IT TAKES A FATHER’S LOVE

I give Up

SERIES: I GIVE UP… being judgmental

SERMON: Luke 15

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable…

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”

 

Have you met my good friend, Bob?  He’s so judgmental.  This is probably not the kind of characterization you want in life, and yet it’s a label that Christians get all the time.  And from what I can tell, there are many situations where that accusation is unwarranted and false, but at the same time there are also many situations where that accusation against us is right on the money. So, it’s probably a good topic for us to discuss.

God’s Word for today gives us a great opportunity to do just that from “The Lost Chapter.”  No, this isn’t some section of the Bible that was found later on or under odd circumstances.  We can be confident that won’t ever happen, because God has given us everything we need in his Word and his promise is that it will never pass away.  It’s “The Lost Chapter” because Jesus tells three parables right in a row about lost things: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  Today, we’re looking at the last parable of this prodigal, lost son.

First, a little background as to why Jesus told these parables.  It’s in those first couple verses of Luke 15. Jesus’ ministry was always watched by a critical eye.  For three years the religious leaders watched and selfishly muttered as Jesus was kind and compassionate to fisherman, tax collectors, prostitutes and sometimes even foreigners.  They thought if Jesus really was sent by God then he would be partial to the learned men and the strict religious elite, you know, the good ones.

But in Romans 2, God says he does not show favoritism, that he’s not judgmental. Jesus’ work is for all equally, and so he paid attention to the everyone, even those who society considers ‘sinners’.  That doesn’t mean he neglected those who are full of themselves, confident that they are better than others, thinking they are closer to God, because that is also a very clear indicator that a person is a ‘sinner’ in their own self-righteous arrogance.  Jesus’ parable beautifully addresses everyone equally, because I hope you notice that it’s not just the son who went away who was lost.  The son who stayed home was also lost. So, let’s take a look at these two sons.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.  Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.”

This son thinks life with the father is dull and boring.  He sees all the excitement and fun that could be his, if he just got out from the father’s restrictions.  His sinful heart listens to the cry of a society that says, “This life can give you so much more.  Go ahead!  Don’t just look through the windows of your father’s house.  Get out here and join the fun!  Because only out here can your really live life to the full.”

Do you see how that is being judgmental?  You are saying that you get to be the one who decides what is best for you.  You are setting yourself over what your Father in heaven says.  It’s judgmental to look at life with God as if it is missing something, as if God is holding out on you.  It’s judgement to think that the desires of your heart or the call of this world would be better for you than the love and the protection of our heavenly Father.

There’s another bad example of being judgmental in the other son. “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ 

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’”

This son thinks he has been a good boy. He hasn’t looked at life in the father’s house as dull or restrictive. He hasn’t been enticed into all the fun and excitement the world offers.  In fact, he’s been working hard, or slaving away as he says, for his father.  How could it be even close to see who is better and more deserving of the father’s love?

It’s pretty obvious to see the self-righteous, judgmental heart, isn’t it?  You are saying that you have decided what is good and what is not.  You are setting yourself over others.  You are putting confidence in works and looks. It’s judgmental to think for Father in heaven plays favorites like that.  It’s judgmental to look at your life, your obedience, your opinions as the standard rather than the perfect standard God sets for us.  It’s judgmental to be angry when others, who you think are worse, get treatment or privileges that you want or expect.

So both sons have the same problem.  One might seem worse than the other, but both are looking in the wrong spot for what is right.  One is looking out there (society/world) and one is looking in here (heart/head).  Neither is looking to the father.  One is serving his desire for fun and pleasure and one is serving his desire for recognition and reward.  Neither is serving his father.  One is lost far away from the father and one is lost in what looks like a closer position to the father.  Neither is found to be with the father.

That’s what being judgmental does to us.  It either makes you wander into a far-off place or it builds up a wall to God’s grace.  Do you see it in your life?  I sure hope you do, because it’s there.  In this sinful heart it’s there looking for pleasures and excitement that seem to be missing from God’s house.  In this sinful heart it’s there blinding me to the perfect standard God has set and instead setting a new standard that I have set where I should get more blessings and accolades from God than those ‘sinners,’ who should be punished because they are not reaching the standards I have set.  In this sinful heart it’s lurking the same way it was for those two sons.

