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.

 

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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.

Hope Outdoes Optimism

12.2.18 Advent 1

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Luke 21:25-36

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29 He told them this parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.
32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
34 “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

 

 

Which one is a stronger description: you are a hopeful person, or you are an optimistic person;  “I hope it doesn’t snow today,” or “I am optimistic it will not snow today”?  The ideas are certainly similar – both are looking for a favorable future, both are on the positive side of the spectrum – but there is a difference. Doesn’t the one who says, “I am an optimistic person,” or “I am optimistic it won’t snow today,” convey a bit more confidence?

The way these two words are used nowadays optimism is an ongoing trait, which describes how you carry yourself.  It tells someone how you are going to react in most if not all situations.  An optimistic person is always going to have a glint in their eye and a bounce in their step.  But the way we use hope makes it seem a little less confident, a little less cheerful.  The person who says, “I hope it doesn’t snow today” is almost telling us, “but it probably will, if not today then soon.”

In Scripture, “hope” is actually more certain and more confident than that, because of what it is connected to.  It’s not a whimsical wish for something good to happen – possibly, potentially, maybe.  Hope is connected to the promises of God, promises that the holy and perfect God can never break.  And so we have a lot more that optimism for our future.  We have hope – certain hope, confident hope – because our hope is connected to the promises of God.

And one of Jesus’ promises is that he is coming back.  That’s what Jesus is referring to in this section from Luke 21.  Like I said at the beginning of the service today, Advent points us to the coming of Christ.  It’s is going to happen, and it’s going to happen soon.  Now, I’m not making any predictions, that would be utter foolishness because Jesus has not told us when he is coming back.  But he has told us the kind of things, or signs, that will be happening before he comes back.  Earlier in this chapter he speaks of some: “Nations will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom.  There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”  Does that sound like the kind of stuff we experience now?  And then, we hear what Jesus tells us in the reading for today: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.  And then Jesus tells this little parable about trees. “When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.”

When you look around at our world right now, what season does it look like to you?  Doesn’t it sound a lot like Jesus’ return is not too far off?  Doesn’t it sound like it’s a good time be ready for him?

But how many of us are living that way?  How many of us are standing up above all the negative voices?  How many of us are lifting our heads away from all the carousing, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life that Jesus mentions?  How many of us are readying ourselves for Christ and always on the watch for him?

Or do you have one (or a few) of those long lists.  You know the ones.  They’re all the things that you need to do to get ready for Christmas celebrations.  They’re all the people you need to buy for.  They’re all the cards you need to send.  They’re all the gifts you need to get.  They’re all the things at work.  On and on they go.   All the over-indulgence in this world, is that going to help you?  Do you really think happiness can be found and kept when it’s all about gratifying all my desires and finishing off all my lists, or when it’s time spent drowning all the stress and sorrows away?

When all these things are happening around you, when they are even happening in your life, do you know where that leads?  Jesus says, “Your hearts are weighed down…and [you are stuck in a trap].”  Boy, I look around at our world and I see people who are trying to balance a lot.  Some of the things may even be good things, helpful things, but the things of this world, the anxieties of this life are a weight that is too heavy to handle.  I fail to keep my head constantly up to listen to Christ, my Lord, and look for his coming.  Other voices become noisier and draw my gaze.  Hardships that are intended to get my eyes off myself and off of this world and direct me to full reliance on Jesus become overwhelming and weigh me down.  How about you?

Jesus says that it’s going to be like that all the way up to his return.  “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  What he’s saying is that the type of people who are distracted and weighed down will always be around.  The type of people who reject Jesus and yearn for the desires of their own making will always fill this world until he comes back.

Hearing these kinds of promises, you can help but ask, “How am I supposed to be filled with hope, how am I supposed to be confident and ready, when there is so much going on to crush my God-given hope?”

Well, Jesus has a promise for you who are weighed down.  Jesus has a promise for you who are troubled and hurting.  Jesus has a promise for you and you and every single person who is looking for hope. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

When you are feeling lost and alone, this is what Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me and I lay down my life for the sheep…only to take it up again.”  You have a shepherd who knows you, knows how to find you, knows how to rescue you, knows how to make you safe for eternity.

When you are struggling in the storm, this is what Jesus says: “Take courage!  It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  And to the storm: “Quiet! Be still!” and the storm has to listen.

When you are in the darkness of despair and depression, this is what Jesus says: “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

When you are stuck, when you are negative, when you have nowhere to turn, no fix that works, when you are at a loss thinking your situation is absolutely impossible, this is what Jesus says: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

When death is closing in on you and you know that you won’t get better, this is what Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.

