WHY DO YOU BELIEVE WHAT YOU BELIEVE?

5.27.18 Holy Trinity B

Pentecost B

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, t 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

 

It’s amazing the affect a little rain and warm weather can have.  The leaves have popped.  The grass and unfortunately the weeds are getting thick.  It’s summer and that means it’s time for growth.

The change that is happening in nature is also paralleled in the Church.  The seasons have changed.  We are now in the time of year where the focus and main character is still Jesus, but instead of seeing the manger, the baptism, the miracles, the suffering, the cross, the empty tomb, the ascension – you know, the cycle of Jesus’ life, what he did for us – we now see and hear the Rabbi, the teacher with his many lessons that the Spirit uses to cultivate our faith making it more and more productive.

To start this season off every year we talk about one of those teachings that is clear from Scripture but completely unclear to our puny human brains: the Trinity, one God in three persons and three distinct persons in one God.  1 + 1 + 1 = 1.  This defies every ounce of brain capability we have.  It takes something else to have this in our minds and in our hearts.  It takes faith.  And not faith as in how much hope and trust and conviction you have, but faith from and in the Triune God.

To teach us this valuable lesson, to get our SUMMER GROWTH started in the best way, we are digging in to a very familiar section of Scripture, John 3.  I say it’s very familiar because this is the part in the Bible where the gospel is given to us so clearly that we all memorize it. Verse 16, say it with me, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall no perish but have eternal life.” This verse happens to be a part of a meeting Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus might not be a familiar Bible name to you, but I think you’ll see that his experience is quite familiar.  Nicodemus belongs to two important groups of people back in Jesus’ day.  The one group is called the Pharisees – they were the spiritual leaders of the day – and the other group is the Sanhedrin – they were the ruling council for the Jews in Jesus’ day.  Belonging to both meant that Nicodemus was a pretty big deal, but it also meant that Nicodemus had some questions swirling inside.  And that is familiar territory, isn’t it?

You see, when it came to Jesus, these two groups agreed, which didn’t always happen.  About Jesus they were all on the same page.  At this time, Jesus was kind of new on the scene; it’s still the first year of his ministry in the public eye.  But these leaders believe Jesus is a menace to Jewish religion and Jewish culture.  He is troublemaker.  He is likely delusional.  He is a problem that needed to be solved.

But Nicodemus also hears the reports about what happened in Cana, that he changed water into wine.  Then, Jesus shows up for the Passover in Jerusalem and performs a few more miracles.  People see them.  They hear Jesus.  Nicodemus sees and hears, and it didn’t add up in his mind.  A delusional menace could not be doing these kinds of things Jesus does.  And maybe he thought to himself, “How could a problem be a man who seems to care about helping people?”

So, he planned this undercover, middle-of-the-night, “I hope my colleagues don’t find out about this” meeting with Jesus because he is dealing with this question, “Why do I believe what I believe?”

A lot of people today will say that the reason you believe what you believe is because that is how you were brought up, you are a product of your environment, and that we all believe the things that we have been told.  According to that, I’m a thick-skinned WELS Lutheran, who loves the Brewers and the Packers, eats brats and drinks Miller because I was raised in Southeast Wisconsin and not California or Europe.  According to many, we are who we are because we have been brought up and brainwashed one way or another.  That’s why so many people say you have to go out and figure stuff out for yourself when you are an adult.  I’ve always thought that is kind of ironic, because it pretty much means that at different times in life you have to go find some other place and some other people who can do a better job of brainwashing you into better, more acceptable beliefs.  And that cycle continues until your dead.

There’s another logical breakdown with that idea. Someone who thinks you believe what you believe because it is what you have been told, because you are a product of where you are from probably says that because that’s what they have experienced, it’s the product of where they are from, what they have learned, and what they have been told.  So that way of thinking crumbles with logical inconsistencies.

It’s also a completely inadequate explanation for faith in the Triune God.  When you are trying to figure out why you believe what you believe about Jesus, God, and the Bible, this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is a perfect place to find a solution.

Using logic is much MUCH too human.  Jesus says you don’t need logic, you don’t need what a lot of people have said about God.  You don’t need the natural inclination that thinks I have to earn God’s love and do the work to have a relationship with him.  No, Jesus says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  In other words, sinful humans are going to produce more sinful humans.  And so that means sinful humans cannot and will not come up with the right explanations about God or the correct path to God.  But the Spirit can and will.  The Spirit will do his divine work for you.

And his divine work is always going to point you to something that is not human, his divine work points you to the only thing that will save you from faulty human logic and inadequate explanations.  His work is going to point to Jesus, because only Jesus has brought the unfathomable, the holy, the true God down from heaven to earth.

