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Luke 3

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

 

When you hear the word “repentance” what comes to mind, sorrow or happiness?  When you repent to the Lord or to someone you have wronged, are you sad or joyful?  A Christian hears the word repentance and knows that it is a good and godly thing, yet overall it probably conjures up a sad feeling.  After all, Scripture says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.”  But today in the Gospel, John the Baptizer teaches that repentance leads to a deep and pervasive joy.  The kind of joy that is so powerful and overwhelming that it will literally change the way a person thinks and acts, because that is what the word means, “a change of mind.”

You might think that it seems like an odd topic to cover less than ten days before Christmas, but brothers and sisters, this is exactly what we need in preparation for Christ’s coming.  Repentance was also needed while John the Baptizer is preparing people for Jesus to begin his public ministry.  That is the summary that we are given from Luke.  He is “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Maybe some were just intrigued by the weirdo out in the desert, but the main idea God’s trying to get across with the prophet, John, is forgiveness of sins.

It’s a little harsh to hear John call the crowds a “brood of vipers,” but sometimes people need to be jolted out of their spiritual laziness and snoozing.  On the one hand, these crowds were lulled to sleep by their religious leaders’ false teachings, and on the other hand their own sinful thoughts and attitudes were putting them on a dangerous path away from God.  Either way, the idea that people could escape, or be saved, from God’s wrath while continuing to cling to some of their culturally acceptable sins was counterproductive and destructive to their faith.

Another thing that was not going to help these people was their genetics.  You can just hear some of them retorting John, “We have Abraham as our father,” as if Abraham was the Savior.  John’s message was that a connection to a past believer will not do any good for their eternity.  But that was the thinking of so many back then.  John was preaching and teaching that the only thing that matters is faith.  Where people believe in God’s promised salvation and live in that faith, there is true joy – the kind of joy that produces fruit.

It’s not like people in John’s day are the only ones that need this message.  We need it, too, because so often we are looking for joy in all the wrong ways.  Sure sometimes we are clinging to the joy of salvation that comes through Christ, but there are plenty of times where we find “joy” that comes from gratifying our sinful flesh.  But you can’t have both.  Life doesn’t work that way.  You can’t enjoy eating all the calories you want and also enjoy good health.  Pizza, candy, burgers, donuts, and chips don’t help you get or stay healthy.  You can’t be a lazy pile and expect to be excellent at something.  If you want to be a great athlete, musician, dancer, or chef, you have to get off your butt, sacrificing that lazy leisure time, and work hard over and over again at developing and improving those skills.

Certain joys just cannot coexist within a person.  The joy of salvation does not coexist with the things the delight our sinful nature.  If a person pursues whatever joy their sinful flesh desires, thinking that an outward show of religiousness like attending worship or praying every day would also allow them to enjoy heaven, then they are just like those people going out to see John.  They are listening to and a part of the vipers.

This vipers bite us, too.  Do you ever use the one or two hours you spend here to excuse the other 166 or 167 hours of the week?  Do you ever think the 3% or 10% or even 20% of your income given back to the Lord can somehow negate the materialism and greed that is evident in the way we think about and use the other 80%, 90%, or 97% or our money?  Do you ever think that because you have your name on the rolls of a WELS church that you can escape the coming day of the Lord, forgetting that God could raise WELSers up out of the stones?  How much of our life is about desperately wanting and then enjoying God’s forgiveness so that we can rejoice in his gift of eternal life?  And then how much or our life is about wanting to know about God’s forgiveness of sins so that we can continue in those comfortable and familiar sins?

If there is any viper’s poison in us, we need what the Baptizer is saying.  We need to hear the truth that, “The ax is already at the root of the trees.”  There are, right now – that’s the word John uses – individuals who are religious and attend church that a just and holy God is ready to burn.

So, how’s that for joyful?  If you want the kind of joy that God has accomplished for you – eternal joy, joy this life could never bring – it is impossible without God leading you to see the seriousness and ugliness of sin.  A person is not seeing the seriousness of sin if they come to church and takes the Lord’s Supper to salve their conscience over the fact that they intend to go straight back to their familiar sins.

