SPEAKING GOOD NEWS

Walls torn down

Luke 24:13-33

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FROM GOSPEL MISSION TO GLORIOUS VISION

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Revelation 7:9-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

READ v9-17

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

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

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

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

TURNING YOUR CONVERSATIONS

Walls torn down

Acts 17:16-33

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ r As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council.

 

 

A place where a ton of ideas about God and religion swirl around every day.  A place where idols are all over the place.  A place where some people spend a lot of time browsing through the latest ideas and popular trends.  A place where disputes among the “smart” people rage regularly.  A place where ones preaching about Jesus can get many differing reactions.  A place where people want to know what things mean.  Do you know what place I’m talking about?  Isn’t it obvious? The place is Athens back in the day of the Apostle Paul.

But doesn’t it also sound like it could be another place at another time?  Doesn’t it sound like this could be right near your home, your work, your school.  Absolutely!  This plays out on Facebook and Twitter every day.  It happens at your family get togethers, the grocery store, the weekend games, the mall, and so many others. This kind of thing is what you and I deal with every day here in 2018.

But this world will make it easy and even demand you to ignore it.  I was on the phone this week for over an hour trying to get an issue with my Microsoft Office 365 fixed.  The man on the other line was from India, literally he was talking with me at 11pm from the country of India, in some city I cannot pronounce that has over 12 million people.  His name was Srinivasan (and yes, it took me an embarrassing amount of attempt to get that right).  There was plenty of down time during our conversation because he was on the remote access to my computer uninstalling things and reinstalling others to make sure my Office 365 worked properly.  So, I was nosy and asked him a lot of personal questions, sports, food, schooling, relationship status – all the basics.    But when I got to religion Srinivasan politely answered my question but then told me that religion and politics are not allowed for these calls.

And that has a way of trickling down into our day to day lives, doesn’t it?  If you want to keep your friends, family, coworkers and everybody else happy, then these two highly-debated topics should come up seldom and when they do come up, try to be quick, discrete and considerate.  However, to be safe you should still avoid them at all costs.

If you avoid the topic of religion in your conversations with people that you care about and know well, you can probably guess what will happen in your conversations with people who you don’t know very well or at all.  You won’t be thinking of God’s Word, faith, or church much in those conversations either.  So, if you have regularly avoided the topics of religion, spiritual life, Jesus, and the Bible both with the people you know and those you don’t know in the past, what do you expect will happen now and in the future?  Are you able to just switch it on?

I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense.  Think of a kid who played soccer in middle school but then gives it up besides watching it here and there until he’s 33 and his kids want to learn.  He might be able to show some simple things like where to kick the ball on your foot and how to pass, but he won’t have much skill or experience.  I found this out first hand when we had our Bible soccer camp this past summer.  Sure I can kick a ball, but it might not go where I want it to all the time.  And I didn’t have any kind of footwork or dribbling or receiving skills.  I could play with the kids, but with soccer players my own age I wouldn’t be able to do much at all.

If that’s the way you are going to treat evangelism and sharing the good news of Jesus with others, then don’t expect to be all that comfortable talking about Jesus, about what he has done for you or about what the Bible says on key issues.  If your faith in Jesus is simply a Sunday thing, then what about the rest of the week?  How can you carry out God’s Great Commission for believers to go and make disciples, if you aren’t thinking and talking about Jesus and what he has done regularly?

I’ve done it.  I’ve skipped the chance to talk about my Savior.  I think it’s safe to assume that we all have.  Whether it was nerves, worry, doubt, fear, lack of skill, lack of knowledge, lack of love, it doesn’t matter.  It was wrong.

But I have a feeling that God might give you another chance. That coworker that complains too much might just be at it again on Monday.  That classmate who looks sad and alone will still be at school.  Your waitress if you go out this week might be new in town and trying to figure it all out.  You might run into a cousin who’s got some difficulties and stress building up.  The neighbor who is a little annoying might come by.  Someone who comes for our Trunk-or-Treat event might have some questions.  The chatty dad at swim lessons might pick the seat next to you.  You get the point. There are and will continue to be people around you who are just like the people at the Areopagus or the lady at the well.

It’s not like you have to come out and tell every single person that you run across in a day that Jesus is their Savior from sin and hell.  You could, God bless you, you could.  But I think it’s good to remember who you are when you are out and about with people.  You are a Paul. You are an Ezekiel.  You are a person who, at one point in life whether it was for a couple of days or decades, was against God.  Sin and unbelief are a real part of your past.  You were on the natural born path to hell, but God stepped in to remove your sin through faith in Jesus.  Jesus changed your heart with the power of the gospel in Word and Sacrament.  You were baptized, brought to faith, connected to Jesus and his eternal gift of life.  You were adopted by God into his family.  The Holy Spirit took up residence in your heart.  You were purchased by Jesus.  Faith took root and gave you a new home in heaven and a new outlook in this life.

When God did this for you with the power of the gospel, the faith he planted was not a 1/7 kind of faith.  What I mean is, faith was not planted in your heart so that you could think about it, talk about it, treasure it, confess it, share it only on Sundays.  It was planted there for 7 out of 7 days.  The God-given gift of faith is in your heart to be there for your entire life.

And that faith that God gave you is not the selfish type.  It’s not timid and lazy.  It’s not nervous and weak.  The same power of the gospel that changed your heart is at work to make you look and talk to others the way God looks and talks to you.

