A SHEPHERD HAS TO USE THE GATE FOR HIS SHEEP

5.7.17 Easter 4 Confirmation

Easter Season A

John 10:1-10

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his name, Amen.

 

MY DEFENSE IS JESUS’ RESURRECTION

4.30.17 Easter 3A

Easter Season A

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

REMOVING DOUBTS IS EASY WITH EASTER

4.23.17 Easter 2A

Easter Season A

John 20

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

CIR HIRI

11 men minus one locked in a room isn’t much of a parade.

As much as I don’t like it, the Cubs won the World Series last fall.  Now, if only ten people showed up in Chicago for the parade, would that be very victorious?  NOT!  Do you know how many fans showed up?  Estimates say 5 million, but I read up on these estimates and there’s just no way.  A closer number is probably 1.5 million.

My point is not to say that media drastically overestimate crowds or that the crowd for the Cubs World Series Championship parade wasn’t that big.   My goodness, that crowd was just about as big as North and South Dakota…combined. My point is that you need tons of people for a parade.  11 men minus one locked in room isn’t much a celebration.

That is exactly the situation on the evening of that first day of the week.  Even though the women had shocked the disciples by saying the tomb was empty and they had personally seen Jesus alive, the disciples couldn’t understand it and doubted.  Peter and John also saw the empty tomb.  Later, as both Luke and Paul record, Peter also saw Jesus alive.  And I’m sure that even though the Jewish religious leaders had paid off the guards to lie about what they experienced early that morning, the news of Jesus’ empty tomb was getting around.

Yet, it was so hard for the disciples to make sense of everything.  They were torn.  On the one side was their faith in Jesus and on the other was the very logical fact that the dead don’t come back.  Doubt and fear was pulling them away from faith in what Jesus says and what God can do.

We are familiar with this tug of war where fear and doubt have a way of ruining a celebration.  It happens in our world.  Do you remember the end of the Boston Marathon a few years ago?  A couple homemade bombs went off near the finish line, killing 3 and injuring hundreds more.  It’s sad that these types of things happen.  Finishing a marathon is one of those really happy times.  I’ve done it twice.  It’s a relief.  It’s joyous.  It’s really – we’re talking really – tiring, but also so exciting to have completed something that is so challenging.

The sad result of terrorist bombings and shootings is the fear and doubt they cause.  There are probably still runners and spectators (along with parents with kids in school, fans a big games, and world travelers) who are on alert and can’t relax, if not worse, because of the damage that fear and doubt causes.

The doubts and fears were bad for Thomas to the point where he wasn’t even with the other 10 that Sunday evening.  He did something that never helps believers going through these tough situations.  He got out of there.  He put distance between himself and his Christian friends.  They may not have been super strong influences because their doubts and fear were getting the best of them, too, but they could at least remind each other of Jesus’ words.

But this happens to us, doesn’t it?  We have fears.  We have doubts.  Sometimes we distance ourselves from the people who can help us with Jesus’ words and promises the most.  Now, it’s not going to happen when things are going great.  Remember how different the disciples felt when Jesus physically appeared to those 10 men that night.  Doubts were gone. Jesus was 100% alive. Shocking? Yes!  Amazing? Yes!  Life-changing? Yes!  Their fears vanished.

When you get into the program that you have been dreaming of, when you get the job you have been working and waiting for, when something awesome happens like winning the lottery, I’m guessing those are not the times when you doubt that God exists.  When you get married to the person you want to love for the rest of your life or when you hold your newborn child, those are not the times when you doubt God’s love for you.

Doubts and fears don’t tug and pull us so seriously when things are going great.  It is easy to have faith in Jesus when everything is sailing along smoothly.  We think God is obviously happy with us and providing for us.  The doubt and fear get to us in times of challenge and change.  When the bills are piling up, when the doctor says, “I’ve got some bad news,” when the spouse you are committed to spend the rest of your life with says “I don’t want to spend another day with you,” when kids start growing up and face the peer pressure to fit in and do what everybody else is doing – these are the times when doubts and fears grab hold and drag us down.

Faith in Jesus and his words is assaulted in times of challenge and change.  Thomas was not with the ones who could help him out.  He was an island buffeted by the waves.  His faith was bombarded from every side.  When anything is allowed to take aim at your faith like that, it doesn’t lead us in a good direction.  Doubts and fears pull us away from God.  Guilt and even our own human reason drag us toward unbelief.

Now, it is important to note that Thomas’s faith is not gone.  It’s just that everything was tipping him toward the unbelief side.  It’s a dangerous path to be on, and he’s going at it all alone, which leads to the next problem: placing an unreasonable burden of proof on God.

So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Show of hands: has anyone been to Peru, seen Machu Picchu?  Why would you believe that there is such a country in South America if you have never been there?  You believe it because others have seen it and been there, it’s on a map, all the maps, and maybe you saw the 29 athletes march at opening ceremony for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio.  I can personally attest to the fact that Peru exists.  I went there on a mission trip after my senior year at Luther Prep.

Thomas had all sorts of people telling him that Jesus was alive, but he places a burden of proof on God that he doesn’t place on any others.  That’s how Satan attacks our faith.  When there are doubts, then they have to be answered.  Satan convinces us that they have to be answered our way, which he will gladly help us dream up some crazy demands.

