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.

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DON’T BE AFRAID

7.1.18 Pentecost 6B

Pentecost B

Mark 5:21-24, 35-43

21 When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him…. 

35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

 

 

At first, the theme for worship today probably seems like a no-brainer: Life is better than death.  Obviously! For growth to happen, you need life.  Dead things don’t grow.  Sure, I’ll give you that dead plants and dead little bugs become part of the soil, and the soil is where little dried up seeds from those dead plants or withered up, nasty-looking fruit come to life.  But it’s not the dead thing that grows, is it?  No, you need a plant to be living to grow.

When it comes to people, it’s the same.  Death isn’t good for growth.  A person needs to have their brainwaves waving and the heart beating somewhere in the 40-80 beats per minute range.

I think Jairus would agree with that.  He is the synagogue ruler in town, up north probably in Capernaum on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee.  There were two places for worship life for the Jews in Palestine.  There was the granddaddy of them all in Jerusalem, the Temple.  That’s where you would go for the major festivals like Passover.  But to make that journey every week was impractical.  That would be like driving to Fargo or Milwaukee every Sunday for worship.  So, the second place for worship was the synagogue.  That was the local church that was run by the people in the area.  Jairus is like the church president, the one who looks after the place and gets people to help out.  They didn’t have rabbis who were called to serve in one specific synagogue.  It was up to Jairus to schedule the preachers and teachers for the worship.  It’s safe to assume that Jairus was a respectable and responsible leading member of the community.

Given the choice, Jairus wants his 12 year-old daughter living rather than dead.  That’s why we see this synagogue ruler throw himself at Jesus’ feet.  Not a normal sight for such a man, but death causes people to do things they might not do otherwise.

And Jesus is the right man for this death-defying job. Jesus isn’t like any other man.  Earlier on this pretty intense day on the other side of the lake, Jesus had healed a demon-possessed man.  Jesus had traveled around the area healing every kind of illness and disease, even leprosy and a paralytic.  Large crowds were following Jesus because of his power.  But his message was even more eye-opening.  He didn’t just teach the law, telling people this is how you live to please God.  No, Jesus gave the people the good news, that even though you will never earn or deserve heaven it’s yours by God’s grace through the forgiveness of sins that Jesus gives.  He pointed to God’s promise of salvation that saves lawbreakers from God’s wrath.

Jairus needed Jesus, because life is better than death.  Jesus could make his sick girl well. Sometimes the tests get a little harder than that.  The horrible news comes from home, “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” You know, if my house burns down, that’s why we have insurance.  If my financial guy calls up to inform me that my investments have tanked, I can work through it.  If my pickup gets a ding or dent, I’ll get it fixed or drive around with it from now on.  No big deal.  But if you call me and say my daughter is dead, it’s a crushing blow.  The death of a child is never easy to handle.

I think we wouldn’t be surprised at all if Jairus would start asking God some questions.  I don’t think we would think it’s out of place at all if his anguish turned to anger.  I’ve seen that happen.  “Jesus, you are the Son of God.  You say God takes care of us.  Frankly, if this is the way God treats his people, then I’m done with you.”

But Jairus says nothing.  Because he was listening at synagogue.  He listened when God says you were sinful from birth, from the time your mother conceived you. Jairus not only listened in church but he also saw firsthand what kind of mischief a 12 year-old can do. And he heard God and believed God when he says the soul who sins is the one who will die.  Jairus knows his daughter was not innocent.  It would be foolish and against the Bible to plead his case before Jesus that his daughter was a good girl who deserved better.  Jairus knows that if he opened his mouth in anger against God or even questioned God’s timing that he would be unseating God and placing himself on the Creator’s throne.

But where his voice is silenced in the face of death, he hears something odd from Jesus, “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.”  Coming from one of those crooked tax collectors or annoying neighbors, those words wouldn’t mean much.  But coming from Jesus, those words mean everything.  Jesus is the eternal, saving Word, who became flesh to destroy the power of the devil.  Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away your sins and mine.  Jesus did not come to create a better political landscape.  He did not come to stabilize industries or the financial outlook.  He did not come to give us a life that grows here on earth.  Jesus came to give life that grows for eternity.  To do that he was going to have to show Jairus and all of us that death cannot tell Jesus what it wants.  Death can only listen to the one who has the power of life.