So how do you navigate in an environment where there are a ton of ideas about God and religion swirling around?  How can you boldly speak up about Jesus where idols are all over the place?  How can you bring up spiritual matters when they seem to get many differing reactions?

Look what Paul does. (quote a couple things from 22-31)

Paul is a Christian who walks through a city with Christian eyes, seeing that there are obviously some things that aren’t quite in line with God.  And yet, he doesn’t bash their superstitions and idolatry but uses them as a launching pad into evangelism.  He doesn’t say, “Well, you have your beliefs and I have mine.”  No, he uses their popular religious views, the words from their own poets, and the cultural philosophies to point to the truth of God.

Paul saw how people were creating their own ideas of God, distorting and distilling the Lord of heaven and earth down to the size their brains could handle. Instead of walking away from it, Paul uses a very logical progression.  It’s almost like he is saying, “If God is bigger than us and hard to figure out, then why would it work for us to turn God into something smaller than us that we can make?  That doesn’t make sense.  But what does make sense is that the God of everything wants people to believe in him.  And he even rose from the dead to prove how powerful, and how much he cares about you.”  Paul uses simple law that points out idolatry as sin.  Paul uses simple gospel that points to Jesus power over death for us.  He goes from what is common to us to describe what is unique about God.

And he doesn’t worry about the results.  Sure, some sneered at him, but others were interested.  And Paul didn’t let that stop him, because the power of God’s good news works.  We can’t control where and when – that’s up to God – but we can control our use of it.

Brothers and sisters, you can do the very same thing with the Christian eyes, heart, and life that God has given you.  You can see things from the spiritual, eternal perspective. You can use the love God has placed in your heart that is willing to help others.  You can use the Word God has given you in the Bible regularly.  You can speak to others using simple every day examples to turn conversations to what matters most.

So when the weather comes up, you can talk about the creator of the world and all its weather.  When negative news comes up again, you can bring up the one who gets rid of the negativity of sin and death.  When someone is going through a rough patch, you can identify with that, right? And then talk about the one who brings peace and joy.  When a storm rages and destroys some part of the country, you can talk about the only shelter you have from the storms.  When your sports team isn’t doing that great, you can talk about the victory Jesus has won.  And on and on.  Jesus is right there in any conversation because he is right there in your heart.

It doesn’t take a genius to do this.  Paul was no philosopher.  He had the gospel and he had God’s promise.  That’s what you have, too.  Amen.

GET COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE

 

Walls torn down

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

 

Love makes you do some undesirable things.  I thought of an example that fits for parents: change diapers.  You love your baby. You know they need to be clean.  And even though it’s stinky and sometimes you get hit by some not-so-friendly fire, you do it.  But every parent will admit that it gets old.  Sometimes you and your spouse do a rock-paper-scissors best of three to see who has to do the change.  Sometimes you wish the oldest was old enough to do it.  The great thing about changing diapers is that eventually you don’t have to do it anymore; the baby grows up.  Love makes you do some undesirable or uncomfortable things for a while.

But all things, does love make you do all things?  Is that really possible?  I mean, last week we began this evangelism training series by taking a good look at the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan.  Remember that when the love of Christ is in your heart you are built to show love to people just as Christ has shown love to you.  You will help someone when they are in need.  You will give money to those who have been affected by a disaster of some kind.  You will put yourself in a position where you have to sacrifice something for someone else’s benefit.  You will change diapers.  You will.  There’s no question about that.

When the topic is evangelism there is a similar attitude.  Christ has given you his good news.  It’s not just a little piece of your life along with all these other details and descriptions that are more important.  The gospel is the number one biggest and best thing that you have, because in the gospel you have the good news that you are saved by Jesus free and full.  God loves you so much that he decided to make heaven your eternal home because of what Jesus has done for you.  God has made this your good news.

But he has also made this universally good for everyone and God wants all people to be saved, so God wants your good news to be their good news.  You do have people in your family, your group of friends, your neighborhood, your work – there are people who you know who don’t have or don’t care much about this good news.  You can talk about Jesus, religion, faith, church with them.  You can work up the courage to bring it up with a spouse, relative, friend or neighbor.  You can invite them to worship, to take a Bible Basics course together, to meet up with me for a chat sometime.  You can.  And since this good news of the gospel is so good, you have probably tried doing this before.

But the Good Samaritan story is one that Jesus makes up to teach us who we should love and what love does.  From that story we learn that every single person who is not me is my neighbor.  With Christ’s love in my heart, I will be willing to help them.  And with Christ’s love in my heart I will be willing to help them quite a bit.  But the story is only about one specific occasion.  You and I could probably do that kind of Good Samaritan thing one time.  You and I can go out of our way to help someone who needs it once.  We could pay for someone’s meal or groceries once.  We could spring into action if a neighbor kid gets hurt and no one else is around.  We could do a fundraiser for someone in need.  We could give some confused person directions.  We could put some gas in someone’s car.  All sorts of stuff that we could do because we are loved by Jesus and his love is now present in our hearts.

But what if it’s more than once?  What if it becomes a pattern?  When it comes to loving others, what if we have to do it a lot?  When it comes to evangelism, speaking the good news of Jesus, what if we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable?  This section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians helps us with that.

The Apostle Paul had worked hard among the people of Corinth.  He wanted them to have what he had.  So much, in fact, that he did not even take any kind of payment from them when he first stopped in Corinth on his second missionary trip.  He put himself in that position because serving people was his main goal.  He was also willing to mingle with both Jews and Gentiles because the gospel is for all every single person was worth it.  That wasn’t the normal way to do things back then.