When you say, “For me to know how much God loves me, it is not enough for him to take away my sin, but he has to take away all my problems in life,” you are placing a burden of proof on God that you wouldn’t place on others.  For your kids to show their love to you, they don’t have to make the whole day perfect for you, just cleaning their room without being asked shows that.  When you say, “God has to show his power by giving me everything I have decided I need in life,” you are saying God has to do something you wouldn’t expect others to do for you.

This is the heart of someone who is struggling with doubts and fears.  This is the life of someone who is in the situation those 10 disciples were dealing with before Jesus appeared to them or Thomas even after the disciples were telling him they saw Jesus alive.  The doubt and fears that come during times of challenge or change pull us away from faith in Jesus and start making unreasonable demands.

Do you know what Thomas needed more than God meeting his demands?  The same thing we need when doubts and fears are steering us away from Jesus.   We don’t need God to do something that will appease us.   We need God to do what God does.  We need what only Jesus can give.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” … Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! … A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”

We don’t need God to prove his love our way.  We need God to show his love his way, which is much better than anything we could come up with.  Jesus proved God’s love at Christmas, at his Baptism, as he made his way to Jerusalem the last time knowing what was coming, on Good Friday when he endured all the physical pain and also the pain of suffering for the sins of the world as God turned his back on him.  We don’t need God to prove his power our way.  We need his to show his power his way.  Jesus did that on Easter.  A dead Savior does us no good, so he showed us his eternal power over death.

This God who proves his love and power his way, not ours.  He says we have peace now.  Jesus is so compassionate and tender with the runaways.  That’s what the disciples were.  They had deserted him, denied him, doubted him.  Yet, Jesus was so calm and caring for them, bringing God’s peace.  That’s what grace is, my friends.

Peace that Jesus is giving here is not the way English speakers think of peace.  This isn’t freedom from tension or hostility between two groups, like a truce between two fighting brothers. Jesus never had any hostility toward his disciples. That’s not the way Hebrews heard the word, peace (Shalom).  This was wholeness and completeness of body, mind, and spirit.  It means everything in your life is just right.

In order to have that kind of peace, you don’t need the biggest house on the block, the best wardrobe or the most friends.  In order to have this kind of peace in your life, you need a God who says your sins are gone, you need a Savior who says Satan cannot touch you, you need the living One who says death cannot destroy you.

Brothers and sisters, that’s Easter. CIR HIRI  The disciples had a living Savior.  He removed the doubts and fears with his gracious presence and peace.  He proclaimed complete forgiveness.  Only a living Savior can do that.  It meant they were whole.  Everything was just right.

The same was true for Thomas.  Jesus had the same peace for him, which not only got him back from the doubts and fears, but also assured Thomas that his sins were paid for in full and eternal life in heaven was his personal possession.

Where does that leave us?  We weren’t in the room, but Jesus included us when he said, “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Faith in Jesus doesn’t need to lay a huge burden of proof on God.  Faith in Jesus trusts him because he is the one who conquered death for us.  He is the one who lives now to watch over us and bless us with his word.

If we still have to deal with the doubts and fears – and we do – if we still got hung up on our guilt – and we do – I think there is something we can learn here from Thomas.  He was MIA from the group that Easter evening, but not the next week.  He was with his Christian friends, who wanted to help him with his doubts and fears.  That’s when Jesus brought him close with the joy of Easter.  Thomas had Jesus’ peace and forgiveness.  Jesus strengthened his faith.

That’s where we need to be.  We need to be with God’s people in God’s house listening to our living Savior speak.  Easter means that what we do here in this place is not something kinda, sorta important.  Easter means this Word of God is alive.  It crushes doubts and fears.  It brings us close to Jesus.  Literally, dig in as much as you need, daily and with others if need be, because in the Word Jesus gives you his peace and blessings.

That’s why John ends this section with these beautiful words, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  Easter is all about life, not death.  It’s about victory that is ours through faith in Jesus.  Doubts and fears are crushed when Jesus speaks with peace and love to us.

And so Easter leads us to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” 

Amen.

 

THE COMEBACK FOR THE AGES

4.16.17 Easter Sunday

Easter 2017 2

Matthew 28:1-10

1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

 

They were down, big.  It really wasn’t even a game.  I literally left the party after halftime because it just wasn’t entertaining anymore (plus it was getting late for my kids, but it was mostly because of how boring the game was).  The score was 28-3 midway through the third quarter.  There had never been a comeback from that deficit in this big of a game. You might remember that day, this past February 5. It was Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons vs. the New England Patriots.  Now, I’m not at all a Patriots or Falcons fan, so I wasn’t broken up or pumped about it.  I was just kind of hoping for a good game.  But what about the Patriots fans that night?  The game was more than half over and the Patriots looked like they had forgotten what football was and how to play it.

Now, we’ve all been there before like the Patriots and their fans.  We’ve really hoped for one result and got something devastatingly different.  I know some people who were experiencing that kind of pain.  Men who had been so excited about the prospects of what could happen, like Patriots fans in the weeks leading up to yet another Super Bowl, but it all vanished.  They had that stunned look that you see so often from fans of a losing team in a championship game.  (Somewhat how I felt when I shaved my beard yesterday.)  It is just blank, void of energy, void of hope; it looks like there is no tomorrow, no next time.