If you are trying to get rid of this judgmental heart, one thing that will not work is work.  The son who wandered from his father and squandered everything from his father with pleasurable evils thought he could go back and work his way into his father’s grace.  “I am not longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”  The son who stayed and worked tirelessly thought his work had earned him more from his father. “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”

My work does not get rid of sin.  Your work does not get rid of sin.  Our work does not remove the heart that seeks worldly pleasures or selfish recognition. Our work turns us from the younger son into the older son and back again.

But there’s someone else’s work going here, isn’t there?  Do you notice what the younger son says when the worldly pleasures do not satisfy him, he spends everything, and the deep need sets in? How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!  I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”  See, that’s not being judgmental.  Calling sin what the Father calls it is called truth.  Humility and honesty before God and others is called repentance.  Trusting your heavenly Father to do what is best for you, trusting him to deliver you, and trusting him to provide for you is called faith.

Do you notice what happens before this son can even knock on the door and beg for a job? “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” See, this isn’t being judgmental.  God’s love that looks and searches when everyone else says it’s not worth it is called unconditional.  God’s love that does not seek to punish but restore is called mercy.  God’s love that seeks to rebuild what he did not break is called grace.

Do you notice what happens to the pouting older son when he sees the younger brother getting what he thinks should be his? “So his father went out and pleaded with him… ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me and everything I have is yours.’”  See, also here there is no judgment.  God still goes to the proud and self-righteous and begs.  God still goes to the arrogant and shows the bounty of his grace and blessings.  God still goes to the judgmental and shows how his standard is different and better.

Both of these sons wander in different ways, and the father doesn’t play favorites.  He doesn’t view one as worse and the other as better.  He sees how both have their problems, both don’t measure up to the right standard.  Still, his love remains for both.  He desires both to be restored.

That’s the kind of God you have, brothers and sisters.

While sinners like you and me wander off to the desires of the world again and again, God’s kindness does not waver.  He watches and waits patiently, lovingly, graciously.  While sinners like you and me stick our self-righteous noses in the air again and again, God’s kindness does not run out.  He comes to us in Word and sacrament, begging for us to see what he has provided.

And what is that exactly?  God’s kindness and love provided a promise to save us from his judgment.  God’s kindness and love provided a Savior to fulfill all God’s promises.  God’s kindness and love provided forgiveness for our wandering and peace to replace our pride.  God’s kindness and love provided a home for us before we ever asked for it or realized we needed it. God’s kindness and love did all the work to get rid of our judgmental hearts.  Jesus was punished like the lost and wayward should be.  He was punished like the self-righteous and arrogant should be.  Jesus gave us the place in God’s home, not because we were all out of options, not because we are so good at repenting, not because we meet his perfect standards, but because God’s kindness and love finishes what he started.

To stop being judgmental, to give all that up, Jesus doesn’t point us to either of these sons in the parable, does he?  He shows us it takes a father’s love.  He shows us what the father is willing to do for his children.  That is the Father you have, brothers and sisters, one who showed you what love and kindness is and wants nothing more than you to enjoy it forever in his heavenly home.

When you are trying to be kind and compassionate, when you are trying to be humble and honest, when you are trying not to focus on your own standards and opinions, remember that your heavenly Father did all the work for you.  Remember that changing our lives does not cause God to love us, but rather his love causes us to change.  God grant it.  Amen.

JESUS CHANGES THE HEADLINES

I give Up

SERIES: I GIVE UP… a false sense of safety

SERMON: Luke 13

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”

 

Blood was a very normal sight for the Jewish worshipers.  Bulls, calves, goats, sheep, even some birds were regularly and daily slaughtered for offerings at the altar.  It would not make the headlines at all that blood was being shed at the Temple.  And it would not be the most shocking headline to see that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had found some more lawbreakers who needed to be executed.  The government kept a firm hand on the people and would not tolerate disorder.

But this time it was different.  This was the type of thing that would make your mouth drop open in shock and your head shake in disgust if you were a Jew. The headline was “Blood mixed at the altar.”  Some people from Galilee were executed while they were at the Temple courtyard making sacrifices, so their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices.  It’s the kind of headline that got everyone talking.

And that’s not the only one that Jesus brings to our attention today.  Another tragedy that rocked the area was to hear that 18 lives were lost because of a terrible accident south of the Temple at the pool of Siloam.  That headline read: “18 innocent bystanders crushed in tower collapse.”

