WHAT’S YOUR FILTER? for fishing?

makings of ministry

Luke 5

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NO LIMITS TO CHRIST’S LOVE

makings of ministry

John 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

 

Light in the Darkness

Luke 2:41-52

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WORD BECAME FLESH

 

Light in the Darkness

John 1

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

 

LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

 

Light in the Darkness

Isaiah 9:1-7

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capture
Luke 3

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

 

When you hear the word “repentance” what comes to mind, sorrow or happiness?  When you repent to the Lord or to someone you have wronged, are you sad or joyful?  A Christian hears the word repentance and knows that it is a good and godly thing, yet overall it probably conjures up a sad feeling.  After all, Scripture says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.”  But today in the Gospel, John the Baptizer teaches that repentance leads to a deep and pervasive joy.  The kind of joy that is so powerful and overwhelming that it will literally change the way a person thinks and acts, because that is what the word means, “a change of mind.”

You might think that it seems like an odd topic to cover less than ten days before Christmas, but brothers and sisters, this is exactly what we need in preparation for Christ’s coming.  Repentance was also needed while John the Baptizer is preparing people for Jesus to begin his public ministry.  That is the summary that we are given from Luke.  He is “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Maybe some were just intrigued by the weirdo out in the desert, but the main idea God’s trying to get across with the prophet, John, is forgiveness of sins.

It’s a little harsh to hear John call the crowds a “brood of vipers,” but sometimes people need to be jolted out of their spiritual laziness and snoozing.  On the one hand, these crowds were lulled to sleep by their religious leaders’ false teachings, and on the other hand their own sinful thoughts and attitudes were putting them on a dangerous path away from God.  Either way, the idea that people could escape, or be saved, from God’s wrath while continuing to cling to some of their culturally acceptable sins was counterproductive and destructive to their faith.

Another thing that was not going to help these people was their genetics.  You can just hear some of them retorting John, “We have Abraham as our father,” as if Abraham was the Savior.  John’s message was that a connection to a past believer will not do any good for their eternity.  But that was the thinking of so many back then.  John was preaching and teaching that the only thing that matters is faith.  Where people believe in God’s promised salvation and live in that faith, there is true joy – the kind of joy that produces fruit.

It’s not like people in John’s day are the only ones that need this message.  We need it, too, because so often we are looking for joy in all the wrong ways.  Sure sometimes we are clinging to the joy of salvation that comes through Christ, but there are plenty of times where we find “joy” that comes from gratifying our sinful flesh.  But you can’t have both.  Life doesn’t work that way.  You can’t enjoy eating all the calories you want and also enjoy good health.  Pizza, candy, burgers, donuts, and chips don’t help you get or stay healthy.  You can’t be a lazy pile and expect to be excellent at something.  If you want to be a great athlete, musician, dancer, or chef, you have to get off your butt, sacrificing that lazy leisure time, and work hard over and over again at developing and improving those skills.

Certain joys just cannot coexist within a person.  The joy of salvation does not coexist with the things the delight our sinful nature.  If a person pursues whatever joy their sinful flesh desires, thinking that an outward show of religiousness like attending worship or praying every day would also allow them to enjoy heaven, then they are just like those people going out to see John.  They are listening to and a part of the vipers.

This vipers bite us, too.  Do you ever use the one or two hours you spend here to excuse the other 166 or 167 hours of the week?  Do you ever think the 3% or 10% or even 20% of your income given back to the Lord can somehow negate the materialism and greed that is evident in the way we think about and use the other 80%, 90%, or 97% or our money?  Do you ever think that because you have your name on the rolls of a WELS church that you can escape the coming day of the Lord, forgetting that God could raise WELSers up out of the stones?  How much of our life is about desperately wanting and then enjoying God’s forgiveness so that we can rejoice in his gift of eternal life?  And then how much or our life is about wanting to know about God’s forgiveness of sins so that we can continue in those comfortable and familiar sins?

If there is any viper’s poison in us, we need what the Baptizer is saying.  We need to hear the truth that, “The ax is already at the root of the trees.”  There are, right now – that’s the word John uses – individuals who are religious and attend church that a just and holy God is ready to burn.

