THE ASCENDED JESUS HAS A WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM FOR US

5.28.17 AscensionA

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(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.

 

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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.

A SHEPHERD HAS TO USE THE GATE FOR HIS SHEEP

5.7.17 Easter 4 Confirmation

Easter Season A

John 10:1-10

1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

 

 

EASTER GREETING: Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed!
I have a confession to make. I don’t know much about sheep.  I know; maybe that’s not the best confession for the start of a sermon on Good Shepherd Sunday.  But I have a feeling that is a common thought among most Americans.

Here’s my experience: I remember a farm of sheep outside of Watertown, WI where I grew up. Whenever we would drive to Milwaukee or when I was on a longer run on that country road I always remember seeing those sheep.  There weren’t many, but I remember thinking sometimes how simple it must have been for that farmer.  There was a fence around a couple acres of grass.  That was it.  Maybe the farmer had to call in the shearer to cut the sheep’s wool once a year, but besides that it didn’t look that tough.  I don’t even know if I would call a present day farmer who has sheep under his care a shepherd.  Their job is pretty easy.

That’s the way we Americans think about sheep and shepherds, but that is not even close to the way people in Old and New Testament times thought about sheep and shepherds.  Lush grassy fields covering the landscape did not exist in Israel.  There were no places to put up fences outside of town and let the sheep eat their fill every day in serene safety. Judea was a dry, arid, rocky, and rolling place.  Shepherds had to take their flock out into the wilderness, over rocky and threatening terrain, where they would graze on hillsides for little pieces of grass here and there.  The sheep were exposed to danger and attacks could come from any direction so shepherds had to keep a watchful eye at all times. They had to protect the sheep from danger.  Shepherds back then had to work – hard.

No wonder the idea of a shepherd watching over sheep was such a beautiful picture for the people living in Israel.  No wonder the kings of the Old Testament were called shepherds over God’s people.  No wonder Jesus used this concept of sheep and shepherds to describe who is he and what he does.

Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s also Confirmation Sunday for Emmy.  What a fitting day it is for this celebration, where the Church rejoices in our Good Shepherd, Jesus. He doesn’t leave us alone in this wild world, but guards us, guides us in our journey, and leads us safely to his eternal home.  It’s such a good thing, because sheep need shepherds.

The interesting thing in this section of John 10, also known as the Good Shepherd chapter, is that Jesus is not yet calling himself the shepherd.  We are most certainly the sheep, but in the first 10 verses of this chapter, Jesus refers to himself as the gate for the sheep pen – the only way in to the safe place where the sheep could rest for the night.

Sometimes the shepherds in countryside nearby would keep watch over the flocks at night.  Does that sound familiar?  Yes, like on the night Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  But if the flocks were well watered, they had found enough little clumps of grass during the day, and they were close enough, the shepherd could take his flock to the sheep pen.  This isn’t like the that modern sheep farm I saw growing up in Watertown, WI.  The sheep pen wasn’t the place for feeding or drinking.  It had one purpose, protection.  It had high enough walls that kept out wild animals looking for a meal and safely kept the sheep in.  There was only one way for the shepherds to get their sheep in or out, through the gate.  And, as Jesus says, there was a watchman at the gate, who would only allow access to the shepherds of the sheep.

Jesus is the gate.  He’s the one who opened heaven to us by living in our place.  He took our punishment on himself to free us from the destruction of sin.  He rose from the dead to show us the victory was won.  Death holds no power.  We have life in the safety of the Father’s sheep pen forever.  The only way in – THE ONLY WAY – is through the gate, through Jesus, the Savior who conquered sin, death, and the devil for us.

All of this protection was necessary not just because of wild animals, but also because of thieves and robbers.  Sheep were valuable back then.  It was an agriculture, animal based economy. Their wool made clothing.  Sacrifices were a huge part of worship that God had set up for his people, and sheep were needed for those sacrifices.  Owners of flocks were always looking to add to their business.  If you had bigger, healthier flocks you were successful.  And so sheep and lambs were sought after.

