WHO GETS THE GLORY?

10.29.17 Week 5

STILLDaniel 6

It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps to rule throughout the kingdom, 2 with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. The satraps were made accountable to them so that the king might not suffer loss. 3 Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. 4 At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. 5 Finally these men said, “We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.”
6 So these administrators and satraps went as a group to the king and said: “May King Darius live forever! 7 The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. 8 Now, Your Majesty, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered—in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” 9 So King Darius put the decree in writing.
10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. 12 So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: “Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or human being except to you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into the lions’ den?”
The king answered, “The decree stands—in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.”
13 Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.” 14 When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.
15 Then the men went as a group to King Darius and said to him, “Remember, Your Majesty, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed.”
16 So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions’ den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!”
17 A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. 18 Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep.
19 At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. 20 When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?”
21 Daniel answered, “May the king live forever! 22 My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, because I was found innocent in his sight. Nor have I ever done any wrong before you, Your Majesty.”
23 The king was overjoyed and gave orders to lift Daniel out of the den. And when Daniel was lifted from the den, no wound was found on him, because he had trusted in his God.
24 At the king’s command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions’ den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.
25 Then King Darius wrote to all the nations and peoples of every language in all the earth:
“May you prosper greatly!

26 “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

“For he is the living God
and he endures forever;
his kingdom will not be destroyed,
his dominion will never end.
27 He rescues and he saves;
he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel
from the power of the lions.”

 

 

What would possess this man to do such a thing?  He takes a stand that is not popular at all.  He goes up against the governing authorities of his day.  If he won’t amend his way of life to fit in with the norm, the possibility of death becomes much much more likely. And yet, he doesn’t change.  Why?  Don’t you think it has to be something so important and vital that he could not live without it?

That’s the familiar story of Daniel before us today.  He is living and working in the kingdom of Persia.  He is successful, trustworthy, and powerful.  The king of Persia, in fact, had plans to make this exiled Jewish transplant his number two in command over the whole kingdom.

But the other rulers and administrators don’t like that idea at all.  You see, they see something odd about Daniel.  He marches to beat of a different drummer.  He doesn’t play the same political games.  He is honest, humble, and upright.  Ironically, those are not the traits they are looking for.  They want to find a way to get rid of him.

What would possess another man to do something so very similar in a different place and at a different time?  He takes a stand that is not permitted by the church or empire.  If he won’t amend his way of life to fit with the norm of his day, the possibility of death becomes much much more likely. And yet, he doesn’t back down.  Why?  Don’t you think it has to be something so important and vital that he could not live without it?

That’s the familiar story of Dr. Martin Luther.  He is a monk and theology professor living and working in little old Wittenberg, Germany.  He had no power whatsoever, because that was being craved and consumed by the pope and councils in the catholic church and by Charles V, the emperor.  But that did not stop him from going against the grain and taking a stand.  And because he did, here we stand 500 years later in a different place and at a different time in a Lutheran Church.

What made men like Daniel take a stand?   In the 2000 years between Daniel and Dr. Luther, more people were put to the test, more people were persecuted, more people were even killed for standing up in a similar way.  What could cause such an uproar that it shook the whole world back then and still does 2500 years after Daniel and 500 after Luther put up those 95 theses? What was so important to Daniel and Dr. Luther that they could not imagine life without it?

It really comes down to a single question: who gets the glory?  The rulers who were against Daniel wanted the glory and praise for themselves and for the king.  Luther’s opponents in the church coveted and carried supreme authority and control.  The glory and praise always went back to Rome.

Today, the question still remains.  People take a stand – or they kneel – or they take to social media to put the glory, the praise, the attention where they think it should be.  What is important to them, what is praiseworthy, what is vital for life – that is what it’s all about.  And the list is extensive: racial equality, justice equality, marriage equality, protecting our natural resources, the end of sexual abuse, fixing the problem of global warming, education and on and on it goes.  Many of these things are very worthwhile, very important even.  Some would say that life as they know and like it would cease to exist, that the world would be a far worse place without some of these things.  Who is getting the glory, when these are the things upon which people take a stand.

What is it for you?  What is vital and important?  If a person looks at your life or your Facebook posts, what is the thing that you can’t imagine life without?  Is it your family – parents, children or siblings?  Your job?  Your income?  Your personal goals?  Your hobbies and interests?  Your favorite teams?  Your pets?  Your politics?  Your possessions?  Your routine? Your religious observances?

