good Shepherd put himself in danger.  He paid the price for our ignorance.  He laid down his life, so that we would never know that kind of pain.  He gave himself up so that we would be unfamiliar with sin’s real punishment.  You and I will never know what hell is like because we have a shepherd like Jesus.  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

But if that’s all he did, we would be left alone to our selfishness and pride.  Our sin would fracture the flock.  We would be constantly harassed by the victorious wolf, who felled the Good Shepherd and foiled his plan.  We would still be lost in eternal ignorance.

But we don’t just have a Good Shepherd who took our death.  This is the continuing celebration of Easter.  We have a Good Shepherd who gives us his life, his victory over death.  “I lay down my life—only to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”  The wolf thought he could creep in among ignorant sheep with no shepherd, but he was wrong.

CHRIST IS RISEN!  HE IS RISEN, INDEED! The Good Shepherd lives.  And because he does our hopelessness, our excuses, our ignorance – all of that is rolled away.  Instead, God reveals everything he does for us.  The Good Shepherd washed us clean and brought us into God’s flock.  His refreshing spring of Baptism is an ongoing reminder of who we are.  He gives us the comfortable pastures of his Word where there are no enemies who can come in and snatch us.  He nourishes and strengthens us with the green pastures of his Supper.

“I am the Good Shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”  Easter is the end of our ignorance.  Jesus knows us and we know him by the means he has given us, his Word and Sacraments. Easter is also the end of selfish ignorance, thinking that you are all alone with your Good Shepherd.  No, there are more sheep in this flock. “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”

Sometimes you might not know it, but there are wandering sheep who are watching you and listening to you.  They see how you are well fed and cared for.  They see how you have peace and joy.  They see how protected and safe you are in the face of enemies and even death.  These frightened, lonely sheep might just ask you about your shepherd.  They might want to know him, too.  Brothers and sisters, your ignorance is rolled away. Don’t ever think that you don’t have what it takes to talk about your shepherd.  Don’t ever think you don’t know enough.  Don’t ever think your words won’t work.  Your Shepherd knows you and he will guide you.  Don’t be surprised that he can use you to reach more sheep.

They say ignorance is bliss, but I don’t think so.  Jesus knows you and he says that you know him.  That means ignorance is rolled away and in it’s place you have life in the Good Shepherd’s flock forever.  Amen.

IS CHRISTIANITY FACTS OR GUIDELINES?

4.8.18 Easter 2B

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John 20:19-31

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

 
We have a really important question to consider today.  It’s an important question about Christianity and people who call themselves Christian.  It’s an important question for churches that want to teach Christianity and make more disciples of the Christian faith.  It’s an important question that comes up today because I imagine it is probably running through the minds of eleven men that we hear about in the Gospel from John 20.  It’s an important question that has been thoroughly thought about for centuries since those men locked themselves up with different answers.

Here’s the question: Is Christianity the proclamation of the facts of Jesus Christ, or is it a set of God’s guidelines and principles for you to follow?  Ok, ok, ok it’s a little bit of a trick question because obviously it’s both.  However, one is the foundation and the other builds off the foundation.  One is the first and foremost and the other is secondary.

So, which is it?  Because there is a difference, a huge difference, a difference that affects you for eternity.  One is going to leave you with doubts and fears and the other is going to give you great certainty, confidence and boldness now and forever.  If you don’t really see the difference, then you need to get back into the Bible to study and learn what Christianity is all about. Is it the proclamation of the facts of Jesus Christ?  Or is it a set of guidelines and principles for your life?  If you need help answering that than this section of Scripture is a really good one for you.

Can you see how the answer to this question would greatly affect those men behind the locked doors on that first Easter?  They were a wreck.  They didn’t know what to do.  They were together, but they felt more alone then ever before.  They thought that Jesus was going to give them a good life.  He was God’s Messiah.  He was the deliverer.  In their hearts and minds that meant life would be good following Jesus.  They would be delivered from the bad things.  They would be delivered from illness and disease because Jesus could remove those kinds of things from people.  They saw it first hand. They would be delivered from the annoying power of the Roman government because Jesus would restore the nation of Israel to its former glory under great King David.  They would be delivered from the falsehood of the Pharisees, chief priests, and teachers of the law because Jesus would not only restore Israel as a nation but also as true believers and worshippers of the Triune God.  All the people would not just go through the motions anymore.  They would all gather to the Lord Jesus because he was the Messiah, the deliverer. God’s people would be on top again.