Now, we might look at that and think Paul’s nuts.  Actually, there were plenty of people in Corinth who were trying to convince the members of the congregation that Paul was not only nuts for doing that but also not a true apostle. They were saying something like this: “Paul must not be a real preacher called by God because every preacher should get some kind of payment for his work.  And a real preacher would certainly not be seen with the kind of people we saw Paul with when he was here the last time.”

But Paul answers that by saying, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone…”  Paul says it doesn’t matter who it is, if there are people who could be served in his ministry, then he would do it.  He willingly put himself on the line for their sake.  Paul wanted, in so many various ways, to find common ground with everyone so that he could serve them with what was most important   .

It’s not just a one-time thing like the story of the Good Samaritan.  Paul made it his practice to be in situations that other people might not be comfortable in.  “To the Jews I became like a Jew… to those under the law I became like one under the law…to those not having the law I became like one not having the law…to the weak I became weak…”  Paul was willing to make real changes in how he approached different people, but he never changed who he was.  Paul was a Christian.  That was first and foremost no matter who he met or who he was serving.  He was bought with the blood of Christ and had this same gospel message for others.

So that meant he could be like a Jew for those who were from the Jewish heritage.  Paul was also from that heritage, from the tribe of Benjamin.  He could be like those who still followed all the Old Testament ceremonial laws about eating only kosher food, wearing certain kinds of clothes, observing special festivals.  Even though Christ set us free from all those ceremonials laws by fulfilling them for us perfectly, Paul could set aside that kind of freedom for the Jews and for those who like following those ceremonials laws.  He didn’t do it one time, but he was willing to get comfortable, doing it a lot.

He could also be like Gentiles who didn’t know or care about any of those Old Testament ceremonial laws that were meant for the Jews.  Christ sets us free from those laws that God commanded for Israel in the Old Testament.  Paul knew that he could serve those Gentiles just as well as long as it did not violate God’s moral law, the Ten Commandments.  Paul does make that concession, that we are in the law of Chris to love God with every fiber of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.  But if there was no sin involved in reaching out to Gentiles Paul was willing to do anything for them.

He could even be seen serving those who were “weak,” They had a weak conscience. They were easily offended by anyone who would dare do something they would not do.  Paul was willing to give up so much of what was perfectly fine for him to do, so that he could find common ground with those who are touchy about everything.

Now, what would make Paul willing to be so uncomfortable, like he always had to change his outlook and his preferences for others, like he was every person’s slave, even though Christ had set him free?  Maybe before we answer that I should ask you the same question.

What would make you willing to get uncomfortable not just once, but to get comfortable with being uncomfortable?  Maybe if someone paid you enough?  Like an actor, they have to play some parts that are undesirable, but the payoff makes it all worth it.  Is that what it would be for you?  Or maybe someone really close and special to you?  You could perhaps change some of your preferences and then flip-flop back whenever it was for their benefit, as long as it was not sin, of course.

But Paul says he didn’t accept payment in Corinth.  And when he arrived there he didn’t know any of the people.  So what made him “become all thing to all people”?  That answer is simple for him and just as simple for us.  “so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Paul’s not interested in his own comfort level.  Paul’s not interested in the finances.  Paul’s not interested in his own popularity.  Paul’s not interested in any of that.  What he is interested in is saving people from hell.  But Paul isn’t the one who could do that.  So Paul had to talk about the one who did.  That’s giving the good news of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Think about what Jesus did.  He was not a Jew or Gentile. Jesus is the eternal God; there is no nationality for God.  He was not someone under the law or someone not having the law.  Jesus is the one who invented the law.  He was not weak or strong.  Jesus is omnipotent, that means all-powerful.  And yet Jesus decided to get comfortable in what many would say is uncomfortable.  He came down from heaven to do it all.  He became the servant of all.  He was humble and selfless.  And then he was beaten and killed.  He came to be the good news that sinners don’t have to die and go to hell.  Jesus came to wash sins away and give a new life, free from law, free from guilt, free from the traps of the devil.  He came to be the good news that heaven awaits all who believe in Jesus.

That’s why Paul did what he did.  He was willing to get uncomfortable because the gospel is just that good of news.  Don’t you think that it might happen that there are people who need this good news and they don’t have your lifestyle?  Don’t you think there might happen to be some who have a different nationality than you? Don’t you think it might happen that some look at Jesus in a different way than you?  Don’t you think there might be some who are under the load of the law and some who aren’t?  Don’t you think there might be some who are weak?   Of course!  Do you know what they need?  The Gospel of Jesus.

It just so happens that Jesus has made this good news your very own.  And so he makes it easy for you to see the situation how it really is.  It’s not about how desirable or comfortable a situation is.  It’s not about your feelings or thoughts.  It’s not about you at all.  It’s about him.  Jesus has made you to be the kind of person that wants to serve him by serving others.  Jesus has given you his gospel.  You have a God who forgives you, saves you, gives you a new life, holds you in the palm of his hand, protects you, guides you.  There is nothing better, more comfortable than that.

When it comes to evangelism, we don’t have to be nervous, uneasy, or uncomfortable.  It’s not about me.  It’s about Jesus.  We can be all things to all people because the gospel is just that good.  Amen.

LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED

Walls torn down

Luke 10:25-37

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

 

A wrecking ball can do some pretty impressive work.  Where a building once stood, it can make a pile of rubble in a matter of minutes.  It’s destructive.  It’s violent.  It’s powerful.  When a wrecking ball wreaks its havoc on a condemned building or a fire-ravaged property that you remember, it can definitely be sad.  Just imagine if we would see a wrecking ball take down this house.  Imagine what those remaining in the land of Israel felt when they saw the wrecking ball of the Babylonian Army take down God’s holy Temple…devastation, loss, anger.

But if something else is built in its place, well that could be something good.  The condemned building or fire-ravaged property gives way to a new home, a new business, a new store – that is beneficial.  If it would ever happen that this church building would be demolished, that could give way to a new house of God for us to use faithfully for our growing congregation and community for the next 50, 60, 100 years.  The Temple was rebuilt – although not as grand as Solomon’s masterpiece – and the group of people that returned from captivity were once again able to worship God in their homeland, in God’s city, Jerusalem, in God’s holy house.  In that way, a wrecking ball is necessary because it removes something that isn’t helpful and builds something that is.

I think we can look at the gospel of Jesus Christ like that.  The gospel will break and destroy.  It will be a violent shattering of what was once there, a powerful display of what God can do.  That’s the idea you get when you read what God inspired Paul to write in Romans 1: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.”  The gospel is good news that is powerful to tear down a life of selfishness, sin, and unbelief.  The gospel is good news that is powerful to build up a new life of faith in Jesus, hope for eternity, and service to God and our neighbors.  The gospel is good news that is the only power that can get a rotten sinner like you and a rotten sinner like me to heaven.  That is the most powerful thing that there is.

That’s why our new worship series is going to talk about how to use the gospel.  If it is good news, if it is powerful enough to tear down a life of sin and unbelief and build up a new life of faith and service, if it is for us and everyone else, then we should probably use it.

But, you know, not everyone agrees that the gospel is powerful or that this good news of Jesus is the only way to heaven.  From the smartest sociologists and psychologists to the simple bloggers and social media users, from the most religious to those who can’t stand religion, people have a lot of different ideas about what is necessary to get to heaven.

This expert in the law had it figured out.  He wasn’t asking this question like the rich, young ruler from last week.  He was asking to test Jesus and really to discredit him.  See, he had his own answer and considering Luke calls him an expert in the law, you can probably guess what his answer is.  He said the arrow points up.  I have to follow laws to get into heaven.  I have to make my way up.

So when Jesus was patient and gracious with this man, pointing him back into the Bible for the answer, the expert in the law was ready to give him the best summary of the law that there is. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  He gave Jesus the same summary that the Bible gives: Love God, that’s the first table of the law, and love your neighbor, that’s the second table.

It’s easy to give that answer, but when Jesus says, “Do this and you will live,” that’s a little difficult.  If the arrow points up, then I have to love God with everything I am all the time.  If the arrow points up, then I have to love my neighbor, not like, not tolerate, not accept, not avoid, but love my neighbor in the same way that I take care of myself.

If the arrow points up and I have to love perfectly to get into heaven, then I have a problem. Because it doesn’t take me long to look my whole life, even just the last week, to see that I have loved things and people more than my God and I have cared for myself a lot more than the people around me.  I have fallen short of having the love I need to get into heaven, and so have you.

All the laws that this guy was an expert in, all those places where you open you Bible and say, “Oh no! I am not doing that.  I don’t like that.  I can’t do that,” – all these laws God gave us for one reason: to know that we are sinful and that there is no way I can get myself into heaven. Period.  There would have to be someone else, because if I have to follow the laws perfectly and love perfectly then it’s never going to be the eternal outcome I’m looking for.

Brothers and sisters, that’s why God sent us the Redeemer, the one who makes the payment and buys back that condemned property to make something new with it.  God didn’t just forget about the law.  He didn’t just say, “You don’t need to worry about all those commandments I was so serious about before.”  No, Jesus came to fulfill every law for me.  He came to live the way I cannot.  He came to love the way I won’t.  He came to complete everything for me in my place so that I can live with Jesus forever.  This is the good news.

The expert in the law doesn’t want to let Jesus off so easy, and at the same time he doesn’t want to look silly in front of everyone there – I mean, an expert in the law should be able to come up with a harder question than one that has such an easy answer.  So, he says, “Well, the real questions is:  And who is my neighbor?”

To answer Jesus tells a very clear and striking story.  This 17-mile stretch between Jerusalem and Jericho had rocky crevices and ravines out in the desert that provided a great place for robbers to sneak up on defenseless travelers.  And even though the threat of danger was high, it was very familiar and well-traveled because that is the way Jews traveled to avoid going through Samaria.   Samaria and Samaritans were off limits.  They were scum.  Jews didn’t want to associate with them.  That was the worst thing you could call someone in Israel back then.  Jesus picks the perfect setting for this expert and for all of us to consider who my neighbor is and what loving them means.

As the story goes a Jewish man traveling on that road is attacked.  The bandits beat him, strip him, and leave him for dead.  It’s an ugly situation that gets even uglier.  A priest, thank God, a priest, a servant and preacher in the house of the Lord happens to be traveling down that road soon afterward, but he passes by on the other side of the road.  Who cares what the reason is!  You can see his self-centeredness and lack of love.  Another Jew, a Levite – that would be another guy who was coming from work in the Temple, serving the Lord – comes down the road with the exact same kind of self-centeredness and lack of love.

