DON’T MISS THE LIGHT

epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

 

 

On December 3, 1992, a 22 year-old British engineer named Neil Papworth used his computer to send a message to the Vodafone network and the phone of Richard Jarvis.  The message read, “Merry Christmas.”

Now, 20 years later, you don’t need to be a brainy engineer, a fancy computer program, nor a specialized network.  You just need a cell phone and you can send one of the 6 billion text messages that go out every day in America.  Some of the texts we send are important, some are not…at all.  Some are clear and some are so abbreviated and emojied that it’s a wonder anyone can read or understand.

We are here today for the Epiphany festival.  It’s a celebration of God sending a “Merry Christmas” message.  But he didn’t use a text message.  He didn’t make a phone call.  Social media wasn’t big enough.  Local news media couldn’t handle this story.  Those are all far too small for the eternal God.  No! When God wanted to tell the world that Jesus was born, he put something in the sky.  He made a celestial body that was maybe 1.4 million km across, 1.9 million plus another 23 zeros kg, burning with the power of nuclear fusion, able to be seen not just on this planet but across galaxies.  God didn’t do something small to announce the birth of the Savior like an email or text.  God put a star in the sky.

King Herod didn’t notice that light.  Even though it was shining for the whole world to see, Herod was one of the millions who was too wrapped up in his own life to spot it.  The “king of the Jews” has other things to worry about, like taking care of his throne.  See, Herod was not a Jew; he was placed as the puppet-king for the Roman government.  He had to try and keep the peace with a nation that wasn’t thrilled with outsiders. Let’s just say maintaining his position as “king of the Jews” consumed him.

And for all his hard work, his many advancements and public projects, history calls him, Herod the Great. However, God does not.  You see, Herod didn’t care about what God had to say. He didn’t listen to the prophecies in the OT Scriptures and he didn’t notice the star in the sky. All he cared was his throne.  With a crazed paranoia about threats to his reign, Herod killed his wife, 3 sons, his mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and hundreds more.  He was a ruthless tyrant who did anything to keep his position.  But that’s what powerful people do when they get nervous; they take matters into their own hands.

No wonder Matthew tells us King Herod was disturbed when the news from the Magi reached him.  He had done some unthinkable things to keep his throne and was not going to give it up.  That’s why all the people of Jerusalem were unsettled with him.  They didn’t know what he would do with the news from the Magi that there was another “king of the Jews.”

Isn’t it interesting that when Herod needed answers, who did he turn to?  He didn’t go looking for the political analysts of the region.  He didn’t ask his Roman superiors.  He went to the Jewish people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, to people who knew God’s prophecies and promises.  Even though they had been in his kingdom the whole time, it wasn’t until his throne came into question that he called the religious leaders together for answers.

These were the men who knew the Scripture, chapter and verse.  They knew it backwards and forwards.  And yet it seems like these religious leaders where in the same boat as Herod. They didn’t even notice the bright light shining in the darkness, did they?  God’s promised newborn king was born in Bethlehem, just as they had learned from all their reading, and they missed it.  Only shepherds found him wrapped up and lying in a manger.  When those foreigners showed up and said that the new king was born, the religious leaders didn’t react like they cared too much.  They answered Herod’s request by repeating the prophecy about his birth place, but that was it.  They didn’t even ask to go along with the Magi. These religious men knew what God had said and were actually waiting for God’s promise to come true, but what they were looking for it to be huge, not with some insignificant, barnyard birth.  They figured if anyone would know when God’s Savior had come that they would be the first to tell the people.

We know about religion and the Bible, too, don’t we?  We love the Christmas narrative. We enjoy hearing those prophecies and promises.  But even though we know what Matthew, Luke, and Isaiah say about Christ’s birth, turns out just knowing God’s Word doesn’t mean it has a home in your heart.

The religious leaders knew God’s prophecies really well, they were the experts, but they still missed his star and didn’t seem to care.  Sometimes we miss it, too.  Knowing about God’s Word or knowing the right things to say during a worship service doesn’t mean that you always notice the bright light shining in darkness of sin.  Just showing up for worship here and there or having your name in a church directory doesn’t mean you are good to go with God.

Sometimes we can even be as bad as Herod.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting you in the category of someone who wants to wipe Jesus off the map.  I’m not saying you don’t have time for Jesus; you are in church today.  But sometimes we might sound a little like King Herod when we fake it just a little bit, when our lips move but our hearts aren’t interested. Remember what Herod said the Magi, Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.

Our attitude is similar sometimes, isn’t it? We say things like: Jesus, I’m with you on Sunday morning, but you’re not coming with me to work.  That isn’t the place for you. Jesus, I will be on your side when I pray, but you’re not coming with me on my date Friday night.  You won’t be happy. Jesus, I love you most of the time, but I’m really really busy right now.  Jesus, I am so thankful for you, but not when you keep asking to be the highest priority in my life.  Jesus, I will give you my gifts, but I won’t be generous or happy about it.

For us, sometimes we miss the light like Herod and those religious leaders.  We can be too consumed with our own lives to be aware of what God is doing.  You see, God wants to have all of you, your whole life.  God doesn’t want his Word to visit your heart every once in a while, he wants his Word to live and grow in your hearts.  He wants to change the way you live.  Getting your attention off of earthly pleasures, he wants you to have lasting comfort and hope.  God takes the confusion and selfishness away.  He stops the suffering and the pain. God doesn’t want to give you rules, but freedom.  He doesn’t want to keep you in darkness, but open your eyes to the light of life.  Herod was too selfish.  The religious leaders were too conceited.

But the Magi, those foreigners from the east, they didn’t miss God’s light shining in the darkness.  We don’t know if there were 2 or 3 or 23.  I don’t think 3 men would pack up their camels and make the trek across hundreds of miles of scorching desert by themselves.  People tend to think of 3 because there were 3 gifts.  But we do know that they weren’t Jewish or living in a Jewish land.  They were probably from Babylon, more than 600 hundred miles east from Jerusalem.  In fact, out of all the people Matthew tells us about today, these guys knew the least about Jews and Jewish kings.  And yet, the star was beckoning them to find out more.

Why? What would possess them to make a long journey across a huge desert?  God did.  God’s message intervened.  They wouldn’t have known that the new King of the Jews was born unless God had put the star in the sky.  They wouldn’t have known to go to Bethlehem unless God had told the prophets to write the place down generations beforehand. They wouldn’t have found him unless God made that star go on ahead of them until it stopped over house where toddler Jesus was.  They would not have brought their best gifts, if God had not brought his King to our world.

The foreign Magi were overjoyed to see God’s light.  They had to go.  They had to worship the king.  That’s the natural response to God’s love and this amazing gift.  They didn’t miss the chance to worship their king because God hadn’t kept him hidden.  God gave his word, put the plan into action, set the star in the sky and brought them to Bethlehem.

Friends, God has done the same for you.  God found a way to make the light of Christ shine for you.  He found a way to give lawless people like us the kind of ruler we needed.  Not a king who makes rules, but a king who gives freedom.  Not a king of hidden secrets, but a king of unveiled truth.  Jesus is the one who came here, not just for some Jewish shepherds or Gentile Magi, but for all people.  He is the one who lived in the bright light of perfection to save us from our darkest enemies.  He is the King who opened the gates to a kingdom that lasts forever.  God then found a way to put this message in your ears.  He found a way to shatter the darkness in your heart with the brilliant light of his gospel.

So if God treated us like the Magi, giving us the light shining in the darkness, doesn’t that mean we can respond like the Magi?  Don’t get me wrong.  God’s message today is the same as it was for the Magi. The Savior is here for all people everywhere.  Doesn’t that also mean that God wants us be like the Magi, as well?  Can’t we open our lips with consistent worship and thanksgiving?  Can’t Jesus’ light get us off our butts the same way it moved the Magi?  Can’t we bring our best gifts to the King?