But those hopes and dreams came crashing down hard when Jesus was betrayed by one of the disciples, deserted by all of the other disciples, denied any relationship at all by one of the closest disciples, Peter, falsely accused and sentenced by the Jewish religious leaders, handed over to Pilate, beaten and flogged, sentenced to death by crucifixion, forced to carry his cross until he couldn’t, nailed to it, put on public display to be harassed and shamed while his life ebbed away, and then finally gave up his last breath and died.  The disciples were crushed to the core.

It should not have been so crushing, because Jesus had told them this is what would happen.  This was his mission.  This was the way God had planned to deliver the world from sin and death.  Jesus took the punishment for us.  But the disciples couldn’t see it.  Their own ideas, their own set of principles and beliefs had blinded them to what was going on.  They were following Jesus thinking that he was going to be the one to give them a better life.  They were going to love people like he did.  They were going to serve people like he did.  They were going to spread goodness and kindness like he did.  But without him, how was any of that possible.  Without Jesus, how could they have the good moral life they wanted?  How could they follow his guidelines and principles if he wasn’t there to give them?  None of it made sense to them.  The doubt was unbearable.

A lot of people have been in that position before.  Maybe they haven’t locked themselves in a room overcome by their doubts and terrified of their enemies, but people have experienced this kind of crushing doubt before.  People have been absolutely grief-stricken at news reports like another school shooting, a terrible accident, a devastating natural disaster and thought to themselves, “if God is so loving, then how could he allow these bad things to happen.”  People have been in tough situations and questioned God’s power and protection and presence, saying “can God actually do what he promises.” People have been weighed down by their own guilt and shame, wondering “could God ever love someone like me.”

These kinds of doubts and fears flood the lives of so many, just like what was happening behind those locked doors.  And it happens because of the way people answer that important question: Is Christianity the proclamation of the facts of Jesus Christ, or is it a set of God’s guidelines and principles for me to follow?   To a lot of people the answer is that Christianity is more about a way of life, principles to live by, and good moral advice.  To a lot of people the main character of Christianity is the person following it.

To them it makes sense.  If I want a relationship with God, then I have to follow his ways, I have to live by his principles and guidelines, I have to be his kind of person.  A lot of Christian preachers (people who call themselves Christian preachers, anyways) make Christianity all about what I am supposed to do, what I am supposed to think, and what I am supposed to say.  They turn the main goal of Christianity into producing a club of do-gooders earning respect, love, and rewards from God.

It is totally true that Christianity is about living a godly life.  It’s true that Christianity will change the goals you have and the way you go about reaching those goals.  But when Christianity is first and foremost about God’s guidelines and principles that you have to follow, that’s when the doubts trickle and then flood people to hopelessness and despair just like the disciples.  Because it’s all about me.  Faith is resting on my love, trust, obedience, worship, and service to God.  And when Christianity depends on a person like me, I know the kind of person I am.  I know the weaknesses and failures.  I know where I have made a mess of God’s way of life.

The disciples were in a lot of doubt because they thought they knew Jesus and what he was supposed to do.  They thought their faith was about following him and his way of life.  They thought they were heading to a better life here on earth.  When he died, all of those things were gone and they only had their doubts.

This is not just a problem for the disciples, for Thomas, and for other Christians.  You have doubts, too.  Would you have been any different behind those locked doors?  Do you react any differently to troubling news reports, difficult personal problems, or your own load of guilt?  Can you and I really say that we are immune to doubts.  It’s part of our sinful life.

It has to do the way you and I answer that question.  Too often we make Christianity about me.  We make the foundation of faith my way of life and my morals.  We do exactly what the disciples were doing.  “I thought it would be this way…  I believe this to be true… I think that God… I hope… I feel..”

For the disciples to get rid of the doubts, faith couldn’t be about them.  It couldn’t be about their beliefs and their guidelines.  That question needed a different answer: Is Christianity the proclamation of the facts of Jesus Christ, or is it a set of God’s guidelines and principles for you to follow?

And do you know who was there to give them a different answer?  Christ himself.  He showed up behind the locked doors to get rid of their doubts, to shift the focus from their thoughts, their beliefs, their dedication to the guidelines and principles, to make Christianity about the facts of Jesus Christ.

Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  And then he says it again.  In order to get rid of the doubts, Christianity can’t be about my way of life.  It has to be about Jesus.  It has to be the facts of his life, his death, his forgiveness, his salvation, his resurrection, his power over death.  It has to be the truth of his peace.