Then, Jesus uses the s-word, Samaritan.  He says a Samaritan comes down the road, and every Jew listening to this story gets a bad taste in their mouths.  The Samaritan, who has no reason to love this Jew and care for him, sees him and has pity on him.  He bandages his wounds.  He puts him on his own donkey.  He takes him to a hotel and cares for him over night.  The next morning, he leaves enough money for this man to stay for almost two months.

The answer to the question “who is my neighbor?”  is so obvious.  But there is another thing that is so obvious about this story.  This is what it is like for us.  This is what it is like to have the gospel, the good news of the Redeemer who saw us broken and left for dead and came to save us.  He took us out of harm’s way.  He healed us and made us new.  He paid for us fully and completely so that there would be nothing left for us to do.   This is what it is like for us who have the good news of Jesus and live with the grace and mercy of God.

In this life that we have from God, as people who have been purchased and cleansed and made new by Christ, as people who have his love not because of what we do but because of what he has done, and as people who know what the amazing power of the gospel does, we are not motivated by guilt or obligation.

Guilt an obligation can only do so much.  Think about the Samaritan.  If he felt obligated to do something, what would it be?  Report the crime.  We think the priest and Levite are monsters for not helping, but obligation would not motivate you to help.  You’d call in the crime.  Maybe you would stop the car and wait for some other help to arrive.  But obligation and guilt would not make you pick this guy up, let him bleed all over your car, take him to the hospital, stay with him over night, and then pay his hospital bill.  Obligation doesn’t have that kind of power.

God’s grace that is poured out into our hearts through the gospel, the powerful good news of Jesus, does.  The good news frees us from obligation and guilt.  The good news fills us with the same kind of love that God has for us.

We don’t follow God’s laws, come to church, give offerings, take care of our family, show kindness to others, speak the good news of Jesus to our friends and neighbors because if we don’t God won’t love us.  That is the arrow pointing up.  That is the sense of obligation to earn God’s love.  Instead, because Jesus fulfilled the law for me, because Jesus forgives all my sins, because he promises heaven for me and all believers, because he has put this good news into my heart, because he has changed my life forever, I want to do what God says.  This changed life I have now oozes with thankfulness where I love God and love my neighbors.

When you see someone who is wrecked and broken by the desires of this world, when you see someone who is beat up and left helpless by the lies of people that teach that the arrow has to go up to get into heaven, when you see someone who is unconscious to the danger they are in and you do nothing you’ve got a problem with self-centeredness and lack of love.  That is not the way God built you with his grace and mercy. His gospel message, the good news of Jesus, is the power that not only puts faith in your heart but also removes self-centeredness and the lack of love from your life.

There are people around you – family member, friends, acquaintances, neighbors – who need this good news.  They don’t need an arrow pointing up.  They don’t need more obligations. They don’t need more rules.  They don’t need to figure out how to make it in this world.  They need to know how to make it out of this world to the heaven God has paid for.  They need to know about the one who came to set them free from the pressing load of guilt.  They need to hear that the arrow points down from God who loved the whole world that he was willing to offer up his Son.  They need to hear about Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection, his forgiveness and salvation.

My friends, to help them you don’t need all sorts of skills.  You don’t need confidence from all sorts of personal successes.  You don’t need to have all sorts verses memorized.  You don’t need a job at a church.  Look what that did for the priest and Levite.  What you need is love.  You need selfless, Good Samaritan kind of love that cares for people no matter what.  And it just so happens that the kind of love we need is exactly what Jesus did for us and is exactly what Jesus put into our hearts and lives with his gospel message.  When you have love like that, good news is easy to share.  God grant it.  Amen.

WHY DO YOU BELIEVE WHAT YOU BELIEVE?

5.27.18 Holy Trinity B

Pentecost B

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, t 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

 

It’s amazing the affect a little rain and warm weather can have.  The leaves have popped.  The grass and unfortunately the weeds are getting thick.  It’s summer and that means it’s time for growth.

The change that is happening in nature is also paralleled in the Church.  The seasons have changed.  We are now in the time of year where the focus and main character is still Jesus, but instead of seeing the manger, the baptism, the miracles, the suffering, the cross, the empty tomb, the ascension – you know, the cycle of Jesus’ life, what he did for us – we now see and hear the Rabbi, the teacher with his many lessons that the Spirit uses to cultivate our faith making it more and more productive.

To start this season off every year we talk about one of those teachings that is clear from Scripture but completely unclear to our puny human brains: the Trinity, one God in three persons and three distinct persons in one God.  1 + 1 + 1 = 1.  This defies every ounce of brain capability we have.  It takes something else to have this in our minds and in our hearts.  It takes faith.  And not faith as in how much hope and trust and conviction you have, but faith from and in the Triune God.

To teach us this valuable lesson, to get our SUMMER GROWTH started in the best way, we are digging in to a very familiar section of Scripture, John 3.  I say it’s very familiar because this is the part in the Bible where the gospel is given to us so clearly that we all memorize it. Verse 16, say it with me, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall no perish but have eternal life.” This verse happens to be a part of a meeting Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus might not be a familiar Bible name to you, but I think you’ll see that his experience is quite familiar.  Nicodemus belongs to two important groups of people back in Jesus’ day.  The one group is called the Pharisees – they were the spiritual leaders of the day – and the other group is the Sanhedrin – they were the ruling council for the Jews in Jesus’ day.  Belonging to both meant that Nicodemus was a pretty big deal, but it also meant that Nicodemus had some questions swirling inside.  And that is familiar territory, isn’t it?