Of course!  God’s message brought us into the same light as the Magi.  And if it’s true that light and darkness have nothing in common, then we can live in the light. But maybe you’re thinking, “It’s not that simple.”  Maybe you’re asking yourself, “What can I do? What can I do if I don’t feel welcome because I don’t have the right name?  What if I don’t talk or act like everyone else? What can I do if I don’t fit in with all the other people?  Don’t I need a certain kind of ”

Well, take another look at the Magi.  They weren’t Jewish.  They didn’t look like anyone in Jerusalem.  They didn’t sound the same or act the same.  They did not have the right names. They didn’t fit in at all, but it didn’t stop them.  Because when God puts the light of Christ in your life, when God brings you into his family, you don’t need excuses.  You don’t worry about what people might think of you at work.  You don’t try to find ways to hide the light.  God’s message gets rid of our selfishness, our pride, and our excuses.  The light that Jesus shines makes us like the Magi.  We look for opportunities to worship.  We look for ways to serve and obey.  We joyously bring gifts to honor him. We search for dark spots where we can shine God’s light.

Friends, don’t miss the light today. Your Savior King is here.  He’s yours yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. Nothing can change that. Jesus’ light shines on you for the good days or forgives you on the bad days.  Jesus empowers you when you’re strong and builds you up when you’re weak.  So don’t miss your opportunities to shine the light that he put in your heart. Don’t miss your chances to marvel like the Magi.

Amen.

 

 

 

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HE IS GOD’S GIFT

what-child-is-this

We don’t know the exact day it happened.  God doesn’t tell us, but we know Jesus was born.  That is a historical fact.  And that’s why you are here today.  We have Constantine to thank for that. It was the year 336 and Constantine wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ rather than all the other celebrations going on around the same time –  Hanukah and pagan winter solstice festivities to name a couple. Well, as the Emperor of the Roman Empire and a Christian, he could make that call.  So he did.  And here we are.  It sounds simple enough: pick a day, call it Christ’s Mass, or Christmas, and let’s celebrate Jesus’ birth.

But we’ve turned it into this commercialized train doing warp speed down the tracks, and nobody is going to stop it.  Christmas has exploded, and not in a good way.  The music tells you about snowmen, Santa, sweat treats, and sappy feelings.  The shopping deals start in November and you are urged to get out and shop ‘til you drop.  Even now the thought is to get out there and find after Christmas deals. Millions of dollars are flying out of bank accounts to make sure that we do Christmas right every year.  Having a celebration for the birth of Christ just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It was supposed to be that simple, kind of like the Christmas story John tells us today.  The words before us in John, chapter one are straightforward.  So clear and easy, in fact, that even a kindergartener could read them. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  …In him was life and that life was the light of men…The Word became flesh… It’s not difficult to read it.  We don’t need a professional linguist or theological scholar to get through this Christmas account.  They’re simple, until you to start thinking about what these words mean.  Christmas becomes a bit more complex.  There is more going in here than we could ever comprehend.  What child is this?

Throughout history, people have tried out many answers.  There are some who said he’s a nobody because they say he never happened.  They put Christmas and Jesus in the fairytale category.  Then, there are those who said he was great example for us.  The way he helped the poor and diseased when no one else would shows us what love is. They say Christ was showing us that love is accepting all people no matter what they say or do.  Others said he was a powerful prophet who taught wise lessons about humility, finances, possessions, personal sacrifice, and determination.

Well, that’s not good enough.  For people during the Apostle John’s day, for people during Constantine’s day, for people during any age of this world, it’s not good enough to think that Christmas is about the birth of a wise teacher, a great example of compassion, or just a fairytale on the level of The Grinch who Stole Christmas.  People need to know the simple truth.

So God had the Apostle John write this version of the Christmas story in simple sentences to lay it all out there, describing what kind of child this is.  And to start it off he says, “In the beginning…” That’s right!  For John’s Christmas story, he goes back to where it all began.  No Bethlehem here.  No City of David.  We don’t hear about a journey from Nazareth in Galilee.  We go back before there was a Bethlehem or Nazareth.  This Christmas story takes us to the beginning of it all.

Why does John go back so far?  Why start with creation?  Well, we have to see how vast God is.  We have to understand that we cannot understand everything about God.  He’s too big, too infinite, too omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  God is before us and after us.  He fills all things.  He’s the one who made everything and still makes everything work.  He’s the almighty Creator.

Then, John wants to go back one step farther.  He wants us to think of a time before there was time and space. Peering back into that mysterious eternity, John introduces us to this main character of his Christmas narrative with a unique name.  This time of year, we would call him baby Jesus, the Newborn King, and Immanuel.  But as we have already heard, John’s Christmas story is simple but a little different.  He says his name is the Word.  That title for God’s Son is simple and so beautiful.  What child is this?  He’s God’s messenger.  He speaks for God.  What God thinks, the Word speaks.  What God desires, the Word communicates.  And John says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…” So you have the Word and God side by side, face to face, in perfect harmony, perfect agreement.  It is the perfect relationship.

At this point, we have some answers for who this child is.  He is there before the beginning.  He is called the Word.  And he was with God.  These are simple answers.  Christmas is supposed to be simple after all.  But now John is going to start blowing our minds.  John continues with something that sounds like a contradiction: “…the Word was God…”  The Word was with God in perfect harmony. The Word was communicating for God.  Even though the Word and God are two separate and distinct beings in eternity, they are also one, united and joined together.  So when it comes to the beginning, the Word and God do not have one.  God has always been.  When it comes to creation, the Word and God did it together.  “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” 

If you want to know what kind of child this is laying in Bethlehem’s manger, you have to look around at everything there is.  It’s all because of and through him.  He is the Word that is both with God and is God from all eternity.   You want to talk about an amazing birth with angels and shepherds?  John wants you to know that before there was any birth, or any sheep, or anything out there at all… you have to talk about who this child is and what he has already done.

These are simple words but they go beyond what I can understand.  And we need it that way.  We need to know that this little baby in a manger is the eternal Word, that he is the vast and infinite God who made all things.  We need to see how much care he took in making this little pearl of a planet. We need to know just how much we don’t know about God, because that makes this next part so amazing.

The Word became flesh.  This God, who can do more with a single breath than billions of people can do with their entire lives, he decided to come here and live like one of us.  He traded his eternal throne of heaven, as the creator and ruler of all things, for a feeding trough.  He gave up his unlimited power and knowledge to be a helpless little baby.  He did that for you and for me, so that Christmas would not be about dollars and decorations, about deception and, for some, depression.  Instead, it is a time of good news and peace for all.  The creator of this world was content to be born in a stall so that you and I can have a place in his mansions.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  The Word, who created mankind, had to become a man himself in order to save his beloved creation.  This is the message of Christmas for you, the simple truth of a God who loved you enough to be one of you.  The Word became flesh.  If we don’t have this kind of Christmas, then we don’t have a Savior.  The Word became flesh just like you.

Have you ever had trouble sleeping because you are dealing the things that you did or didn’t do?  You’re upset because you realize that your title is spiritual failure, again.  You wonder how you can fall back into the same sins that said you wouldn’t do anymore – the same feelings or same words.  Do you wonder if God can ever understand what you are going through when you are having struggles or sadness?  He can.  The Word became flesh. Jesus knows exactly what it is like to live in human flesh.  He was tempted in every way, yet was without sin.  Jesus knows your frailties and my weakness.  He knows what it is like to like in a fleshly world like this.  He became flesh and he did it perfectly so that he could be the Savior for every one of us on this pearl of a planet.

John says the light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.   God was not willing to let this world sit in its own handiwork.  Where there was darkness, God brought light. With every promise God made, with every message of good news and hope God was shining his flashlight in the darkness.  It happened when God told a man named Noah to build a boat.  It happened when God made a bold promise to a 99 year-old man named Abraham.  It happened when God told David that he would have a future son who would establish a kingdom for God’s people forever.  It happened when prophets told God’s people that rescue and restoration was coming.  It happened when angels appeared to shepherds in the fields nearby.  It happened when Magi saw a special star and made a long journey.  It happened when apostles and evangelists walked miles and miles to bring the news of the risen Christ to people who had never heard it before.  God’s light was shining in the darkness.