Not even skipping a beat, as if nothing was wrong, Jesus gathers Peter, James, and John and goes to the house. When they there, it’s like a zoo. And we might say for good reason, a 12 year-old girl has just died.  “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.”  The onlookers laugh, even though a girl is dead. They laugh at Jesus!

Why?  Maybe it’s because far too often this world sees death as more powerful and more permanent than life.  That’s why people want to hold on to this life with every bit of strength they have.  We do it, too.  We treat this life like it is the greatest and best.  We tend to fill ourselves up with so much stuff from this life.  We tend to be afraid of death because it’s definite and final.   We all agree with the idea that life is much, MUCH better than death, because we think about it as people who are tied to this earth and this life.  So when death comes it is a crushing blow.

But when The Life takes on death, there’s a different outcome.  With all the power and authority of the creator, Jesus speaks like he is rousing a child in the morning, Talitha koum, (“Little girl, get up!”)  But this girl doesn’t react like most of your kids probably do.  Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around.  By taking this girl by the hand and through his words spoken Jesus overcame the grip of death.

Jesus shows us that he has the power to make death temporary.  That’s what he has done for us. Jesus went to death for you and was forsaken by his own Father. He gave up his spirit so that the guilt which afflicts and the sin that kills would no longer. He went to the grave and back again, he died and took up his life again, so that death would not be something you have to fear. Death now leads to life through faith in Jesus Christ.

He’s the one who now takes you by the hand.  When death is haunting you, Jesus shows you the scars on his hands and says, “Don’t be afraid.”  When death is trying to prove that it is more powerful and more permanent than life, Jesus takes you by the hand and he says, “Death is but a sleep.” And this is what he does as you live out your days, he has you by the hand fighting back darkness and silencing fear. And when you breathe your last and the last day comes, there he is with your hand in his and he’ll say, “My child, I say to you, get up!” And you will rise body and soul because death is but a sleep.

Henry Francis Lyte was an English clergyman. Throughout his life and in his professional career he suffered from various respiratory ailments. In fact, after seeking a particular appointment he was denied due to asthma and bronchitis. By the end of his life, in the 1840s, he was forced to spend much of his time in the warmer climates of France and Italy. In his last dying days he set a poem he had once written to music, maybe you recognize these words, we will be singing them later today:

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;

Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.

Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

 

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.

Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;

In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

How could he be so fearless as death stood at his doorstep? Because he knew what Jesus did for Jairus’ daughter would be true of him as well. He knew that life was better than death.  Jesus had him by the hand and was saying, “Don’t be afraid. Through faith in me, death is ended.” Jesus had him by the hand and was saying, “Death is just a sleep.” And he knew one day Jesus would say to him, “Get up.”

This doesn’t mean that at the next Christian funeral you attend you should walk in and say, “What are you all crying for, don’t you know about what Jesus did for Jairus’ little girl?” We mourn when death comes, we mourn when that chair is empty or that laugh is silenced. We certainly miss those who die. But we also mourn differently. We don’t mourn like those who think that death is permanent. We mourn knowing that those who die in Christ are being led by his hand. We mourn knowing that just as the little girl’s mom and dad rejoiced at her coming back to life, we too will have an eternity of joy when Jesus says, “Get up!”  We mourn knowing that his life is better, more powerful, more permanent than our death.

Brothers and sisters, that fact is what causes growth in these last days.  It’s not running from death.  It’s Jesus.  It’s looking at who holds your hand, that’s the one who is our life, our eternal life.  It’s clinging to him.  It’s living in him, for him, with him.  Don’t be afraid; just believe.  Death is just a sleep.  His life is yours.  Amen.