If these are the things most important to you, can any of them give you the peace and security you need? Can any of those ideals or goals lead you in a direction that will always keep you safe from the chaos?  Can any of those possessions and passions stay with you when everything is falling apart, when people don’t like you, and when your life hangs in the balance? Can any of those things to which we give such devotion and allegiance silence the voices of evil?  Can any of those things stand the test of time and cut through the course of history with unequaled power and authority?  Can any of those things shut the mouths of lions?

Then, they obviously should not be getting so much glory.  They should not be such a huge part of life.  They should not be the things that we put on the list of vitally important for my life.  There is only one thing that can be on that list.

Here’s what happened to Daniel.  At the first light of dawn, the king got up and hurried to the lions’ den. When he came near the den, he called to Daniel in an anguished voice, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to rescue you from the lions?” Daniel answered, “May the king live forever! My God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions…”

When it comes to the good and honest man that Daniel is, there is only one who gets the glory. When it comes to standing up to the other rulers who are trying to get rid of Daniel, there is only one who gets the glory.  When it comes to shutting the mouths of lions, there is only one person who gets the glory.  It’s not Daniel, but it’s the Lord God who made him who he was.  It’s the Lord God who had the power that Daniel trusted.  It’s the Lord God who had to control over his creation and shut the mouths of the lions.

And so when history leads us to a similar man, who gets the glory?   When it comes to boldness to stand up to the corruption and false teachings of the church, when it comes to the authority on which this whole movement began, and when it comes to the message that could not be quieted or quashed in Wittenberg and Germany and throughout Europe, there is only one who gets the glory.  It is the Lord God who stand up to the corruption and false teachings.  It is the Lord God who has supreme authority.  It is the Lord God who has a message that will not be removed from this world until he says it’s time.

500 years later, nothing has changed.  The Lord God, and he alone, gets the glory.  We are not here today to praise Daniel.  We are not here today to praise Dr. Luther.  We are not here today to praise any pastors, teachers, or missionaries who have gone before us.  We here to give all our best praise and glory to God alone.

And do you know why?  It’s not just because he can do cool things like shutting the mouths of lions for a night.  It’s not just because he can turn a lowly priest and professor named Luther into one of the most influential people this world has ever known.  Those things are certainly impressive, but there is more.  God alone gets the glory because of the things we have been talking about this past month, the essential truths of God that have been boldly presented, professed, and proclaimed by prophets and priests of the Old Testament, missionaries and ministers of the New Testament, professors and princes of the Reformation, and still to this day by people just like us.

Remember back to the beginning of this month, what were the children of Israel doing?  Nothing that deserves the glory!  They were wallowing and wailing at the Red Sea.  But God showed them how he saves people when told them to be still and parted the sea, let them go safely through, and then swallowed the Egyptian army up entirely.  Only the Lord saves people.  It’s Christ and Christ alone.   Then, we saw a much smaller group of Israelite people after they had returned from exile.  They heard from God’s Word and saw how it stands alone, not as a book of rules or advice, but as the Words of a God who loves you, forgives you, and powerfully protects you. Only God’s Word proclaims those things for someone no matter what the circumstances.  It’s Scripture and Scripture alone.  Next, we saw King David get a bold promise from God, not because he earned it with a good life or deserved it because he was king.  Instead, God gives his undeserved, unearned, unconditional love to people because that’s who he is and what he does.  It’s called grace and it’s God’s free gift of salvation.  It’s grace and grace alone.  Last week, we saw Abraham get a much bigger perspective than he could ever come up with on his own.  God showed him how when he makes a promise he keeps it even if we can’t understand how or when it will work.  God still does that same work through the Word and sacraments when he plants faith in people.  Only trusting the Lord will give you this bigger perspective and usher you to eternal life in heaven.  It’s faith and faith alone.

Notice, that the focus for Daniel, for Martin Luther, and for us on this 500th anniversary is not “I hope God still gets all the glory.”  It’s not “God should get all the glory.”  It’s not “it would be nice for God to get all the glory.”  It’s not even “I hope God gets some of the glory.”  No! the phrase is: Soli Deo Gloria – To God Alone Be Glory.

This is the God who not only shut the mouths of lions for a night but has also silenced the voice of the one who still prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Lutherans loves to sing it this way: “He’s judged the deed is done. One little word can fell him.”  God not only protected Daniel and Luther from physical danger, but he provided the one word that saves us from eternal danger, CHRIST! We have a God who has stepped into history for us.  He has conquered our enemies.  He has removed our fears.  He has provided an eternal home for his people.  And he gets all the glory.