That kind of light still shines.  When God’s people gather (even a week after Christmas because we had to cancel a service), there’s a light.  When God’s people give church invitations to friends and neighbors, that’s a light.  When children sit up front here to sing and proclaim the real Christmas story, that’s a light.  When you forgive as the Lord forgave you, that’s a light.  When you stand on the foundation of God’s holy Word, the Word that was with God in the beginning and was God, that’s a light.  God’s light still shines, and he uses you to do it.

But it doesn’t always seem to work, does it?  Noah only had 8 people on that boat.  Everyone else mocked him and perished in the flood.  Abraham’s wife laughed about the thought of a child for an old couple.  David’s sons became kings, but often the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – they were liars, sexually immoral, and murderers.  God’s prophets and apostles went to great lengths to preach good news, but were often persecuted and even killed for the message they spoke.  The light, well, it’s not always understood today either.  Watch the news, walk around in a store, listen to people at the gym.  The darkness is creeping everywhere.  Invitations go out, facebook posts go up, and you ask someone to come, but not everyone wants to hear the good news of great joy that is for all people.

We know this darkness, often times too well.  It lingers in our hearts towards people who are different.  It creeps into our conversations when our words are not decent.  It covers our actions when we are selfish or when we are alone and there are no eyes on us.  We each have our own battle with darkness that we cannot overcome.

That is exactly why the Word became flesh.  Jesus came here to be a light in our darkness.  And in love he let the darkness overtake him so that it would never overtake us.  He gave up his human life so that we wouldn’t have to.  Jesus came down from heaven so that he could suffer the punishment of hell for us.  He took our fear of darkness and death away forever.  Every ounce of guilt that we produce and carry, Jesus has removed and replaced with the light of life.  Our greatest need is not a bunch of presents under a tree.  Our greatest need is forgiveness and life, so the Word became flesh to do just that.

What child is this?  What a great question.  And what a fantastic answer we hear today.  He is the eternal God, who created all things.  He is the Almighty, who decided to leave heaven to live, die, and rise for us.  He is the light that shatters our darkness.  He is life that defeats death.  As John puts it so beautifully, he is the one who gives us the right to become children of God.  Now there’s a gift.  And friends, that’s a gift that will be with you every day in the New Year.

The words are simple and clear, but the meaning boggles the mind.  What child is this?  Listen one more time to the Christmas gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

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

 

Merry Christmas!  Happy New Year!

DO NOT BE AFRAID! GOD IS WITH US!

are-you-ready

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

 

We must have missed the sign.  My brother and I were hiking Picacho Peak in Arizona, probably 15 years ago.  It’s a pretty demanding trail. In some places you have to pull yourself up rock faces using anchored cables.  There are sharp drop-offs and steep switchbacks.  It’s a pretty intense climb.  And we made it much worse for ourselves because, as I said, we must have missed a sign.  On our way back down we ended up on the wrong path, if you can even call it that.  I don’t remember seeing any footprints in the few places where there was dirt.  Basically, we were on a sheer rock with what I would guess was a 400-800 foot drop-off to the left, trying not to slip to our death.  My brother was a little bit more of an experienced mountaineer than I was (he spent 5 years serving one of our WELS schools on the Apache Reservation in AZ), but I remember asking him one of those panicked questions that makes no sense, “What happens if I fall?”  His response was, “Don’t fall.”  Well, we made it back, but missing a sign was unnerving to say the least.

Talk about missing signs. Could you imagine if people had missed a weather report or a road closed sign earlier this week?  I drove north of town on 83 just to see for myself how bad it was out there.  Driving north of the new Bismarck Motor Company was crazy.  For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was in my lane or the other.  I couldn’t tell where the cars were.  I knew the intersection with 71st Ave was coming, but I couldn’t see where.  A true North Dakota blizzard is nothing to mess with.  It could be terrifying to miss a sign in a winter whiteout.

Joseph had missed the sign.  We are first introduced to this carpenter from Nazareth during his own personal nightmare.  Remember the events?  Joseph was pledged to be married to a girl named, Mary.  That means he had courted her in the customary Jewish way.  He had paid Mary’s parents their asking price for her hand in marriage.  They had publically made their vows and signed all the legal documents signaling that these two were “off limits”.  People would view them as husband and wife. It would take a divorce to end that relationship.  They were just waiting for the appointed time when Joseph would go over to Mary’s house and take her to his home to move in with him and begin their lives together.  That’s when the big celebration would take place.

But before that, his world came crashing down.  One day Mary showed up pregnant.  Can you imagine the things that ran through his head?  “Why!?!!! Mary, what did you do?  What did I do wrong?  Who’s the father of this baby?  What’s going to happen to me?  What should I do with you?”  Joseph misses the sign.  It’s very clear that his legal wife is pregnant, but he doesn’t understand what’s really happening.  It didn’t make sense. The way he was looking at things it was horrible news.  He couldn’t see the sign.  He didn’t understand the big picture.  I don’t know if any of us blame him.  He needed help to see things from a better vantage point.

I know I can relate to that, can you?  Missing a sign is downright dangerous on a mountain trail or in a whiteout storm, but those aren’t the only scary times for us.  Christmas can be filled with anxiety and fear.  Are all the plans coming together? Are you staying within the budget?  Are they going to like what you give them?  On a scale of 1 to 10 how well have you been avoiding the Christmas stress?  Christmas can get chaotic. I know I’ve felt the pinch about services and sermons and classes and, Lord-willing, the follow-up with guests.

But it’s not just Christmas.  Every day in this life there is some pretty scary stuff out there.  Maybe it’s not what Joseph was going through, but it can cause just as much fear and confusion.  Do you every wonder why there is a really popular course from David Ramsey called Financial Peace University?  It’s because finances and planning your future is scary, especially if you are putting so much emphasis on that part of your life.  Relationships can be scary.  What’s he going to think of my faith?  What’s her past like?  Is this working?  Do they have what you’re looking for?  So many questions can come to mind that some people are afraid of it.  No one wants to be another statistic.  And how about illness?  Coughs can turn into the flu and the flu can turn into pneumonia and that can lead to a hospital stay.  How about cancer?  That’s a scary word and it’s becoming more and more familiar.

How do you handle these things?  Well, how was Joseph handling his situation?  He had a few options.  He could accept Mary’s news and take her anyways.  He could do what most would do and publically draw attention to an unfaithful spouse.  Mary’s life would never be the same, and Joseph’s would be much better.  Or he could go easy on her, taking advantage of the lax divorce procedures of the day by sending her away quietly.  That way Mary would have to deal with everything alone.  But imagine the fears going through Joseph’s head as he considers each option.  There’s the slanderous gossip and the snobbish glances.  No one likes that feeling that other people are talking about you behind your back.  There are the fallen hopes of the families.  There’s the baggage that he would carry into the future of one failed marriage…before it even got going.   For a good guy like Joseph, there’s the fear for Mary.  What’s a pregnant teen going to do with no man in the picture?  She’d be damaged goods and go to a man of far less character.  No matter what option he picked, it was going to be an unsettling few months.

Do you know what?  Whichever option we pick doesn’t get rid of our fears in life, either.  The bottom of a bottle doesn’t remove fear.  The internet has tons of life hack videos and self-help solutions, but it can’t remove fears.  More stuff doesn’t make the scary stuff go away. Financial peace, a healthy and happy start to a relationship, or advancement in medicines cannot cover up fears.  See, when the focus is on the trouble, the pain, the stress, the problems, then the fear remains and always will.  When we miss the sign, we’re going to feel a lot like Joseph was feeling.

Can you notice how does God sees the situation? What’s his point of view?  For Mary and Joseph it was a trying time, but God was going to use it as a blessing for men, women and children across all the world of all time.  It was not going to be easy for them for the next few years, but God was going to work it out for good for them and for all.  God has a way of doing that.

Do you think God can still do that for you?  Can the eternal King of all creation work things out for your good, for your spiritual and eternal benefit?  Can he get rid of your fears?  Of course!  God relieves our fears by getting us to take a step back from our own personal problems and see the much bigger picture that God has painted with our lives.

