THE RIGHT ORDER

Week 3 – 6.25.17

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Ephesians 2:4-10

4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

 

The order is important.  I’ve been hit by that reminder quite a bit during this whole parsonage basement remodel project.  You don’t hang drywall until you frame the walls, the plumber runs all his pipes and lines, and the electrician wires all the boxes, lights, and switches.  If you don’t get that right, you’re going to have to punch a bunch of holes and then put a bunch of patches in your new drywall.  You don’t put the flooring in before you paint, shoot on the trim and hang the door frames.  If you mess that order up, you’ll probably drip paint all over your trim, doors, and new floors.  The order is important.

There are four key concepts in the Bible: Sin, Grace, Faith, and Works.  That order is important.  Last week, God showed us the first two from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans.  We are sinful.  That is not only seen by God in our thoughts, words, and actions but it is also our condition in which we were both conceived and born.  That sinfulness must be dealt with, it must be paid for.  God says, “The wages of sin is death.”  So, someone has to die, blood must be shed, to pay for sin.  But imperfect people like us cannot make the payment.

God’s answer is his free gift of grace.  Purely because he loves us and does not want us to be punished in hell, he demonstrates his love with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Our justification – that not guilty verdict that we don’t earn or deserve – is fully and completely applied to our lives by God’s grace alone.  You don’t have to change God’s mind about you, he already loves the world and wants you to be with him in heaven.  His grace is not normal, and that’s good for us.

Today, we are talking about the other two key concepts: Faith and Works.  That order is important.  It was one of the huge reasons why an insignificant German priest and professor by the name of Dr. Martin Luther decided to stand up to popes, councils, and governors.  If you mess up that order you have lost the truth of God, you’ve lost his forgiveness, and you’ve lost heaven.

But that is exactly what the church was doing in Luther’s day; they were messing up the order.  Priests, councils, and popes were convincing people that works come before grace and faith.  Can you imagine the burden people carried as they thought every sin flared God’s righteous anger and only good works could appease him?  But the problem was that people have a sinful nature that taints us.  People were endlessly trying to work for God’s righteousness, but sin kept adding up, too.  The guilt was insurmountable, and the church kept preaching that God demanded more works.

But then, there was a great idea to deal with the guilt.  Instead of pointing to the grace of God, his unconditional love toward fallen sinful mankind, they introduced indulgences.  It was a way to literally pay money for God’s forgiveness.  Do you think you can pay God off?  No, like the Bible says, sins is only paid for by death.  These indulgences really only did one thing, enlarged the pope’s bankroll enough so that the St. Peter’s Basilica project, the second largest in the world, could begin.

When you mess up the order, bad things happen.  The church messing up that order for its people was a lot worse than a few holes in new drywall or paint on new floors.  It was life.  It was God’s holy Word. It was eternity.

Luther didn’t come up with a new order of these four key concepts.  He just read what God had clearly recorded centuries earlier.  And here is what God says: But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions… For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

That order – Sin, Grace, Faith, Works – is vitally important.  When you mess it up you lose the truth of Scripture and heaven itself.  That’s why it’s good to be familiar with the Word of God your whole life.  It’s good to be student of Scripture.  It’s good to refreshed and rebuilt weekly in worship and daily in devotions.  Our faith needs it, because what good is faith if it has the wrong object to trust? Then, the order is messed up.  Faith is turned into something I have to do to get God’s grace.  And that just doesn’t work.

When faith is placed in earthly things, it’s not getting you to heaven.  Your faith is useless.  Have you heard or have you said something like, “Don’t worry about me, I pray every day”? Do you notice where your faith is?  It is in your prayers.  But you know that the ability or regularity of prayer doesn’t save someone. When someone thinks, “I am a good Christian.  I go to church every week and give cheerful offerings,” they have the same issue.  Their faith is placed in their ability to follow the Lord.  It is great to lead a life of service, but it is not going to save you from hell.  Heaven is not awarded to those who convince themselves they are such good servants of God.  Faith doesn’t save people when it was placed in themselves and their own abilities to obey God.  That is really no faith at all.  Plenty of people do that, people who even call themselves Christian, but they are changing faith into a good work that earns God’s love.  That is messing up the order: Sin, Grace, Works, Faith.

However, when faith is attached to Jesus, then heaven is open to you; you have the saving promises of God forever. It’s the object of faith that matters most.  Let me illustrate. In the wintertime, if you go ice fishing, and you are about to walk out on the ice, what keeps you up?  Is it your faith in the strength of the ice? You could say, “I believe this ice will hold me. I have faith I will not crash through.” Does your faith keep up? Not at all! It is the thickness of the ice that holds you up. Your faith has nothing to do with it. Likewise, a person can have the strongest faith in their prayers or their humble service to God, but they will fall with a great and eternal crash.  Faith attached to anything but Jesus will get you nowhere.  Faith that clings to Jesus’s forgiveness and promises, that faith gives you the robes of righteousness forever.

And by God’s grace, faith in Jesus is a gift that he has given to you.  With simple water and God’s powerful word, the Holy Spirit planted saving faith in your heart.  And whenever God’s Word is used, faith is cultivated and nurtured.  Whenever the Lord’s body and blood is administered according to God’s Word it feeds faith.  And so we, sinners, by God’s undeserved grace, we trust in Jesus.  We rely on Jesus.  We hold to Jesus.

That’s the right order: Sin, Grace, Faith…and then works flow from faith.  We are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, found in Scripture alone, but that faith is never alone.  When you have faith in Jesus, you will produce the works of God.  Listen again to what Paul says, For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Why does an apple tree produce apples?  Is it because the apple tree will feel guilty if it doesn’t?  Is it trying to make up for past mistakes?  Does it want all the other trees to notice it?  Is it because the apple tree will get into trouble if it doesn’t?  NO!  Apples trees produce apples because that’s what apple trees do.  God made it that way.  It’s natural in his creation.

Same things for God’s children. When you are connected to Jesus, when your faith is attached to him, then you will be a fruit-producer.  And there are so many kinds of fruit for you to produce.

God tells us in his Word, to fear, love and trust in him above all things. We praise, thank, serve and obey him. One way to do that for God is to do it for those around you, too. God wants us to love and serve others, to put them first, to be a Good Samaritan, to turn the other cheek, to love even our enemies. God wants you not to hate but forgive as Christ has fully forgiven you.  God wants you to let your Christian light shine so that others may see your faith, see your Christ loving actions, see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. The words on our lips are used for truth and love, not cursing, lies and hate.

Think about what Paul is saying to you here. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  God gives us the opportunities to show our God given faith, to show our Christ-motivated kindness, to share our gospel life.