This kind of peace is not that everything in life will go smoothly.  The disciples’ lives actually got more difficult after the resurrection than before it.  But they were more content and courageous after Jesus’ resurrection than before it.  Because they had the facts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection.  They had the answer to their toughest fears.  They had eternal peace from Jesus.  They had peace with God not based on their way of life but based on the facts of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, you have the same facts of Jesus Christ.  They haven’t changed.  CHRIST IS RISEN!  HE IS RISEN INDEED!  And that means you have his peace, too.  Everything in life might not go smoothly.  Problems might arise.  Disasters will rage on this earth.  But the doubts are gone, because Jesus came back from the tomb.  The doubts are gone because our faith is founded on Jesus, the one who forgives sin, conquered death, and brings us eternal life through the gospel.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not see and yet believed.”  Do you know why you believe?  It’s not because of your way of life.  It’s because of your Savior Jesus.  It’s because of the facts that he died to forgive you, rose to remove the doubts, and rules you with his power and love.

That’s the main message of the Bible.  John tells us, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that be believing you may have life in his name.  Christianity is all about the undeniable, unchangeable facts of Jesus the Messiah, the Savior, God’s Son.  When you have him, doubts and fears are removed and rolled away just like that stone that covered his tomb.  Then, there is only one thing to say, “My Lord and my God!”  Amen.

ROLLED AWAY

4.1.18 Easter Sunday

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Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ ”
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

 

We all ask the question.  “Who will roll the stone away…?”  Ok, for you and me it’s not literally a huge rock that is covering up the entrance to a friend’s tomb, but I’m guessing you have asked this type of question before:  “How do I roll this insurmountable obstacle out of  my way?  How do I deal with this really tough relationship?  How do I pay all the bills?  How do I help a sick or dying loved one? How do I fix what’s wrong in my life?  How can I do it?  And if I can’t, then who will?” We all ask those kinds of questions, right?

The women don’t really have an answer to the question.  It just hangs there on this dismal morning like fog.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

They had followed Jesus, because he gave them what no other teacher could.  That’s because Jesus didn’t tell them that following laws was their way into heaven.  He didn’t say you had to be better than others to get in good with God.  He spoke good news of forgiveness from God.  He promised peace that the world could never give.  He had compassion that no one could match.  And he was serious about the work he had to do, the work his Father gave him, the work of saving you from your sins.  These women had been with the crowds that hailed his name with hosannas just one week earlier.  They had watched, dumbfounded, as the crowds turned on him, as Pilate unwilling sentenced him to death, as he carried his cross until he couldn’t anymore, as the nails were pounded into his hands and feet, as people sneered and jeered the dying God-man, as he gave up his last breath, and as his lifeless body was quickly wrapped in linen, placed in a tomb, a shut in by that big stone.  The women saw it all.

Now, early on this Sunday morning, all they could do was properly prepare the dead body of their friend, their teacher, their Lord according to their Jewish customs.  The work was grim and devastating. Their arms were full of sweet smelling spices and their hearts full of sour sadness.  And they didn’t know what to do about that stone.

We try to come up with answers for the things that are blocking us, don’t we?  We don’t just let the fog hang over us.  “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” people say. And maybe that works for a while.  Maybe you can kick a few little pebbles out of your way: a little stressful scheduling problem,  a family member who is being difficult, a class and teacher that is just unreasonably tough.  People find their way past those things in life.  Maybe you can learn how to deal with the bigger rocks, too: a large debt, losing a job, a relentless bully, a divorce.  You muster up the courage and strength and you find a way to keep going.

People think that’s the way to answer the questions.  They think they can fix it, but there will be more pebbles.  The rocks will keep coming, and they will pop up more and more often.  And then the time will come when we all have to deal with that large boulder of death, no one has come up with a way to roll that stone away.

When they went out to the tomb, they were looking for disappointment.  They were looking for help moving the stone that covered up a dead Jesus. But when they go to the tomb, something wasn’t right.  The guards that Pilate had posted were gone.  That large stone had been rolled away. Inside the tomb was an angel dressed in white who said to them, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.  “Ladies, I know what you are looking for.  You thought you needed help rolling the stone away.  You thought you were coming here to see a dead man.  You are looking for the wrong thing.”

That reminds me of a man named Alexander Flemming. He was Scottish physician and microbiologist. In September, 1928, he stumbled upon something by complete accident.  He was trying to figure out how to kill bacteria infections.  He had failed time and time again.  One of those times when he failed, he was so frustrated he just left the old petri dishes with the bacteria infections in the corner and went away for the weekend.  When he returned he got down to cleaning up his mess.  That’s when he noticed how nasty these petri dishes were, some were covered in mold.  But that’s when everything changed.  Some of the mold had covered up the bacteria and actually killed it.  Alexander Flemming went to his office looking for dirty petri dishes and instead found what is now called penicillin.  A famous quote from Alexander Flemming is this: “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.”