Joseph just needed God to show him that this was all working out according to plan, his plan, his all-knowing and all-powerful plan. God wanted Joseph to know, “Mary has not been unfaithful to you.  This is the sign that everyone has been waiting for.”   The angel appeared to Joseph to help him see God’s view.  The angel said, “You don’t need to be afraid.”

Fear is always going to hurt you.  It was tearing Joseph up at this point. Fear is the exact opposite of faith.  Fear doesn’t see God’s promises, purposes, and plans. Living in fear is so dangerous for us eternally because fear destroys us.  And that’s why God has such a great way of taking our fears away.

The angel calls Joseph the son of David.  But Joseph’s dad was Jacob.  He’d be familiar with people saying, “Joseph, son of Jacob, come over here…”  “Joseph, son of Jacob, what are you doing over there?”  It wasn’t Joseph, son of David.  But that’s how God wants the angel to address him, because he wants Joseph to remember the he is a descendant of the great King.  David ruled God’s people.  Even though there were plenty of battles and plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns, David buried his fear with faith in God’s never-failing, never-ending promises.   Whether he was fighting Philistines, unruly family members trying to ruin him, or ungodly giants, David knew that faith in God’s promises overcomes fear.  God has the angel call him “son of David” because he wants Joseph to remember the promise of David’s son.

The promise of David’s son was the sign that so many people missed, but not anymore.  Joseph didn’t need to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife because this was the sign for all people that we have a God who keeps his promises, we have a God who does things this world cannot fathom, we have a God who loves us enough to leave heaven.

That was the sign, after all.  “Don’t you remember, Joseph?  Can’t you hear Isaiah?  ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’  Joseph, I’m not going let you miss the sign.  Mary is that virgin.  She’s going to give birth to a son.  You are going to call him, Immanuel.  Joseph, that means I’m going to live with you.  You won’t need to be afraid, because I am coming.  This child is the Promised One.  What has been hidden for generations is coming into the world.  Joseph, that’s the sign: God is with us in person.

Brothers and sisters, we have the same God, who left heaven to be with us in the flesh.  That’s our sign, too.  And by God’s grace he made sure we wouldn’t miss it.  Jesus wasn’t here to crush us.  He wasn’t here to judge us.  He wasn’t here to teach us how to earn heaven.  He was here to rescue us.  He was here to live among us and remove the fears forever.  He was here to open heaven for people who keep forgetting, for people who are scared and alone, for people who are lost and condemned.  God is with us.

You know, I went back to Picacho Peak.  It was a few years later with my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, and Mandy.  We did the whole thing again.  There were still really steep sections with cables to pull yourself up.  It was still a sheer rock face.  But this time there was no fear, because we saw all the signs.  It never felt like we were on a path that had never been walked.  It never felt like I was doomed to death.  What a difference it is when you actually see and understand the signs.

Joseph woke up and he didn’t miss the sign.  It was all true.  Somehow, someway God had found a way to make it clear to him.  And the sign, a virgin with child giving birth to Immanuel, would change the world.  No more fear, because God is with us.  That’s how we prepare for Christmas fearlessly.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

THIS IS FRUIT-BEARING SEASON

are-you-ready

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ” 

4 John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

 

2 feet of snow has a way of signaling a few things.  All the feelings of fall have been rudely stopped cold in their tracks. It sure was nice while it lasted, but it’s all gone now.  Winter has arrived!  This year it was swift kick in the face.  There was no introduction, just one of the bigger storms ND has seen over the past decades.  So that means we will enjoy this white winter wonderland for the next 4, maybe 5, months.

And yet, at this time the appointed readings from God’s Word tell us in the cold snowy north to get ready for fruit.  In fact, every year at this time God tells us in worship to prepare as you would for a harvest.  He says there are things we must produce.  And he’s not talking about writing up a Christmas list or taking a shopping trip.  He’s not talking about decorating or baking.  Because this is fruit-bearing season.

If that is the case, that God says this can be a fruit-bearing season, then do you ever wonder why during these exciting days we put so much emphasis on a tree that has been cut down (or a fake representation of it)?  I mean, why did we spend all that time last week setting this stuff up.  None of it is living.  None of it is producing anything for us or for God.  Those trees that have been cut down are dying and there’s nothing that can stop it.  But every year we do the same thing.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas we spend money and time picking out the right tree, or we spend time and serious, backbreaking energy hauling this lifeless representation of a tree out to our living room.  It has become one of the main things that mark our preparations, but this kind of tree is never going to be productive.  There is never any useful fruit from it.  So, to cover up that fact, on this dying tree we attach lights to make it shine brightly and beautifully.  It might hide the fact that the tree is not in good shape, but it won’t change the outcome.  We also add little round balls to ornament this tree with fake “fruit.”

Did you know that’s kind of how ornaments started?  Without going into too much detail, people in Europe and America in the 1800s were doing this Christmas tree thing, too.  But the trees were decorated with candles, paper roses, beads, snowflakes, and little treats.  Well, as the story goes some people wanted to add edible snacks to the tree.  And because people during winter were always looking forward to spring, some thought it would be a good idea to put fruit on the trees as a way to ponder and promote growth and new life that would be coming.  After a while, the tree became more about decorating, so the fruit changed to round and shiny ornaments that symbolized fruit.

I don’t think that’s what John the Baptist had in mind, do you?  When he said produce fruit, he wasn’t talking about hanging little balls on a dying or fake tree.  It’s all a commercialized sham now.  And we eat it up.  Getting into the Christmas spirit with a tree, lights and ornaments isn’t going to give you the productivity that you need this year.  It’s a dying or fake tree.

Now, I have nothing against a Christmas tree.  There is some good symbolism to it and it does add to the overall festive nature of Christmas.  But I think that this whole Christmas tree thing serves as a great illustration today as we listen to God’s Word.  It describes what is wrong in our lives.

God saw it happening long ago.  People were trying to cover up the problems in their lives. Back in the days of Isaiah, the prophet, they were saying things like, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about?  We are God’s chosen nation.  We are descendants of Abraham.  Nothing can happen to us.  We’ll be fine.”  They did what they wanted and I’m sure it they convinced themselves that it was ok, because at least they weren’t as bad as other people.

Then, centuries later John the Baptist comes to prepare people again.  And there were people who didn’t learn.  These Pharisees and Sadducees were the religious gurus.  They knew the Old Testament. They knew what happened to God’s chosen nation, both the highs and lows.  They knew how God kept his promises to people who didn’t deserve it.  And when John started preaching out in the desert these religious leaders thought he was nuts.  They said, “Repent…straight paths… what are you talking about?  We are God’s people.  We have Abraham as our forefather.  We follow the laws. We’ll be fine.”

Do you notice how they were just like these dying trees that we put in our houses at this time of year?  They were trying to ignore the reality of their sinfulness.  They were trying to make their life shine brighter than others do by their actions and their religiousness.  They were ornamenting their lives to look good on the outside, but it didn’t change the facts.  They were dying inside.

People still haven’t learned.  Today the preparations for Jesus’ coming can look pretty similar.  We can be like the dying trees.  You try to cover up the problems.  You try to hide the mistakes.  You illuminate what is good and ornament our lives with what the world calls fruitful and productive things.  “As long as there is more good than bad in my life, then I’m fine.  And have you noticed the kind of people in this world.  Look at all those protesters out there.  I would never be like them.  I would never spread lies or cover up facts.  I would never cause mischief or harm for others.”  And have you ever noticed how we bring up family connections when it comes to religion?  “My family tree is full of Christians.  I went to church and Sunday school as a kid.  I went to Lutheran high school or I want to send my kids to a Lutheran high school.  That means I’m a healthy branch on a healthy tree.  Nothing is wrong with me.”