You see, when it came to Jesus, these two groups agreed, which didn’t always happen.  About Jesus they were all on the same page.  At this time, Jesus was kind of new on the scene; it’s still the first year of his ministry in the public eye.  But these leaders believe Jesus is a menace to Jewish religion and Jewish culture.  He is troublemaker.  He is likely delusional.  He is a problem that needed to be solved.

But Nicodemus also hears the reports about what happened in Cana, that he changed water into wine.  Then, Jesus shows up for the Passover in Jerusalem and performs a few more miracles.  People see them.  They hear Jesus.  Nicodemus sees and hears, and it didn’t add up in his mind.  A delusional menace could not be doing these kinds of things Jesus does.  And maybe he thought to himself, “How could a problem be a man who seems to care about helping people?”

So, he planned this undercover, middle-of-the-night, “I hope my colleagues don’t find out about this” meeting with Jesus because he is dealing with this question, “Why do I believe what I believe?”

A lot of people today will say that the reason you believe what you believe is because that is how you were brought up, you are a product of your environment, and that we all believe the things that we have been told.  According to that, I’m a thick-skinned WELS Lutheran, who loves the Brewers and the Packers, eats brats and drinks Miller because I was raised in Southeast Wisconsin and not California or Europe.  According to many, we are who we are because we have been brought up and brainwashed one way or another.  That’s why so many people say you have to go out and figure stuff out for yourself when you are an adult.  I’ve always thought that is kind of ironic, because it pretty much means that at different times in life you have to go find some other place and some other people who can do a better job of brainwashing you into better, more acceptable beliefs.  And that cycle continues until your dead.

There’s another logical breakdown with that idea. Someone who thinks you believe what you believe because it is what you have been told, because you are a product of where you are from probably says that because that’s what they have experienced, it’s the product of where they are from, what they have learned, and what they have been told.  So that way of thinking crumbles with logical inconsistencies.

It’s also a completely inadequate explanation for faith in the Triune God.  When you are trying to figure out why you believe what you believe about Jesus, God, and the Bible, this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is a perfect place to find a solution.

Using logic is much MUCH too human.  Jesus says you don’t need logic, you don’t need what a lot of people have said about God.  You don’t need the natural inclination that thinks I have to earn God’s love and do the work to have a relationship with him.  No, Jesus says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  In other words, sinful humans are going to produce more sinful humans.  And so that means sinful humans cannot and will not come up with the right explanations about God or the correct path to God.  But the Spirit can and will.  The Spirit will do his divine work for you.

And his divine work is always going to point you to something that is not human, his divine work points you to the only thing that will save you from faulty human logic and inadequate explanations.  His work is going to point to Jesus, because only Jesus has brought the unfathomable, the holy, the true God down from heaven to earth.

Jesus says, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”  Every other religion originates in the mind of sinful human flesh, but not Christianity.  Christianity comes from heaven.  You don’t believe this because this is what you have been told, because it makes good logical human sense.  You believe this because the Father loved you and had a plan to save you.  You believe because the Son loved you and left heaven to fully complete that plan for you so that you could call heaven your home.  You believe because the Spirit uses this heavenly gospel to create heavenly children.   You believe in the Triune God, because the Triune God intervened, because the Triune God gave you the rebirth into eternal life.

Whenever you consider why you believe what you believe you cannot go with the human explanations.  Yes, we have been told about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  For some of us it has been since we were too young to remember.  But that does not explain why you believe what you believe.  What does explain it is the divine intervention, the miracle that happened when the Father sent the Spirit to use the message of Jesus on your heart.

That is the only explanation that will work.  It’s the only explanation because it has nothing to do with your background, your education, your intuition, your perception, or anything else from your human flesh, but it has everything to do with God’s love, God’s power, God’s message, and God’s salvation.

The second person of the Trinity left heaven to make sure he could carry out the first person of the Trinity’s plan so that the third person of the Trinity would be able to use his power on puny hearts and minds like ours.  That is why you believe what you believe.

The world could never come up with this.  Your human head could never conceive this.  It’s far too offensive, too improbable, too divine.  For God so loved [say it with me] the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

First, we have God.  God who is so big, so powerful, so eternal, so infinite, so knowledgeable, so beyond our capacity to understand that it is impossible that any one could understand that he is three in one and one in three.  The God whose chief characteristic is the one that he was able to exercise from all eternity, even before creation, because he is Triune, three persons in one God.  That chief characteristic being love.

This Triune God loved.  John 3:16 does not tell us that he focused his love on himself, not Father to Son, Son to Spirit, and Spirit to Father.  But God so loved the world filled with all sorts of evil, evil that can come out in such inhumane and heinous acts of violence and hate, but also evil that can be cultivated so inconspicuously and privately in your hearts and mine.  Evil that shows up in the way we think about others, the way we talk about others, the way we act towards others with such self-centeredness.

God loved this evil world so much not that the Trinity formed a committee to study the problem, not that he sent us a self-help book to read and fix ourselves, not that he gave us a second chance to get it right.  God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  The Son came into this world to do all the work of salvation for us.  The Son who lived for you, went to church every weekend for you, listened to his parents for you, cared about his neighbors for you, had the purest thoughts about women for you, stood up for the outcasts for you, was content no matter what the circumstances were for you, was beaten, scourged, crucified for you, broke through the gates of death for you.