Daniel was willing to do that even though it meant a night with the lions.  And because he did, do you notice what happened?  The great king of Persia, Darius, wrote to all the nations in all the earth a note this note that gives God all the glory: “May you prosper greatly! I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel. For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”

That lowly German professor was willing to give all the glory to God along.  And because he did, do you notice what happened?  With his nail strokes on the church doors 500 years ago, God shook the foundations of the church with reverberations the whole world has heard ever since.

I guess a good question to ask yourself on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation is: who will do that now?  Who will be like Daniel and Luther?  Who will give God and God alone all the glory? Who will shout his praise and his glory with their words and in their life?  Who will give God alone the glory by saying God still gives, God still works, and God still speaks?  Who will give the glory to God alone by telling their friends, relatives, and acquaintances that we are saved not by what we do, but by his grace alone through faith alone?  Who will give the glory to God alone by sparing no expense to send well-trained pastors and teachers, maybe even your own children, into our communities across America and around the world with the same message that went out from King Darius: The Lord is the living God and he endures forever… He rescues and saves…?  Who will do it?  Brothers and sisters in Christ, and fellow members of the church of the Lutheran Reformation… we will!

To God Alone be Glory! Amen.

 

Advertisements

A BIGGER PERSPECTIVE

10.22.17 Week 4

STILL

Genesis 15:1-6

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield, 
your very great reward.”

2 But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

 

Last Sunday was a great day.  God’s grace was on display as we talked about this key concept of Grace Alone.  God makes a bold promise to us that salvation, righteousness, and heaven are not based on who we are or what we do but on who he is and what he does for us.  God’s grace was on display when I poured a little simple water and spoke God’s powerful Word on my son.  God’s grace was present along with the body and blood of our Lord in the miraculous meal we call the Lord’s Supper.  Mandy’s parents were here (there’s a pretty amazing story on how that almost didn’t happen).  My parents were here.  After church and Bible study was the 12 o’ clock football game, Packers vs. Vikings.  The Packers were heavily favored to win and take a pretty good lead in the North division.  Then, the game took a turn when Aaron Rodgers broke a collar bone.  It was just that one player in one game, but in that moment, it felt like a dark cloud descended on the Packers’ whole season.  For Packers fans it’s a devastating loss.

But what if we aren’t talking about Aaron Rodgers, the Packers, or football?  What if it’s life that seems to be overcast by bad moments, bad decisions, bad losses?  Does that happen to you?  Do you ever get blindsided by something that seems to bring a dark cloud over everything?  Do you ever lose sight of what God has done, what he is doing, and what he will do for you?

When we see Abram today, he should have been enjoying this amazing moment in his life.  He had just completed a covert mission that Hollywood would make a movie about.  War had come to the Jordan River valley.  King Kedorlaomer and his allies swooped in on the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and sacked their towns.  They took everything: the goods, the animals, and the people.  Among the plunder was Abram’s nephew Lot and his family.  They were carried off as the plunder of war.

One escaped and reported back to Abram the Hebrew.  And he leaped into action with 318 trained men from just his household.  To have that many in his compound tells you that Abram was a powerful and wealthy man in the region.  He gets together his men and 3 of his allies and heads off in pursuit.  He chased down this victorious army and in the middle of the night God gave him an amazing victory.  Abram recovered everything.  He brought everyone back safe and sound.  And when he was offered a hefty reward, he turned it down because it was all in the Lord’s hands.

That’s when you cue the triumphant music, fade out to show all the rejoicing, and roll the credits, right?  That’s what “after this…” refers to.  Abram had been following God.  He enjoyed so many great blessings from the Lord along the way.  Abram should be at one of those high points in life when you just bask in the glow, like when your son is baptized.

But that’s just it!  Abram is grateful for the victory, but there is no son to share it with.  Abram is worried and anxious and afraid that the Lord has run out of time.  He was old.  His wife was old.  The Lord had made a promise that Abram would carry on the line of the Savior.  Abram had the promise from God that he would have a son, but even after this great victory Abram is caught in a moment where the dark cloud was hanging over him.

One night the Lord appears to Abram and here is what he says: “Don’t be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.”  It’s a little bit of a pep talk, kind of like the one that all Packer fans need when you see Aaron Rodgers posting pics from a hospital bed after surgery on his broken collar bone.