The women were looking for a large stone in the way and a dead Savior inside the tomb. They were looking for the Jesus who was crucified.  They were looking for the wrong thing.  But sometimes “one finds what one is not looking for.”  The angels said that dead Jesus, who you are looking for, he is not here.  Suddenly those ladies found out what we know: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.  They had come looking for help with a large stone, but it was rolled away.  They had come looking for Jesus, “who was crucified,” but he was risen.

Do you ever look for a Jesus that matches your expectations?  We get this idea sometimes that Jesus should line up with what I want.  He should help me the way I want him to and when I want him to.  Have you done that to Jesus?

Maybe you’ve turned him into an ATM Jesus.   You go punch in a certain code of prayers, throw in a couple religious works to get his attention, maybe show up for Easter worship, and then he dispenses the goods you’re looking for. Or have you treated him as the Vacuum Cleaner Jesus?  You keep this kind of Jesus in the back closet and once a week you bring him out or, if necessary when there is a big mess on your hands, you’ll bring him out more often when you really need to clean things up.  Or have you treated him like a Reasonably-Good-Friend Jesus? You are comfortable hanging out with him, but you don’t want him stopping over every day after supper.  There needs to be some space. This reasonably-good-friend Jesus would be the type that you can let the voicemail take the call now and again because you have other things going on or other people to see.

Have you done that with Jesus?  I have.  I’m sure you have, too.  Like those women, sometimes we go looking for the wrong thing and the wrong Jesus.  We think we can dictate what kinds of things we want in our life and what kind of Jesus will work for us.

And that would be fine for a dead Jesus.  A dead Jesus doesn’t care if the women are worrying about the large stone and the spices.  A dead Jesus doesn’t care if you try to figure out how to remove all the pebbles and rocks from your life in your own way.  A dead Jesus doesn’t care if we turn him into an ATM, a Vacuum Cleaner, or a Reasonably-Good-Friend kind of Jesus.  A dead Jesus might not care, and quite frankly, can’t do anything about it if we did that to him.

But Jesus is not dead.  Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

They should have known.  Jesus had told them what kind of Savior he was here to be. This was all part of the plan to save you and me from sin.  Sin is all those pebbles and rocks in our life that get in the way of our relationship with God.  They make us stumble.  They make us look for what we think will be a better, and easier way.  They make us falter and fall.  They make us give up.  We want it to get better.  We want less pebbles and rocks in our way, but it’s like working in the fields, there will always be more rocks.

What we need is more than wants and wishes.  What we need is more than broken promises and useless attempts.  We need a solution.  “Who will roll the stone away?” the women asked.  God will and he has in Jesus Christ.

God sent Jesus to be the solution for my sin.  God put Jesus on the cross to remove all the pebbles and rocks that get in the way.  Jesus took the pebbles and rocks of the whole world, so that we wouldn’t be tripped up and broken anymore.  He took our place in the tomb so that he could roll that large stone away, too.  He rose from death to provide us a life with God forever.  Nothing can change what Jesus has done, no one can change the facts that God forgives you, that Jesus conquered death for you, and that heaven is yours forever.  The stones of sin, death, and hell are rolled away to reveal life with God that never ends.

“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.” Flemming said.  The women would have agreed.  They came to the tomb looking for help to roll away the stone, but it was already rolled away.  They came looking for a dead Jesus, but he was alive.  They came looking for failure and found victory.

We are told that the women were “trembling and bewildered…and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  Seeing the kind of power that can actually keep a promise that seems to good to be true, seeing the king of power that can actually roll away the insurmountable stone of death is shocking.  It was traumatic and amazing all at the same time.

But you don’t have to leave here today like those women.  Do you know how the story continues? Spoiler alert: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!  The living Jesus appeared to the women.  The living Jesus appeared to the disciples.  The living Jesus went back home to heaven and he continues to live as the champion over death.  The stone can never be put back over his grave. He continues to rule all things by his grace and for you benefit, so that your life doesn’t have to be afraid of death.  The stone is rolled away, and with it all of death’s power is gone, all the guilt of sin is removed, all the fright of hell has been destroyed by our living Lord and Savior, Jesus.

This is the comfort and this peace the women were not looking for when they went out to the tomb.  They were looking for that large stone.  They were looking for a dead Jesus.  Brothers and sisters, we don’t have a dead Jesus.  No, all the pebbles and rocks and larges stones of sin, death, and hell have been rolled away by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s the victory celebration we hold every week here in worship and every day in our lives.