So, how’s that for joyful?  If you want the kind of joy that God has accomplished for you – eternal joy, joy this life could never bring – it is impossible without God leading you to see the seriousness and ugliness of sin.  A person is not seeing the seriousness of sin if they come to church and takes the Lord’s Supper to salve their conscience over the fact that they intend to go straight back to their familiar sins.

There is a time when sorrow is healthy for us.  The Bible calls it godly sorrow.  This is not the kind of sorry that is bummed and frustrated after being caught in sin or a sorry that comes from negative consequences for sin.  That’s a selfish and worldly kind of sorry that is only looking at myself.  Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have offended my Creator, my Father.   Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have made myself detestable to God and worthy of damnation.  That’s healthy sorrow.

If you do not acknowledge guilt and sin, you cannot possibly have joy.  When you try to hide guilt and coverup sin, when you pursue the “joys” of sinful desire, what you have is a futile attempt to distract yourself from the Judge who is coming.  You have some excitement and maybe an adrenaline rush, but you do not have joy.

To have real joy – the kind of joy that God give, the kind of joy that comes from repentance – it must be connected to God’s good news.  And that is also what John gave to the people.  John didn’t tell them to repent more frequently and more sincerely.  He told them of the one who was infinitely great and more powerful.  He pointed to the Messiah, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John didn’t want any credit or glory.  He was just a servant.  Jesus was the master, the Lord, God himself.  Luke writes, “With many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”

And what exactly is that good news about Jesus?  Well, it certainly is not a message of how you need to clean up your life.  It is not a message of how you need to be more genuine and honorable.  It is not a message of how you need to bring joy back into your life.  It’s the message of how Jesus does that for you.

We’re reading kid’s Christmas books at our house for bedtime lately.  And one book kind of caught Mandy’s and my attention, “The Little Crooked Christmas Tree.”  It’s a cute story about one tree that was supposed to be a nice Christmas tree, but got crooked and misshapen.  I think of my life, and it looks pretty crooked and messed up.  It’s not the picture of health and vitality.  How about yours?  How healthy is it?  How tall?  How appealing?  Now, what if Jesus was a tree, too.  How majestic is that tree?  How straight and healthy and tall?  How green and full and fruitful?  Considering John describes fruitfulness in terms of generosity, kindness, and compassion, the Jesus-tree would be unlike any other in how amazing it is.  Yet, when God looked at our crooked and sickly tree, when he picked up his ax and walked determinedly toward us, Jesus begged, “No, Father! Not them!  Cut me down.”  On the tree of the cross that is exactly what God did to his own Son.  The amazing, thick, full, fruitful tree was cut down.  The sickly, crooked ones were spared.  That would be a sad story, except for the fact that Jesus’ tree came back to life even stronger and more beautiful than before.  When that fact is given and proclaimed to you – that God loves you, God wanted you, God chose you, God was willing to pay any price to have you for eternity with him – how does it affect you?  How can it not comfort and lift you up?  It boosts us up from the dingy depths.  It straightens us up.  It fixes what it broken. It gives us unequaled brilliance and joy.

And a tree that is healthy like that will be unbelievably fruitful.  John’s encouragement does not call for any activity of heroic proportions.  He does not say that the necessary fruit is to be a missionary in a foreign country or sell everything you have to support the poor and the work of the Church.  We simply have a new goal, a new purpose, to reflect Christ in our lives and in our dealings with other people.  We now live for him who died and rose for us.  We struggle through pain and hardship with the strength of Christ that he gave to us when we were baptized into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We use the good news that causes great joy not on a once a year or once a week basis, but on an every day basis and for everyone basis.  This is the fruitful life of a believer.  This is the joyful life that we have now, and God will make perfect forever in heaven.

I started the sermon with a question about repentance.  Did you say it was sad and sorrowful?  If you did, that’s not entirely wrong, but it also is not entirely right.  The kind of repentance that God works in his people will always conclude with joy, because godly sorrow turns you and changes your mind away from sin, away from how bad your tree looks and points you to the only place where forgiveness is given.  It points you to a different tree, one that is unmistakably and infinitely greater.  It points you to the tree where Christ died.  It points you to the tree that made the first bed our Savior ever had.  It points you to the Son of God and his restoring, refreshing, renewing, revitalizing love.  You have that joy right now and forever in him.  To God be the Glory!  Amen.