Should I keep going?  None of these promises, not one of the passages inspired and written by our God in the Bible will ever be broken.  You have that promise from your Lord and Savior.

Well, maybe just one more.  You know all those sins that haunt you?  You know all the stories that you have about carousing and drunkenness and when anxiety won you over and weighed your heart down?  Jesus had something to say about all those sins and the payment that God demands for each and every one of your sins and mine.  Jesus had a final word about the task of accomplishing our forgiveness and making the payment once for all.  He said, “It is finished.”  Yeah, those words will never pass away.

These promises from Jesus give us real hope, not the possibly, potentially, maybe kind of hope, but the God-given, certain, sure, confident hope that can never be undone.  That’s what Christ has given us.

The line between those who have this hope from Jesus and those who do not is enormous.  Jesus describes what the difference will be when he returns.  For those who don’t have his kind of hope, they will faint from terror.  They will be in anguish and perplexity at what is happening, having no clue what to do to escape it.  Those who don’t faint will look for a place to hide to no avail.  But to those who have hope from Jesus, those who believe in his promises? Different story!  Jesus says, “When you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.  Believers do not hide.  We stand up and lift our heads without fear because our redemption is drawing near.  The Savior who promises to prepare a place for us in his heavenly home is making good on that promise, so we rejoice and will forever in heaven.

With that kind of hope we have a new attitude and a new mission.  “Be careful,” Jesus says.  Literally, “watch yourselves.”  Know what you are up against.  Acknowledge the temptations that the devil uses, which ones are especially hard for you, and flee from them.  Flee from evil and run back to the promises of your Savior in his Word and sacrament.  Keep the things that sustain your faith close to you.

“Be always on the watch,” Jesus says.  Literally, “don’t sleep.”  Be like a guard on the night watch, like Ben Stiller in those Night at the Museum movies.  Don’t let anything from the passing days and years lull you to sleep.  Stay active. Be a part of the God’s mission team to reach more for Christ.  Get involved.

“Pray,” he says.  What a gift we have to talk to the Lord of heaven and earth! Be bold with God.  Present your requests in faith and trust his answers because he will give you everything you need so that on the Last Day “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” in joy and praise for all that he has done for you.

When he comes again, Jesus will not be little, tiny, helpless baby.  He will not even be meek and humbled as he suffered and died.  “The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.” What a day that will be.  But it’s not here yet.  We live in this in between time, after Christ came as the baby of Bethlehem but before Christ returns as the great and glorious Judge.  That means there is suffering, there is pain, and there is strife, even for and sometimes especially for believers.  But with the promises of God we are able to endure, to persevere, to patiently wait, to live joyously, to carry out the mission God has given us.  God has given us something more that optimism.  We have his hope.  Amen.   

SPEAKING GOOD NEWS

Walls torn down

Luke 24:13-33

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.
17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
19 “What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
33 They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem.

 

 

Did you get good news on Tuesday night (midterm Elections)?  That depends, doesn’t it?  Now, we don’t need to get into politics to prove this point.  It could be anything.  It could be sports.  It could be work.  It could be family. It could be this past Friday, opening day for deer gun season.  Did you get good news?  It all depends on what you want, doesn’t it?  That’s the way good news works.  If the outcome or information is what you want or like, then it’s good.  If not, then it’s not good.

But what if that’s not the way it has to be?  What if some news was good no matter who was receiving it?  What if some information was always good because of the one who has provided it?  My brothers and sisters, that is what we have from God in the gospel.  We have the news that is always good no matter who is listening or how they react.  The gospel of Jesus is always good news.

This good news is so good that it is specifically designed by God to be not just something that makes me good, but also something that makes me want to give good news to others.  This is called evangelism, and in our worship series, Walls Torn Down, we are reviewing this beautiful doctrine of the Bible to grow in how we Use the Power of Good News, which tears down the walls of sin, death, and hell.

That all began a few weeks ago in October.  If you remember a few weeks back, we started by hearing from God that to be involved in evangelism you don’t need to have all sorts of skills or a certain personality.  You don’t need to be on the church payroll.  We heard the story Jesus told of a Good Samaritan, and there Jesus teaches us that love is all you need, the selfless, Good Samaritan love that cares for people no matter who they are.  And it just so happens that the kind of love we need is exactly what Jesus did for us and is exactly what Jesus put into our hearts through faith.  The second week we heard God’s Word from the God’s missionary to the Gentiles, Paul.  He told us that when you are a Christian you are going to find ways to be all things to all people.  In other words, we will get comfortable being uncomfortable.  The third week we heard from Paul again about how to turn conversations from common everyday things that everybody knows to the uncommon and unique grace and power of our God and Savior.  Remember how we saw him do that in Athens in the Areopagus?  He used their city and their objects of worship, one of which said “to an unknown god.”  He used their philosophers and poets.  He used those things that the people of Athens knew well to point them to the God of heaven and earth and his salvation through Jesus, who died and rose for us.