When we fail, Jesus picks us up, washes us clean, and sends us out with his love and forgiveness. Do you see all what God has done for you? Even your faith is a gift. We cannot boast about anything spiritually. The sacrifice of Jesus has fully and freely redeemed you, motivates you to love and serve our God, and makes your good works productive for others. We live God-pleasing lives not to earn God’s grace, but because we already have his grace and faith as a gift. That is why Jesus says in our gospel lesson, So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.

That’s the legacy of Lutherans.  We keep things in the right order, God’s order: Sinners who God loves not because of what we do, but because of what he does.  His love gives us Jesus, the Savior from sin, death, and hell.  His love gives us faith to hold on to him in all things.  His love gives us productive work to do as his people.  To God alone be glory.  Amen.

 

SIN & GRACE

Week 2 – 6.18.17

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PART 1: SIN

 

It has been called a constant companion in life.  It’s with you when you are awake and sleeping.  It’s with you when you are feeling well and when you aren’t.  It’s with you when you are doing good things and when you aren’t.  It’s with you at work, at home, out and about, on vacation, when you are alone and when you are with a bunch of people.  It’s with you all the time.  You and I just cannot get rid of sin.  And just in case we need a little reminder of what sin is, Paul bluntly points out a couple things for us today.

First, I don’t get to decide what sin is.  God created the world perfectly.  God put the conscience in each person’s heart.  And God made the laws that people need to follow, so he gets to tell me what sin is.

Number two, we must realize that sin is not just a discussion about actions, things that people can see or talk about.  In other words, sin is not only something that describes doing things that God forbids or not doing things that God commands.  Sin is also a condition.  It is in us.  It is a part of us.  We were born with it.  And that kind of original sin makes us impure every moment of life.  Every breath is from a person that cannot be perfect.

Third, this sinful condition I have, it shows up in my life… a lot.  If it is a condition, then the condition will have symptoms.  Paul mentions quite a number of those symptoms of sin that pop up all over the place in our lives.  Idolatry is one that he mentions.  That is the sin where we put something else in the place only God can have.  It can be money.  It can be fame.  It can be a career.  It can be friends.  It can be family.  It can be a house.  It can be possessions.  It can be hobbies.  It can be abilities.  It can be sex, food, alcohol, drugs, technology, and any number of other things.  Anything that we make more important than our God and the relationship we have with him is an idol.  And you probably can recall a time when that has happened in your life.

Maybe you have one good hour on a Sunday morning, where your attention is fully placed on God.  Well, in order to be the type of person that has never broken the First Commandment, you would have to do that constantly from the moment you were conceived to the moment you die.  It’s impossible for a sinner.  People with the sinful condition cannot properly give God full, undivided attention as the first and most important priority in life.

That’s just one example with one commandment.  Through Paul’s letter to the Romans, God shows us many more.  Sin shows up everywhere.  We have old sins and new sins.  We have accidental sins and purposeful sins.  We have sins that take a long time and sins that pop up randomly.  We have sins inside and on the outside.

And what is really sad about all of this is that we know better.  Paul writes, Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”  God tells us what sin is, not only the bad actions and attitudes, but also the condition that makes my entire life unacceptable.  God tells us what sin deserves; that’s death.  But we continue to do it anyways.  Sure, sometimes it’s an accident, but sometimes it’s not.  And we even find ways to approve of others who sin.

Let’s go back to that Sunday example.  If you skip that hour of the week where God gathers his people to feed their faith, and you let your kids or parents or friends skip too, then you are approving of their sin.  Do you see how tangled this web of evil is for us?

This was Martin Luther’s struggle as a monk, priest, and professor.  Sin was constantly showing its ugliness in his life.  God demanded better, but he was unable to do better.  How could he ever have the righteousness of God with this kind of rap sheet?  And how could you?

He tried, boy did he try.  He wanted so much to earn God’s righteousness.  That was his daily mission.  But every day he failed.  You can try, too.  You can try as hard as you want to earn a right standing with God, but every day you fail.  Sin is a constant companion and it is not friendly.  There’s really only one thing we can say (like the hymn we just sang concludes): “O God, be merciful to me.”

 

PART 2: GRACE

 

With God, there is no try.  With God, there is do.  We can’t try to earn his righteousness.  We can’t try to remove our sins or cover them from his sight.  He sees all of them better than we do.  There is no trying to fix the problems sin causes.  There is no trying to cure the imperfect condition in which we were born and will die.  Sin is the terrible and deadly companion with us our entire lives.

But there is another constant companion that defeats the evil of sin.  There is another constant companion that is far greater and more powerful.  God’s grace.  And with God’s grace there is no trying.  God doesn’t try to fix your problems.  God doesn’t try to cure sin’s disease.  God doesn’t try to save people.  He just does it.

That’s grace.  It’s not earned by beating your body into submission.  It’s not deserved by being better than others.  It’s not won by special works of service.  Grace is this: when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  God’s grace gets to work saving sinners and ungodly people from their deadly companion of sin in life.  God’s grace gets to work by doing all of the necessary work for us.  God’s grace gets to work by doing the one thing that opens heaven to people like us.

Sin has to be dealt with.  It has to be paid for.  If sin brought death into the world, then God’s grace would bring life.  There was no other way.  He would have to make the payment.  At just the right time, God did exactly that.  Jesus came.  He was born with the same obligation to follow the law perfectly…and he did.  God’s Son did what we could not.  He fought off the companionship of sin.  And that perfect life, he gave up as the sacrifice for us.  Jesus carried all the sins of the world to the cross and took the punishment we deserve.  All the ungodly ugliness was unacceptable to God, so he got rid of it with the death of his Son.  All of it is gone.  In sin’s place God has given the gift of grace.  We have forgiveness and life through Christ Jesus.

If you think that is not enough, if you think you have too many sins, then listen to this: “where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”   When God takes care of something, he does it completely.  His grace is perfect at getting rid of sin.

And his grace is always with you.  Nothing changes the facts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection.  Through Christ and his sacrifice, nothing removes God’s grace from you.  He will always be the God who is there for you as your loving Father.  He will always be the God who is there for you with forgiveness.  He will always be the God who is there for you with peace that can only come through the gospel of Jesus.

That is what changed things for Luther.  God did not give righteousness based on us, but he gave it based on his love.  As Paul so beautifully puts it: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  God just decided that he would love us in a way that we could never have by our own.  Luther was filled up with God’s righteousness because it was a free gift.  He realized God was not an angry judge trying to punish him because of sin, but that he was a God of love who had saved him by grace alone.  God worked through the simple truth of the gospel to free him from the guilt that wants to be our only and our constant companion.

Sin tried hard to ruin Luther, and it tries just as hard to ruin us.  God did not try hard to save us.  He just did it.  Free of charge because he loved us and wanted us to be with him in heaven.  It’s grace and it’s amazing.