God sent his Son into the world that everyone who believes in him, not imitates him, not tries their best to be like him, but everyone who believes in him.  Everyone who denies themselves, denies that they have any abilities, attitudes, or explanations that could save them, and simply clings to Christ.  Everyone who looks at the cross and empty tomb and sees absolutely everything that matters and makes a difference in their life.

Everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life, not get out early on probation, not go through a reevaluation process, not get a lower rate on a loan that you have to pay back but have eternal life.  You have a spot in the home of your Triune God, free and clear, no strings attached, no questions asked.

Brothers and sisters, every word of this verse is the polar opposite of what the world thinks about God and our natural assumptions about who God is and what God does.  There is only one possible explanation for why anyone would believe this:  The Triune God was and still is at work within you.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has created and saved and sanctified you through and through.  In other words, the love of your heavenly Father is revealed through the saving redemption of Jesus Christ, his only Son, and this is made your personal possession by the power of the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.

This is what Jesus made known to a man named Nicodemus at a night-time, undercover meeting.  This is what God has made known to you so that you will not believe what you believe because you chose it or liked it or came up with it, but you believe what you believe because your God accomplished it in you.

And if this faith in the Triune God is in you and you have his Word, not the words of human flesh but his holy Word cultivating in your heart and mind, then do you know what you do?  Just look what is happening out in nature, you grow.  Brothers and sisters, that time is now.  It’s time for growth in your relationship with your Triune God.  It’s time for growth in your love and service to your Triune God and his people.  It’s time for growth in the work you do for those who might not believe in him.  And when the growth happens the only thing left to say is to God alone be the glory.  Amen.

SOMETHING TO STAND ON

10.8.17 Week 2

STILL

Nehemiah 8:2-12

2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.
4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah and Maaseiah; and on his left were Pedaiah, Mishael, Malkijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam.
5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
7 The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.
9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.
10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

 

A man takes a stand.  He sees injustice and abuse that must be corrected, so he protests.  Little by little the protest grows.  Soon political and spiritual leaders are getting involved.  More than a year passes and it still spreads.  One man taking a stand changes the world.

This was going on long before the American flag or National Anthem was even a part of this world.  We’re not talking about NFL players kneeling or a president tweeting.  Nonetheless, this protest that started 500 years ago followed that now familiar pattern.

It was October 31, 1517, when a lone German theologian and university professor in little old Wittenberg took a stand.  He saw injustices and abuses going on inside of the Roman Catholic Church.  The forgiveness of sins was being sold on a piece of paper called an indulgence.  The Pope was clamoring for money and power and was using his religious authority to get it.  Martin Luther started a protest, not by kneeling or tweeting but by nailing 95 theses, statements for debate, to the castle church doors.  Little by little, with the help of a new technology developed by Johann Gutenburg called the movable type printing press, the protest grew.  Political and religious leaders began to take note.  More than a year passed and then in the summer of 1519, Martin Luther squared off with a popular catholic theologian, John Eck, to debate the things Luther stood for.

One took a stand with the church.  That means he had the authority of the church leadership on his side.  He had tradition on his side.  He had the majority on his side.  The other took a stand with  something different.  He had a different, a better authority on his side.  And because of that, he didn’t need the church, the pope, tradition, or the majority on his side.  He had God’s Word, and that was good enough for him.  Because when you have Scripture, you have the power and authority of the eternal and almighty Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And that is all you need.

And so with a brash boldness, this is one of the things Luther said at that debate, “A simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or council without it.”  Realize that in 1519 nothing could have been more controversial than that statement.  Why was Luther willing to make such a claim?  Scripture and scripture alone makes someone able to take that kind of stand.

A long time before this there was another man who took a stand on God’s Word. We hear about him in the Old Testament reading.  His name was Nehemiah.  He was a Jew employed by the king of Persia as his personal cupbearer.

Nehemiah lived during the period in Israel’s history after the Babylonian captivity.  At this time period God was using the Persian empire to plant the remnant of his people back in Judah.  There were different phases of this restoration project.  First, a group went back to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That was in the 530s BC. Next, about 60 years later, Ezra, a gifted priest devoted to God’s Word and teaching it, came with another group to help the on going rebuild and to focus on the spiritual restoration.

More then a decade passed and it was Nehemiah’s turn.  Negative reports about the walls of Jerusalem had reached Persia’s capital of Susa where Nehemiah was carrying out his role for the king.  That’s where Nehemiah stood up.  It wasn’t a protest, but this cupbearer goes up before the king and asks him if he could go back and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  A pretty bold move, but that hand of God was with Nehemiah and the king agreed, even providing safe passage and materials for the project.

Although there was a lot of opposition from neighboring nations, Nehemiah just kept standing on the Lord’s promises and power and went about rebuilding the walls until they were completed.  And the Lord blessed his work.  The temple had been rebuilt, and although not as beautiful or as extravagant, it was a constant reminder that God keeps his promises, that they were home, and that worship was central to their life.   The walls of Jerusalem were solid again.  The remnant of Israel was safe in their homeland at last.  It wasn’t a large group.  Nehemiah records the number was over 42,000.  And they did have to share their home with the people who had taken up residence in their absence, but they could handle it because they were back.