It doesn’t take a lot to imagine those kinds of headlines.  We see these types of tragedies and killings every day.  We probably have a similar reaction, too.  Why do bad things happen?  Why all the crime?  Why the accidents?  Why the diseases and hospital stays? Why the chaos as if this world has no idea what is good and what is bad, what is up and what is down?

Do you want the answer to these types of questions?  I know you do.  It’s actually a really simple one: Sin. Now, I’ve said that before, and I’d like to have a more concrete answer that you can use when you are seeing the headlines.  I’d like to clear up all the uncertainties, but God gives us only this one simple answer: sin has ruined this world.  Its grip squeezes everyone and everything: people, politics, weather, crime.  Sin is like radiation that permeates all things and brings destruction and devastation.  I can’t get rid of it.  You can’t get rid of it.  Sin will linger like a dark cloud over the earth until the voice of God says, “ENOUGH!  This is the end.  It’s time bring our people home forever.”

So, if sin is the only answer for the terrible headlines, both way back then and now, then we have to give up a false sense of safety, because not everything is ok for us.  Sin is part of my life and yours and that makes us guilty.  You and I cannot deny that, and it won’t work anyways. When I see the headlines, however, I don’t want to be lumped into the same category as the killers, rapists, and thieves. I’m guessing you don’t either.  I don’t even want to be in the category with people who are too selfish or have any other kind of undesirable trait.

And so I try to rationalize.  We all do it.  We say things like, “I would never do anything that bad. I’m glad I’m not like that.”  When we think that way, we are making levels of sin.  We put really bad people – like those who get a death sentence as Jesus brought up– way down here.  We put the pretty bad screw-ups next.  We put the foolish and selfish next up.  Then, maybe we make a category for ourselves.  We know we’ve made some mistakes, we know that we don’t always have the right attitude, and there are some pet sins that are hard to give up, but we like to think we’re not that bad.  Finally, we might even be honest enough to make a category of really good people above us.

We are the ones who naturally rationalize like this because we are human.  We rationalize because we have to find some way to cope with the guilt of sin.  We have to find a way to be safe before God.  And so we try to rationalize sin and minimize it.  When we look in the mirror we want to see someone good staring back at us. We think if we can do that well enough then we can find our way into God’s good graces.  If we can be better than others and work hard enough, then we can be right in God’s sight.

Jesus knows that we do this.  He sensed it when he was talking to these people.  So, he asked a couple questions that get to the heart of the issue. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  …Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”  We would naturally and logically answer, “Well, yeah!  Bad people get what they deserve.”  Jesus answers these two questions much differently than we would. “Do you think some are worse sinners or more guilty than you? I tell you, no! These levels of sin that we make to look good in front of God don’t work at all.  Turns out God doesn’t have any levels for sin.  You either have it or you don’t.  Period.

Brothers and sisters, in us Jesus sees sin. You and I can try to come up with a way to cope with our guilt, you and I can try to get rid of it, hide it, or explain it away.  We can try to make ourselves safe, but you and I cannot change the truth.  We don’t carry out God’s demands. We don’t have ability to be right in God’s sight. So then, we are not the kind of people that God accepts into heaven.  Sinful people are the ones who go to hell.

However, Jesus says the headlines don’t have to be doom and gloom for us.  He says, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”  So there’s our solution!  If we repent, we can avoid the whole mess. But what if I have forgotten to repent since this morning?  There are a lot of sins that I do every day, not to mention my sinful nature makes my whole life unacceptable to God.  I would almost have to walk around every second of the day saying sorry to God. And what if my repentance is not sincere enough?  Would it still count?  And what about unbelievers, how can they repent if they don’t know God?  Why would they say sorry to Jesus if they don’t believe in him as their only Savior?  Do you see how what kind of trouble we are in? If repentance is something we have to do to avoid hell or if heaven is based on how well I repent, then I’m still going to perish.

This is the point of the sermon that is like looking at headlines.  Our mouths hang open a little bit in shock. We want to stop listening, shaking our heads in utter disbelief.  We don’t know how our situation could be this bad.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He goes on to tell this little parable of a vineyard owner, who wanted his fig tree to be fruitful.  That makes total sense.  If you plant a fruit tree in your yard, I’m guessing you want to pick some fruit in the future.  Well, the owner didn’t find any fruit for THREE WHOLE YEARS!  He calls that tree a waste.  The owner wants it cut down.