Child of God, sin tries to weigh you down, but your gracious Lord has removed the burden forever.  Where guilt tries to sap all your strength, your gracious Lord fills you up with forgiveness.  Where natural human knowledge says you have to work for things in life, your loving Lord uses divine grace that can never fail at keeping you as his very own.

This legacy is the good news that is still heard in our Lutheran churches today.  Do you know how that’s possible?  It’s not because a man named Martin Luther was so amazing.  It’s not because Germans are great at everything.  It’s because of grace.  And as a child of God, that is your constant companion.  Amen.

 

 

THE TRIUNE GOD BLESSES US

Week 1 – 6.11.17

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2 Corinthians 13:11-14

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All God’s people here send their greetings.
14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

There is this idea that goes around in our subjective world that I get to decide what I like about God and you get to decide what you like about him.  And if those two things are different, that’s OK.  We don’t have to get so dogmatic about it.  We can just get along with our differing ideas of God as long as we both believe in whatever it is we believe.  What’s important is that we all agree that no one is absolutely right and no one is absolutely wrong.  After all, God just wants us to believe.

People say lots of things like that.  And do you know what?  They are wrong, completely wrong.  All those different views that come from people in this very subjective, self-oriented world, can’t work together.  Differing views don’t work to describe the divine God.  It’s impossible for the perfect God to put up with partial truths and platitudes.  You either have the real God or you don’t.

And so today is a good day for God to remind us who he is.  The reason this festival of the church takes place at this time of year is that we are in a new season, the Pentecost season.  It’s the portion of the Church Year where God’s people grow in the teachings of Christ through his words.  To shift the focus, we are starting our new series, Lutheran Legacy.  Just what exactly does it mean to be a Lutheran?  We are starting today with God, the one true God.

That’s a good place to start, but it is also most confusing because he tells us that he is triune, three persons in one God.  The Father is God.  The Son is God.  The Holy Spirit is God. But there are not three Gods; there is just one God.  I’m not good at math, so this is perfect for me: 1+1+1=1.  It’s bad math, but perfect theology.  This is the God Lutherans confess, because this is the only God there is.

This is confusing, and I like it that way.  What kind of God would he be if I could easily grasp him?  I don’t want a God to be like me.  My son? Sure, in some ways, I want him to be a chip off the old block.  My God?  I need him to be bigger and better than me.  And I don’t need him to be just bigger and better than me.  I need him to be bigger and better than every person, ever.  And so, I’m glad my God reveals himself as three persons in one God, Triune.  I don’t understand it.  I can’t.  But here’s some good news: you don’t have to understand it to believe it.

You probably are familiar with this without even realizing it.  The internet…do you understand how it works?  I remember a time when there was no such thing as internet or Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Siri, no smartphones.  I have no clue how the internet came about or how it works.  But I believe it.  I use the internet every day.  I don’t understand how it works, but I trust it and use it.  Just one other example.  I saw a clip this past week from America’s Got Talent of a woman who plays guitar and sings even though she is deaf.  I have no clue how that works, but I believe it.

That’s the same thing as the Holy Trinity.  You may be surrounded by a holy, eternal Triune God that you cannot grasp or understand, and that’s ok.  We can believe in things that are too profound and complicated for us to grasp.  We do it all the time.  This Triune God, the God of the Bible, told us exactly what he is like.  He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The problem is not with him and how great and mind-blowing he is.  The problem is me.

I was struck by that fact as I read this closing encouragement from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians.  Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. 

Do you know why Paul wrote these encouragements?  It seems obvious that this is exactly how Christians would live, but we don’t.  I was struck by the fact that I don’t always rejoice in all circumstances.  This week was pretty busy.  I had the privilege to preach the gospel of God’s peace and comfort for the funeral of Maurine Striegel on Friday.  I had the privilege of seeing what water can do when it is connected to the life-giving Word of God in Baptism as I baptized Hadley on Saturday.  Those are reasons to rejoice.  But I was not rejoicing about needing to get my whole basement ready for the painting that we are doing this weekend.  I was not rejoicing about trying to keep my garden alive because we haven’t had rain in too long.  I was not rejoicing that I had office work and other preparations that kept me from enjoying the warmer days outside with my kids.

Paul says, “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”  Those things should be easy for children of God, but they aren’t.  We strive for self-restoration instead of working with others.  We gossip about one another, ignore one another, or covet what others have instead of encouraging one another.  You each have your own way of thinking about life, relationships, priorities, and our ministries, so being of one mind with another person, even another Christian, can be a tall task.

And finally, Paul says, “live in peace.”  This is a common principle in Scripture, because peace is so hard for us to keep.  How do you live in peace when there is chaos almost constantly?  It comes from all angles.  There’s another terrorist attack.  There’s another political upheaval.  There’s another comment from a coworker.  There’s another bully at school.  Live at peace with people?  Yeah, right!!  How’s that possible in this day and age.

Do you notice who has the problem?  If I can’t grasp the Triune God it’s not his fault, it’s mine.  I’m the one who isn’t smart enough.  I’m the one who isn’t peaceful enough.  I’m the one who isn’t selfless enough, loving enough, strong enough, positive enough… I’m the one who isn’t perfect enough.

And so this Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – this holy, eternal God that is far too great for me to understand, he decided he would bless me.  He decided he wouldn’t curse me.  He decided he wouldn’t demand more works of service to make up for what’s wrong in my life. He wouldn’t punish me for my ineptitude.  He would bless me.  That’s how the God who defies the human mind deals with me.  He doesn’t use conventional wisdom because he is far too great for that.  He uses divine grace, divine love, and divine fellowship.

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  Paul concludes his letter with this familiar blessing, and it couldn’t be more powerful for us.  It shows us the way the Holy Trinity deals with sinners.

First, it’s the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace is the only word for it.  We didn’t work for it.  We didn’t luck into it.  We weren’t born into it.  We didn’t earn it.  We are weak, selfish, sinful, dirty and dying.  We are so sinful and opposed to God by nature.  Like a beached whale, we swim ourselves into places that kill us.  But God’s grace can’t stand to see us in harm’s way.  Grace gets to work to help people who don’t deserve it.  In fact, grace is so good that Jesus took on our weaknesses, our selfishness, our sins, our dirty and dying lives.  He put it all on his shoulders and died for it because he knew we would die separated from God for eternity if he didn’t.

That’s a blessing!