We are sought after, too.  God wants us, but so does the devil.  And the devil has a lot of thieves and robbers looking to carry out his evil purposes.  They want your heart and your mind and your allegiance, but what they don’t want is Christ.  They won’t come through him.  They are trying to sneak over the wall and get you away from God and the safety of his sheep pen.

That can include friends or even family members, who don’t really think you need to hear God’s Word and praise his name that much.  “It’s not that big of a deal, you know all that stuff already,” they say.  The thieves and robbers can include your devices and the internet and anything else that is trending.  These things call for you attention, but they don’t use Christ.

These thieves and robbers can even come from religion.  That’s the point Jesus was making to the Pharisees.  They weren’t shepherding God’s people; they were trying to steal them.  Any religious man or church that tries to lead people to God by good works, acts of penance, or through their pockets isn’t using the gate.  Anyone who says you can choose your own god or that all paths lead to heaven, is trying to get people away from Jesus.  Anyone who denies the Spirit’s power in baptism and communion isn’t trying feed you the way God does.  Anyone who uses some but not all of the Bible or adds their own ideas to it, is not using the voice of Christ.  These thieves and robbers come “only to steal and kill and destroy.”

Today, is a good day to remember just how much sheep need a shepherd.  There are so many voices out there and even coming from within these sinful hearts of ours who want to steal us from Jesus and destroy us for eternity.  The sad part is we have to often listened to the voices of the thieves and robbers.  We have gone astray.  We have wandered from the safety of the sheep pen.  When God says, “watch out” and “keep away” we don’t listen.  Like dumb lambs we go our own way.

But there’s one voice that will always be different.  There’s one voice that will always call us.  There’s one voice that will rescue us from the dangers of the thieves and robbers.  Jesus says, “The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

That’s the interesting thing about sheep.  They might be dumb, they might wander, but there is one voice that will always get them back on track.  It’s the voice of the shepherd.  Now, if Jesus is the gate, the only way in to the sheep pen, then who is the shepherd? Well, it’s certainly not the one who tries to get your attention away from the gate, right?  The shepherd is not the one who promotes your own way.  The shepherd is not the one who lets you follow the path to destruction.  The shepherd points in the right direction, the right way; the shepherd uses the gate.  And sheep know that voice.

I get to be that shepherd.  Only by grace, Jesus can use a man like me, not because of some special skills that I have, not because I’m so exceptional, but because I go through the gate.  For a shepherd of God’s flock, that’s the single, most important factor: do the sheep hear the voice of Jesus when they listen to me?  Do the sheep hear the familiar warnings of God’s law?  Do they hear the soothing comfort of God’s gospel?  That’s what matters.  Does the shepherd take the sheep through the gate, week after week in sermon after sermon, bible study after bible study, counseling session after counseling session, visit after visit, meeting after meeting?  Does the shepherd use the gate and only the gate of Jesus?  Because there is only one gate for the sheep pen.  There is only one voice for the sheep.

That’s what Jesus’ sheep are listening for.  That is the voice the confirmation students are getting familiar with during their classes.  And that is the voice the sheep constantly are listening for.  It’s not just for a couple years.  It’s not just during the really dangerous times.  It’s not just when they are looking for food or water.  Sheep listen to the shepherd all the time, in every situation, because only the voice of the shepherd is familiar and comforting.  Only the shepherd knows them each by name.

That voice is not mine.  I am not the gate to heaven.  I am not the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep only to take it up again in victory.  That’s Jesus.  But the gate lets me be a part of the shepherding.  He allows me in because I use the gate.  It’s not my voice that is necessary, it’s his.  When I speak, I don’t want you to hear my voice or my style, I want you to hear the life-saving comfort of Jesus.  I am not perfect.  I cannot make everyone happy.  But Jesus is and Jesus will fill you with eternal joy.  He can do that because he lives now and forever.

Brothers and sisters, and especially you, Emmy, never forget his voice.  He calls your name.  He calls your name in his Word and Sacrament.  He tells you just how much he cares and how he doesn’t want you to get hurt by wandering off.  Those other voices might sound popular, sensible, or even exciting, but I can guarantee that they will be strange at the beginning.  Don’t listen.  Don’t let the voices of this world, of the devil and all his temptations, of your own sinfulness become familiar.  Listen to the voice of your Savior.