The disciples were in those dark doldrums, but this wasn’t about a game.  There was no “can we start this over again.”  In fact, it was even worse than Patriots’ fans felt, because even when your team loses there will be another season.  The disciples were dealing with something much worse, something that couldn’t be undone.  Jesus was dead.  After all that time following him, listening to him, believing in himas God’s Son, it was all over.  They didn’t know what to do.  They were afraid.  They were together but felt so alone.  They were completely defeated.  They didn’t even go with the women to the tomb for closure.  It was too raw.  It hurt too much.

Do you know what that’s like?  I’m not just talking about seeing your favorite team getting the beat down.  I’m talking about when life is giving you the beat down.  Your spouse doesn’t seem so close lately.  Your house needs some work, but you’re too busy with work and money is tight.  Then, when you really didn’t need anything else added to your plate, you get rear-ended and the dentist calls saying it’s time for the family’s checkups (and who likes the dentist?). All those kinds of things that pile up and put you into a bad mood can be hard to handle.  They can seem overwhelming.   But somehow you manage.  After all, it’s not a life and death matter.

But then, that happens, too, like Jesus’ followers found out.  Maybe you know someone who has to deal with stage 4 cancer.  Maybe you have a good friend or coworker who was in a bad accident.  Maybe this past year or two you had to say goodbye to mom or dad, grandpa or grandma. That’s a lot worse than your favorite team getting the beat down or life giving you a few twists and turns.  That is life and death.  What do you do then?

And you know that you have to deal with it.  We have to come to grips with the fact that death is not optional.  Because in this world, nothing lasts forever, you and me included. So, what do we do about it?  Are we each supposed to find our favorite coping mechanism?  Some wrap themselves up in fun and family.  Some choose exercise and sports.  Some take to volunteering a lot.  Some try to ignore it all and live for the moment.  Some, sadly, turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain but it only causes more.  Is that what we are supposed to do?  But where does any of that get you?  Nothing we try can get rid of the fact that death will come.

The women on the way to the tomb were right in the middle of that sad reality.  It was dark and dismal for them.  The disciples were in it as well; too scared to go with them, too overcome with guilt that the last time Jesus saw most of them was as they were running away from him in fear.  Defeat has a way of sapping the life out of you, doesn’t it?

I’m sure that’s what Patriots fans were feeling.  And I know that players always say things like, “You just have to keep playing and see what happens,” but I’m sure there were plenty of guys on that sideline who weren’t thrilled with their play.  But then a little light started to peak through the clouds of defeat about halfway through the third quarter, it looked like the Patriots came out of the fog and remembered how to play for a championship.  They scored a touchdown, forced a punt, got a field goal, forced a fumble, got another touchdown.  It got to be a pretty serious game again with 3 minutes left.  The Falcons thought they had the defeated wrapped up, but the Patriots were showing a little life.

When the women arrived at the tomb, there was a little flicker of light.  They went out looking for Jesus’ dead body with a whole lot of disappointment, but when they got there, the guards didn’t meet them.  The large stone wasn’t standing in their way, and an angel was sitting there.  The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.”  The women were defeated as they came looking for Jesus’ dead body.  But the angel lifted their heads and hearts and pointed them to a place where defeat and death should have held Jesus, but it was looking like there was life now.  If Jesus was not there in that place of death, that meant there was still hope.  If Jesus had come back from the dead, that meant death doesn’t have to be the winner.  If Jesus was alive, it meant that he was telling the truth all along, he was God’s Son, the Savior from sin and death.

You know how the Super Bowl ended, right?  Spoiler alert: The Patroits won in overtime.  It was the greatest comeback in the Super Bowl, ever.  That was just one game for one trophy.

The angel said to the women, “He is not here; he has risen.”  Jesus didn’t just win a game or a trophy.  Jesus accomplished the comeback for the ages, for all ages, of all time.  He came back from the grave to win the greatest victory there is.  He conquered death.  CIR HIRI

He had gone to the cross to do battle against our sin.  It was brutal and agonizing. And it looked like he was gone for good.  But with his dying cry of “It is finished” he made a promise that came true when he rose from the dead.  Sin was paid for in full.  For all the times we try to fix our lives and fail, for all the times we turn our back on God to go our own way, only to realize our own way doesn’t remove the curse of sin and death, and for all the times we give up, Jesus had the greatest comeback.  The finality of death is gone.   Death now holds now power over us.  Jesus pulled off the upset.  CIR HIRI

Now, if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser, right?  That’s how it works, as much as youth sports might be teaching kids to try their best and have fun, every game has a winner and a loser.  The Patriots had a massive comeback victory.  That meant the Falcons had a catastrophic collapse.

On Easter, there were huge losers.   The disciples were totally defeated.  They had turned their backs on Jesus.  They ran away and left him to be beaten and killed.  They didn’t deserve anything.  They were losers.

Maybe there are times when you feel like a loser.  You have turned your back on God.  You have failed your family.  You’ve broken a promise.  You’ve made a mistake.  Ok, if you’re anything like me, then it’s a ton of mistakes.  Something really important happens on Easter.