Second, we have the love of God (the Father).  Generally speaking, other religions have a god that loves people who first show love to him.  That’s a very human trait.  Our Father in heaven is the opposite of that.  He loves first.  Without prompting, he makes a world and people to fill it.  When those people blew it and ruined it with sin, he put a plan into action that would cost him so that he could restore our broken relationship with him.  He carried it out to perfection, by his grace, and gives it to us free of charge.  When we are not even able to make comprehensible sentences, his love takes something like water and drowns our sinful nature in baptism.  As we grow he feeds us with his life-giving Word and with the forgiveness of Christ’s body and blood.  He loves us like only a perfect Father could. He gives us everything he has, everything he is, and everything that Christ has provided for our salvation.  He even promises that nothing can change his loving mind.  He will always want you.  He will always be willing to have you.  Nothing can separate you from your Father’s love that is in Christ Jesus.

That’s a blessing!

Third, we have the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Sin and Satan have done a number on this world and in our hearts, always trying to destroy the unity that our Triune God has established with his redeemed people.  Peace is hard to come by.  And so the Holy Spirit blows with the power of Pentecost (remember that from last week?).  He breaks down walls, not with a humanistic universalism and not with a message of: “we can just get along with our differing ideas of God as long as we both believe in whatever it is we believe.  What’s important is that we all agree that no one is absolutely right and no one is absolutely wrong.”  He breaks down walls with the law and gospel, with the power of Scripture, with a message that could never originate in the hearts and minds of man, but only in the heart of the Triune God.  There is unity and fellowship by the power of the Spirit.  It is built on the Word of God and nothing more.

That is a blessing!

This three-fold blessing is what changes life for us.  It makes us live in a new way.  We live with the name of the Triune God on us.  We live with the things Paul encourages: peace, single-mindedness, encouragement, restoration.  We live in the glory of the God we can’t understand but firmly believe.

That’s being Lutheran.  That’s the legacy we hold to.  Over the next couple months we are going to study this legacy, and do you know what you are going to find?  We don’t have our own interpretation of the Bible.  We don’t have our own rules.  We don’t have Luther’s interpretation.  We don’t have Luther’s rules.  We have the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And that is with you all.  Amen.

THE BLOWING WIND OF PENTECOST

6.4.17 Pentecost A

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Acts 2

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, d 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “ ‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

 

I looked out my office window on Thursday and saw my picnic table umbrella doing something a little odd.  It was still stuck in that center hole of the table, but it was doing its best Mary Poppins impression, trying to take off and take my table with it.

What was the cause?  What had the power to lift an umbrella that is anchored by a piece of concrete?  It’s the wind.  The wind is powerful, and it’s all around us.  We know that pretty well here in North Dakota.  Out in this part of the country companies are even using it for energy.  Whether you like that idea or not, it doesn’t change the fact that wind is powerful.

But the thing is you can’t see the wind, you just can see what it does.  I didn’t see wind out my office window this past Thursday, I saw what it was doing.  I couldn’t tell you what direction the wind was coming from or where it would end up.  You can’t see wind, but you see what it does.  You can hear the sound as it blows through the trees and prairies.

Today, God wants us to think about the wind.   It’s a fascinating word in the Bible:  Ruach (רוּחַ) in the Old Testament and pneoma (πνεῦμα) in the New Testament.  When God uses that word in the Bible, it also the exact same word he uses to talk about the mysterious, miraculous, and powerful third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  The Bible calls him the Holy Wind, Ruach (רוּחַ) and pneoma (πνεῦμα).  You can’t pin him down to one location, but you see his power all over the place.  You can’t see him, but you can see his effects in the lives of people all over the world.  You can’t control his boundless energy, but God gives a bounty of it to be our power source for Christian living.

And this is his day.  You see, in the Christian Church there are three big festivals that we celebrate, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.  Each one of these festivals highlights one of the three persons of the Trinity.  Christmas is the festival of God the Father, who so loved the world that he gave us the greatest gift we could ever have, his one and only Son, who was of the Father’s love begotten.  Easter is about God the Son, who suffered, died, rose to save us from sin, death, and hell.  He is our Savior who lives and reigns for us.  Pentecost is about that Holy Wind, God the Spirit.

Today is the birthday of the Holy Christians Church, and that’s a day to celebrate the Holy Spirit.  Because on this day the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples with power from heaven.  It was on this day the he formed tongues of flame on their heads and put tongues of foreigners on their lips.  This is the day the heavenly and Holy Wind, who was promised, came and powered his small church of Jesus’ followers to be bold and take the saving gospel out to the nations. That powerful wind is still showing itself on this festival all these years later.

But you can’t just see wind in North Dakota or any other place, right?  In order to notice the power of the wind it needs something to blow against.  To utilize the power of the wind here in North Dakota, it needs to blow against those big windmills.  To get around in a boat you can use a motor or you can use the power of the wind by putting up a sail.  To see the power of the wind you need to leave your picnic table umbrella open.  The wind needs something to blow against.

In a way, the same is true for the Holy Spirit, that heavenly wind.  He is God and that means he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and always present.  But in order to see the effects of his power, he needs something to blow against.

And just what is that, you ask?  It’s actually quite simple.  This resource that the powerful Holy Spirit blows against is not hard to find.  When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly the sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 

The disciples were the ones seeing the effects of the Holy Spirit’s power on Pentecost.  There was no actual wind that day, but the Spirit, the heavenly and holy Wind, was blowing against those disciples.  His power was clearly the main attraction that day.

Some wanted to make it about the disciples, how they were speaking in different languages with fire on their heads and in their hearts.  Some were making a mockery by saying they were simple Galileans who had had too much to drink.  But Pentecost is not about the disciples’ power.  They were simply there for the Spirit’s power to blow against.

This is how I know that I am nothing special; there is nothing powerful about this pastor.  I have a very special and important job that I love to do, but it’s not about my power or position. God’s church will go on just fine with or without me here in Bismarck or here on earth. If you were able to join us for the Luther movie this past Wednesday, you probably noticed how the church got into a lot of trouble back in the late Middle Ages when it was all about the priests and popes and earthly political powers.  The church can never be about the men who serve it.  Instead, it needs to be about the Spirit who empowers it, the Christ who saves it, the Father who preserves it, and the Word that proclaims all God’s truth.

The Spirit’s power blew against the disciples that Pentecost.  It wasn’t the sound of the wind that really mattered or the fire or the men.  It was the message.  That was the real power of Pentecost.  That is the power that continues to blow throughout the church today.

And do you know what that message is?  Peter got up that day to preach it, and the Spirit was blowing through the crowd.  I am called as your pastor to get up and preach it, and the Spirit still blows through us who gather here with this message:  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Everyone!  Do you know who that includes?  God doesn’t say it’s the straight A students.  God doesn’t say it’s the people you like.  God doesn’t say it’s only the good people.  He doesn’t say it’s those who try really hard to cover up their mistakes.  God says, Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Yes, that includes people who struggle with sin.  In fact, that is the only kind of person there is.  Every man, woman, and child on earth struggles with sin.  It’s not a unique trait for a few.  God says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  We know this from looking in the mirror and seeing what God sees: sinners.  People feel this burden.  They know the guilt that sin brings.  They know the conflict that evil inflicts.  They know the uncertainty of death.  These are universal struggles across the board for everyone, including us.