There is a time when sorrow is healthy for us.  The Bible calls it godly sorrow.  This is not the kind of sorry that is bummed and frustrated after being caught in sin or a sorry that comes from negative consequences for sin.  That’s a selfish and worldly kind of sorry that is only looking at myself.  Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have offended my Creator, my Father.   Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have made myself detestable to God and worthy of damnation.  That’s healthy sorrow.

If you do not acknowledge guilt and sin, you cannot possibly have joy.  When you try to hide guilt and coverup sin, when you pursue the “joys” of sinful desire, what you have is a futile attempt to distract yourself from the Judge who is coming.  You have some excitement and maybe an adrenaline rush, but you do not have joy.

To have real joy – the kind of joy that God give, the kind of joy that comes from repentance – it must be connected to God’s good news.  And that is also what John gave to the people.  John didn’t tell them to repent more frequently and more sincerely.  He told them of the one who was infinitely great and more powerful.  He pointed to the Messiah, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John didn’t want any credit or glory.  He was just a servant.  Jesus was the master, the Lord, God himself.  Luke writes, “With many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”

And what exactly is that good news about Jesus?  Well, it certainly is not a message of how you need to clean up your life.  It is not a message of how you need to be more genuine and honorable.  It is not a message of how you need to bring joy back into your life.  It’s the message of how Jesus does that for you.

We’re reading kid’s Christmas books at our house for bedtime lately.  And one book kind of caught Mandy’s and my attention, “The Little Crooked Christmas Tree.”  It’s a cute story about one tree that was supposed to be a nice Christmas tree, but got crooked and misshapen.  I think of my life, and it looks pretty crooked and messed up.  It’s not the picture of health and vitality.  How about yours?  How healthy is it?  How tall?  How appealing?  Now, what if Jesus was a tree, too.  How majestic is that tree?  How straight and healthy and tall?  How green and full and fruitful?  Considering John describes fruitfulness in terms of generosity, kindness, and compassion, the Jesus-tree would be unlike any other in how amazing it is.  Yet, when God looked at our crooked and sickly tree, when he picked up his ax and walked determinedly toward us, Jesus begged, “No, Father! Not them!  Cut me down.”  On the tree of the cross that is exactly what God did to his own Son.  The amazing, thick, full, fruitful tree was cut down.  The sickly, crooked ones were spared.  That would be a sad story, except for the fact that Jesus’ tree came back to life even stronger and more beautiful than before.  When that fact is given and proclaimed to you – that God loves you, God wanted you, God chose you, God was willing to pay any price to have you for eternity with him – how does it affect you?  How can it not comfort and lift you up?  It boosts us up from the dingy depths.  It straightens us up.  It fixes what it broken. It gives us unequaled brilliance and joy.

And a tree that is healthy like that will be unbelievably fruitful.  John’s encouragement does not call for any activity of heroic proportions.  He does not say that the necessary fruit is to be a missionary in a foreign country or sell everything you have to support the poor and the work of the Church.  We simply have a new goal, a new purpose, to reflect Christ in our lives and in our dealings with other people.  We now live for him who died and rose for us.  We struggle through pain and hardship with the strength of Christ that he gave to us when we were baptized into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We use the good news that causes great joy not on a once a year or once a week basis, but on an every day basis and for everyone basis.  This is the fruitful life of a believer.  This is the joyful life that we have now, and God will make perfect forever in heaven.

I started the sermon with a question about repentance.  Did you say it was sad and sorrowful?  If you did, that’s not entirely wrong, but it also is not entirely right.  The kind of repentance that God works in his people will always conclude with joy, because godly sorrow turns you and changes your mind away from sin, away from how bad your tree looks and points you to the only place where forgiveness is given.  It points you to a different tree, one that is unmistakably and infinitely greater.  It points you to the tree where Christ died.  It points you to the tree that made the first bed our Savior ever had.  It points you to the Son of God and his restoring, refreshing, renewing, revitalizing love.  You have that joy right now and forever in him.  To God be the Glory!  Amen.

 

 

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THE COMEBACK FOR THE AGES

4.16.17 Easter Sunday

Easter 2017 2

Matthew 28:1-10

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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