But kind of like Packer fans who are looking at the probability of the backup leading the offense the rest of the season, this is how Abram responds: “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?  You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

There are plenty of times when we bring our requests to God.  It’s called prayer and it is a powerful blessing in the life of a Christian.  You never have to be afraid to say anything to God. He wants us to pray and he promises to listen.  You can speak to God as much as you want, but don’t make the mistake of speaking for God.  That’s not faith.

But that’s what Abram did.  He said, “Lord, you are not going to give me a son.  You’ve given me power, wealth, influence, protection, victory. Thank you, Lord, but you have not given me a son.  I will make a servant my heir.”  Abram is now speaking for God.  He’s narrowed in on one thing, one way, one path that God has to follow.  Abram points out his plan as if that is the only one God can use.

Do you think Abram is the only one who has tried talking for God?  Or is it possible, probable even, that there have been a few times or more when we have presented God with the plan for my life.  I’d like this job and this income.  I’d like this many kids and this kind of house.  I’d like me and my family to be this healthy.  I’d like my love life to look like this and my social life to look like that. When a few of the things on the list are missing, what happens?  When there is a cloud hanging over you, is there only one way you see that will get you to brighter days?  These are times when somehow, someway we think we can talk for God.

At best, this way of speaking for God is ignorance coming from our puny brains that have such little perspective in this universe.  At worst, it is arrogance coming from our puffed-up self-righteousness.  Either way it’s not faith.  Faith doesn’t bring my plans for my life to the eternal, the all-powerful, the all-knowing, the perpetually-present Creator of all things.  Faith doesn’t make me bigger than God, it enjoys being so so so much smaller.

Here’s the point, some of God’s promises require a bigger perspective. It’s like the floor at the Bismarck airport.  If you stand in one spot, you see some meandering pieces of blue tiles among the tan and brown leading nowhere.  You may also notice some names here and there.  Up close it isn’t much. But if you go up the stairs to get a bigger perspective, you see that it’s the Missouri River and the whole floor is laid out almost like a map of central North Dakota.

Brothers and sisters, the Lord has made some huge promises to you.  This powerful Creator, this unchanging Redeemer, this grace-pouring Spirit has said, “I will be with you always.”  He has assured you that he is your shield and fortress.  He has dedicated himself to work everything in life for your good.  He promises things like joy, peace, hope and eternity.  These are not little promises.  We can’t measure some of these promises over a few days or months.  To see the beauty, we need to step back for a bigger perspective.  We need to see just how big and beautiful God’s promises are.

That’s faith.  It’s not clinging to our plans.  It’s not focusing on little snapshots of my life.  It’s trusting that God is much bigger than you are.  It’s believing that he has a plan much better than mine.  It’s resting still on what Jesus has done.

That’s why God said, “Abram, get out of that tent.  I’ve got a promise that is bigger than you can understand in there.  Come outside with me to the stillness of the night sky.  Abram, you are worried about me giving you one son.  You are talking for me about this one little detail.  Abram, look up at the stars.  You are worried about one son.  You can’t even begin to count them all.  Abram, this is what I’m going to do for you.  This is how big my promises are.”

I know some of you are here today in the same situation as Packer fans, with a cloud hanging over you just wondering how it’s going to turn out.  I know some of you are worried about where your life is going.  I know some of you are wondering about health problems for you or a loved one.  I know some of you are worried about your kids, how they’re doing at daycare or school and how you’re doing as a parent.  Some of you are praying and praying wondering if God is hearing you.  And when God’s promises seem to contradict your plans or the cloudy circumstances surrounding you right now, it’s easy to stop speaking to God and start speaking for God.  But that’s not faith.

That’s why God takes us out of our natural and narrow view.  He works on us like he did for Abram when he took him out to the vast sky full of stars.  He works on us, taking us out into the vastness of his holy Word.  He works to give us the bigger perspective.

Do you know what you are going to see?  Your Father says, “You are going to see that before this world began I knew you by name.  Before I set the stars in the sky, I made the plan and the promise to make you mine.  You will see what happened 2,000 years ago when I gave you the Savior to take all your sins away.  I gave you my Son to free you from the gates of hell.  Get the bigger perspective and see that years ago I did the work to wash you and cleanse you.  I connected you.  I brought you into my family.  Take a step back and see my plan for your future.  I have plans to give you a life that stretches beyond the decades you have left on this earth.  I have plans to cure your cancer.  I have plans to stop your pain.  I have plans to fix your loneliness.  I have plans to give you peace and joy forever in my home for eternity.”