 

 

PEACE REQUIRES PREPARATION

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Malachi 3

1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

 

My dad used to say, “Prior planning prevents poor performance.”  When things are planned out, when preparation is made, then the nerves go down a bit and the execution is at a good level.  Just think of a kid who is taking a biology semester exam.   That’s kind of one of those times when you need to be prepared.  You need to make sure you have your biology notes, because the history ones won’t help you much.  And you need to give those notes a little more than a glance.  You need to get in their and work at it, maybe even for a few nights if you want to be to prevent a poor performance.

I remember being in this exact situation at Martin Luther College my sophomore year.  Science classes weren’t really a forte of mine in school.  So in order to avoid squelch the nerves, in order to avoid a poor performance, I studied multiple nights.  I wasn’t totally calm going in or coming out of that final exam but studying sure helped.  I can’t remember what my grade was, but I remember being at peace with it.

Malachi is describing for us something that has a little more weight than a biology final.  In Malachi 3, he’s talking about the coming of Christ.  He asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming?”  The reason he asks is because the people of Judah have become pretty indifferent.  This is the time after they returned from exile.  There had been a positive spiritual resurgence when those, who were captive in Babylon, were allowed to go back home to Judah.  They rebuilt the temple, rebuilt the city, rebuilt the walls, and that also rebuilt their foundation on God’s promises. But the pattern that existed for the Jewish people in the Old Testament cropped up again to the point where the people were questioning the Lord.  Think of that!  The people got lazy about worship and faith and they figured one of the reasons was God’s fault.

Maybe you notice the same kind of thing going on now.  People are waiting for the Lord in their own ways, not his, if they are paying attention to him at all.  Even among us, from time to time, we question God’s power and love.  If we are his children, then why do we have to face struggle and pain?  Why can’t we have what we want all the time?

That is ultimately what the people of Judah are asking for.  That’s the implication when Malachi says, “The Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.”  We get caught up looking for God to be what we want him to be.  We want the comfort and the easy life.  It’s this kind of selfishness that often looks at Jesus to be a soda machine, giving me what I want when I want it, instead of looking at Jesus as the Savior from sin and death that I need.

Jesus’ work was not to give Judah what they wanted or to dispense to us every last wish and desire we have.  He is the messenger of the covenant, a covenant that God made to forgive sins and bring deliverance to people who do not deserve it.  His job was to save us.  I like the picture that God paints through the prophet Malachi.  Jesus is described as a refiner or launderer.  Those two metaphors are a lot more useful to us than a soda machine, dispensing what we want.

Jesus is the refiner, purifying us by his death. He has burned off every impurity from our record.  It cost us nothing; Jesus did it all to bring us as pure and righteous children to his Father.  But that doesn’t mean our lives are going to be easy.  Jesus is the purifier and refiner of our lives.  That means he is going to use some heat to melt off what is not of value to our faith.

The same thing is true with the metaphor of the launderer.  Jesus has washed us clean.  He has removed every stain with his blood to present us as holy and spotless to God.  But that doesn’t mean we are off the hook, that we can live in any way that makes us happy.  We are the dirty laundry that Jesus scrubs and cleans.  He uses his Word as powerful soap and applies it to our lives so that stains will not seep into our lives.  A dirty, filthy faith is, again, of far less value than a cleansed faith.

This is not a pain-free process as Jesus works on the faith that he purchased for us.  The law drives us to our knees in sorrow and the inability to cleanse ourselves. Self-righteousness is burnt up by the law’s perfect standard.  Pride is washed away in the law’s holy demands.  As Jesus works on us he will also pinpoint things we love but hinder our relationship with him, and he will work to remove those things from us.  Jesus can even use the hardships of living in a broken world to work for our good.  Weakness forces us to rely on his strength.  Sorrow forces us to the eternal comfort only Jesus provides.  We have the kind of Savior who allows and even brings the painful fires needed to purge our faith of impurities so that we can avoid the far greater, far more painful, eternal fire of hell.  God loves us enough to prepare us the right way for the Last Day, so that we can be at peace.

