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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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.

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.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS PROTECT AND PROMOTE GOD’S WAY

3.4.18 Lent 3B

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Exodus 20

And God spoke all these words:

2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

 

 

“A guardrail would be nice.”  That’s the thought that went through my head.  I was 18 years-old in the country of Peru.  While I was a senior at Luther Prep I applied and was selected for this mission trip where we visited the different churches throughout Peru. There were 6 of us.  We led the songs in worship, read passages that we had learned in Spanish, and did our best to encourage them in Spanish during fellowship meals.  It was uplifting for us to see what the gospel does in very different and often very remote places.  And you could tell that they were just as excited to meet a bunch of Lutheran high schoolers from the US, who shared the same faith.  Like I said, some of the places were remote and I’ve got plenty of memories from that whole experience.   But one thing fits very well with the section of God’s Word in front of us today.

On these mission trips for the Prep students they make sure to set some time aside for fun trips.  Our group had a very breath-taking trip to Machu Picchu.  It is the ancient and iconic Incan city built high in the Peruvian Andes mountains.  To get up to this mountain top town, you need to take a bus up a steep switch-backed road.  I had been on mountain roads before, but not like this.  There were about 40-50 people in a bus on this narrow and dirt road where guardrails were not to be found.  That was fine I guess, but did I mention there are multiple buses on this very narrow dirt road zigzagging up a mountain.  When I started to get a little freaked out was when our bus was backing up because another bus was coming down the road.  I was sitting in the back of the bus that overhangs the back wheels, the part that was hanging out over the switchback.  That’s when I thought a guardrail would be nice.

Guardrails are good things.  Their job is to protect you from the possibility of going off the road down a mountain side or into a river.  That’s good.  The guardrail also promotes the right way to go.  It says, “Stay away from that.  Here is the right way.  Keep your eyes on the road.”  And it doesn’t matter if you think the guardrail could be closer to the edge of the cliff or it should be in tighter to the road, it has already been placed and our job is not to move it.  Our job is to abide by it.

That’s where Exodus 20 comes in.  These are God’s Commandments for all people.  God records them for us here, in Deuteronomy 5, and many are repeated for us by Jesus and other New Testament writers.  This is how God wants people to live.  He wants to stay on his course.  His commandments are like guardrails to keep this world safe from harm and danger.  They also serve Christians as a guide to promote the right way, the way God wants his people to go staying away from a sinful world.

A lot of people have their own ideas on how to be good moral people.  Diet Coke commercials are telling us to “just do you.”  If it makes you happy, then do that.  And people kind of like that idea.  It means they set up their own guardrails to protect them from what they have decided is bad.  Sometimes it changes with culture, and sometimes it doesn’t.  That’s up for you to decide.  You get to be your own moral judge.

God disagrees.   “I am the LORD your God… You shall have no other gods before me.”  This is the first of God’s Commandments.  There are no other gods.  When it comes to priorities everything else must come after our relationship to God.  If that does not happen, then you have yourself an idol.

An idol can be anything that you love and can’t imagine your life without it.  But I’ll tell you why none of them are worth the high priority we often give them.  Your spouse, your kids, your parents, your friends, your job, your boat, your camper, your hobbies, your sports, your favorite singers, movies, shows – none of these things can save you from sin or death or hell.  So, God has set up the guardrail to protect you from loving those things too much.  He promotes the good course for us to fear, love, and trust in him above all things, because he does save us from sin, death and hell.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”  There are plenty of titles God uses about himself in the Bible, and all of them need to be used properly.  Anything else is going to hurt you.  It is not allowed to use God’s name to show how excited or frustrated or serious you are.  Using God’s name to wish evil on someone or something doesn’t help you more than them.  Putting any stock in things like a horoscope or a physic would also fall into this category of misusing God’s name, because you have decided his name is not good enough or powerful enough for whatever you have going on.  God set up this guardrail to protect us from dragging his name and reputation through mud.  He promotes the good course for us to use his name regularly for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” The Sabbath was a day of rest.  That’s what the Hebrew word means.  Jesus says, “I will give you rest.”  The problem is that we often look for rest in other places.  People get nice beds, comfy couches, massagers and spas, or they look for relief in bottles or hobbies.  We surround ourselves with all these conveniences, but they cannot remove weariness, much less deal with the burdens we carry physically, psychologically, or spiritually.  So God sets up a guardrail to protect us from all the different things this world presents to give rest.  There is only one thing that give our souls rest, God’s Word.  God promotes the good course for us to love and use his Word and to love and use his house.

“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.”  This commandment specifically deals with the authorities God has set up in the home, but there are also plenty of places where God describes the authorities he has established at work, in government, and in the church.