That leads us to these two men walking on the road to Emmaus.  It’s later on the day Jesus rose, Easter.  They are both followers of Jesus, so for them to be talking with each other about everything that had happened is not all the remarkable.  That would be like you discussing a sermon, a bible class, an outreach event with another member here or maybe encouraging and comforting someone close to you with an illness or a problem they are facing.  Those are the kinds of things that you would be comfortable talking about with a brother or sister in faith.

But what if the audience is different?  Would you be as comfortable talking about everything Jesus has done for us, about the power of God, or about the teachings of the Bible?  Maybe we have to admit that when it comes to God’s good news, we don’t speak up because we think it depends on the audience.  It’s similar to the way we look at elections or sports.  We treat the gospel like it is only good news for those who we see here at church, those who are on our side.

When we do that, we are setting limits on the gospel that God has not set.  We see the two men on the road to Emmaus do the same thing. When this stranger, who is really Jesus, asks them what they are discussing, they give a somber recap of what happened.  Here’s the summary: “He [Jesus] was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him;1 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place.  In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”

This should be a joyous, exciting explanation of how Jesus conquered sin and death for all people, but instead it’s downcast and doleful, because they had set limits on God’s promises.  Did you catch that in their response?  See, here is what they thought God’s promised good news was: “we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”  These two thought the good news was the revival of the Jewish nation, God’s people, Abraham’s descendants.  They thought God’s promise was the Israelites being delivered from the oppression of the Roman government and restored to ruling the world’s political scene.

Sure, that would be good news for Israelites, what about everyone else?  What about the Romans?  What about Samaritans?  What about Gentiles who would grow up in Europe, Africa, or America.  What about us?  We wouldn’t have any good news from God.

Sadly, sometimes we put up those limits on God’s good news just like these two men walking on the road to Emmaus.  The wonderful promises of God, his gospel of salvation for all, the Savior of the entire world is only good news for some.  In essence, that is saying God’s gospel message, his good news is not as good as God thinks it is.  Somehow we convince ourselves that the power of the gospel is not that powerful.  How foolish you and I are to think that the good news of God would ever be so small and insignificant.

But we do, we do talk and act like it is unimpressive, and maybe that’s because we don’t think the bad news is all that bad, either.  I think that happens to us like it was happening to the two men on the road.  They thought the good news was that Jesus was going to redeem Israel and get rid of the Roman rule.  So that means the bad news that was causing their sorrow was that Israel would still be stuck under the hated, oppressive government.

Brothers and sisters, that is not the bad news.  How foolish you and I are to think the bad news could ever be political, economic, financial, educational.  How foolish!  The bad news is not that your team didn’t win.  The bad news is not that you missed a big buck.  The bad news is not that your loved one has cancer, that your family is in shambles, that you lost your job.  That’s not even close too bad enough.

The bad news is sin.  Sin is something God cannot wink at or ignore.   Sin is something we cannot change the definition of.  Sin is so bad that it separates people from God.  Anyone who has ever done any one little thing wrong, even if it was just a thought to do wrong, has completely smashed God’s law to pieces.  Anyone who has smashed God’s law to pieces cannot have a life with God.  Sin is real, and it puts your name on the list of those who are going to the burning lake of sulfur where the worms that eat you do not die, and the fire is not quenched.  We’re talking eternal torture and punishment.  We’re talking the worst imaginable pain and suffering physically, emotionally, psychologically and it lasts forever.  The bad news is that anyone, who is not perfect as God requires you to be, is going to hell.  And this bad news cannot be changed by anyone.  You cannot undo what you have done wrong.  You cannot make up for these sins.  There is simply no other option but to suffer the pain of hell. Period.

That’s bad, isn’t it?  That’s so bad that it’s hard to put into words how bad sin and hell are.  It’s so bad, in fact, that the only fix that would ever work is an act of God.  He’s the only one powerful enough.  He’s the only one loving enough.  He’s the only one who could do anything about it. The only possible way to get rid of the devastating and eternal destruction sin causes to each person is that God would take that suffering and pain away from us and put it on someone else.  Someone else who is powerful enough and loving enough to see sinners in this absolutely perilous condition and step in for us, that’s what it would take to get rid of our bad news.