A BIGGER PERSPECTIVE

10.22.17 Week 4

STILL

Genesis 15:1-6

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE TRIUNE GOD BLESSES US

Week 1 – 6.11.17

LL pic 2

2 Corinthians 13:11-14

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss. 13 All God’s people here send their greetings.
14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

There is this idea that goes around in our subjective world that I get to decide what I like about God and you get to decide what you like about him.  And if those two things are different, that’s OK.  We don’t have to get so dogmatic about it.  We can just get along with our differing ideas of God as long as we both believe in whatever it is we believe.  What’s important is that we all agree that no one is absolutely right and no one is absolutely wrong.  After all, God just wants us to believe.

People say lots of things like that.  And do you know what?  They are wrong, completely wrong.  All those different views that come from people in this very subjective, self-oriented world, can’t work together.  Differing views don’t work to describe the divine God.  It’s impossible for the perfect God to put up with partial truths and platitudes.  You either have the real God or you don’t.

And so today is a good day for God to remind us who he is.  The reason this festival of the church takes place at this time of year is that we are in a new season, the Pentecost season.  It’s the portion of the Church Year where God’s people grow in the teachings of Christ through his words.  To shift the focus, we are starting our new series, Lutheran Legacy.  Just what exactly does it mean to be a Lutheran?  We are starting today with God, the one true God.

That’s a good place to start, but it is also most confusing because he tells us that he is triune, three persons in one God.  The Father is God.  The Son is God.  The Holy Spirit is God. But there are not three Gods; there is just one God.  I’m not good at math, so this is perfect for me: 1+1+1=1.  It’s bad math, but perfect theology.  This is the God Lutherans confess, because this is the only God there is.

This is confusing, and I like it that way.  What kind of God would he be if I could easily grasp him?  I don’t want a God to be like me.  My son? Sure, in some ways, I want him to be a chip off the old block.  My God?  I need him to be bigger and better than me.  And I don’t need him to be just bigger and better than me.  I need him to be bigger and better than every person, ever.  And so, I’m glad my God reveals himself as three persons in one God, Triune.  I don’t understand it.  I can’t.  But here’s some good news: you don’t have to understand it to believe it.

You probably are familiar with this without even realizing it.  The internet…do you understand how it works?  I remember a time when there was no such thing as internet or Google, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Siri, no smartphones.  I have no clue how the internet came about or how it works.  But I believe it.  I use the internet every day.  I don’t understand how it works, but I trust it and use it.  Just one other example.  I saw a clip this past week from America’s Got Talent of a woman who plays guitar and sings even though she is deaf.  I have no clue how that works, but I believe it.

That’s the same thing as the Holy Trinity.  You may be surrounded by a holy, eternal Triune God that you cannot grasp or understand, and that’s ok.  We can believe in things that are too profound and complicated for us to grasp.  We do it all the time.  This Triune God, the God of the Bible, told us exactly what he is like.  He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The problem is not with him and how great and mind-blowing he is.  The problem is me.

I was struck by that fact as I read this closing encouragement from the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians.  Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. 

Do you know why Paul wrote these encouragements?  It seems obvious that this is exactly how Christians would live, but we don’t.  I was struck by the fact that I don’t always rejoice in all circumstances.  This week was pretty busy.  I had the privilege to preach the gospel of God’s peace and comfort for the funeral of Maurine Striegel on Friday.  I had the privilege of seeing what water can do when it is connected to the life-giving Word of God in Baptism as I baptized Hadley on Saturday.  Those are reasons to rejoice.  But I was not rejoicing about needing to get my whole basement ready for the painting that we are doing this weekend.  I was not rejoicing about trying to keep my garden alive because we haven’t had rain in too long.  I was not rejoicing that I had office work and other preparations that kept me from enjoying the warmer days outside with my kids.

Paul says, “Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.”  Those things should be easy for children of God, but they aren’t.  We strive for self-restoration instead of working with others.  We gossip about one another, ignore one another, or covet what others have instead of encouraging one another.  You each have your own way of thinking about life, relationships, priorities, and our ministries, so being of one mind with another person, even another Christian, can be a tall task.