Friends, there is a reason why John tells us today to “produce fruit in keep with repentance.”  Because so often the kind of stuff we come up with won’t produce that kind of fruit.  Repentance is not trying to convince yourself that you aren’t that bad.  Repentance is not trying to make a dying tree look productive and beautiful.  Repentance is not making your life better than callused criminals, disgruntled coworkers, or passionate protesters.  Repentance is not what I do so that God will give me what I want.  That kind of repentance does not exist.  It’s fake.  It takes the focus away from God and puts it on others and me.  When that’s where my focus is, how can I be productive?  How can I be on a straight path to heaven?

This Christmas, when my focus is on doing all the things that other people, or the TV commercials, or the internet deals and steals are telling me to do then I’ll have a great December 24 and 25. But it won’t be a great Christmas.  It won’t be productive for my faith. It won’t be productive to others.  It won’t be fruitful for God.  And John tells me and he tells you what happens to a tree that isn’t productive and fruitful. “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

God has done it before.  The family tree of Abraham was falling apart.  Branch after branch became diseased and fell off.  The family tree of God’s chosen people resembled those firs and spruces that people throw out in January.  The fruit God was trying to produce was gone.  God warned them.  With such fatherly love and patience, he warned them.  He said unproductive, fruitless trees serve no purpose.  They get cut down.  And then it happened.  God cut down the family tree of Abraham.  They were cut off from the land of Israel.  Their homes were destroyed.  God’s own house, the Temple, was leveled.

Now, we might think that nothing good, nothing productive, nothing fruitful would come from that.  And I know that we make stuff out of dead trees. Lumber is good for lots of stuff.  I even have a fire pit in my back yard so that I can enjoy burn up old dead wood for cooking and s’mores.  But a dead tree isn’t going to live.  It isn’t going to produce fruit.  It’s isn’t going to produce seeds for more trees.  It’s dead.

Did you hear what Isaiah spoke about 700 years before those Pharisees and Sadducees went out to see this crazy prophet by the Jordan River?  “A shoot will come from the stump… from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”  Do you know what that says?  It says God doesn’t do things the way this world does things.

We know that a cut off tree isn’t going to be productive.  All the time spent decorating and ornamenting isn’t going to bring the tree to life and make it fruitful again.  And we know that the stump doesn’t do much good either.  You grind a stump away.  You dig it up so you can do something useful with that spot in your yard or that soil.  But the way God looks at it, he sees possibilities with the stump.

See, out of the ruble that was left in Abraham’s family tree God kept a promise.  He said through Abraham all nations would be blessed.  12 generations later, there was a man named Jesse and again, God promised to his son, King David, that there would be a king that would sit on his throne forever.  And even after God cut that whole family tree down, God saw the hope.   A little offshoot sprang up from the stump.  Where there was death, God brought life.  He made a productive tree.  No, Jesus was not here to be a productive political king.  No, Jesus was not here to be a productive entertainer or educator.  But he was a here to produce forgiveness.  He was here to produce a new and lasting life.  He was here to produce eternal salvation.  And what a job he did.

People tried to cut him down.  People tried to get rid of him.  People tried to replace him with their own better versions.  But it didn’t work.  Jesus accomplished his mission.  He came to give us a new life, a productive and fruitful life.  He came to give us a life that is not focused on trying to make a dying tree look good.  He gave us a life where the tree and branches are all living and productive and fruitful.

Did Jesus need your permission for that?  Did he need you to ask him to do it?  Did he need anything from you in order to be your Savior and mine?  NO!  So, gone is the focus on me.  Gone is the focus on the commercials and internet steals and deals.  Gone is the focus on what other people are doing.  Those things were cut off and thrown out.  Jesus made us new because he loves us.  That’s what happened in baptism.  He came with the Holy Spirit to change who you are.  The old way is destroyed.  The sinful nature is no longer in control.  Instead,  we are God’s children.  We are connected to Christ.  We are part of his chosen nation.  We are grafted into his family tree.  And that means we have a good fruit to produce, just like John said: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Like I said, repentance is not something I do to get God’s attention.  It’s not something I do to meet God’s requirements.  It’s not a one-time choice so that I can have eternal blessings.  Repentance is not a worldly sorrow that I got caught doing something I shouldn’t have.  Repentance is not a childish sorrow that is bummed out about missing all the fun.  Repentance is producing God’s fruit.

If you are forgiven by Christ, if you are filled with the Spirit through Word and Sacrament, if you are a child of God by his grace, then repentance is a natural thing for you.  You make a mistake and you don’t need to cover it up, like we cover up dying or fake trees.  That’s not productive.  You can’t hide that from God anyways, but you can confess to your loving Father and he forgives you.  You hurt someone and you don’t need to hide from it, you can humbly admit what happened and say sorry.  You get caught up with the ways of this world and you don’t have to make excuses for it.  Your Savior already took those things to the cross and died for them all.  Repentance is simply acknowledging the facts: I have sinned.  Jesus has forgiven me.  I am a child of God by his grace.  I have fruits of faith to produce.

So as you look at your Christmas tree, think about that.  Don’t think about all the things that need to get checked off your list before Christmas comes.  Think about all the things this little baby in Bethlehem has done, how productive his life was for you.  Think about the faith that was planted in your heart to make you a fruitful child of God.  And think about how you can be productive, yes, even in the middle of the cold north, months away from any gardens growing or trees producing, you can bear fruit for God.  Amen.

 

THE IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE…THROUGH FAITH IN JESUS.

lutheran-id

Luke 18:18-27

18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

 

What happens if 100% isn’t good enough?  Let’s say you have the chance to be a quarterback for just one play in the NFL.  You could try your very best, 100%, for just one play.  Now, what if a 325-pound lineman broke through and was heading, full steam, for you?  You would probably break a bone or get knocked out cold.  100% of your very best effort in the NFL would not be good enough.

Kids in elementary school can study until their math book is memorized backwards and forwards, but if that math test was college level calculus, how do you think that will go?  At work, your computer system develops a glitch and an order that was supposed to be done by the end of November now is expected by the client in two days.  No matter how much extra help you call in, an order that was supposed to take a month won’t be done in two days.   Teachers and parents, you can do everything in their power to lovingly and carefully correct poor attitudes, but kids will still misbehave.  Your 100% isn’t always enough.

Jesus brings up a pretty good example of that for us today.  You can try as hard as you want, you can explore every option, you can use all the force and energy you have, you can think up every trick, but you will never get a camel through the eye of a needle.  When my best, most efficient, most careful, most loving effort doesn’t get me where I want to be, what then?

That is kind of what the rich man was dealing with when he walked up to Jesus.  He was giving a good life 100% of his effort. He had a good reputation.  The Bible says he was a wealthy ruler of some kind, likely in the local synagogue.  But to be sure, he wanted to know if there was anything else that he was missing.  You see, he was making sure that his 100% was good enough for heaven.

Jesus is perfect at getting to the heart and core of the rich ruler’s request.  First, Jesus says that anyone who wants to have heaven must obey the commandments perfectly.  He lists a few: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, and honor your father and mother.  This pleased the rich man, because he readily admitted that he was a good, law-abiding citizen since his childhood.  This man gave no one any reason to second-guess his decisions or his lifestyle.

Each one of us here today would like to say we fit into the sandals of the rich young ruler quite well, right?  We like to think we have a pretty good reputation. Maybe you run down the list in your head. ‘My character is not questionable.  I have not killed anyone.  I have not been openly perverse.  I have not lied about my life. I have not stolen someone’s belongings.  I was always the perfect child for my parents, but I have learned and recognize them as God’s representatives.”

However, Jesus has one more thing to add.  God makes the rules and sets the standard by which the rules must be followed.  So what Jesus adds next for the rich ruler is what all of us need to hear.  You still lack one thing.  Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me. 

The life of someone who wants to live in the kingdom of God forever, is not only about being good, showing kindness and care to others, and being respectful to all authorities, but it is also about how you live and for whom.  Your motivation must be pure and your attitude needs to be selfless.  So too, your life must be for others – others in your family, others at work, others who you don’t know, others who are even cruel to you, and, most importantly of all, your life needs to be dedicated to the Lord, all the time.