Ok, so that doesn’t change anything, does it?  That news is still bad for us.  God is the owner and if he doesn’t see fruits of faith in your life, then he wants to cut you down.  But here’s where Jesus starts to change the headlines for us.  The gardener steps in at this bleak moment and says, “Leave it alone for one more year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.”

Jesus sees the situation very clearly.  He sees the sins in our life.  He sees how we try to rationalize them with different levels. He sees how we think maybe there’s some way I can help God fix it.  But he knows there’s nothing we can do. He knows that we can’t fix our situation by trying harder, praying more, or being sincerer in repentance. He knows we are lacking the righteousness God is looking for.  Jesus knows we deserve to be cut down and burned up forever.

And that makes him go to work to change our life.  He doesn’t want your story to end this way.  So, Jesus himself starts to work on you. He’s the only who can do this because he is the only won who is right in God’s sight.  He’s the only one who can do the job perfectly. So he picks up the shovel with his nail-pierced hands and starts digging. He digs out the excuses.  He digs out the sin.  He digs out the guilt. He digs out the rationalizing.  Making different levels for sin is not going to change anything for you.  Looking in yourself for righteousness because you aren’t that bad is not going to make you fruitful. Jesus digs all that bad soil away. That’s when he hits the roots, the stark reality is that you are not bearing fruit for God and you are dying in sin.  That leaves us feeling kind of exposed and raw, weak and helpless. That makes us realize we need some serious, life-changing help. That leads us to confess that we are not safe and we need serious, saving help.  That’s when Jesus starts shoveling on the nutrients and the fertilizer. He fills up the gaping holes around the roots where sin used to be with his forgiveness.  He loads on his love in place of the guilt.  He packs on his promises in exchange for the excuses. He replaces our rationalizing with his perfect righteousness. Then, he keeps watering with his Word and waits.

Did you notice how long the work takes? It’s not one time.  It’s not a couple days a week for a while.  It’s every day for a whole year.  If you want fruitful results tomorrow, don’t be disappointed if there isn’t any fruit yet.   Jesus is doing the work underground at your roots first.  Jesus is feeding you and strengthening you.  He’s getting you strong and healthy. And that might take some time.  But don’t give up.  Jesus isn’t. He’s not ever going to give up on you.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus is working on you.  He is working on you with his law and gospel.  He is working on you with repentance and faith. This means he changes our bad headlines.  He changes the focus from our own miserable mistakes and failing fixes.  He changes our attention, so that we see him and everything he has done and still does for us.

Do you think that it will work when Jesus does all these things to you?  Jesus doesn’t finish the story.  He doesn’t tell us what happens.  But if God planted the tree and if Jesus works on that tree to get rid of the bad and nurture and feed it with his goodness, then what do you think the headline will be?  “Sinner is saved.”  “Guilty is innocent.” “Fruit instead of fire.”  That’s you.  That’s me.  That’s our headline through the work of Jesus Christ.  To him be thanks and praise forever. Amen.

GETTING RID OF THE TROUBLE WITH GREED

SERIES: I GIVE UP…the root of all kinds of evil

I give Up

Joshua 7

2 Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, “Go up and spy out the region.” So the men went up and spied out Ai.
3 When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.” 4 So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, 5 who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.
6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. 7 And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! 8 Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? 9 The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”
10 The LORD said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.
13 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them.
14 “ ‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe the LORD chooses shall come forward clan by clan; the clan the LORD chooses shall come forward family by family; and the family the LORD chooses shall come forward man by man. 15 Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the LORD and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!’ ”
16 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen.
19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the LORD, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”
20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the LORD, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels, I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”
22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. 23 They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the LORD.
24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today.”
Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor h ever since.

 

“Oh, we got trouble, right here in River City! Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for pool!”  That’s a lyric from Professor Harold Hill in the famous musical… anybody know?  The Music Man.  (Stick around for Bible study today and I’ll tell you the story of how I know that)  In the musical, Harold Hill goes from town to town to selling instruments and putting together a band for kids.  The catch is that he’s not a music professor.  He just wants their money and then bolts town.  What’s ironic about the song is that Harold Hill and not the townsfolk is the one who’s got the trouble.