When you have a God who promises that, then you see things differently.  You get a bigger perspective.  When you have a God who does that kind of work on your behalf and in your life, it changes you.  It’s called faith for a reason.  Because it is not based in your plans, on what you know, or on what you do.  Faith is based on God’s plan, on what God knows, and on what God does.

Abram believed the Lord and he credited it to him as righteousness.  God changed Abram’s perspective and gave him a bigger view of his promises.  When you have a God who steps into your life with his promises, then you have a bigger perspective, too.  With that trust solely worked by God and grounded solely in him, look what God does.  He puts his righteousness on you.  You look like Christ to him through faith alone.

That’s a word that once caused so much anxiety 500 years ago.  Luther hated righteousness, because it was something you had to work for.  The church told you that to be right with God you had to make yourself right. But God took him out from that canopy the church had erected. God took him out into the vastness of his Word.  God worked through the Word to show Luther a man like Abram, who did not get righteousness by following his plan or even doing God’s work but by trusting God had the plan and God does the work.  God took Luther out into the Word, and there he saw that righteousness is a gift given though faith in Christ. And faith is not what you do.  Faith is not talking for God.  Faith is God taking you out to get his perspective on your life.  Out there God shows you something different than your work or your plans.  Out there he shows you everything he has done for you.  He shows you his promises.  He shows you the Savior providing the full price for forgiveness.  He shows you the Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.  He shows you the new life that is yours forever as his child, a new life that loves to leave things in God’s hands trusting that he has it all worked out for me.

That kind of perspective is bigger than anything we could come up with.  It’s from the God who loves you and rescued you.  It’s from the God who has done the work to make you his through faith alone.  Amen.

 

SOMETHING TO STAND ON

10.8.17 Week 2

STILL

Nehemiah 8:2-12

2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

 

A man takes a stand.  He sees injustice and abuse that must be corrected, so he protests.  Little by little the protest grows.  Soon political and spiritual leaders are getting involved.  More than a year passes and it still spreads.  One man taking a stand changes the world.

This was going on long before the American flag or National Anthem was even a part of this world.  We’re not talking about NFL players kneeling or a president tweeting.  Nonetheless, this protest that started 500 years ago followed that now familiar pattern.

It was October 31, 1517, when a lone German theologian and university professor in little old Wittenberg took a stand.  He saw injustices and abuses going on inside of the Roman Catholic Church.  The forgiveness of sins was being sold on a piece of paper called an indulgence.  The Pope was clamoring for money and power and was using his religious authority to get it.  Martin Luther started a protest, not by kneeling or tweeting but by nailing 95 theses, statements for debate, to the castle church doors.  Little by little, with the help of a new technology developed by Johann Gutenburg called the movable type printing press, the protest grew.  Political and religious leaders began to take note.  More than a year passed and then in the summer of 1519, Martin Luther squared off with a popular catholic theologian, John Eck, to debate the things Luther stood for.

One took a stand with the church.  That means he had the authority of the church leadership on his side.  He had tradition on his side.  He had the majority on his side.  The other took a stand with  something different.  He had a different, a better authority on his side.  And because of that, he didn’t need the church, the pope, tradition, or the majority on his side.  He had God’s Word, and that was good enough for him.  Because when you have Scripture, you have the power and authority of the eternal and almighty Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And that is all you need.

And so with a brash boldness, this is one of the things Luther said at that debate, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.”  Realize that in 1519 nothing could have been more controversial than that statement.  Why was Luther willing to make such a claim?  Scripture and scripture alone makes someone able to take that kind of stand.

A long time before this there was another man who took a stand on God’s Word. We hear about him in the Old Testament reading.  His name was Nehemiah.  He was a Jew employed by the king of Persia as his personal cupbearer.

Nehemiah lived during the period in Israel’s history after the Babylonian captivity.  At this time period God was using the Persian empire to plant the remnant of his people back in Judah.  There were different phases of this restoration project.  First, a group went back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That was in the 530s BC. Next, about 60 years later, Ezra, a gifted priest devoted to God’s Word and teaching it, came with another group to help the on going rebuild and to focus on the spiritual restoration.