God has the universal answer in Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Jesus died to pay the price for all sins of everyone.  Jesus rose from the dead to open the gates of heaven for every man, woman, and child that believes in him.

Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.  This is the solution to a guilty conscience.  This is the strength for living with sicknesses and sadness.  This is secret to rebuilding relationships.  This is the answer to what lies on the other side of death, because God is promising a future that has nothing to do with your current circumstances.

God isn’t uncertain about this. “…will be saved.”  In Christ, God stretches our perspective out to eternity.  In Christ, we have the cure for cancer.  In Christ, we have the formula for a blessed life.  In Christ, we have the ability to live forever in heaven.

That is what we have.  And God says everyone on the face of this earth can have the exact same thing.  The heavenly Wind wants to blow into the hearts and lives of every man, woman, and child in this world.  God has promised, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

The heavenly and holy Wind just needs someone to blow against for people to see his power.  God has given this amazing privilege and honor to people like us.  He could do it himself, but the heavenly Wind wants to use you to show how his power is for us and in us and among us.

The sound of the wind, the fire, and the languages would have accomplished nothing without the disciples speaking the saving message of a Savior who died and rose again.  The Holy Spirit chooses to show his power by blowing against people like the disciples, people like you and me.  Because that is when you really see what the power of the wind, when it is blowing against something.

Brothers and sisters, I know how fearful it can be.  I know how easy it is to pass up opportunities to say the simple truth about faith in Jesus.  I know the excuses that come up: “It’s probably someone else’s job.  They know it better.  They have a better knack for evangelism stuff.”   It’s ridiculous and absolutely amazing that God would want to include us in taking a message of such importance out to the world.

But there’s something else I know about you.  You have the same thing as the disciples.  You have the forgiveness of sins, which Jesus delivered with his death.  You have the certainty of heaven, which Jesus opened to you when he came back on Easter.  You have his authority as he rules over you from his throne.  You have the power of the Spirit blowing against you for the people around you to see.  If you don’t think you are ready or fit for the job, then you are exactly the kind of person that God wants to use because then you know the power isn’t coming from you but from that Holy Wind of God.

The wind needs something to blow against for people to see its power.  The Holy Spirit wants to blow against you so that people see how great our God is and what he has done to save us.  What does that mean for you?  I don’t know, maybe that means you will join our outreach team to help us find people who are lost and don’t know Jesus in our community.  (That’d be great!)  Or maybe you will help us carry out ministry here, like planning events so we can invite people here or like prioritizing projects to make our ministry and church witness better.  Or maybe you will pray for this work and generously support it.  Or maybe it simply means that you will go to work and let your light shine, so that people see your good deed and praise your Father in heaven.

Whatever it is, you know the power that is behind you.  It doesn’t come from you, it comes from that heavenly and holy wind.  And when that wind is blowing against you, people will notice, just like seeing an umbrella doing its best imitation of Marry Poppins.

God grant it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

 

THE ASCENDED JESUS HAS A WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM FOR US

5.28.17 AscensionA

B35a-small

(image from paramentics.com)

 

THE FESTIVAL OF THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Luke 24:44-53

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

 

They saw something so significant, and this was too important to keep to themselves.  That’s what a witness is and that is what a witness does.

Normally a key witness with inside information is very valuable. Their testimony is essential in gathering evidence that can help in a trial or an investigation.  Our government has a way of taking care of people who have this valuable information.  It’s called the witness protection program.  If the testimony is significant, then the witness will be protected.  It gets pretty intense, too! Witnesses are given new identities, free housing, job training and employment, medical benefits, and round the clock surveillance all because their information is that valuable.   They need to be kept safe or else their testimony will be lost.

But here we are today seeing Jesus leave his followers.  The conqueror of death, left his witnesses in a situation where there were plenty of people who wanted them dead.  Does that sound like a good witness protection program? Should Ascension really be one of the big festivals of the church?

Don’t get me wrong, going away parties can be fun.  You get to remember the good times and share stories.  And Jesus certainly has provided us with plenty of good times.  He gives us quite a brief summary this morning: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”

Over the past 6 months we seen it all.  Jesus carried out everything in the plan of salvation to save us from sin and death.  Think back to when we were getting pounded by blizzards.  Think of the message that God shared with the world: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 

Do you remember the Magi, Jesus baptized in the Jordan River, his glory on the mount of Transfiguration?  Do you remember the next mountain, one just outside of Jerusalem, called Calvary?  Do you remember how he knew exactly what would happen in Jerusalem, but he rode the donkey because he is the kind of humble king who comes to save us?  Do you remember the miraculous meal he gave his disciples (and us)?  Do you remember what we were doing here about six weeks ago? The Son of God let a bunch of cruel soldiers nail him to a piece of wood like he was a criminal.

But’s that not where the journey ended.  Because just a little over a month ago, 170 people gathered in this sanctuary for the best day of the year to hear that Jesus came back from death.  The women led us out to Jesus’ empty tomb to marvel again at the complete and total triumph that he won for us. We are free from sin, free from death, free from the devil.  We witnessed it all over the past 6 months. God has made us witnesses ever since he planted this saving faith in our hearts. We saw the greatest person who ever lived and the greatest victory parade that has ever taken place.  And it was all for us.

But then reality might be sinking in just a little bit today.  It normally does at a going away party.  You remember the good times, but then… you have to say goodbye.  We all witnessed Jesus come and now we are all standing there with the disciples as he says goodbye.

So, why are we celebrating?  You might wonder how could the disciples worship him and return to Jerusalem with great joy?  Are we really supposed to be happy that our Savior is gone? I think sometimes it can feel a little bit like we are witnesses of these things, but that we are now left all alone to fend for ourselves in a world that wants nothing to do with steadfast Bible-based Christianity.  The protection for us witnesses does not seem to be working out too well.

I mean, where is Jesus when I need him?  Where is he when people start asking questions about my faith in him, my priorities, or my church?  Where is Jesus when I have really hard questions?  Where is Jesus when times are tough? Where is Jesus when loved ones are getting sick or hurt or even dying?  Where is Jesus when there is struggle and strife between his followers?

It can be hard to be a witness when this program seems to be failing.  When I feel like I’m all alone in the fight against sin and the devil, I can easily give in.  It can be hard to be zealous when I just don’t know what to say or when to say it.  It can be hard to speak with joy and confidence when I think no one is going to back me up.  It just might not sound like the greatest witness protection program for Jesus to up and leave his witnesses all alone.