Today, we’ve got trouble, too.  Literally, that’s what the name of this valley is; Achor means “trouble.”  And what exactly is the trouble?  It’s not that the boys of Israel were getting together at the local billiards hall to play pool.  The trouble is the same thing Harold Hill was consumed by.  It goes by many names: greed, materialism, coveting, as the Bible calls it “the root of all kinds of evil.”

If you’ve ever seen the Music Man, then you know that Professor Harold Hill was caught in his act.  For him, the punishment was being handcuffed and forced to lead the unrehearsed and untalented River City Boys’ Band in a song.  It went terribly, but it’s a fictional story where everybody always lives happily ever after.  The parents are all happy that their kids were part of something and had an exciting few weeks.  Harold is released.  He gets the girl.  And the rest is history.

I guess after hearing this section of Joshua 7, you know that the same cannot be said for Achan.  It’s a troubling history to read, but I’m happy God included it in his Word.  Troubling stories like these would not be in the Bible, if God’s Word was a collection of made up fables and feel good stories meant to teach us some moral lessons or motivate a religious following.  God doesn’t hide it, however.  God doesn’t cover up some of the dirty details of human history.  He doesn’t change things so that his Word is less offensive to study.  He gives us the honest truth, with all the troubling details, so that we will see what we need to give up and what we need him to give us.

If I were to ask you to tell me anything about Achor, Ai, or Achan, what could you come up with?  This isn’t the first lesson that we teach in Sunday School, that’s for sure.  But what if I asked you to tell me anything about Joshua and Jericho?  Maybe that’s in your wheelhouse.  The context is always crucial.

Joshua was the man appointed to lead Israel into the Promised Land after Moses died.  It was called the Promised Land because God promised to give it all to his people.  The land, the cities, the crops, the animals, the riches, all of it would be theirs.  But God also said, “The first city that you take is for me.”  That first city was Jericho, with the high walls that came a tumbaling down after the people marched around the city for 7 days and then blew their horns on the final day.  Because God said, “This first city belongs to me,” they weren’t allowed to take any plunder from it.  Instead, God told them to burn it to the ground.

 

Well, everyone listened except this man, Achan, who took a fancy robe, some silver, and gold.  He took it back with him and buried it in the ground.  It seems like the crime is not a huge deal.  No victims because it was all going to be burned anyways.  The stuff wasn’t worth a fortune, maybe about $25,000.  Why does this cause such trouble?

First of all, God told the Israelites not to do it.  And if you haven’t figured it out by now, when God says anything, he is serious about it.  God never has said something that is kinda, sorta important, take it or leave it.  Therefore, it was an offense that violated what God said.

Secondly, Achan’s sin of coveting and greed uncovers the root of a serious problem. See, God had promised the Israelites everything in Canaan.  He had demonstrated his power to keep his promise by giving them Jericho.  By asking for them not to take anything from Jericho for themselves, he was giving the Israelites the opportunity to trust him to deliver on his promise the rest of the way.  In and of itself, God says coveting and greed is wrong, but they also have deep roots that don’t just lead to sinning with possessions but also sins of priorities and trust.  Achan was not just caught wanting and taking something that God told everyone not to.  He was caught loving things more than God. Achan was caught trying to hide from God.  And Achan was caught trusting himself and worldly passions more than God.  So, it wasn’t about the robe, the silver, and the gold.  It was the hearts of his people that God cared about.

God cares deeply for your heart.  He wants you to be with him, both right now in your life and for eternity.  And so he says, “Me first!”  When it comes to your time, your energy, your relationships, and your money, God knows how easily those things can take hold in your heart.  He knows how a little bit of greed or materialism can sink deep roots into your heart and life and take up more space than they should.  God needs to be first.

Some might accuse God of being selfish or petty.  Sometimes that thought might cross our minds.  We might say, “No one is going to be hurt if I’m a little greedy, no one is going to find out if I’m too materialistic sometimes, there are no victims when it comes to coveting.”   That’s exactly how sin works; sometimes it can make so much sense.  And that’s the danger.

Here’s the thing: God does not need your money.  He owns everything already.  But God does want your heart.  God wants your trust, because trust is about more than your schedule for the week, your relationships, and your finances.  Trust ultimately impacts our eternity.  There is only room in our hearts for one object of trust.  It’s either going to be God or something else, and something else always leads to death.