Jesus suddenly appears to the women.  They ran right into the proof that Jesus was alive.  They fell down in worship.  (That’s pretty much the same thing we are doing today, and every Sunday, we worship the one who came back from the dead for us.)  They didn’t have doubts or disappointments anymore. CIR HIRI

Here’s what Jesus said to the women: “Do not be afraid.  Go and tell my brothers…”  Jesus calls the disciples “my brothers.”  That might not seem like a big deal, but this is the first time in Jesus’ life that he calls the disciples brothers.  They didn’t even deserve to be called disciples.  They were losers, but the risen Lord sends them a message: “go and tell my brothers.”  The comeback King, Jesus, said to sinners like that, “go and tell my brothers.”

They were not the losers on Easter, and neither are you.  Jesus came back to life because he wants you to have his victory.  That’s the kind of God we have.  We have a God who fights for us and wins for us.  We are free from our sins through Christ.  He promises that he doesn’t even remember your sins anymore because he paid for them all. Jesus is telling you when he calls the disciples “my brothers” that you aren’t losers.  You have his comeback victory for the ages.

But there has to be a loser.  Do you know who that is?  The loser is death.  The angel and, more importantly, Jesus say to you this day, “Do not be afraid.” Death is defeated by a Savior who came back to life.  There’s more losers, too. The devil, he thought he had a great victory just a couples days before.  God’s Son was supposed to save the world, but he couldn’t save himself.  But early Sunday morning there was a message waiting for him.  Jesus told the devil, “I’m back; you lose.”  The devil can try but he can never convince you that you are a loser.  Because when you believe that Jesus rose, you are on his side, the champion’s side.  The loser is also hell.  The loser is sin and evil and anything that tries to rob you of the joy Christ has won for you.  Easter is Jesus’ comeback for the ages.  He defeated all your enemies and all your fears so that you can live in constant victory.

My friends, without Jesus Christ and his comeback, we would live as losers.  We would be forced to think that this life is everything, this hard, kind of nice but often not so nice life is all there is.  You live, you die; end of story.  And if that were the case, then the devil wins, death wins, sin wins, hell wins.  All hopes, all dreams, all lives would be lost.  Before Easter, no one had made that impossible comeback to conquer death for all time.  Even those who were raised to life again by God’s power before this had to die again.  But not Jesus.  Jesus has the comeback victory.  And that changes everything in our lives.  We are not losers when we are on Jesus’ side.  He said, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me will live even though he dies.”

Do you see how that makes you the winner? Not even death can rob us of God’s love through Christ.  We have peace. We have joy.  We have excitement, as if life is a constant victory parade on the way home to heaven, a home that was paid for with Jesus blood and assured when he came back from the dead.  Death means we can go home to a Father who will welcome us with open arms to an eternity with him.

I kind of feel bad for the Falcons and their fans.  That was a rough loss.  But there’s always next year.  I don’t feel bad for death.  I don’t feel bad that Jesus completely and totally destroyed it’s power forever.  I don’t feel bad that there is no next year for the devil.  Because I have a Savior who lives, and so do you.  That is the joy we have today and always because of Jesus’ comeback for the ages.

Christ is risen. HE IS RISEN INDEED.  Alleluia!!!!  Amen.

 

WHAT WAS HE THINKING?

4.9.17 Palm Sunday

final battle year A holy Week

Philippians 2

5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

 

It’s Palm Sunday. Welcome to Holy Week, the final battle.  This is the day that starts the end, and these are pretty familiar events. We see Jesus asking for the donkey to fulfill that prophecy from Zechariah 9.  The people welcome him as the Son of David, as their king, with palm branches paving his way.  And so we get the name, and why we had kids waving palm branches at the beginning of the service, because that’s how people greeted Jesus on this day almost 2000 years ago.  In fact, 1600 years ago believers in the Jerusalem area would retrace the steps of that day with palm branches in their hands.  It’s been a special church festival day ever since.

These things that happened are pretty well known.  But it’s not just the things that happened that are important, we also need to remember why they happened.  This is the part that is a little tougher to admit.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem because of me.  He wasn’t enjoying a nice Sunday stroll with his followers.  He wasn’t begging for attention.  He wasn’t going to Jerusalem to take over the throne he deserved as the King of the Jews.  He rode into Jerusalem because there was a final battle, my battle that he had to fight.

That’s because I’m the one who has sin on my record, not Jesus.  I’m the one who has found myself trapped on the devil’s side of the battle lines far too often.  I’m the one who has broken every kind of commandment there is.  If you think of God’s law as a mirror, then what does just one brick do to a mirror?  It smashes it into a bunch of pieces.  Just one sin is a brick to God’s law, smashing it to a bunch of pieces.  I can’t put those pieces perfectly back together again.  And even if I could, there’s another problem.  I don’t have just one sin on my account.  There are tons, every day.  It’s been this way sin before I was born because I have two sinful parents who made a…? sinful child.  That’s me and that’s you.  Sinful people like us caused this Palm Sunday event to take place.

Yes, it’s exciting to see Jesus enter Jerusalem with a grand welcome.  Yes, it’s nice to see Jesus fulfilling more prophecy as my Lord.  But he’s going to Jerusalem for a battle. It’s should never have happened.  The Son of God should not have to fight my battles.  The King of kings, the ruler of all things should not come to serve anyone.  He should be served by every man, woman and child under the sun.  This is the one who can make anything happen with a split second thought, a snap of his almighty fingers.  Blizzard in North Dakota in April, no problem.  120 degrees in North Dakota on the very next day, he yawns with the kind of ease it takes to do something like that.   Keeping the sun, planets, stars, and that outer space stuff in its place doesn’t cost him any energy.