I guess the simple question to ask yourself is, how well do you handle having others in a position over you?  I don’t know if it’s always as good as we should.  God says, “in humility value others above yourselves.”  If you don’t like hearing that, if you struggle with authorities, if all this political stuff gets you riled up, then that is exactly why God put up this guardrail.  It protects the authorities he has established to serve us.  If we are forced to do something God forbids, then we must obey God rather than people.  But if it’s just something that doesn’t always jive with my ideas, then we need this guardrail in place to protect the authorities that care for us.  God promotes this good course for us to honor, serve, and obey our parents and those in authority, because we need them for good order in the home, at work, in society, and in the church.

“You shall not murder.”  If you have been a believer for a long time or a short time or if you are completely confused by the Bible and God and faith, this commandment still makes sense.  All human lives matter to God.  Taking a life is not up to you and never will be.  That means murder, abortion, suicide – it’s all wrong.  If God has given you a life in this world he created, then only he should decide when it is over. But this commandment also covers the way we think about human life and not just what we do with it.  If you think your life would be easier and more enjoyable without that bully in your grade, or that jerk in your office, or anyone else – it doesn’t even matter if you know them or not, maybe it’s just a really terrible person on the news – then that is just like murder, except that you did it with you mind and heart and not a gun.  So God puts up the guardrail to protect his gift of life.  God promotes the good course for us to help others with our words and actions.

“You shall not commit adultery.” In the Bible God is so very very clear about marriage and sex.  Marriage is a lifelong union of one man and one woman based on the consent and commitment of love. This is the part where tons of people would want me to add stuff or take out other stuff. Because marriage should be for everyone. Sex is a basic right that you should be able to enjoy with anyone at any time.  And if you can’t have that, then just look up some porn.  Children are so great that if you want them then go ahead.  If your marriage isn’t what you thought it would be then you can get out of it and try again.  Better yet don’t get married at all; it’s just a sheet of paper.  And the cycle continues.  I can’t say those things, because God doesn’t.  He puts up this guardrail to protect us from the devil’s easy traps of immorality and lust.  He promotes the good course and right way to use his gifts of sex and marriage so that we are pure and decent.

“You shall not steal.” It helps when we remember to whom everything belongs.  God is the owner; we are merely managers and caretakers of everything he gives us.  He gives these things to us through the work we do, through gifts we receive, through returns on investments.  God can and does provide everything we need for body and life.  When we forget that he is the giver, when we forget that we are caretakers, when we forget that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, that’s when we collide with this guardrail, where God protects our possessions and the possessions of others.  God doesn’t want us to be selfish, dishonest, or tightwads.  He also doesn’t want us to be wasteful and careless.  God promotes the good course where we use our own possessions properly and look to help others with theirs.

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Do you ever wonder why God has a commandment to protect the name and reputation of people?  It’s because sin makes it so easy for us to destroy others.  Maybe you won’t use a gun.  Maybe you won’t take their property or possessions.  Maybe you won’t usurp them if they are in a position of authority.  But just a couple juicy tidbits can do the deed all the same.  That’s why God is so serious about his name and the names of others.  We need God to protect us from gossiping and lying.  So God promotes the good course where our mouths are not used for spreading anything but his praise and proclaiming his gospel.  We will defend others and take their words and actions in the kindest possible way.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  I’m thinking coveting is not a word you throw around every day.  Basically, God is saying that if he has not blessed you with something that you want or something that other people have, then you don’t need to worry about it.  The possessions you have and the possession others have shouldn’t consume you anyways.  The Bible says that kind of materialistic heart has pierced people with many griefs and even robbed some of faith.  So God puts up the guardrail to protect us from being to earthly.  God promotes the good course where we are content and thankful for what we have and keep our attention where it needs to be, on our Savior, Jesus.

Maybe you have noticed something as we walked through God’s Ten Commandments.  Maybe you realized for the millionth or for the first time that you have broken them all.  The law is like a mirror that exposes every glaring weakness.  And when I say weakness, I don’t mean that you can make up for them with all your strengths.  I mean you and I have broken God’s law to pieces and the punishment for that is not enjoyable.  The punishment is death and hell. Period.

And that’s why it’s good to see Jesus the way he is in the Gospel for today.  He takes God’s law seriously, because in order to be our Savior from sin, he had to be perfect.  Every thought, every attitude, every action, every word had to be pure and selfless and helpful.  He had to be complete zealous for the God and his name and his Word.

His perfection is all that matters.  Jesus’ road to redemption was perfect so that my pitiful excuse of a godly life and the punishment I deserve is removed. On the cross God exchanged my sin for Jesus’ holiness.  On the cross Jesus wiped my slate clean and replaced it with his perfection.  That’s the only way I can avoid the punishment for sin. Jesus had to take it for me.  And he did.

God still has the guardrails set up for us.  This is a life and world where sin still veers us off course. The perfection we have through Christ will be fully recognized in heaven.  For now, we need the guardrails to keep us on course.  By God’s grace these commandments are not just a mirror to expose all our offenses against God and others.   They are also guardrails to protect us from going off his road and to promote the right way for a child of God.  So let’s stay on course.  God grant it.  Amen.