What would you call it if someone actually did that?  What would you call it if someone saw the entire world full of sinners and decided to step in for us?  What would you call it if someone would suffer the pain and torture our sins have earned?  What would you call it if someone would endure the physical, emotional, psychological hell that is coming for every sinner?  What would you call it if someone would die so innocently so that the guilty ones could benefit?  What would you call it if someone would take our pain and punishment and then give us the perfection God requires of us?  What would you call it if someone who died under the crushing weight of our sins actually came back from the dead?  What would you call it if someone conquered all, we’re talking every single one of our eternal enemies for us?  What would you call it if you didn’t have to be afraid of death, the devil, or hell anymore?  What would you call it if someone would provide all of this free of charge for all sinners, without conditions and without basing it on anything you did or didn’t do?  What would you call it if someone didn’t put limits on the people who can have and enjoy this gift?  What would you call that?  How about THE GOOD NEWS!!!

Yes, good news is exactly what that is.  Good news is exactly what Jesus has produced, accomplished, and provided for us.  It’s so good, in fact, that God gave it a special name called the gospel.  And God gave the gospel special power to work on hearts whenever and wherever it pleases him to change lives on earth and for eternity.

And do you notice what the gospel, what God’s good news, does to those who believe it?  Those two on the road to Emmaus heard the good news from Jesus, they saw their Savior alive, and with hearts burning from the power of the gospel, they immediately wanted to share it.  Luke writes in verse 33: They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem…

If you want to know how in the world you could ever tell someone the gospel of Jesus, I think you are looking at it all wrong.  This good news is so good, how could you not?  Amen.

FROM GOSPEL MISSION TO GLORIOUS VISION

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Revelation 7:9-17

9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

 

 

Last week was a great reminder of the power God has.  God can use the foolish things of this world.  God can use the weak things of this world.  God can use the lowly things of this world.  He can use humans to accomplish the most death-defying feat.   What I mean by that is God can use the mouths and the works of sinful humans beings to get the gospel message out into the world to save people from death and hell.

Remember how he did that with a simple German theology professor?  That kind of person should not be such a big deal, and yet some authors and historians rank Martin Luther in the top 10 (some as high as 3) of the most influential people in the entire world.  But it’s not like there was something so special about a law student turned monk.  There was nothing that significant about his upbringing or devotion to religion that would make the rest of the world take note.  There was nothing amazing about how he became a professor of little Wittenberg University and then a Doctor of Theology.  There have been tons of professors and doctorates through the centuries that have had very little impact on the world.  There wasn’t much about this man, Martin Luther, that made him special.

The single thing that made Martin Luther so influential in world history is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  See the gospel made him ask questions of the deceptive church leaders, write little pamphlets and papers about the problems he noticed, stand up to the authorities, live as an outlaw, translate the Bible into German, use the new technology of the printing press, advocate for the peasants and children, write hymns and catechisms, and leave a legacy that the world simply cannot ignore. The gospel did it all.  The gospel has that kind of power.

Do you know why the gospel can have such an impact?  Do you know why the gospel can turn lowly good-for-nothings, fishermen, tax collectors, farmers, monks, professors into names that are known throughout the world?  It’s because the gospel saves people.

That’s not a cheap advertisement.  Without the gospel the only reality in the world is death and hell.  Without the gospel every single person is doomed to be destroyed by the devil and his evil for eternity.  Without the gospel the only thing you would know is sin.  Without the gospel everyone is dark, lost, and alone forever.  Without the gospel this world is all you have – this world with its polarizing politics, its destruction and devastation, its rape and murder, its greed and lust, its selfishness and pride, its racism and hatred, the list goes on.  That’s all you have.  Sure, there are some sunny days and happy times, but it would all be for nothing.  You live.  You die.  It means nothing.  Your existence really has no value to anyone.  You are pointless.  That’s life without the gospel.  There is no reason for anything and there is no love for anything, except yourself.