The devil works hard to get us to misplace our trust.  To do that he doesn’t have to get us to denounce Jesus, stop reading the Bible, or never come back to church again.  He can use something that seems so harmless like materialism, coveting, and greed to sink deep roots into our hearts that crowd out our full and complete trust in God.  It’s no wonder, then, that God demands to be first and why he was so upset with Achan’s sin.

Did God go a little overboard, though?  Achan, his family, his animals, his possessions and all that he had were taken to this valley of Achor and stoned to death, then burned, and covered with a large pile of rocks.  But before that do you see how careful God is with Achan?  He didn’t just strike him dead in his tent. God went through this long process of identifying the tribe of Judah, the clan of Zerah, the family of Zimri, and then the guilty man, Achan.  God was being patient with a sinner, urging repentance.  And God’s patience helped Achan arrive there. “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel…” Notice that his confession is not directed to Joshua or Israel, and there’s not a word of passing blame, minimizing his mistake, or justifying himself.  Achan acknowledges what he has done against the Lord and confesses everything in detail.

The root of all kinds of evil is going to lead to evil. Sin is going to grow more sin.  When it shows up here (in this section of Joshua) and when it shows up here (my heart), it’s never a good thing.  God says the wages of sin is death.  So, Achan died because of sin.  That’s the same reason I am going to die.  That’s the same reason you are going to die.  But my death and yours is just going to be one day.  For all who are turned away from sin by God’s loving patience, for all who live in repentance and faith, for all who trust God above all, the suffering of death is just one day.

That’s what Joshua said to Achan. “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.  There is nothing in these words about his eternity.  Now, we can’t say with certainty what was in Achan’s heart, we don’t know for sure where Achan ended up, but we know that God wants people to be with him.  We know that God was trying to accomplish that by leading him to repentance.

Trouble today is far better than trouble for eternity.  Isn’t that the way God still deals with us?  Good days, success and blessings are wonderful gifts from God.  Be thankful when you have them, but those things aren’t God’s number one priority for us.  God wants us to be happy with him forever in heaven.  Very often a dose of trouble today can go a long way in getting us to remember that.  Sadness, hardships, and the like shows us that we are in a broken world and we are broken people.  The time for God’s forgiveness, the time for us to trust him is today.  As much as it hurts God to see us suffering, he will put up with it if that means he will be with us for eternity.

But maybe you’ve noticed something about this sermon so far.  We’ve heard about sin that so often sends it’s roots out into my heart and takes hold of me turning my trust in God to trusting myself or my stuff.  We’ve heard how that caused trouble for Achan and for all of Israel.  We’ve heard about the trouble that happened on that day in the Valley of Achor for that one guilty man.  But how do we get out of trouble?  How do we give up this sin?  How do we get what we desperately need from God?

Well, there was another man who had a day of trouble.  He didn’t deserve any of it.  It wasn’t forced on him, but he willingly took it.  And he did so that we would not have an eternity of pain and trouble.  Jesus, the perfect Son of God, took our troubles on himself and suffered our punishment.  The root of all kinds of evil wrapped around him and held him in its clutches so that it wouldn’t hold us anymore.  Jesus went into the valley of trouble for us.  That is how God took care of our trouble, so that we can have joy for eternity at his side.

Do you want to give up sin?  Do you want to give up the coveting, the greed, the materialism, the root of all kinds of evil?  This is how!  This is how God did it.  Jesus fought off every temptation.  He fought off the devil.  He was the perfect One, the righteous One, the holy One.  And he gave it all to us.  His death takes away all of those sins and all of those roots that try to crowd out our faith and trust in Jesus.  His death removed all of them and replaces them with his perfection.  Your sins are gone through faith in him.  God gives you a new life through Jesus, apart from sin.

Let me say that again!  APART FROM SIN!  That’s how to give up the materialism.  It’s not fear that you might end up like Achan.  It’s not trying to earn something from God.  It’s that the material cannot give you what Jesus does.  He gives you a life apart from sin.  He gives you an eternity apart from trouble.

God cares about your heart so much that Jesus came to save you from those roots that lead to evil.  God cares about your heart so much that he patiently leads you to repentance.  God cares about your heart so much that he has an eternity free from trouble waiting for you.  Amen.

MERCY IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE

makings of ministry

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

 

I remember very vividly 4 or 5 years ago an older man coming up to me in the church basement, saying, “Pastor, that devotion you wrote for the newsletter is crazy.  That has to be impossible!”