Think of it this way: is a parent helping their child by neglecting discipline?  A parent might be able to convince themselves that discipline is cruel and that they love their children too much to put them through any kind of pain or discomfort.  But in avoiding that little bit of pain, parents like that open their children up to much greater pain.  They will grow up to think there are not punishments, that “I get to do whatever I want,” that “the world revolves around me.”  God loves us too much to leave us spoiled and unprepared for Jesus’ return.

However, God does not save us from destruction just to keep us from the destruction.  He saves us and purifies us to be who he created us to be.  He keeps us safe and prepares us properly for Christ’s coming so that we can glorify him with each other and help others prepare as well.

Notice who is brought up in this section; it’s the Levites.  When the Promised Land was divided up for the 12 tribes of Israel, the Levites didn’t get a section of land.  They were the ones who served at the temple; that was their place among God’s people.  They were the priests and leaders of worship.  So God specifically includes them to show us that there are not levels for those who need purification.  You don’t have the pastors and religious scholars up here.  You don’t have church councilmen and board members here.  You don’t have Sunday School teachers and choir members here.  You don’t have ushers and other weekly attenders here.  You don’t have those who can’t seem to make worship the priority every week here.  You don’t have the delinquent list members here.  And you don’t have the rest of the pagans and unbelievers here.  No.  Everybody has the same need to be cleansed and purified by Jesus.

And when Jesus cleans you up and purifies you from all the things that have no value to your spiritual life, then it doesn’t matter who you are, you get to serve the Lord with thankfulness and joy.  To think that there are only certain types of believers that can serve God in the church or help out with ministry is not only ludicrous, it’s a destructive lie that comes from our sinful flesh, from the world around us, and from the devil, himself.

If Christ died for you, if he came back from the dead to give you eternal life, if he washed you in baptism and strengthens you with his Word and sacrament, if he cleans you and purifies you so that you can serve him even better, then I sure hope you notice what you are going to do.  You are going to serve the Lord in all sorts of ways.

One of those ways that God mentions through the prophet Malachi is offerings.  Without people who believe in the Lord, where would the support for ministry be?  But God has brought us into his family, where we live in thanksgiving.  We live with joy for the home we have in heaven.  We see things better.  Jesus continues his work as the refiner and launderer so that we will continue to serve him with thankfulness.  We do it now to a degree, but imagine what it will be like when we can give the Lord our best in the perfect glory of heaven.

Peace comes from the kind of preparation that Malachi is talking about.  People about 400 years after Malachi needed peace, and that’s when God sent them John the Baptist.  Even thought his message was somewhat striking, it was exactly the kind of preparation the people needed.  Mountains of pride and self-righteousness needed to be leveled.  Valleys of despair and self-loathing needed to be filled in.  Blockades that people had erected to the clear gospel had to be removed.

The same things are true today.  Maybe we don’t have a guy like John the Baptist wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts as our guest preacher during Advent, but in a pastor, God gives people a servant to help with preparations.  But just like it wasn’t about John back then, it still isn’t about the pastor today.  God’s message has always been about the messenger of the covenant, that second messenger who not only proclaims peace but then goes out and accomplishes peace for us, Jesus Christ our Savior.

For now, with such joy and excitement, we are in a time similar to getting ready for a Christmas party.  You know it will be fun and joyous, and you are looking forward to it eagerly, but before that party comes there are hours and hours of planning and preparations.  Sometimes we think that this life is the main event for us.  But it’s not.  The party comes later.  Now is the time for the hard work that prepares us for the party.  We have peace and comfort now because Jesus did the hard work for us when he came the first time and purchased it for us with his holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  We are on God’s side and he will never declare war on us.  We have peace to live as children of God.  We have peace as Jesus refines us and washes us to make us even better at our service of thankfulness to him.  We are at peace because God is doing so much to prepare us for Jesus to come back and take all his people to heaven.  So, in peace we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, and take us home.”  Amen.