Jesus says, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”  Every other religion originates in the mind of sinful human flesh, but not Christianity.  Christianity comes from heaven.  You don’t believe this because this is what you have been told, because it makes good logical human sense.  You believe this because the Father loved you and had a plan to save you.  You believe because the Son loved you and left heaven to fully complete that plan for you so that you could call heaven your home.  You believe because the Spirit uses this heavenly gospel to create heavenly children.   You believe in the Triune God, because the Triune God intervened, because the Triune God gave you the rebirth into eternal life.

Whenever you consider why you believe what you believe you cannot go with the human explanations.  Yes, we have been told about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  For some of us it has been since we were too young to remember.  But that does not explain why you believe what you believe.  What does explain it is the divine intervention, the miracle that happened when the Father sent the Spirit to use the message of Jesus on your heart.

That is the only explanation that will work.  It’s the only explanation because it has nothing to do with your background, your education, your intuition, your perception, or anything else from your human flesh, but it has everything to do with God’s love, God’s power, God’s message, and God’s salvation.

The second person of the Trinity left heaven to make sure he could carry out the first person of the Trinity’s plan so that the third person of the Trinity would be able to use his power on puny hearts and minds like ours.  That is why you believe what you believe.

The world could never come up with this.  Your human head could never conceive this.  It’s far too offensive, too improbable, too divine.  For God so loved [say it with me] the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

First, we have God.  God who is so big, so powerful, so eternal, so infinite, so knowledgeable, so beyond our capacity to understand that it is impossible that any one could understand that he is three in one and one in three.  The God whose chief characteristic is the one that he was able to exercise from all eternity, even before creation, because he is Triune, three persons in one God.  That chief characteristic being love.

This Triune God loved.  John 3:16 does not tell us that he focused his love on himself, not Father to Son, Son to Spirit, and Spirit to Father.  But God so loved the world filled with all sorts of evil, evil that can come out in such inhumane and heinous acts of violence and hate, but also evil that can be cultivated so inconspicuously and privately in your hearts and mine.  Evil that shows up in the way we think about others, the way we talk about others, the way we act towards others with such self-centeredness.

God loved this evil world so much not that the Trinity formed a committee to study the problem, not that he sent us a self-help book to read and fix ourselves, not that he gave us a second chance to get it right.  God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  The Son came into this world to do all the work of salvation for us.  The Son who lived for you, went to church every weekend for you, listened to his parents for you, cared about his neighbors for you, had the purest thoughts about women for you, stood up for the outcasts for you, was content no matter what the circumstances were for you, was beaten, scourged, crucified for you, broke through the gates of death for you.

God sent his Son into the world that everyone who believes in him, not imitates him, not tries their best to be like him, but everyone who believes in him.  Everyone who denies themselves, denies that they have any abilities, attitudes, or explanations that could save them, and simply clings to Christ.  Everyone who looks at the cross and empty tomb and sees absolutely everything that matters and makes a difference in their life.

Everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life, not get out early on probation, not go through a reevaluation process, not get a lower rate on a loan that you have to pay back but have eternal life.  You have a spot in the home of your Triune God, free and clear, no strings attached, no questions asked.

Brothers and sisters, every word of this verse is the polar opposite of what the world thinks about God and our natural assumptions about who God is and what God does.  There is only one possible explanation for why anyone would believe this:  The Triune God was and still is at work within you.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has created and saved and sanctified you through and through.  In other words, the love of your heavenly Father is revealed through the saving redemption of Jesus Christ, his only Son, and this is made your personal possession by the power of the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.

This is what Jesus made known to a man named Nicodemus at a night-time, undercover meeting.  This is what God has made known to you so that you will not believe what you believe because you chose it or liked it or came up with it, but you believe what you believe because your God accomplished it in you.

And if this faith in the Triune God is in you and you have his Word, not the words of human flesh but his holy Word cultivating in your heart and mind, then do you know what you do?  Just look what is happening out in nature, you grow.  Brothers and sisters, that time is now.  It’s time for growth in your relationship with your Triune God.  It’s time for growth in your love and service to your Triune God and his people.  It’s time for growth in the work you do for those who might not believe in him.  And when the growth happens the only thing left to say is to God alone be the glory.  Amen.

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COMING ALIVE

5.20.18 Pentecost B

 

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Ezekiel 37:1-14

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JESUS’ ASCENSION MEANS IT’S TIME FOR MINISTRY

5.13.18 Ascension

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Ephesians 4:7-16

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOUR REAL TEST IS JUST BEGINNING

5.6.18 Easter 6B Confirmation

1 John 4:1-6

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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