Think of it.  You might say, “I could still have my spouse, my kids, my parents, my friends.”  Without the gospel those relationships would only mean something because of what they do for you.  You would enjoy having parents who didn’t leave you at the hospital.  That’s nice for you.  You would enjoy having siblings because then you’re not bored at home with mom and dad, then you can have someone to play pranks on and blame when stuff gets broken, you would have people who could help you as a kid.  It’s good for you.  You would have friends who can do things for you like help on homework, be the other kids on your team, all that kind of stuff.  And that is nice for you to have.  You would maybe have your own spouse of maybe just a live in, because who wants that kind of commitment anymore.  You could have a person satisfy your desires and appetite for a while hopefully.  They could help you with a lot of things around the house and for life.  They could even help you with kids.  And you would want kids to increase your happiness and give you someone to have control over and mold.  Oh!  It’s so sad to look at life without the gospel of Jesus.  So often that is exactly what we are guilty of because we are only looking at ourselves.  Our vision is so narrow and it’s so utterly pointless.

But in the gospel, you have life.  You have meaning.  You have a purpose.  You have a family.  You have a home.  You have it forever.  Because in the gospel you have a God who is not an overlord who rules you like measly subjects or a company owner who wants you to work for him. The second reading says you have a God who wants to love you like children.  He wants to be your Father.

God did everything to make that real for you.  The gospel says that he planned a way to make sinners into his children.  Jesus came to take your sins from you.  You didn’t give them up, he took them from you and removed them from your life when he died in your place. Jesus exchanged his perfection for our sinfulness, his righteousness for our guilt.  He took the punishment that we deserve and gives us a life that is worth more than anything this world could give.  He came back from the dead so that this life you have as a child of God would not just be for years on earth, but for eons upon eons for eternity in heaven.  That is how much God loves you.  That is how much the gospel accomplishes for you.

It turns you from sinners into saints.  Yes, that is what you are.  Like I said at the introduction to this festival day, a saint is not someone who lived a special life or made a specific sacrifice or something that we should remember.  A saint is not someone who went to heaven with the job that they would someone stand in for God every once in a while.   Why would you want a dead person to help you, when you can have the Lord of heaven, the Creator of all things, the Rock of our salvation, the Spirit who set you apart and called you by name help you and care for you?  Can a dead person even do anything after they are dead?  No, not at all.  But God lives.  Jesus lives.  And because he does when God looks at his children he does not see the sin.  He sees the holiness of his Son.  He sees his perfect, pure child.  He sees a saint.

When he looks at all of us together he sees the communion of saints.  Yeah, when we say those words in the creeds we aren’t just talking about believers who have died already.  We’re proclaiming that we believe God can turn us sinners into his holy people through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and faith in him alone.

That is the gospel.  And we want the gospel to do that for more people.  We want more and more people to know that life is not what I make of it.  Life is what Jesus has made it for me.  That gospel mission is what changed the world after Jesus ascended into heaven.  Christianity spread all over the world.  That gospel mission is what changed the world again when the pure light of the gospel was hidden by an oppressive church.  The voice of the midair angel has never stopped, and it won’t now.  That’s God’s promise.

And you would think that life for people with this gospel mission, for people who believe in Jesus, for the saints of God, you would think that life would be easier for us.  That’s just not a promise God has ever made, that your life on earth is going to be the best.  The Gospel reading is where Jesus says the opposite.  Your life on earth won’t be the best, but it will be blessed when you are poor in spirit, when you mourn, when you are meek, when you are merciful, when you are pure, and when you are persecuted for your faith in him.  All of those things are a part of life now, to point the saints of God to the home that really matters.

To so many this doesn’t seem worth it.  To so many fixing the brokenness of this life and trying to get my life on earth better is all that matters.  Is that you?  Do you yearn for better days on earth?  Then your vision is too narrow.  The devil is setting you up for failure, for eternal failure.  See, in the gospel, God promises something much better than earthly fixes and pleasures.  The gospel mission gives a vision like the one John sees.

READ v9-17

To people who have been changed by the gospel, to saints who are looking for something better than this world, God gives us a glorious vision of what victory really looks like.  There is a time and a place God has set for all his saints to enjoy this glory, peace, joy, and victory.  We don’t know when our names are going to be called, but when they are we will be taken out of this world.

I just love hearing the verse where God says the ones in white, his saints, are all those who have come out of the great tribulation.  That’s as good as this world gets for believers.  It’s a tribulation.  It’s a place where too often we complain about our homes or hungers, about the weather, about work, about failed relationships.  It’s a place where we cry and weep.  It’s a place that is broken and dark with sin.

But we have the gospel of Jesus.  We have the blood of the Lamb who makes us clean in God’s eyes.  We have the new eyes of saints who look at this world, not as home but as the journey there.  And along the way, God gives us the good news of Jesus so that can help others from every nation, tribe, people and language with their broken lives as well.

And here’s his promise for you: the gospel that we have as his saints now on earth will always lead to this glorious vision of heaven and saints who are with the Lord forever.  Amen.