But before we complain that life is too hard, before we start to blame God when things don’t work, before we start thinking there really isn’t much protection for us, maybe we should take a step back and view the situation as Jesus sees it.  Think of his view from heaven.  Can you see any enemies that Jesus still has to conquer?  Can you find any of Jesus’ witnesses who are working in a place that Jesus cannot protect them?  There is a reason Jesus left this earth and went back up to his throne.

Remember what Jesus said: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  2000 years ago, Jesus ascended because he had finished the job he came to do. He fulfilled every word that God had promised.  Christ conquered all of our enemies once for all.  Our sins were destroyed forever on the cross.  Death was defeated by an empty tomb.  Hell was overthrown by a perfect King who is now preparing our home in heaven.  The devil can prowl around all he wants, but his head has already been crushed.  He’s all bark and no bite.  His only weapon is trying to tell lies, but we have The Truth on our side.

The world cannot hold us confined to run around in an endless maze of disappointments.  Jesus tells us to take heart because he has overcome the world.  And Paul reminds us our citizenship is in heaven; this world is just a motel. The sinful nature that lives inside each of us has been drowned in Baptism and is fighting a hopeless battle against the Holy Spirit who called us out of darkness into the light of life.  This is the day we celebrate the coronation of the Prince of Peace to his rightful place on heaven’s throne because he had completed all his work.  He didn’t leave anything undone.

The next time you feel like you are all alone, the next time you feel like you are hopelessly fighting a losing battle against sin, and the next time you lack confidence to stand up for your faith in Jesus, take a look around.  Do you see Jesus anywhere?  No.  You would if you were still lost in your sins.  You would if your home in heaven wasn’t already paid for in full. Your King has not left any battles for you to fight on your own.  Your King has not left any enemies that can crush you.  Your King has provided the full proof witness protection program when he died for all sins, rose from the dead, and kept his promise to clothe his witnesses with the Holy Spirit.

How this witness protection program still continues to work is quite astonishing when you think about it.  Jesus commissioned a few fisherman, a tax collector, a former Pharisee and just a couple others to be witnesses.  None of them were the religious nobility.  None of them were trained public speakers.  Not one of them had anything more than you do.  They had God’s Word and the Lord said they were his protected witnesses. The group started joyously in Jerusalem and the good news spread.  The Spirit brought a few thousand more to faith.  They joyously joined in the mission work.  Some of the apostles were killed, but the news still spread even more because death cannot hold back Jesus.  Some groups tried to change the message just a little bit here and there, to make it more sensible, logical, more human, but their heresies were exposed and the truth of Jesus still spread in this world like wildfire.

Jesus sat on his throne and empowered his small group of followers to boldly witness about him to all nations.  They didn’t know when or where or how Jesus would send the Spirit to bring more people to faith, but they knew it would happen… if they went and witnessed.  And so, the gospel of Jesus spread to Greece and Rome and Spain and Asia and Africa and Europe and then eventually the good news of forgiveness through faith in Jesus came over to America.

Jesus protected his witnesses all the way, so that at some point his grace also found you and found me. His witness protection program really works.  He gives each of us new identities as God’s children.  He gives us a free and eternal home in heaven.  He gives us on-the-job training through his word to do his work. And he watches over us every minute from heaven.

You see, that’s what ascension started.  That’s how our King works.  Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstresses, soldiers, cooks and clerks to be his witnesses.  He uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors.  He uses you and me.  He uses things like a Bible and Baptism to change lives forever.  It’s a witness protection program that seems so simple and we could even say weak, but it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.  It’s always about the power of King Jesus.

Part of Jesus’ witness protection program that he provides are those who preach and teach and lead the mission work.  Jesus is still watching over his church, by sending pastors and teachers to spread this good news.

Jesus provides the workers, but do you know where he gets them from?  Do pastors and teachers just appear out of thin air?  The answer is no.  When I was born did I have a big sign on my forehead so that my parents would know that I would end up as your pastor at Our Saviour’s?  Again, no.  Then, how does Jesus keep his witness protection program going?  How does he find servants for the ministry of the gospel?

Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstress, soldiers, cooks and clerks.  Jesus uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors.  Jesus gets pastors and teachers from all walks of life to lead the work.  You see, it’s a cycle.  Jesus continues to use us in his ways as his witnesses.  And when you’re a witness, you tell what you see.

That’s what I get to do on a full-time basis.  It’s literally the best life on earth. To serve the Lord as a witness and to preach and teach and encourage other witnesses is a privilege and honor.  To be a part of this victory parade is humbling and exciting and difficult and awesome and heart-wrenching and inspiring.

Jesus began this witness protection program when he ascended and it is still going strong, because he is in charge.  Can you be a witness?  You already are, because when he spoke his name over you, God brought you into the program.  Can your children or grandchildren be full-time witnesses in ministry as pastors and teachers? That’s kind of how it works.  Jesus made it this way, and I think he knows what he is doing, don’t you?

Look what it did to the disciples.  They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.  That’s what the Ascension does. It shows us our King who is ruling all things for us.  It shows us his death-defying power that saves us forever.  It shows us the home that we have with him.  It shows us that we are witnesses of it all.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

WHAT IS LIFE LIKE IN THE EASTER VICTORY PARADE?

5.21.17 Easter 6A

Easter Season A

1 John 3:11-18

11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

 

The victory parade of Jesus defeating death still continues.  Whatever happened to you this week or last, whatever health trouble, work trouble, relationship trouble, financial trouble, or emotional trouble you have been dealing with does not diminish the truth of the gospel, that good news that says Jesus saves you.  No matter what has been ailing you spiritually, physically, or emotionally, you have a God who loves you to the point where he would let himself be arrested, tortured, and murdered so that you would not have to face the punishment for your sins.  And this God conquered death so that you get to talk about heaven as your very real, very certain, very perfect, very eternal home.  That is God’s love for you.

Let that sink in… God loves me to death, literally to hell, and then back again.  You know, that really works for me. I like that a lot.  Nothing can separate God’s love from me.  With my sin, I put unnecessary and unhelpful distance between God and myself.  I might ignore him at times.  I do things I shouldn’t, but God will still love me and want me to live with him forever.  He will still work through his Word to call me, to shatter my stony heart, to waken me from slumber, to turn my darkness to light.  He will still be the God who died for me and rose again.

Do you know what that’s called?  When someone does not base their love for me on my performance but loves me simply because they want to, that’s called grace.  And with God’s grace there’s no fine print.  There’s no obligations.  There is nothing that can change that kind of love called grace, because it’s not about me and who I am and what I do, it’s about God and who he is and what he does.