If you thought last week’s message was shocking, what are you thinking now as we take a look at how Jesus continued this sermon in Luke 6?

If you remember, last week Jesus said that everything in your life is at peace and going well, that you are blessed when you are poor, hungry, sad, and persecuted.  His purpose for saying that was to show us that the proper priorities for life are not earthly possessions and worldly desires but a spiritual relationship with Jesus, a heart of faith, and the eternal home of heaven.  I don’t need to rehash the whole thing, you can go online and check out the video on our website/ Facebook.

This week, however, Jesus takes it up a notch, don’t you think?  Maybe you are thinking that the older gentleman I spoke to before church that day was right, what Jesus says here is impossible.  I mean, there are plenty of places in the Bible where God says something that causes people to scratch their heads.  If God has put faith into your hearts that doesn’t mean all the questions just disappear, does it?  If you trust and rely on Jesus then there is still room to grow in his Word.  And today, that’s what we need to do, because what Jesus says seems to be impossible.

Let’s just summarize it:  Love your enemies.  Love the way Jesus uses it is not even close to love the way our world uses it.  Our world says ‘love’ when it talks about pets, food, sports teams, and famous people.  That’s not love to Jesus.  Because love is not selfish.  Love is not a fuzzy feeling.  Love is not lust. Love is not following someone on Instagram or Facebook.  Love is not wanting more of something for yourself.  Love is making a sacrifice.  Love is caring enough to forgo something that would benefit you so that someone else can benefit.  Love is serving selflessly the needs of others.  Love is compassion.  And the only way we could ever know love is because God is love.

And when Jesus says ‘enemies,’ he’s not talking about the people who aren’t friends, like relatives you don’t know very well, neighbors you haven’t met, coworkers that you don’t really talk to except the casual “hello.”  Jesus is talking about the relatives who bad mouth you to the whole family and try to turn them against you.  Jesus is talking about the neighbors who are actively and maliciously trying to make your time in the neighborhood worse.  Jesus is talking about the bullies at school.  He’s talking about the coworkers who want you gone for good.  Jesus is talking about the people you know who are out to get you.  He says, “You need to love them, sacrifice what’s good for you for their sake, do good things for them, pray for them, and let it go if they hurt you or steal from you.”

As Jesus says later, it is really easy to love people who love you.  Even sinners, the real lowlifes, the castoffs of society, the ones who are looked down on, even they know how to love and care about the ones who are loving and caring towards them.  Jesus says, “What credit is that to you” three times.  You aren’t impressing him or unbelievers when you only care about the people who show they care for you first.  Jesus wants all who are listening to him to understand that the goal is to show love, do good, and be generous to people who do not deserve it.

Let’s just be clear here.  Jesus doesn’t say that evil is good.  He doesn’t say that we just have to suck it up when terrible things happen.  Jesus is not saying that if you are being abused, raped, or your life is in danger that you should do nothing. But he is saying that it is not your job to get even, ever.  It is not your responsibility to retaliate or avenge any wrongs that you have to endure.  If that seems weak and humble and lowly, good.  Those are defining characteristics that Jesus wants you to have.  Just last week, if you remember the Apostle Paul reminded us that when we are weak, then we are strong because we are relying on God’s grace and Christ’s power to work in us and through us.

Jesus goes on later in verse 37 to warn against being judgmental.  This is not at all talking about sin.  So, you better know the difference.  Sin is what God says is wrong.  Look at his commandments; disobeying them is sin. Period.  But living with the hypocritical attitude that puts all your personal preferences, opinions, and ideas on par with God’s moral code cannot be condoned.   That’s what Pharisees did, and Jesus bluntly says here, you cannot judge people that way.  Your default setting must be compassion, forgiveness, and love.  If you aren’t willing to live that way every day, then why should God treat you any different.  He should judge you, condemn you, and destroy you.

And finally, in verse 38 Jesus says to be generous.  Think of measuring out wheat here.  Jesus is saying use a good honest scale, press it down a couple times and shake it together so that you aren’t skimping at all, and even let it run over a little bit.  Having a generous heart will not only be good for others, because as Jesus says, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  In essence, if you are generous, then others and God will be generous to you.