That is where the ruler’s good life, his 100% effort, wasn’t quite up to snuff.  This is also where my 100% isn’t good enough and neither is yours.  I don’t have the pure motivations and selfless attitude all the time.  My sinful nature is just like yours – it has made me unclean in God’s eyes.  Those thoughts aren’t always decent and caring, are they? The words coming out of your mouth don’t always give God glory, do they?  In one way or another God’s laws have been broken, if not in the grossest, public ways then privately in thoughts or intentions.  I may not struggle with the same sins as one of you and you may not struggle with the same faults as a family member or friend, but God’s law still convicts us, that even one time is enough to shatter God’s commandments to pieces.  This is what Jesus tells the rich young ruler inside of each one of us.  The life of a Christian is all or nothing.  Jesus gets to the heart of the issue and says our 100% effort isn’t good enough.

What Jesus says is pretty uncomfortable isn’t it?  He told a rich man that he couldn’t be rich anymore if he wanted to be in heaven.  Today, those same uncomfortable words apply to us.  If there is anything in the way of a fully dedicated, 100% Christian life, then you need to get rid of it.  If you are trusting that your income and savings will give you a better life, then you need to give it all away.  If you really enjoy using your HDTV, iPad, cell phone, if the TV schedule, texting with friends, checking facebook is preventing you from following Jesus all the time, then you need to get rid of them.  If traditions are becoming so important that you’ve lost sight of why you follow them and what Jesus says about them, then you need to throw them away.  If your garages are filled with boats and snow mobiles and 4-wheelers and other fun toys that you enjoy so much, to the point where on a sunny Sunday morning you would rather be on your boat or snow mobile, then you need to sell them.  When hunting takes over for these fall months to the point where parents and kids are regularly neglecting the Savior and their relationship with his Word, then Jesus says you can’t go hunting anymore.

Are you starting to see the problem?  Our best efforts aren’t even close to good enough?  Jesus says if anything is more important than him, get rid of it.  Jesus says if anyone is more important than him, that relationship must change.  Jesus says you must follow him with everything you have.  God says he must have 100%.  That means all your motivations, all your attitudes, all your interests, all your hobbies, all your character, all your love, all your respect, all the time.  In other words, Jesus is telling us today that he must have your entire life if you want to be in heaven forever.

For those standing around Jesus back then and for us right now, the question becomes, “Well then, who can be saved?”  As people heard Jesus talking to this rich man, they were really starting to wonder if it was possible for anyone to go to heaven.  Today, you and I might be taking a step back wondering, “Who can be saved?”

I have to be honest with you, this is an impossible task for us.  Every one of us needs to see just how similar to this ruler we really are.  Today, realize that even your best effort isn’t good enough.  You and I cannot earn a place in heaven and we can’t try to make up for our mistakes so God will take it easy on us. Every day you must hear Jesus say, “It is impossible for you…

…but not for me.”  Jesus started the whole conversation with the rich man by saying that God alone is good.  Only God could follow the commandments with 100% of the effort, 100% of the attitude, 100% of the motivation, and 100% of the time.  Only God could walk this earth always caring about others more than himself.  Only God could do the good things necessary for heaven.  Only God is good, Jesus says.

With people like us heaven is an impossible dream never to come true.  But God took human flesh, gave us his 100% in every way, paid the price for all our mistakes and errors, and opened heaven for us.  You do not need to walk away sad, because Jesus has saved you.  You do not need to walk away sad, because our good God has restored the broken relationship and brought you into his family through Christ Jesus.  You do not need to be nervous, because God did the impossible.

Today, that’s what we need to hear.  Living as a follower of Jesus is not a life like that rich ruler, where you’re not quite sure about your salvation because you are nervous if your 100% is good enough.  That’s why Jesus didn’t leave it up to us. Jesus accomplished eternal life fully for us. When he died, he said, “It is finished.  My work to save you is 100% complete.” And then he proved that the impossible was possible when he rose from the dead on Easter.

But how does that certainty become ours?  Do we have to sell everything and give to the poor?  Do we have to say prayers 5 times a day?  Do we need specific qualities or talents?  Well… NO!  If that were the case then heaven would be impossible for us.  See, we don’t have what it takes to believe all of this.  We are like the rich ruler; we just can’t make it all work out.  It is not possible for us to make the right choices or do the right things in order to believe in Jesus.  We weren’t able to turn on our own spiritual light bulbs. We aren’t able to crawl out of the deep pit of sin and death.

So God did the impossible.  Not only did Christ die to pay for our sins, not only did Christ go into the pit of death and destroy it when he rose, but he also gives us his robe of righteousness with the sacrament of Baptism.  God uses baptism to plant faith in your heart.  Heaven is not possible without this gift of God, so God made it possible for you with something so simple. He uses plain water connected to his all-powerful Word to change your identity.  We were born just like that rich ruler, but in baptism the Holy Spirit put saving faith in our hearts.  It’s this gift that holds on to Jesus and his forgiveness.  It’s this gift that makes our eternity in heaven secure.  It’s the gift that changes our life.

If you are a child of God, that means you live by faith alone.  You don’t need the riches to be God’s child.  You don’t need everything your heart desires to believe in Jesus.  In fact, sometimes those things need to be taken away so that our faith is not distracted or destroyed.  We live by faith alone, because faith in Jesus is all we need for eternal life.

That’s what makes faith in Jesus such a treasure, a treasure we will never give up.  God gave this eternal treasure to us by grace alone found in Scripture alone.  That’s our identity.  And it always will be, because Jesus made the impossible possible.  Amen.

WHO IS LIKE GOD?

lutheran-id

Micah 7

18 Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. 19 You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. 20 You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.

 

 

He was scared of God.  Night and day, he lived in fear of a God who knew every thought, heard every word, and saw every action.  God’s demands were oppressive and cruel to him.  He was hopelessly lost in a cycle of trying to earn God’s love, but his love always seemed out of reach.  That’s the way Martin Luther lived the first half of his life.  He saw God as an angry and holy Judge.

It’s not surprising that Luther had this understanding.  It was readily accepted in his day because that is how the church was portraying God.  Yes, he was the God who loved the world and sent Jesus to save it.  Yes, he was the God who died for the sins of the world.  Yes, he rose from the dead to give eternal life to all believers.  But, in order to be a believer in Jesus, you had to work for it.  You had to show God how much you loved him with your good works, and then he would respond with his love and mercy.  With that kind of view, people thought God was always looking for good works and not really doing much for his people.

A lot of people still have that kind of viewpoint today.  They think of God this way for a couple reasons.  Number 1, if people don’t read the Bible, they won’t know who God is and what he is like. Instead, they will listen to others talk about him or they’ll watch shows and movies about him to see what he is like.  Because that is how so many people are hearing about God, they don’t have the right view.  And the second reason people think about God like a judge who is always watching is that it makes human sense.  It makes sense to us that people are watching us and that when we do good they reward us and when we mess up they do not reward us.  We see this kind of thing happening all around us.  If you get good grades, then your teacher likes you and your parents give you more privileges or games (or whatever kids are asking for nowadays).  If you do your job well, then your boss likes you, your coworkers can depend on you, you might get a raise, and if you are really good, you might get that promotion.  If you are kind, honest, humble and giving, then you won’t go to jail.  Instead, your neighbors will like you, do nice things for you, and you will be a respected member of the community.  This is how people naturally think.  It’s what we see every day.  And so why wouldn’t people think about God this way?

Micah poses this question for us today: Who is a God like you?  If someone answers that question by thinking in human terms, then they are making God way too much like all of us.  And when people think God is like us, when people think he decides things based on what we do, then do you know where that leads?  Sinful people are left in despair trying to earn a relationship with a holy God.  It turns into high school dating where there is no certainty, just a frenzy of worried people who try to grab attention and get what they want, sometimes by any means necessary.

A relationship with God does not exist when you look at God like that, because you cannot earn God’s love.  We don’t have enough perfection to earn it.  In fact, we have a big fat ZERO in the perfection column.  And because of that, we don’t deserve anything from God.  There is no reward for trying hard, for sheer determination, or for not getting caught.  Are you starting to realize why Martin Luther was so afraid?  He knew and believed that Jesus had died for his sins and risen from the grave for his eternal life, but he wasn’t able to make God happy enough with him to get those blessings.  All he could do was continue to try to work for them.  A sinful person was trying to live without sin in order to get forgiveness of sins.  How’s that going to work?