On top of that, the Son of God had already dealt with the devil in a quick and easy way.  Casting the devil out of heaven after he rebelled against God’s perfect authority, wasn’t a fight like trying to quiet a temper-tantrum throwing toddler.  He just said, “Be gone!”  God already won the battle against Satan.  But the devil left heaven and made this place his playground.  If he couldn’t beat God up there, he would go after God’s creatures down here.   Now, because humanity foolishly left God’s side of this battle, and made an unholy agreement with the devil when we gave in to his temptations, we have this battle raging every day.  It’s mine and yours.  Jesus  shouldn’t have to fight our battle, especially not with all of the things that will unfold this week.

But he did!  Because of me and because of you.  We are the ones who could never do enough to find ourselves on the other side of this battle, the good side, Jesus’ side.  We could never trick the devil and we could never trick God about who we are or what we’ve done so that we end up on the safe side.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday because of me and because of you.   He saw it from his home in heaven.   He saw it with two human eyes as he walked this earth.  He knew he was going to have to go to Jerusalem to fight my battle against sin because we couldn’t do it. He knew it was going to be agonizing and excruciating. He knew it all along, that this road pave in palms and cloaks led to his death.

So what was Jesus thinking? If someone asked, really told, you to do something like fight the kind of battle that really wouldn’t benefit you so much, but would help others out a whole lot, would you do it?  We really aren’t wired that way.  We think, “What’s good for me?  What do I like?  What do I want?”  We don’t spend our time or energy fighting a life threatening battle for someone who doesn’t deserve it.  We don’t volunteer for that.  That’s not the way we think.

So, what was Jesus thinking?  We don’t really get that information from the Gospel for the day, but I think these verses from this old hymn or poem that Paul quotes in Philippians two give us some helpful insight.  We know that Jesus followed through with it.  He came to Jerusalem.  He got on the donkey to fulfill the prophecy.  He entered the city to shouts of Hosanna only to hear so many of those voices cry out “crucify, crucify him,” less than a week later.

But what he thought about all this is even more amazing.  Paul describes his attitude like this: “being in very nature God, [Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  The Son of God decided to be called the Son of Man.  He didn’t come to earth kicking and screaming. He didn’t need the power and glory.  He wanted to be here to fight our battle, even when he knew it would take humility, the greatest display of humility ever witnessed in this world.  He wanted to fight for us, even when he knew it would be painful, messy, miserable, and lonely, because he never wanted us to suffer that way.

From his very first moments in this world, it was all about the servant-like service rather than that godly glory.   He took up residence in the womb of a rather simple virgin, whose husband was a lowly carpenter and not a king.  He was born in backwater Bethlehem and placed in a feed box for his first night.  Shepherds were his first worshipers.  The Son of God, who was there to create the human body, had to grow up in the human body.  People spoke to him as they would anyone else, most treated him even worse than that.  Even on a day like Palm Sunday, we see God living as a humble man riding on a beast of burden. Jesus certainly knew humility and what it was like to be a servant.

But that wasn’t all.  “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!”  In humility, Jesus willingly put himself under the curse of sin.  He let the opponents plot.  He let jealous, angry Jewish leaders and a Roman governor brutalize him.  The Son of God let men decide his fate.

This was our battle, not his.  It was painful and messy.  We would never be perfect enough to do it.  We would never be humble enough to do it.  But Jesus was.  He was all of those things and more.  And so on Palm Sunday he willingly went to this final battle, not just because of us and our sin, but for us.  Jesus knew that this battle would be exactly like the time the devil rebelled.  There was no hope for him.  The devil is evil and all he wants his evil.  Jesus would fight evil with his humble love.  He would take the punishment sin deserves.  He would ride on to die as payment for our victory.  It took his lowly death, but Jesus loves you that much.

The Son of Man didn’t act like a son of man after that, however.  On the cross, yes.  He was forsaken by his holy Father as he suffered the torment of hell for the sins of the world.  But his humble death was not the end.  The Son of Man is also the Son of God.  His death led to the most glorious event in all of history.  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

When we are talking about this final battle against sin, death, and the devil, they lose.  And everyone who is on that side of this battle, everyone who doesn’t see Jesus as the humble servant who has saved us from sin and won a glorious victory, every one of them loses, too.  They will have to acknowledge that fact.  There is no option.  Every knee will bow whether it’s in faith or in utter shock or angry disbelief.

I’d rather join the faithful procession of those who hail him as the king.  I’d rather you do that, too.  Because that procession is the one who has a Savior from sin.  The people in that procession enjoy total victory over death forever with Jesus in heaven.

And do you know what else I like about being on his side?  On this side, on the side that worships Jesus for his humble service, we don’t clamor for the glory.  We don’t push and shove to get to the front of the line.  We don’t treat each other like garbage.  We don’t look down on others, because there is no better or worse.  There’s Jesus exalted on the throne over all for the battle he willingly fought and won for us, and then there’s all of us.  There are no levels.  There is no favoritism.   There’s just Jesus and then believers.  There’s Jesus and then all of us who follow his humble, loving, and willing example.  He has made us his people, how else should we act?