Like I said, that works for me.  God has a personal knowledge of me.  He has a personal way of dealing with me.  I’m not just a name on a long list.  I’m not just a number.  As Luther put it, “God has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts.  Sanctified and kept me in the one true faith.”   That’s a good thing for me to cherish when I feel weary and burdened.  That’s a good thing for me to hold onto when I feel alone.

But sometimes I’m selfish and I take it too far.  You do, too. I like that God knows me and loves me, but I can put too much attention on me.  I like that God is on my side, and in this self-obsessed, ego-infatuated, me-myself-and-I world, I put the focus on this relationship between God and me, failing to enjoy the fact that God has this kind of relationship with others, too.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”  That’s a key word at the end.  Yes, I have a personal relationship with my Savior.  He brought me to faith and I now stand with him and will live with him forever.  But it’s not just me and him.  That pronoun is a first person pronoun, but’s it’s plural.  It’s “us!” That means Jesus loves more than me.

For the selfish heart that stubbornly says, “My faith is between me and God,” the fact is faith in Jesus connects us into a family.  Did you catch that in this letter John wrote.   John says “brothers and sisters” and “dear children.”  God’s grace called us by the gospel of Jesus Christ into his family.  That means there are others.  And these others are not foreign or strange.  They are family.  They were bought with the same blood of Christ.  They were baptized into the name of the same Triune God.  They were called, enlightened, and sanctified by the same Spirit.  They are built on the same solid foundation of God’s truth.  These fellow believers enjoy the same message of law and gospel.  They have the same eternal home waiting for them.  That lasts a lot longer than the family relationships we have on earth.

How does this family operate?  Is it a smile and a nod once in a while at church?  Is that how family works?  Is it nice words?  Some small talk with coffee and doughnuts?  A congratulations at a baptism?  A birthday greeting on facebook?  That just doesn’t sound like the way a family works, does it?

John says, “we should love one another.”  What exactly is the definition of love John is using?  Is it attraction, like a teenager trying to get a date for prom?  Is it a positive feelings for someone, like waving to your neighbors across the street?  Is it familiarity from spending a lot of time together, like a son mimicking his father?  Is that what love is?  That is not even close to the way God is using it here.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”  That’s how God loves people.  He shows his love in actions.  He shows love by doing such amazing things for people who do not deserve it.  He sacrifices himself.  That is love.  That is the love that exists in the family of God, as John continues, And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” 

Love is being willing to lay aside your preferences, your opinions, your goals, your time, your energy, even your whole being for someone else.  Love is not just saying they matter more, but showing it.  And this section is not addressed to spouses – although it certainly applies – it is addressed to those within the family of God.

But families don’t always get along, do they?  They don’t always have this kind of love.  In fact, in a family it can get downright nasty.  Did you hear that example of Cain and Abel?  Cain didn’t have the right attitude toward God or toward his brother.  Maybe he thought he could keep it hidden from Abel.  But God saw it all clearly.

God still sees it clearly.  He sees when it’s not just a busy schedule that separates his people, but careless selfishness.  He sees when it’s just the lips moving and the heart is ice cold.  What is happening to God’s family, when brothers and sisters cannot love one another with joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control?  We are just like Cain.  We are self-obsessed.  We are ignorant and arrogant.  We are killing love.

Do you know what that is called when you kill love with hatred, with jealousy, with slander, with gossip… It’s called murder.  And if there is one thing this world loves, it’s hate.  Hatred toward people who lean politically.  Hatred toward people of different creeds.  Hatred toward different races and ethnicities.  It’s killing us.  It’s killing our world and it works its way among even God’s people.

And so into our world of hate, the love of God pierced the darkness.  It began with a promise to Cain’s parents, that hatred would not cut God off from his people, but God would put the hatred between his people and Satan (enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers).  The love of God shined brightly the night Jesus entered our world.  Angels sang of peace between God and men.  The love of God walked the earth, willing to show kindness and goodness to all, even the enemies who hated him.  The love of God allowed those enemies to kill Jesus, so that we would know what God’s love does for us.  But the love of God did not end in death.  Jesus passed from death to life.  He would not let hate ruin his kingdom.  With love, his death brought forgiveness and peace.  He would not let his people be ruled by evil and sin.  With love, Jesus destroyed sin, death, and hell.

I have a new life in Christ and so do you.  We have this life where there is peace with God and each other, a life where Christ lives in us through faith, a life where hatred does not control us, a life where I look for ways to show the love of God to my brothers and sisters the way God showed his love to me.

There is a world of people just like Cain, who cannot understand this sort of thing.  It’s foreign, nonsense. They don’t know Christ or care about him so how can they have his love in their hearts?  Instead, they serve themselves.  They hate any opposing view that does not fit their own.

Brothers and sisters, that is not us.  We are not ruled by what we hate.  We are ruled by the love of God.  We are so saturated with it, that we cannot possibly keep it in.  God’s love will never just be a me and God thing.  It will always be a God and us thing.  It will always be giving up what I want because God gave himself up for me.  I will put the needs of others first.

This love that flows from God through us will be visible.  It will be visible in this family of believers here.  It will be visible like good fruit is visible on a tree.  People will see your joy that exists not because everything in life is going smoothly, but because sins are forgiven and life in heaven is yours.  People will see your kindness, that isn’t looking for a reward but desires to help others in need.  People will see your faithfulness, that even though we live in fickle times, the risen Lord keeps us steadfast.  These brothers and sisters will see it and rejoice that God’s love can do such things.

That’s gospel ministry.  That’s the life we have in this victory parade.  Love is what defines us, God’s undying love that called us out of the darkness of hate and brought us into the light of life.  As Christ has love you, now you love one another. God grant it.  Amen.

THE ONLY ONE

5.14.17 Easter 5A

Easter Season A

John 14:1-12

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. 12 Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

It’s the trip of a lifetime.  The suitcases are packed.  The oil is changed and the gas tanked topped off.  Everything fits into the trunk magically like Legos.  The whole family is in the car ready to go three minutes early.  Your favorite driving music is cued up on the road trip playlist.  Mom must have been in charge of it.

With all the preparation and work that goes into planning an epic family vacation, could you ever imagine dad turning to mom with a blank stare while the car sits in the driveway to say, “So, can you tell me where we are going and how to get there?”

Now, in our high-tech generation that might not be so devastating, because two family members would offer him a GPS enabled phone with three possibilities depending on what kind of route you wanted. All Dad would have to do is listen to the GPS lady say, “In 500 feet turn left.”  Then, detours could be added and subtracted all along the way until those magic words: “You have arrived.”  Although I don’t imagine anyone would pack up and getting ready to go without first having a destination and a route in mind, it could be done.