He has a promise for you that nothing and no one else can give.  He says, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”  See, Jesus doesn’t tie you up with rules and guidelines.  He sets you free from sin and guilt with his promise of life.  He doesn’t want to keep you from experiencing things, he wants to keep you safe in his sheep pen.  His voice calls to a full life through the only gate to heaven.  That’s the only place where life can be full.

So listen to him.  And when you hear him, you’ll know.  It’s the voice that he used to get you out of danger and darkness into his flock.  It’s the voice he used to build you up.  It’s the voice that he will continue use to feed you and lead you until the day you are safe with him forever.

In his name, Amen.

 

MY DEFENSE IS JESUS’ RESURRECTION

4.30.17 Easter 3A

Easter Season A

Acts 24:10-21 (sermon also includes context from Acts 20:1 – 25:12)

10 When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. 11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. 13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

17 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. 20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’ ”

 

‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’  That’s what this is all about.  I, Paul, was on trial simply because I believed  Jesus rose from the dead, and I love to tell people.

Here’s how it happened.  I had made the long journey from my mission work in Greece to Jerusalem to visit the believers there.  They were going through some tough times and I had brought gifts from a bunch of our other Greek churches to help them out.  A couple of these faithful Gentile believers accompanied us on the journey.  After we arrived in Jerusalem, we met with the brothers and sisters there.  It is always nice to meet and greet with fellow believers carrying out God’s work in a different part of the world.

The thing is, sometimes there is confusion about my ministry.  See, the Lord called me to do mission work for Gentiles.  Jesus is the Savior for all people, so we can’t avoid a certain group or certain areas just because it might be difficult or misunderstood.  His promises work the same for everyone.  His death and resurrection give forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe, no matter where you are from.

Well, you can imagine that not everyone thought my work was a good thing.  For the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, they were overjoyed that the gospel of Jesus was bringing Gentiles to faith.  For the Jewish religious leaders, the kind of people who put Jesus to death, they were not overjoyed.  They were pretty raging angry.

While I was in Jerusalem, I went to the Temple to worship and some of these raging angry Jewish religious leaders saw me there.  They were not at all happy about this.  They started shouting at me, that I was preaching an anti-Jewish message wherever I went, that I spoke against the law and the Temple.  They even accused me defiling the Temple with Greeks, because they saw some of my travel companions with me in the city and assumed that I was so anti-Jewish that I brought them with me to the Temple, too.  They got so enraged and aroused so many people that I thought they would kill me right then and there.

News got to the Roman commander, who took some soldiers and rushed in to arrest me for causing such a disturbance.  When he asked what I had done, the crowd shouted all sorts of lies about me.  The commander just wanted me out of there so everything would calm down and he could investigate what happened.  After I told him I was a Jew, he let me speak to the crowd in my defense.

I explained everything.  I told them how I grew up in Pharisee school, studying under Gamaliel.  I told them how my passion for God’s law led me to persecute the followers of Jesus to death.  It didn’t matter, men or women, I wanted them in prison or dead.  I told them about my trip to Damascus to find more of Jesus’ followers, but on the way, Jesus found me and changed my life.  The things his followers proclaimed were all true.  Jesus died and rose from the dead to save us for eternity.  I was an eyewitness to it.  Jesus said he had a different job for me now.  Instead of passionately persecuting his followers, he wanted me to zealously preach and evangelize for more.  So, he told me to go the Gentiles with his good news of forgiveness and life.

It was at that point that the Jews started shouting again.  They said, “Rid the earth of him!  He’s not fit to live!”  The commander got me into the barracks safely.  He wanted to punish me for the chaos, but as a Roman citizen, I had the right to a trial.  The Jews didn’t really have any legal charges against me. They were just angry that I preached the good news of Jesus.  And they were especially irritated that I did this ministry to Gentiles.