Today, we join the procession for Jesus, who willingly came because of us and for us.  We praise the Son of God and Son of Man for his humble love and sacrifice.  We look forward to the events of this week because we know his final battle means we win the eternal victory.  We are amazed that he was thinking it was all worth it…for you!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.  Amen.

THE GREATEST PLACE ON EARTH

4.2.17 5th in Lent A

fields-of-battle-lent-a

John 11

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

 

 

What’s the greatest place on earth?  There are tons of options and tons of opinions on that one.  If I ask the kids here today, they might say a water park or Disney World.  If I ask some of the parents of those kids, they might disagree, saying a tranquil beach or cabin by a lake, as long as it was peaceful and quiet. If I ask you Vikings fans, you might say the greatest place on earth is where the Vikings win the Super Bowl.  (This next season it’s at US Bank Stadium!)  Today and tomorrow is Opening Day for MLB, I’d sure put Miller Park on that list.  Or maybe some of you would say home with all your family around is the greatest place on earth.

Obviously, there are a lot of ways to answer that question depending on who you ask.  But reading John 11, I think there is one place that is universally the best.  As we watch and listen to Jesus today on this next field of battle, I think he’ll show us, beyond a doubt, what the greatest place on earth really is.

When we first see him today, he’s arriving in a little village outside of Jerusalem, called Bethany. The reason for his appearance is death.  Lazarus, Jesus’s good friend and the brother of Mary and Martha had died.  Many had come to comfort the sisters in their loss.  We know that process well.  Because we live on the same earth that they did we are familiar with these gatherings at a funeral.  So, people still gather to give comfort and tell stories.  You try to help everyone cope the best you can.  Death is part of our existence that we have to deal with.

And it’s not just death that we deal with here.  We endure pain and suffering from illnesses and insults.  We put up with letdowns from work, from relationships, and from our own mistakes.  We even have the kind of messes on our hands that we ourselves cause.  When you react poorly to stress, sometimes you can create even more.  When you look for escapes in a bottle or on a screen, you don’t really find what you’re looking for.  When you try to get rid of the hardships by fitting in and putting your faith on the back burner that just does more damage.

You know even those great places on earth have their issues.  Depending on what time of year, the beach might not be so great if there’s a hurricane.  You might not love the mountains when there’s a blizzard.  Disney World might be terrible… honestly, when is there a good time to go to Disney World?  When is it cheap and not busy?  Vikings fans might be disappointed if there isn’t a victory, which there never has been in a Super Bowl.

As much as we search for the greatest places and the most enjoyment we can find, we’ll always keep searching without finding a perfect place.  As much as we desire fulfilling relationships, when there’s two sinful people involved it will NEVER be perfect.  Sin has done and will continue to do a lot of damage to your life and mine. And we can’t fix that problem.

That was also the case for the sisters. Mary and Martha had watched their brother’s health decline.  They knew Jesus could help.  They had seen him heal the sick many times before. That’s why they sent him the message that his dear friend Lazarus was sick. But Jesus waited…he waited for them to put their brother’s cold dead body in a tomb.  He waited for the many people to gather to comfort Mary and Martha.

Even though this had happened, Martha has an amazing and uplifting reaction.  She says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”  With her brother dead in a tomb, her faith does not waver.  She knows who Jesus is.  She knows what he can do.

Then, Jesus says something that you don’t hear at most funerals. And this is the part that piques our interest.  Jesus says, “Your brother will rise.”   And she believed it was true.  She didn’t doubt him for a second, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”   That is what faith in Jesus looks like.  That is what faith in Jesus talks like.  Your faith in him has no reason to doubt the same way Martha’s faith didn’t waver.  Jesus never lies.  He never breaks a promise.  He never does anything that isn’t ultimately for the spiritual and eternal good of his people.

Jesus told Martha and he tells us, that a grave is not sad or lonely or tragic or cruel.  He changes our mind, but Jesus has a way of doing that all the time, doesn’t he?  He changed the way Mary and Martha thought about their brother’s death.  They were sad, but they knew that Jesus would raise him up again and that there would be a reunion in heaven.

They believed Jesus as we believe Jesus.  He changes the way we think about pain or illness.  Instead of being unfair or harsh, they are ways that God keeps us from wandering off.  Jesus changes the way we handle stress.  Instead of annoying or debilitating, we have opportunities to cherish God’s comfort and help others do the same when their own difficulties drag them down.

Jesus even changes the way we think of the life and death.  Listen to what he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”  Have you ever heard anyone else talk that way?  Jesus is telling the world something that changes the way we think.  He says “Martha, I am not just here to give resurrection to a little daughter here, an older son there, and your brother.  Martha, I am the resurrection and I am the life. I am the solution to all those problems that plague your life.  Where death has brought tragedy and sadness, I am the life that never ends.  I am the one who fulfills God’s promises to you.  I am the answer to your questions.”  Jesus tells you that you don’t need to be afraid anymore, and he is the only one who can say that.