When we see Thomas, Philip, and the other disciples in our Gospel today, it isn’t that simple. There is no OnStar.  There is no GPS.  There are no planes, no trains, no automobiles to get them were Jesus was going.  It was unsettling for them to hear Jesus speak the way he does that night before he died.  He says, “I’m leaving you, but you know the way.”  You can almost picture the look on their faces.  Stunned. Shocked.  Worried.  It is as though Jesus is giving them an impossible task rather than a trip of a lifetime.

Does it feel like that for you?  Does it feel like Jesus has given you a destination but no directions on how to get there?  Do you feel like Thomas asking, how can we know the way?  I think that is a very important question for us to ask, because life is not always the joyful journey we want it to be.  Sometimes we find ourselves distracted or lost without much direction.

In this road trip called life, do you notice when that is happening?  Do you recognize when the surroundings are changing and the signs are confusing?  It’s not because Jesus took the GPS away.  It’s not because he is no longer there for you.  This trip gets hard when we think we don’t need him as much.

When kids start to think they don’t need Sunday school, that worship is boring, or when you spend time memorizing video game hacks over spiritual facts in Scripture, that’s when the distractions are grabbing hold.  When teenagers are listening to their science teachers more than the creator of science, when you are going to parties and competitions more than worship and Bible study, when you are listening to your changing bodies more than your changeless Lord, then potholes are doing some serious damage.  When people put their career goals before God’s goals, when you focus on building a home and family without the foundation of Christ, then that road starts to crumble and breakdown.  When parents jostle for center stage for their kids, even though there is already someone fulfilling that role perfectly  for them, that’s a dangerous direction to follow.  When kids make life harder for their parents on purpose, that’s not a good road to be on.  When retired folks spend their last years reliving the past rather than promoting the one who provides an eternal future, that can’t get you back on track.

There are so many obstacles, distractions, recalculations that we add to life’s road.  These things don’t pop up because Christ is gone or because he has forgotten about us.  They pop up because we are trying something different or we might just be forgetting the way.

That’s probably why Jesus begins this whole conversation with this encouraging reminder: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God and also you believe in me.”  Jesus simplifies things. He tells me that I don’t need to make things work out.  He says I don’t have to trust in my abilities or my knowledge or my personality.  I don’t need to follow after everything my family or my friends are doing.  I don’t need to be enamored with celebrities or athletes.  I don’t need to crave more money or popularity.  To start this conversation today, Jesus makes it really simple.  On this road trip of life, the reason you don’t have to worry or be distracted is because God gave you faith.  Your faith clings to his promises and Jesus’ salvation.  You faith wants nothing more than follow Jesus.

But every now and then you and I might wish for a little more.  We want the road of life to be just a bit better. Maybe it’s a simple request, “Jesus, I know you have given me what I need, but what about just a little more, something that I’m looking for. Give me something I can use.”  That sounds a little bit like Philip, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”     Philip had Jesus right there.  The Savior of the world was right across the table.  Jesus had everything under control.  But Philip wants just a little bit more than what he already has.

Thinking we need more from Jesus is so dangerous because then you might start thinking that the way you are going in life is all wrong.  You begin to question everything.  And like Thomas you find yourself wrestling with way to go.  “Lord, where are you going, and how can we know the way?”

Jesus has a great answer to this question.  An answer that isn’t angry or annoyed.  It’s just what we need when we are distracted like Philip or worried like Thomas.  Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  If you need direction, if you’re feeling lost or distracted, if you are trying to find your way on this road trip of life, Jesus is your answer.  His free and full forgiveness and salvation answers all the question and worries we can come up with.  He is literally the only answer.

Imagine if Jesus would tell us, “I am a way, a truth, and a life.”  Wouldn’t you feel let down a little bit?  Wouldn’t you think that there could be better options?  There is a big difference between ‘the’ and ‘a.’ ‘A’ is part of a group.  It’s generic.  It’s common. There is nothing exciting or special about ‘a.’ If you don’t believe that there is a difference, then which of these statements would you say to your mother today: ‘You’re a great mom,’ or ‘you’re the great mom’.  Those two statements are not the same.  ‘The’ is specific.  It takes a stand. It’s exclusive.

Jesus didn’t tell us, “I’ll show you the way,” like a gas station clerk trying to help you with directions.  Jesus says, I am the way. Jesus didn’t say, “I have the truth,” like a lawyer in a courtroom.  He says, I am the truth.   Jesus didn’t say, “I will lead you to life,” like 21st century TV evangelist.  He tells us, I am the life.  There is nothing generic about Jesus.  He isn’t ‘a’ Savior, one of many different options. He is the Savior and the only way to heaven.  And just to make it all crystal clear, he says No one comes to the Father except through me.

Jesus is the way through this life to God’s home for us in heaven.  When our world talks about religion it uses ‘a.’ It says there is a god out there and a better place.  Find whatever works best for you.  Find your god and your way and everything will be ok. When so many voices are distracting us like that and pulling us into this idea that there are many different paths, Jesus is the only way.  When suffering and loss grab you, Jesus is your only way out of sadness and depression.  When your future looks dim and dismal, Jesus is the only truth that enlightens you for eternity.  When your past mistakes and problems try to drag you down, Jesus is the only life that is free of sin and guilt.

That’s why we keep coming here to this place. Jesus is the only Way, Truth, and Life.  Without the Way, you are going to wander off.  Without the Truth, you’re going to listen to so many of these opinions and half-truths going around.  Without the Life, you’re going to die for eternity.  Jesus is  what you need for the road of life.  You don’t have to wander around.  You don’t have to keep searching.

The trip of a lifetime would become quite annoying, and even worse, if you didn’t know where you were going half the time or if you kept getting distracted and lost.  That’s why we have GPS or a map.  And you know the important thing about GPS or a map, right? They are only good at getting you from point A to point B if you use them.  What good would a GPS be if you turned it off during the middle of your trip and then turned it on again only to realize you missed three turns?  What good would a map be if you shove it in the trunk?

Do you know what God gives you so that you know The Way?  He gives you his Word, not as a list of directions to follow, but as his living Way, who paved the way to heaven for you.  He gives you his Word, not as a collection of truths and moral absolutes, but as his Truth of forgiveness and salvation.  He gives you his Word, not as a way to keep the idea of Jesus living, but as his living and enduring testament of love that he will never leave us forever.

Brothers and sisters, don’t lose it.  Don’t turn off the GPS that God has given you.  Don’t shove it under a bunch of things in the trunk. Use the GPS God has given you. Use his Word every day.  Use it by yourself.  Use it with family and friends.  Use it until you know The Way really well and then use it some more.  Jesus is the only Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He is the one who conquered sin, death, and hell for you.  He’s the one who is preparing a room for you in God’s house right now.  He is the one who promises that you will be with him forever.

Amen.