But, your identity as a Lutheran is not based on human reasoning, viewpoints or terms.    That’s what freed Luther from his fear of a holy, judge-God.  As we studied last week, you and I stand on the solid foundation of God’s Holy Scriptures. We have a God who reveals himself in the Bible.  And so when Micah poses the question today – who is a God like you? – the answer is so clear.  There is no other God, because no god that originates in human minds could be one:

who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance.  You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.

Who does that?  Who is like that?  Who gives and gives and gives?  When you think about it, this makes no sense whatsoever. God pardons sin.  Why would he do that?  What’s in it for him?  Why would God just take all your sins and all your guilt off your shoulders? Why would he carry them away from you, removing them from your past and future? There’s no good human logic here, unless it’s because he loves you so much that he doesn’t want to see your eternity ruined.  Unless he has so much compassion that he cannot bear to see you struggle or see you lost and alone.  That and only that is the reason.

Micah says we have a God who forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance.  Let’s unpack that a little bit.  The Hebrew word used for “forgive” is a word that means to pass over.  Think of the Passover in Egypt.  Those doors that were painted with the blood of a lamb were passed over by God.  He was killing every first born from every house that night but he passed over the ones that were marked with blood.  God marked you with the blood of Jesus so that he passes over you instead of giving you death.

But what about that remnant?  What’s that all about?  That’s another good history lesson.  During Micah’s ministry as a prophet the people of Israel, God’s chosen nation, his inheritance, were exiled by the Assyrian army because God had to discipline his rebellious, unrepentant people.  He was trying to wake them up from spiritual slumber.  Micah prophesied that it would happen and it did.  Well, out of the 12 tribes, 10 were now gone, but there was still hope for the southern 2.  They could learn the lesson.  They could wake up.  And Micah gave them the warning to turn away from sinful rebellion, to get rid of the false gods who were really nothing at all.  He warned them that there would be another exile if they did not listen to God.  Well, you know what happened, don’t you?  The southern part of Judah tried for a while, but they kind of reverted back to bad behavior.  God sent more warnings from more prophets, but it didn’t help them.  And so the Babylonians exiled Judah.  But that’s where this section comes in.  God’s undeserved love and compassion are so great that he says he forgives the remnant.  Micah says, “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us…” God is telling his people, “I know how much you messed up.  I know how much this discipline hurts you.  I know how bad this must be for you, but I still love you.  I will always love you.  I will watch over you in exile.  I will protect you.  I will bring you back to the Promised Land to start over. I will keep my promises.  I will pass over your wickedness and rebellion because that is how much I love you.”

Brothers and sisters, you are a part of that remnant.  No matter what has happened in your life.  No matter how much guilt you carry, God carries away your sins and passes over you with the punishment.  Instead, Jesus takes the full wrath of God in our place.  Jesus is handed all of our sins.  Jesus carries them all to Calvary.  Jesus is not passed over but given the death penalty in our place.  Jesus suffers what we should suffer.

This next part is where Kix come into the mix.  Do you know that cereal, “kid tested, mother approved?”  I loved those as a kid.  Well, we have lots of those at our house.  Lute loves them.  Issy loves them.  And sometimes with an 21-month old and a 3 ½ year-old, they don’t always successfully get all the Kix into their mouth.  So when I wake up and it’s still dark or when I come home for lunch or dinner, sometimes these delightful puffs end up under my foot.  Do you know what happens to a Kix when it is under my foot?  It is crushed to powder!  It becomes nothing.  It is unusable.  It must be swept up and thrown out.  Here’s how Micah describes what God does to our sins, “You will tread our sins underfoot.”  God makes our sins like those Kix in my kitchen.  He crushes them.  He makes them unusable.  Doesn’t that bring a smile to your face?  God loves you so he crushes sin out of your life.  He treats our sins like the dirt.  He tramples on them.  He sweeps them up.

And then he, “hurls all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”  God not only makes our sins unusable, but he also makes them nonvisible.  See, he doesn’t just take them away from us.  He puts them out of sight where we can’t find them again.  When God says he forgives you, he means it.  He means that his people do not need to get up with pet sins anymore.  “But I like that one, and it’s harmless, and I repent of it a bunch.”  God says, “Those sins are no good for you.  So I am getting rid of them.  You don’t need them to be happy.  You don’t need them to be secure.  You need me.  You need my love.  You need my peace.”

Micah finishes by saying, “you will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago.”  God keeps his promises.  It’s not an optional thing that depends on how good you are.  It’s not a logical thing that we have to understand.  God keeps his promises.  When he promised to Abraham and Jacob that he would make their descendants a great nation, he kept his promise.  When he promised to Abraham and Jacob that he would take care of them and protect them, he kept his promise.  When he promised to Abraham and Jacob that he would bless the whole world with one of their descendants, God kept his promise and sent Jesus.   Jesus kept his promise to forgive us and save us.

I don’t care what happens this upcoming Tuesday,  I don’t care about a 108 year-old wait for a championship that just ended this past week, I don’t care about anything like that, it cannot compare to joy and comfort that God’s love gives.  We have an eternity with God because he loves us and forgives us.

Brothers and sisters, does any of this sound like something we could think up?  Does it sound like something we could do?  No.  That’s why Luther treasured this so much, because it changed his view of God.  No longer was God angry all the time.  No longer was God a Judge looking to punish.  When Luther read passages like these, the Spirit brought peace and joy because he had a God who loved him.  He had a Savior who forgave him completely 100% without any added works.

That’s what gives us our identity still to this day.  That we have a God and Savior who loves us with no conditions or fine print.  He loves us even though we do not deserve it and have not earned any of these spiritual and eternal rewards.  God gives us this gift not because it’s a birthday, graduation, or anniversary and not because you did something great but simply because he really wants you to know what he is like and how much he cares.  Do you know what this is?  It’s called grace.

Micah and Martin Luther loved it, and so do we, because it gives us the answer to this question: Who is like God?  The easy answer is NO ONE, NOTHING, not now, not ever.  Because our God gives us… grace.

Amen.

WHEN GOD SPEAKS…

lutheran-id

John 8

31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”
34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered.
“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.”
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! 46 Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

 

What makes a church what it is?  What defines it?  What gives it an identity?  On a day when we are celebrating the Lutheran Reformation, it’s a good question for us to ask.  A big part of the answer to that question has to be what the church teaches.  It’s not uncommon at all, therefore, that if someone is checking out a church they will probably wonder, “What does your church say about…  Where does your church stand on…”

Do you know how to answer those kinds of questions?  I’ve come to realize over the years that the real question is not what we believe or teach about this, that, or the other thing, but how do we get to our answers, what process do we use to answer questions, how do we arrive at our doctrines, or what means do we make use of.

One of the huge things that makes our identity at Our Saviour’s (and throughout WELS) is that no matter what the question is, no matter what topic comes up we will always and ONLY listen to God speak through his Word; we will go to the Bible for the answer.  It’s not going to be the Bible and popular opinion or philosophy.  It’s not going to be the Bible and traditional writings or practices.  It’s not going to be the Bible and churchly hierarchy.  It’s not going to be the Bible and family ties.  Jesus makes that clear.  He says if we’re talking about the identity, the fingerprint, of a church, of his disciples, then it needs to be his words. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.”  It’s the Bible, Jesus’ word, and that’s it.

That means when Jesus speaks, people should listen.  But that hasn’t always been the case for churches and religious people.  That was one of the huge problems going on for these Jews that we hear about in John 8.  They had the Old Testament Scriptures.  God had spoken his laws and promises through prophets and kings so that people would have everything God wanted them to have to recognize the real thing, the Messiah, the Savior, Jesus.  God had said things like: he would be born of a virgin, in Bethlehem, he would stay safe in Egypt for a while, he would be perfect, he would save people, and he would be rejected by many – you know, all that stuff that totally happened when Jesus came.  These Jews had even listened to Jesus for a while, but then they started to hear things that they didn’t like as much.  So as time went on they plugged their ears because he wasn’t what they wanted.  Instead, they focused on their ancestry to Abraham, as if your family line is what opens the doors to heaven.  They left out certain details.  They added traditions.  They threw the truth away. When God spoke, they didn’t listen.