More then a decade passed and it was Nehemiah’s turn.  Negative reports about the walls of Jerusalem had reached Persia’s capital of Susa where Nehemiah was carrying out his role for the king.  That’s where Nehemiah stood up.  It wasn’t a protest, but this cupbearer goes up before the king and asks him if he could go back and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  A pretty bold move, but that hand of God was with Nehemiah and the king agreed, even providing safe passage and materials for the project.

Although there was a lot of opposition from neighboring nations, Nehemiah just kept standing on the Lord’s promises and power and went about rebuilding the walls until they were completed.  And the Lord blessed his work.  The temple had been rebuilt, and although not as beautiful or as extravagant, it was a constant reminder that God keeps his promises, that they were home, and that worship was central to their life.   The walls of Jerusalem were solid again.  The remnant of Israel was safe in their homeland at last.  It wasn’t a large group.  Nehemiah records the number was over 42,000.  And they did have to share their home with the people who had taken up residence in their absence, but they could handle it because they were back.

It was after Nehemiah completed his work when all the people gathered for a special day, a day when Ezra, the devoted priest from the second trip, and Nehemiah stood up with a few helpers – literally, there was a huge wooden platform built for the occasion.  Ezra and his helpers did not stand up to give a motivational speech about how to take advantage of this second (more like 300th) chance.  They didn’t stand up to hand down Jewish traditions that couldn’t go overlooked anymore.  They read and instructed from the Book of the Law (first five books written by Moses) from sun up to noon.  6 hours!  (Imagine if I would try that today?)   And the people watched and listened attentively as if they were watching their favorite show on TV.

And do you know what happens? The people start weeping.  Ezra and the Levites are in front of all the people standing up with God’s Word, and they all start wailing. This really isn’t all so surprising because God’s Word stands out with his power and authority.  God’s Word stands alone.

You see, the people were now face to face with what God says.  Over in exile and even when this group returned up to this point, they did not have a regular diet of God’s Word.  And do you know what happens to people who don’t have regular contact with God’s Word?  You start coming up with what matters all by yourself.  You start to think, “No one gets to tell me what to do or what to believe.  I’m just going to trust my feelings, I’m going to listen to my instincts, I’m going to rely on my reason, I’m going to build on my experiences. I’m going to do what works for me.”   That was the trap that led Israel to the exile in the first place, and you can still see people fall into it today.  The next time you are in a conversation that involves spiritual matters listen to how many times sentences, even sentences that come out of your own mouth, begin with “I think” “I believe” “I feel” rather than “Scripture says.”

I think this remnant of Israel gives us a pretty good idea of what happens when God’s law intersects with people who like to focus on their own ideas and beliefs.  We cannot stand.  We fall down with tears in our eyes. Because what we think or what we try doesn’t work.  Every single person at that gathering in Jerusalem saw that vividly.  Israel tried their own way.  And where did it get them?  Their home was taken away.  The capital was destroyed.  Even the sacred Temple of God was leveled.  They were exiled foreigners.  They couldn’t do anything about it.  They had to wait for the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians.  They had to wait for permission to go back.  They had to rebuild the temple, the city, its walls, and their homes.  The whole thing was a mess because they didn’t care for what God said.

Now, they were hearing it and it hit them hard.  God’s law has a way of doing that to people.  By nature, we are born with this idea that we have to work hard to get ahead.  It’s not a surprise, then, that people want to trust my feelings, listen to my instincts, rely on my reason.  Because it makes sense to us that those things will lead in the right direction.  It’s not a surprise that a whole bunch of churches and religions have come up with something similar, is it?  By nature, we think we have to earn a reward, we have to earn a relationship, we have to earn a better life.  But the people gathered around Ezra and Nehemiah were realizing it just doesn’t work. God’s law was crushing their ideas of what “I think” what “I believe” or what “I feel.”

I find it really interesting, then, how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stand up there in front of all these wailing people and tell them, “Be still, for this is a holy day.  Do not grieve”  Were they just supposed to act like none of it happened?  The generations of disobedience, the annihilation at the hands of foreign powers, the exile, the return to the Promised Land only to find it occupied by others – they were supposed to forget about all of it?  They were just supposed to forget about it all?  Yes!

But how?  Because those words of the law were not man-made traditions or popular ideas.  They were not the commands of an angry judge or a tyrannical emperor. They were the words of the Lord God. The God of power and grace.  The Creator.  The Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The God who delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.  The God who fought for them against the Egyptian army by walking them through the Red Sea on dry land and leaving all the Egyptian army dead at the bottom of it.  The God who led the conquering tour over all the nations in the Promised Land and gave them this land flowing with milk and honey.  The God who promise deliverance to his people.  The God who loves his people like no one else can.