But he doesn’t just say it!  Jesus doesn’t go to Bethany only to commiserate and speak words of comfort.  He is sad at the toll death takes on this world, but he doesn’t show up in Bethany to show sympathy.  And he didn’t come into this world to say great things.  Jesus showed up in Bethany and he came to our world to show us what kind of Savior we have.  Watch what The Resurrection and The Life does to prove who he is and what he says.

 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”  Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone… Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

All the problems in Mary and Martha’s life and all the tragedy and trauma of their brother’s death came face to face with The Resurrection and The Life, and it wasn’t even a close fight.  Jesus sent them all away with his all-powerful Word.  He proved his power over death.

My brothers and sisters, Jesus has done the same for you. That’s why you are here right now.  The Resurrection and The Life, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, has changed our minds, our hearts, and our whole lives.  Through faith in him, we have that same power over death.

That’s why Ethan and Courtney brought Gunner here today.  We all know this cute little guy isn’t going to live on this earth forever.  But with Jesus, he has an eternal home in heaven.  Today, that’s the gift God gave Gunner.  He has been changed from death to life.  He’s been clothed with The Resurrection and The Life.  He has the same victory that Jesus has.

That’s why we come here and keep coming back.   That’s why we’ll be back on Wednesday for our last midweek Lent service and a week from now when we wave palm branches around and sing Hosanna.  And that’s why you read your bible to listen to your Resurrection and Life speak his all-powerful Word to you building your faith.  That’s why we stand on Jesus’ foundation, because we know it cannot be broken, not even by death.  That’s why you spend a lot of time and energy and money to support his work and his ministry.  You do all of this for one reason, because you believe everything Jesus said and everything he did.  You believe that Jesus is your resurrection and he is your life!  And he always, ALWAYS, will be!

Now, can we get back to that question that I asked at the beginning for a moment?  What is the greatest place on earth? I’m thinking Jesus has changed your mind a little bit today.  We see where all our passions and desire get us.  We see where all our problems lead.  We see where things like greed, immorality, selfishness – where all sin gets us.  We end up like Lazarus, dead and laid in a grave.  But Jesus has shown you that the problems and tragedies sin has caused in your life don’t have to bother you anymore.  He has displayed his dominance over death.  When a dead man comes out of his tomb alive, that changes things.  In a couple weeks, it won’t be Lazarus that we are talking about.  He eventually had to die all over again.  Instead, we will talk about the one who came back from his own tomb never to die again.  Jesus has the complete and total victory over death.  In two weeks, we will be talking about The Resurrection and The Life who has the eternal triumph so that you and I have a home with him in heaven.  Only Jesus can do that.

So, let’s answer the question: what’s the greatest place on earth? Today, Jesus shows us …

… it’s an empty tomb! Amen.

A RICHES TO RAGS STORY

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Matthew 20

17 Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

The story of Tom Canty is fascinating.  Tom grew up in a rough part of London called Offal Court, but he pined for something better.  He was poor and miserable, an unloved son of an abusive father.  One day, while daydreaming of a better life, he ends up outside the palace in Westminster. A palace guard does not approve of this beggar boy being up by the fence and begins to get rid of the boy.  But another boy from inside the palace fence named Edward stepped in to help Tom and invited him into the palace to play.  As Edward hears how terrible Tom’s life is, he feels sorry for him, but he’s also interested in what life might be like on the other side of the palace fences.  The boys exchange clothes to see what it’s like to walk around, literally, in each other’s shoes.  They notice how they look very similar.  They even have the same birthday.  After a while, they go back oustide still looking like the other.  When Edward, who’s dressed up as Tom, starts telling a guard what to do, the guard throws him out.  Tom winds up in the palace as the prince.  It’s a rags to riches story that never seemed possible.

That story is fiction, written by Mark Twain for his three girls.  However, it does accurately describe what is going on today in the Gospel.  The mother of James and John wanted her sons to have what Tom had.  They did not deserve a place of power.  They were sons of a fisherman from Galilee.  They weren’t headed for great things.  I’m not saying they had a bad family life or that they were miserably poor.  Scripture doesn’t tell us that.  I’m saying fisherman from Galilee don’t get to be rulers of a kingdom that often.  But that’s exactly what mom wanted for her boys.

There’s a part of that story we love.  We like the idea that a mother would go out of her way to try and help her boys.  We like the rags to riches stories.  Whether it’s an athlete who came from a rough childhood or a business mogul who built a huge corporation out of his garage, these stories inspire the masses.

But then there’s the other side of this mother’s request, the part that makes the other ten disciples indignant, really angry.  You can almost hear them say,  “What kind of question is that to ask Jesus?  Seriously James and John, you think you are better than us?  You think you deserve that much power?”  You think you can handle it?  How selfish can you and your mother be?”

That kind of self-centered view seems to describe a lot people.  We can see it all over in our world.  At work, at school, in Walmart, out to eat, on the news, in Hollywood – it’s not hard to notice how selfish people can be.  They want the world to revolve around them.  They only care about themselves and their future.  That’s all that matters.

In that story from Mark Twain, Tom Canty wanted more in life.  He only cared about changing his circumstances.  But this isn’t just something that affects characters in novels or people in our self-obsessed society.  This self-centered ideology is so natural for followers of Jesus, too.  Guess who James and John were?  Guess who their mom was?  They were devoted believers in Jesus. They gave up a lot to be followers of Jesus.  John is the one wrote 5 books of the New Testament under God’s verbal inspiration. We’re not talking about opponents of Jesus here.  And still, they were corrupted by their selfish desires for power.  That was one of the disciples’ ongoing discussions: who was the greatest.