It was after Nehemiah completed his work when all the people gathered for a special day, a day when Ezra, the devoted priest from the second trip, and Nehemiah stood up with a few helpers – literally, there was a huge wooden platform built for the occasion.  Ezra and his helpers did not stand up to give a motivational speech about how to take advantage of this second (more like 300th) chance.  They didn’t stand up to hand down Jewish traditions that couldn’t go overlooked anymore.  They read and instructed from the Book of the Law (first five books written by Moses) from sun up to noon.  6 hours!  (Imagine if I would try that today?)   And the people watched and listened attentively as if they were watching their favorite show on TV.

And do you know what happens? The people start weeping.  Ezra and the Levites are in front of all the people standing up with God’s Word, and they all start wailing. This really isn’t all so surprising because God’s Word stands out with his power and authority.  God’s Word stands alone.

You see, the people were now face to face with what God says.  Over in exile and even when this group returned up to this point, they did not have a regular diet of God’s Word.  And do you know what happens to people who don’t have regular contact with God’s Word?  You start coming up with what matters all by yourself.  You start to think, “No one gets to tell me what to do or what to believe.  I’m just going to trust my feelings, I’m going to listen to my instincts, I’m going to rely on my reason, I’m going to build on my experiences. I’m going to do what works for me.”   That was the trap that led Israel to the exile in the first place, and you can still see people fall into it today.  The next time you are in a conversation that involves spiritual matters listen to how many times sentences, even sentences that come out of your own mouth, begin with “I think” “I believe” “I feel” rather than “Scripture says.”

I think this remnant of Israel gives us a pretty good idea of what happens when God’s law intersects with people who like to focus on their own ideas and beliefs.  We cannot stand.  We fall down with tears in our eyes. Because what we think or what we try doesn’t work.  Every single person at that gathering in Jerusalem saw that vividly.  Israel tried their own way.  And where did it get them?  Their home was taken away.  The capital was destroyed.  Even the sacred Temple of God was leveled.  They were exiled foreigners.  They couldn’t do anything about it.  They had to wait for the Persians to overthrow the Babylonians.  They had to wait for permission to go back.  They had to rebuild the temple, the city, its walls, and their homes.  The whole thing was a mess because they didn’t care for what God said.

Now, they were hearing it and it hit them hard.  God’s law has a way of doing that to people.  By nature, we are born with this idea that we have to work hard to get ahead.  It’s not a surprise, then, that people want to trust my feelings, listen to my instincts, rely on my reason.  Because it makes sense to us that those things will lead in the right direction.  It’s not a surprise that a whole bunch of churches and religions have come up with something similar, is it?  By nature, we think we have to earn a reward, we have to earn a relationship, we have to earn a better life.  But the people gathered around Ezra and Nehemiah were realizing it just doesn’t work. God’s law was crushing their ideas of what “I think” what “I believe” or what “I feel.”

I find it really interesting, then, how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stand up there in front of all these wailing people and tell them, “Be still, for this is a holy day.  Do not grieve”  Were they just supposed to act like none of it happened?  The generations of disobedience, the annihilation at the hands of foreign powers, the exile, the return to the Promised Land only to find it occupied by others – they were supposed to forget about all of it?  They were just supposed to forget about it all?  Yes!

But how?  Because those words of the law were not man-made traditions or popular ideas.  They were not the commands of an angry judge or a tyrannical emperor. They were the words of the Lord God. The God of power and grace.  The Creator.  The Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The God who delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.  The God who fought for them against the Egyptian army by walking them through the Red Sea on dry land and leaving all the Egyptian army dead at the bottom of it.  The God who led the conquering tour over all the nations in the Promised Land and gave them this land flowing with milk and honey.  The God who promise deliverance to his people.  The God who loves his people like no one else can.

You see, they could let all the past go, they could dry their tears, their hearts could be still because what they heard that day.  Luther could take a stand because it wasn’t his ideas.  We can still stand on the very same thing today, because it these words are not man-made laws and traditions, but the law of God.  And he doesn’t just give us his law, but also his gospel – faithful promises to fulfill those laws perfectly, to forgive you entirely, and to save you eternally.  This book with its complete fulfillment of all the laws, with its grace and forgiveness, with its Savior sent from heaven to free us from the hell, is  the Word of God.  It is not developed by us, because we know the kinds of things we come up with.  This book is completely unnatural.  It’s something that no one has ever come up with.  And in every generation humanity has proved to be incapable of coming up this kind of thing.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites stood up with God’s Word.  Scripture alone stands up and rises above.  It rises above the popular voices and trends in the world around us.  It rises above the man-made traditions and interpretations in the church.  And it stands above the self-centered feelings, reasons and experiences in our own hearts.  That day with all the remnant gathered in Jerusalem, they got a glimpse of how God’s Word stands alone.  Because it showed them their God, his power and authority, his love and forgiveness.

When Luther stood up to what the church was teaching, when Luther stood up at the debate in 1519, he wasn’t standing on his own.  He was standing on the same platform as Ezra and Nehemiah, the authority and power of a God who still speaks.  And so he didn’t budge.  Even though he was declared a heretic and an outlaw really for the rest of his life, he never backed down.  He kept standing on God’s Word.

500 years later, we still stand on that platform.  We stand on the law and gospel.  We stand on the Word of the Lord who rescues his people from sin, death, and the devil.  We stand on the Word of God that wipes away tears and makes our hearts still.  Amen.