You see, they could let all the past go, they could dry their tears, their hearts could be still because what they heard that day.  Luther could take a stand because it wasn’t his ideas.  We can still stand on the very same thing today, because it these words are not man-made laws and traditions, but the law of God.  And he doesn’t just give us his law, but also his gospel – faithful promises to fulfill those laws perfectly, to forgive you entirely, and to save you eternally.  This book with its complete fulfillment of all the laws, with its grace and forgiveness, with its Savior sent from heaven to free us from the hell, is  the Word of God.  It is not developed by us, because we know the kinds of things we come up with.  This book is completely unnatural.  It’s something that no one has ever come up with.  And in every generation humanity has proved to be incapable of coming up this kind of thing.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stood up with God’s Word.  Scripture alone stands up and rises above.  It rises above the popular voices and trends in the world around us.  It rises above the man-made traditions and interpretations in the church.  And it stands above the self-centered feelings, reasons and experiences in our own hearts.  That day with all the remnant gathered in Jerusalem, they got a glimpse of how God’s Word stands alone.  Because it showed them their God, his power and authority, his love and forgiveness.

When Luther stood up to what the church was teaching, when Luther stood up at the debate in 1519, he wasn’t standing on his own.  He was standing on the same platform as Ezra and Nehemiah, the authority and power of a God who still speaks.  And so he didn’t budge.  Even though he was declared a heretic and an outlaw really for the rest of his life, he never backed down.  He kept standing on God’s Word.

500 years later, we still stand on that platform.  We stand on the law and gospel.  We stand on the Word of the Lord who rescues his people from sin, death, and the devil.  We stand on the Word of God that wipes away tears and makes our hearts still.  Amen.

WHOSE FIGHT IS IT?

10.1.17 Week 1

STILL

Exodus 14:1-31

Then the LORD said to Moses, 2 “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. 3 Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ 4 And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this.
5 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” 6 So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. 8 The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. 9 The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon.
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
15 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. 17 I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. 18 The Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”
19 Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, 20 coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long.
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.

 

A quiet, calm lake can be a soothing sight, but this lake was not calming anyone’s heart. The people of Israel had joyously left Egypt behind.  After 400 lost and restless years of slavery, God had provided the way out for his people.  His love for them had not been forgotten.  His unequaled power did not fail them.  The ten plagues were disastrous for Egypt, but while wreaking total havoc for them, the plagues gave the Israelites new hope. Where peace was nowhere to be found, their hearts were put at ease.  They were going back home to the Promised Land of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… until they reached that lake.

Under God’s instruction, the prophet and leader of the people, Moses, had directed this massive nation of people to an area that was impassible, so they thought, on dry land.  It was at this time that the Egyptians came back into the picture.  Pharaoh and his Egyptian army were hardened with rage against God and his people, and this frenzied foe was now coming to either get them back or annihilate them if they disagreed.  It was a paralyzing situation: the lake on one side and the army on the other.  You can hear them hopelessly crying out against the Lord and his prophet, “Lord, why?”  “Moses, what have you done to us?”

Their struggle to find peace had led the people of Israel to question God, even to levy accusations against him, as if fighting God can help in such grim circumstances.  Isn’t it shocking what people will do when they are afraid and looking for a way out?  People think they can fight against God to achieve the peace they want, but instead they go further into the restless storm.

There was a man who struggled with this same thing.  He cried out to the Lord with the same hopeless taunts as the Israelites.  “Lord, why are you doing this to me?”  He fought for peace.  He even left his course of study to be a lawyer, thinking that a more religious path of service would calm him.  Off to the monastery he went only to find that the church was not helping people find peace.  Instead, this man named Martin Luther found God to be an ominous judge who demanded more and more and more from his people.

It was like he was right there with the people of Israel.  The waves of fear and guilt crashing him on the one side and something like an army of Egyptians was the church crushing him with fierce demands on the other.  No help was found.  God became the accused.

And this was the situation for not just this one man, but for all the people.  The corruption of the church at the time was teaching people to earn God’s attention and forgiveness with more and more good.  It was never enough.  You always had to do more for God, for others, for the church.  God was never satisfied with you.  He was never willing to give peace until you made the effort.  You had to fight for it.