And finally, Paul says, “live in peace.”  This is a common principle in Scripture, because peace is so hard for us to keep.  How do you live in peace when there is chaos almost constantly?  It comes from all angles.  There’s another terrorist attack.  There’s another political upheaval.  There’s another comment from a coworker.  There’s another bully at school.  Live at peace with people?  Yeah, right!!  How’s that possible in this day and age.

Do you notice who has the problem?  If I can’t grasp the Triune God it’s not his fault, it’s mine.  I’m the one who isn’t smart enough.  I’m the one who isn’t peaceful enough.  I’m the one who isn’t selfless enough, loving enough, strong enough, positive enough… I’m the one who isn’t perfect enough.

And so this Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – this holy, eternal God that is far too great for me to understand, he decided he would bless me.  He decided he wouldn’t curse me.  He decided he wouldn’t demand more works of service to make up for what’s wrong in my life. He wouldn’t punish me for my ineptitude.  He would bless me.  That’s how the God who defies the human mind deals with me.  He doesn’t use conventional wisdom because he is far too great for that.  He uses divine grace, divine love, and divine fellowship.

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”  Paul concludes his letter with this familiar blessing, and it couldn’t be more powerful for us.  It shows us the way the Holy Trinity deals with sinners.

First, it’s the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Grace is the only word for it.  We didn’t work for it.  We didn’t luck into it.  We weren’t born into it.  We didn’t earn it.  We are weak, selfish, sinful, dirty and dying.  We are so sinful and opposed to God by nature.  Like a beached whale, we swim ourselves into places that kill us.  But God’s grace can’t stand to see us in harm’s way.  Grace gets to work to help people who don’t deserve it.  In fact, grace is so good that Jesus took on our weaknesses, our selfishness, our sins, our dirty and dying lives.  He put it all on his shoulders and died for it because he knew we would die separated from God for eternity if he didn’t.

That’s a blessing!

Second, we have the love of God (the Father).  Generally speaking, other religions have a god that loves people who first show love to him.  That’s a very human trait.  Our Father in heaven is the opposite of that.  He loves first.  Without prompting, he makes a world and people to fill it.  When those people blew it and ruined it with sin, he put a plan into action that would cost him so that he could restore our broken relationship with him.  He carried it out to perfection, by his grace, and gives it to us free of charge.  When we are not even able to make comprehensible sentences, his love takes something like water and drowns our sinful nature in baptism.  As we grow he feeds us with his life-giving Word and with the forgiveness of Christ’s body and blood.  He loves us like only a perfect Father could. He gives us everything he has, everything he is, and everything that Christ has provided for our salvation.  He even promises that nothing can change his loving mind.  He will always want you.  He will always be willing to have you.  Nothing can separate you from your Father’s love that is in Christ Jesus.

That’s a blessing!

Third, we have the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Sin and Satan have done a number on this world and in our hearts, always trying to destroy the unity that our Triune God has established with his redeemed people.  Peace is hard to come by.  And so the Holy Spirit blows with the power of Pentecost (remember that from last week?).  He breaks down walls, not with a humanistic universalism and not with a message of: “we can just get along with our differing ideas of God as long as we both believe in whatever it is we believe.  What’s important is that we all agree that no one is absolutely right and no one is absolutely wrong.”  He breaks down walls with the law and gospel, with the power of Scripture, with a message that could never originate in the hearts and minds of man, but only in the heart of the Triune God.  There is unity and fellowship by the power of the Spirit.  It is built on the Word of God and nothing more.

That is a blessing!

This three-fold blessing is what changes life for us.  It makes us live in a new way.  We live with the name of the Triune God on us.  We live with the things Paul encourages: peace, single-mindedness, encouragement, restoration.  We live in the glory of the God we can’t understand but firmly believe.

That’s being Lutheran.  That’s the legacy we hold to.  Over the next couple months we are going to study this legacy, and do you know what you are going to find?  We don’t have our own interpretation of the Bible.  We don’t have our own rules.  We don’t have Luther’s interpretation.  We don’t have Luther’s rules.  We have the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And that is with you all.  Amen.

REMOVING DOUBTS IS EASY WITH EASTER

4.23.17 Easter 2A

Easter Season A

John 20

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

CIR HIRI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.