This kind of thing continued on.  It happened in the Dark Ages, too.  The people had the Scriptures.  God spoke in the Old Testament, all his laws and promises.  And then God spoke in the New Testament.  The Word Incarnate lived here on earth.  Jesus fulfilled every law and every promise for us. He died for our forgiveness.  He rose to free us from death and hell.  He sent the Holy Spirit to work through Word and Sacrament.  But all of that was hidden away in monasteries and in the Latin language that common people couldn’t understand.  It was hidden by traditions and decrees of men who wanted power and control.  They threw the truth away.  Not many heard God speaking.

This kind of thing still continues.  God speaks in the Bible.  He shows us our sin in the law so that people will realize that heaven cannot be earned, and then God shows us how he, himself, earned it for us in the person and work of Jesus.  But people don’t want to admit that there is such a thing as absolute truth, or they tinker with it to make it sound more acceptable, or they hide some of the more offensive parts.  The truth is still being thrown away.  When God speaks, people still aren’t listening.

Plain and simple, this is called sin.  And we aren’t immune to sin, are we?  It’s a sin to plug your ears to even the smallest part of what God says.  It’s a sin to think that you have it all under control.  It’s a sin to say, “I’m a fourth generation Christian, I’ve been a member at this church for decades, I know plenty about God.”  It’s a sin to hold man-made traditions on the same level as God’s Word.  It’s a sin to put popular trends on par with God’s power.   It’s a sin to go a month, a week, even a day without listening to his voice.  There’s just so much of this kind of stuff in our lives.  It pops up everywhere.

Jesus gives us a term for this, “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”   It’s true!  We get entangled by half-truths that sound close enough.   We get trapped by full-blown lies that seem to be so good because they work so well for other people.  When God speaks, we get caught not paying attention.

Maybe we try to argue like the Jews. “Slaves! We aren’t slaves.  We don’t fall into the same traps as those people.”  They were lying. They must have forgotten about 400 years in Egypt, exile in Assyria, another exile in Babylon, and that at this time they were subjects of the Roman Empire.  Later on, the Roman church lied, too.  They were forcing people to take what traditions and church fathers said and what councils and popes decided as if it was from God himself.  We often forget the times when we are dragged along by friends or family to say or do something we know is wrong, to “just let it go so there won’t be a disagreement,” or to plug our ears to God’s voice on a certain topic for a while.

Jesus goes on to describe what that slavery means, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  These Jews were holding onto their own ideas and so they weren’t children of God or of Abraham.  Abraham listened to God’s truth, even when it was hard.  He believed and trusted in God’s promises.  These Jews were living a lie and so they belonged to the one who speaks lies.  The Roman church was holding to their own ideas about the Bible and the church.  They were living the same old lies and so they belonged to the one who speaks lies.

The same can be said of us.  Too often, we are listening when the liar speaks.  And he isn’t interested in your welfare.  His lies won’t help you; he’s out to get you.  He’s an evil master who wants to make your life miserable with a combination of guilt and pride.  He’s a murderer, using the same stealth that brought death to Adam and Eve and this whole world.

But there is one person who does not belong to the devil and never has.  There is one whose words do not imprison us to a life of lies.  When he speaks, his words are truth.  That means when God says that he spoke everything in existence in 6 24-hour days, it’s the truth.  This world did not evolve from a big bang over billions of years.  That’s a lie.  That means when God says that plain old water can be so powerful that when it is connected with his Word the Spirit delivers forgiveness and faith, even to newborn babies, it’s the truth.  Baptism is not some outward ceremony of dedication.  That’s a lie.  It means that when God says his Supper of bread and wine is also really and miraculously the body and blood of Jesus, and that this supper offers the benefits of Christ’s death, namely the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, it’s the truth.  The Lord’s Supper is not just some representation meal to remember Jesus’ death.  That’s a lie.  This means that when God says salvation is a free gift of his grace, dependent completely and totally 100 percent on Jesus’ work and zero percent on our good works, it’s the truth.  To think an ancestry, a life good works, a long list of religious traditions, or anything else we do can in some way help God save us or earn us his mercy, well, that is a lie.

When God speaks, it’s true. But how do we know that it’s the truth? Because he’s the perfect God, who cannot lie.  But there’s another reason: Jesus.  2000 years ago he actually walked on this planet.  It happened.  It’s true. The Bible is not the only record we have of Jesus’ life and times.  There are other sources that acknowledge Jesus’ life.  Even the most skeptical of unbelievers admit that he was a Jew who lived in Palestine and died a Roman death on the cross.  Because those are true facts.

After Jesus died, he rose from the dead in the most stunning accomplishment of history.  And for a period of 20-40 years, there was no New Testament to prove it.  People didn’t have the written record yet.  Do you know what they did have?  Their eyes and ears.  They had the testimony passed on by eyewitnesses.  And during that time, almost a half century, people still believed that Jesus was God in flesh living in Palestine, that he had died on a cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins, and that he rose from the dead on Easter to defeat death and open the doors to heaven.  Thousands and thousands of people believed it to be true. Even the most skeptical people admit that many, many people believed the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They don’t know why and they might not agree, but they can’t ignore the facts that before that New Testament was written this good news spread like only the truth can.

Those facts of Jesus are still the facts now.  Nothing has changed.  If we have a God who loved us so much that he would come to save this world, if he really did live, die, and rise for us, then you would expect him to be a God who also speaks to us.  You would expect that God would want people to know him and you would expect that he is fully capable of pulling it off. When God speaks through the Word, we would expect it to be the truth from cover to cover, on the big things, on the small things, and on the historical dates and names. When God speaks, we would expect it to be everything we need to know, not a good starting point, not something that needs additional information.  You’d expect it to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me.  You’d expect that revelations and the verbal inspiration that authored such a book to stop at some point, so that we would know that God gave us everything we need. You would expect that when God speaks it is crystal, perfectly clear, not confusing, not subject to many interpretations.  You would expect that if you open up this book and read it, taking it at face value, that you would understand that God loves you, that Jesus saves you, and that you have a new life to live for him.  Finally, you would expect that if God speaks in this book that he would ensure its survival.   And he has.  There are 5300 copies that have made it down through the years. There is no other book translated into as many languages as the Bible.  This Bible, these words of God, it’s the truth just as much now as it was before it was written down. And that’s how we have arrived here today.

It was 499 years ago that these facts found a lowly monk in Wittenberg, Germany named Martin Luther.  He wasn’t much, but this message, this truth is. And because of that fact, this lowly German monk was willing to take a stand for the truth.  He didn’t want lies to continue to imprison people with guilt or pride.  He didn’t want a church to hide it any longer.  It wasn’t his power that accomplished such a great thing, it was the power of God.  When God speaks, it’s the truth.  And so a lowly monk took on the task of speaking it, even when the big church told him not to, even when it threatened his life.  And do you know what happened?  This truth spread like God was carrying it from heart to heart.  People were released from the guilt and pride of sin.

And this truth spread to you and me.  Here we are in a Lutheran church, where the truth is present and where God’s power is working.  If that’s true, then there’s one more thing you would expect, that we would love to hear it.  If that’s true, then when that one day a week rolls around, just two hours a week, you’d expect that his people would love to be there.  If that’s true, then the things you’d expect to hear in the homes of his people would not just be the news, sports, or funny sound bites but also and most importantly the voice of the God who speaks.  You’d expect that we would obey what he says. You’d expect that our whole lives would be built on the foundation of his truth, not his words and popular opinions, not his word and politics, but his pure Word.  You’d expect that the truth would be our greatest treasure because it tells us the we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.  And you’d be right, because when God speaks the truth sets you free.

Amen.