How well does that work?  I don’t think it is that farfetched for us to relate to these struggles.  We do this to ourselves all the time.  Like the Israelites, we levy accusations against God as if we know better.  An illness strikes at the wrong time. “God, why are you doing this to me?  You know I don’t need this right now.”  A relationship with a family member goes sour.  “Lord, what did I do to deserve this?  Why can’t you make them understand things from my point of view?”  A problem arises at work or for your kids at school.  “Lord, you say that all things work for the good of your people.  How in the world is this good for me?” You watch another terrible news report.  “God, you say you are in control, but how can this help our country right now?”  It’s like we are right there with the Israelites crying out against the Lord, fighting him.

And you have learned the results of this kind of fighting, haven’t you?  In the midst of fighting there is no peace.  When God is your opponent, there is no positive outcome.  Do you know why?  He doesn’t lose.  A holy God doesn’t get things wrong and he doesn’t make mistakes.  Sinful people do. We do.  And so how in the world could we ever think that fighting against God is going to work for us?  It’s utter nonsense.  There is no peace for people who think God is the enemy.

That’s why people often go down the road Martin Luther took.  If fighting against God is not going to achieve the peace they want, then try fighting alongside God.  That is ultimately what Luther was learning in the monastery: God is with you when you are doing good things for him and for others.  That is the basics, not of the Bible, but the basics of works-righteousness.  And we can get caught in this trap, too.  If an illness strikes at a bad time, I can pray more and that makes God happier with me and then he heals me.  If a relationship with a family member goes sour, I can put on my humility (people call that being the bigger person for some reason) for a while and ask for forgiveness.  That will get God’s attention and I can trust that he will take care of it.  If a problem arises at work or for your kids at school,  you can practice patience and perseverance just like God wants you to.  That will get you out of the problem and bring the peace you are looking for.  If you watch another terrible news report, you can send money to help the devastated victims.  God says that if you sow generously, you will reap generously, right?

We convince ourselves that we have helped God achieve the calm, peaceful stillness that we crave.  We convince ourselves that the Lord plus my prayers, plus my humility, plus my service, plus my offerings is what gives me hope and joy in life.  It’s like thinking that God needed help from the Israelites to fend off the Egyptians, as if God needed their game plan for crossing a lake on dry land.  This, too, is utter nonsense. This kind of thinking leads to the despair that Luther lived with.  How can a sinful person help a holy God?  You can try.  There are plenty of religions and churches that have told their followers to do exactly that, and many still do, but the result is not peace.  The result is never-ending desperation to help the God who doesn’t need one single thing from us.

So, what happened to the Israelites?  They found peace…on the other side of the lake while the entire Egyptian army drowned at the bottom of it.  Their fight was not against God.  God is not the enemy.  And God proved once again that he didn’t need any help.  He took care of them the way our loving God takes care of us.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.  It was his fight and his alone. Our Lord didn’t lose.

What happened for Martin Luther?  He found peace…outside of the never-ending cycle of works-righteousness.  God was not his enemy either.  And God did not need any good works to love Martin Luther.  The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.  God simply opened the truth to him that we are saved not by what we do but by what he has done and him alone.

So, what has happened for you?  You aren’t up against a lake and the Egyptian army.  You aren’t up against any false teachings in our church.  However, the enemy is the same, still prowling around. Behind that army and behind any false teaching is the serpent who is cunning and crafty and has been ever since he first tempted a man and his wife in the Garden of Eden.  Behind our accusations against God and behind our feeble and frantic attempts to help God do his work is the enemy that has plagued us since day one.

And still…still there is peace for you.  Our Lord does not fight against you.  He does not fight alongside of you, as if he needs your help with the enemy.  Brothers and sisters, The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.

 

That is exactly what happened on Calvary’s cross.  You and I could do nothing against our enemy, the devil.  So, the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, went to battle for you.  He crushed the serpent’s head with his perfect sacrifice.  He removed our sins with his perfect forgiveness.  He closed the doors of death with his glorious resurrection.  Heaven is yours because the Lord Jesus Christ fought for you and it was Christ alone.

This doesn’t mean the battles are going away.  The Israelites had many many many more run ins.  They faltered and failed all over the desert and in the Promised Land.  The disciples had Jesus there, God’s Son in the flesh, and they still struggled.  Luther’s anxiety over sin never went away.  We have the same fight every day.  But whose fight it is?  Who is going to fight for you every second of the day?  Who has given you the dry ground that leads to the other side where there is no enemy, only peace and joy. Who has set your heart at rest and still will for eternity?  It’s Christ and Christ alone. Amen.