The next few days were a whirlwind.  I stood before the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, to face their accusations.  The Roman commander didn’t hear any Roman laws that I broke, only that Jews really hated me.  He wanted to release me, but then my nephew found out about their plot to kill me when I was released.  So, the commander transferred me to Caesarea, because the Roman governor, Felix, lived there.

How about that for a week?  Well, five days later the Jews came to Caesarea with their lawyer, Tertullus.  He had this to say, “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him.”  Then, all the Jews joined in the accusations against me.  They really didn’t like me much, as you can tell.

Sometimes that happens, doesn’t it?  Sometimes people don’t like followers of Jesus.  They don’t like what you stand for, even if they don’t really know or ask.  They don’t like what you say.  They don’t like what you do.  They don’t like your attitude about life and death and heaven.  At times, they will accuse you of being high and mighty.  And other times, when you make a mistake, giving in to sin, then you are a hypocrite for doing what everyone else is doing.

It feels like you can’t win.  You try to do the right thing, living your faith in Jesus no matter what the situation, but people don’t care or they get irritated.  They don’t want to know about Jesus and they certainly don’t want you talking about it all the time.  And then, when you do something wrong, they question your commitment.

It would be a whole lot easier to simply give up.  Do you know why I didn’t give up?  Even though I faced threats and dangers wherever I went, do you know why I continued to speak about Jesus?  Even though I have been beaten, flogged, stoned and left for dead, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and so much more, do you know why I will never ever stop?

Because my Savior rose from the dead. No one else can say that.  Not one of those Jewish religious leaders can comprehend how much hope that gives me every single day.  I don’t care if they take my freedom, because Jesus Christ has made me free from the slavery of sin and has given me a righteousness that makes me a part of God’s family forever.  I don’t care if they take my eyes, because Jesus Christ has changed my darkness to eternal light.  I don’t care if they take my hands and feet, because Jesus Christ will give me a glorious, perfect body in heaven.  I don’t care if they cut out my tongue, because I will be singing the praise of Jesus Christ for eternity.  It doesn’t matter what they do, I will never give up the truth that my Savior rose from the dead.  It is my defense in every situation and my hope for eternity.

When your hope is in Jesus, then what can mere mortals do to you?  Nothing.  Sure, people can inflict physical pain if they get so fed up with your faith in Jesus, but physical pain does not last like the pain and punishment of hell.  Sure, people can make you an outsider because you believe in Jesus and his eternal life, but you are never an outsider in heaven.  Sure, people can even take your life, but faith in Jesus’ resurrection means you have an eternal life.

That’s the way I looked at it.  So, there I stood on trial before the Roman governor, Felix.  The Jews hoped that they could get rid of me.  They hoped that my preaching would be gone for good.  But their hope was in the wrong thing.  They put their hope in a lawyer, in the governor, in their own passion to get rid of me.  It didn’t work, because hope in people or desires here on earth will always fail.  But when your hope is in Jesus, it is alive and always will be.

Jesus came back from the dead for us.  We have confidence in every one of his promises because he is alive.  If he says he is with you always to the very end of the age, then a living Savior keeps that promise.  If he says he will protect and guard you in all your ways, a living Savior keeps that promise.  If he says your sins are forgiven, a living Savior keeps that promise.  If he says your home is in heaven, a living Savior keeps that promise.

You know, Felix kept me in jail for two more years.  He was relieved of his duties and Festus took over as the governor.  And I had to go through the hearings all over again.  Eventually, I appealed to Caesar so that I could go to Rome, and as a Roman citizen, my appeal was granted.  The Lord did exactly what he had promised to do. Every one of those days in prison my Savior was still the conqueror of sin, death, and the devil.  Every one of those days he was keeping his promises to protect me, forgive me, and love me.  Every one of those days my hope was alive in him.  He kept his promises.  I went to Rome and testified to the truth to anyone who would listen.

That is the Savior I have and will always have.  No matter what the circumstances or the situation you experience, if people are trying to tear you apart and rid the earth of your life or if they are just making you feel like an outsider, don’t give up.  Our Savior is alive.  No one can take that hope away.

Amen.