This all sounds fine and good, until you realize that Jesus is not saying this is what you should expect from others.  He is not saying that you should wait for other people to treat you this way.  Then, and only then, you can go ahead and treat them well.  No, that’s not the golden rule.  Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  “Treat others the way I want them to treat me?  I think that is putting the wrong person first.  I just don’t think others are going to treat me the way I want them to, so I’ll just change that a little bit so that I make sure I am not being neglected.”  But that’s not the way Jesus wants it.  God never puts himself first, so do you really think it’s excusable to put yourself first?

What that man said to me years ago in a church basement kind of sounds right on the money.  Jesus is describing and teaching a way of life that seems impossible for us.  And if it seems downright wrong to you, then how could you ever be a child of God?  Because God’s children want to be like their perfect Father.  They want to listen to their Lord and Savior.  They serve willingly because the Spirit lives in their hearts.

Brothers and sisters, it is impossible for us to find our way into God’s family by following what Jesus says here.  But what is impossible for us is not only possible for God, but it is exactly what he does for you.  Right there in the middle of verse 35 Jesus says it so well, “the Most High…is kind to the ungrateful and wicked… your heavenly Father is merciful.” Mercy is another one of those beautiful Bible words that explores a concept so foreign to us that only God can show us what it is.

Think of a gunman who shoots up a school full of kids, think of the sexual predator, think of the worst bully, think of your fiercest enemies.  You kind of want to see them suffer.  They have ruined so many lives, they need to know what it is like.

That’s not the way God sees it.  He sees someone who is ungrateful and wicked but who needs kindness and love.  He sees someone who deserves punishment for all the wrongs they have done, but he doesn’t do it.  He sees a sinner who needs a Savior.  God sees everything that happens, and he has the love to forgo any punishment.  He does not thirst for blood.  The psalmist tells us, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” [1] That’s mercy.  It sounds utterly impossible for us, but not for God.   Instead of giving us the very well-deserved punishment for sin, which is called hell, his grace sent Jesus.

And what exactly did Jesus do. Well, it’s not like we were on his side.  Sin makes us hostile enemies of God.  By nature we are born on the wrong side of that relationship.  Jesus did come here to find all the people who were on God’s side so that he could save the ones who earned it.  No, Jesus came to a world full of enemies.  And he came here to love us, not wanting his own personal gain but caring and sacrificing himself for us.  He came here not to judge us and condemn us, but to forgive us.  He didn’t come to see how much he could get out of us, but he came here to give us everything he had.  He didn’t love the loveable, because the loveable do not exist.  Instead, he loved us so much, that he died to make us loveable to God and heirs of his kingdom.  God’s mercy didn’t punish us.  His grace sent Jesus to take the punishment for us.  God’s mercy doesn’t send us to hell.  His grace gives us the gifts of forgiveness, life, salvation through Jesus, and the faith to hold on to him. God’s mercy and grace is the only way we have eternal life with God in heaven.

God’s mercy and grace is also the only way we can have his kind of life here on earth.  What Jesus says today sounds impossible.  “Love your enemies…Do to others as you would have them do to you.” But it’s not impossible for him.  That is exactly what he did for us.  And when he put the Spirit in your heart, when he took up residence in your life, don’t you think he gave you the abilities to carry out this God-pleasing life?  Don’t you think that faith in Jesus makes you different now?  Don’t you think that God’s love has worn off on you a little bit so that you can look at others in a new way?

Of course it has.  Love, good, prayer, humility, forgiveness, generosity… where else do you think this world should find those attributes than the children of the God who shows us exactly what those things are?  And that is exactly what makes our ministry here so powerful.  We have the God of unmatched mercy.  We have the God of generous grace.  We have the Savior of selfless service.  So, that is what our lives and our ministry will look like.

That man said I was crazy and it must be impossible.  It’s not at all a surprising statement.  Do you know what I told him?  I said, “It sure is impossible for us, but not for Jesus. And guess where he is right now?”  Do you know that answer to that?  Through faith, Jesus is right here (heart) and here (in the Word) and here (among us).  So, that means with God’s unmatched mercy in us, we can love our enemies. God grant it.  Amen.

 

[1] Psalm 103:10

WHAT’S YOUR FILTER? for fishing?

makings of ministry

Luke 5

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NO LIMITS TO CHRIST’S LOVE

makings of ministry

John 2

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS

 

Light in the Darkness

Luke 2:41-52

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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