And if you’re saying to yourself right now, “Well, I don’t think that way.  I don’t argue with people about who’s the greatest.  I don’t make the world revolve around me. I don’t ask for positions of power.”  Then I have to ask, you’ve never put yourself first, thought about your preferences over someone else’s, or wished people would treat you the way you wanted?  Or maybe put it this way: would you really want to be in Tom’s position?  Would you really want to be the one who has to give up so much while other people are prospering?  Jesus says “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave…”  Does a servant or slave really sound like a great life?  Would you really like being the doormat for people at work?  Would you really enjoy being the beggar?  NO!  I don’t think anyone of us would mind if life would go a little bit more according to my plan?  It would be nice to have a little more control.  Who would say no to a little switch like the one Tom Canty had in Mark Twain’s novel, instead of begging for money and food and going home to a terrible father, he was served hand and foot as prince of England.

It’s totally natural to think that would be great.  It’s totally natural for the mother of James and John to have a self-centered request for Jesus on behalf of her boys.  It’s totally natural for them to think that they can handle themselves on Jesus right and left.   We are naturally selfish, thinking that we are important and deserve good things.  We are born to care about our needs first.  And that kind of selfishness gets us nowhere with God.  In fact, that kind of selfishness originates in us because that’s exactly the way the devil thinks. He’s the one who tempted our great…grandparents, Adam and Eve, to think they were more important than God. When they gave in, they passed that selfishness down to every generation since. The rags to riches story is exciting and inspiring, but it naturally is just not possible for us.

Remember, however, that Mark Twain’s story is not just about Tom Canty.  It’s also about Edward Tudor, the real prince and son of Henry VIII.  See, he was thrown out of the castle.  At the time it seemed intriguing to him to see what London was really like.  He thought he could handle it, but when he was outside those walls, it wasn’t so great.  He met Tom’s terrible father and experienced the harsh reality of life without privilege.   He learned what it was like to serve rather than be served. He went from riches to rags.

There’s someone else who found out what that was like.  And he’s center stage in the Gospel for today.  Jesus was ruler over creation.  He sat on heaven’s throne, but he left that palace.  He wasn’t thrown out against his will like Edward.  He willingly came to the place of selfish sinners.  He put on our clothes.  He went from riches to rags.  He became lowly to the point of being beaten and mocked and killed as a criminal.

All of that wasn’t for an experiment to see what life was like here.  It wasn’t to set a humble and caring example to show us how to earn God’s love.  Jesus took our place to endure what we could not endure.  He suffered the punishment for sin so that we wouldn’t have to.  He gave his life as the full payment for our debts. The Son of God was not served, but he served us.  He was not treated the way he deserved, and he endured it to give us what we don’t deserve.  Our rags are taken away and replaced with his robes of righteousness.  We have free forgiveness because he served us with his suffering and death.

You know, eventually in Mark Twain’s novel, Edward got back to the castle to find that his father had died and Tom, who everyone thought was Edward, was now the king of England.  Well, (I’m summarizing a lot of this) Edward proved that he was actually the rightful king by providing the Great Seal of England.  Edward is restored to his position as king and he doesn’t punish Tom.  Instead, Edward gives Tom a new position as King’s Ward.  Tom is delighted to be in the King’s service.  And as a result of his time spent as a poor beggar, Edward rules England with more compassion and mercy.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus came back, too.  He went from riches to rags, but he didn’t stay in the rags.  He didn’t remain in the tomb.  He came back to life for us so that we would be helplessly lost.  He made everything right and took his rightful spot on the throne so that we would have a compassionate and merciful ruler for the rest of eternity.

And in his mercy, he gives us a position of service.  We get to be in witnesses of the King of kings.  We get to do helpful and beneficial tasks in service to the Savior of all.  We get to tell people how great Jesus is.  We get to tell people that he went from riches to rags and back again so that we could go from rags to riches.  We get to tell people that Jesus isn’t a mean judge, but a merciful ruler who saves his people from harm.  Every once in a while the work might get hard or even dangerous, but there is nothing to fear with Jesus as our Savior.  He has done away with anything that can hinder or destroy us.  He has freed us from all the selfishness that surrounds us.  He has given us a new way of looking at people, not as obstacles getting in the way of what I want but as souls for whom Christ died.

We get to be involved in this work as individuals and also as a church.  Jesus joins us together in this family of believers where not everyone has the same interests and abilities, but everyone has a job of service to the Savior.  The job is not to be like the mother of James and John, looking for the positions of power.  The job is to serve the Lord.  Maybe it’s with your voice, by singing praises beautifully or inviting those you know to worship or teaching children about their God or praying diligently for so many people.  Maybe it’s with your time to help plan and prioritize our ministry.  Maybe it’s with gifts that make projects and plans possible.  Maybe it’s with your hard work to help take care of our properties.  Maybe it’s with your cooking.

Every one of us has been put into the service of Jesus, because he first served us with his whole life, his suffering and death, and his resurrection.  Now, he rules for us so that we can serve him without fear.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus’ riches to rags story means we have a rags to riches story that never ends.  Amen.