 

 

(There is so much to talk about in each one of these commandments.  That’s why we take more than 10 lessons to cover them in Catechism class and 3 lessons in Bible Basics.  This was just a brief snapshot to see what God is protecting and promoting.  If you want to get the fuller picture, come to the Bible Basics on Monday night or go back in dig around in your Small Catechism, which organizes so much of what God says in the Bible into nice sections for each commandment.)

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.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

sermon-on-the-mount

Matthew 5

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Adultery
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Divorce
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Oaths
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Last week Jesus preached a portion of his Sermon on the Mount, telling us to be who we are.  He said God has made us to be salt in a rotting world.  That means he uses us in the preservation process until Jesus comes back at the end of time.  We preserve this world not with great acts of ingenuity nor with promoting individualism but by listening to Jesus’ word and following his example. He said God has made us light to shine in the darkness of sin and unbelief.  We shine with the light of the gospel not to bring attention to ourselves but so that God is glorified and others see the eternal light that Jesus has provided for us.

In summary, we could say that Jesus’ sermon last week was an encouragement to Christians.  He said if you are a child of God, then live like it.  Be who you are so that others can see it.  Again, that encouragement is not to show us how to earn a place in heaven.  Instead, Jesus is telling us that when a loving God chooses to bring you into his family that changes how you live.  God gives you the power and purpose to be salt and light in a rotting, dark world.

Jesus finished up that portion of his sermon last week by saying, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”   The disciples and followers that Jesus was preaching to knew all about the Pharisees and their extreme devotion to obeying the Book of the Law.  Pharisees were so religious about all of God’s Old Testament Law that they even made up more rules and regulations just to be safe.  But that kind of righteousness is still missing something isn’t it?  Even with their strict obedience, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were still not completely right to God.

That’s why Jesus continues his sermon with these next few sections recorded in Matthew 5. When someone thinks getting into the kingdom of heaven is about following God’s laws, then Jesus says you’d better know what all of God’s laws are…and there’s still more to it than that!  It’s not enough to simply obey God’s laws.

Jesus gives us a few examples of that.  He starts off with the 5th Commandment, murder.  Obeying the 5th Commandment means that you will not kill anyone ever.  That seems reasonable.  God wants us to value human life. He wants us to treat it like the gift it is.  And I think we all get that.  Murder is not good. So we don’t do it.  That is obeying the 5th Commandment.

But Jesus says it goes beyond that.  If God wants us to value human life, then the 5th Commandment doesn’t just deal with taking a life, but the 5th Commandment also deals with how we talk about and what we think about human life.  If you are mad at someone, if you hold a grudge against someone, if you say something with anger in your heart, if you call people hurtful names, all of this is breaking the 5th Commandment, too.

Do you see what’s going on here?  Jesus is getting to the heart of the matter.  He wants us to understand that the law is about a lot more than our actions.  That is all the Pharisees cared about.  They wanted to be seen as the moral, upright citizens who were so good at living according to God’s laws.  But they forgot one thing about God, he sees the heart.  And from these religious leaders who were so conscientious about their actions, Jesus saw hearts that were full of the wrong kind of righteousness: self-righteousness.  That means they did not receive righteousness from God as a gift of his grace, but they were trying to get it from themselves, which is really no righteousness at all.

Let me say that another way.  They thought being seen as moral and upright religious people was going to earn themselves a place in God’s kingdom.  So they neglected and ignored God’s promises and paid all their attention to his laws.  The problem with that is it ignores the heart of the matter.

You obey the 5th Commandment by not killing another person.  But you break the 5th Commandment by trying to hurt someone, by saying hateful things to another person or about another person, or by being angry with another person.  The heart matters just as much as the words that come from your lips and the work that comes from your hands.

And the same thing is true for the 6th Commandment, adultery.  You can try to say that you have never had sex with someone other than your spouse.  You can try to plead your case, saying, “I never had sex before I was married.”  But what have your eyes seen?  What has your heart felt?  If you have used the internet for impure purposes, then Jesus has a title for you: adulterer.  If you have thought of someone in an impure way, adulterer.  If someone treats marriage like it’s not a full-time loving commitment between a man and a woman for life, if someone ends a marriage because they just don’t have the passion anymore or they are giving up on their spouse, then Jesus says that leads to adultery.

Finally, in this section, Jesus brings up the way you talk.  He says during your conversations, do not say things like, “I swear by heaven that it’s true.”  And really his point is don’t color your conversations with any improper language.  “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ No.”  And if you struggle with that, Jesus says it’s like the devil is inside you speaking for you.

Now, to a lot of people this doesn’t make any sense.  It’s even offensive to our human nature to think that if I harbor anger in my heart it’s the same as murder.  No one who is angry will get sentenced to life in prison.  It’s so contrary to popular opinion to say that looking at porn is the same as sleeping around.  In the eyes of the world, just because someone is vulgar doesn’t mean they are from the devil.

But for the God of all creation, he sees the heart of the matter.  He sees sin and it doesn’t matter to him if the sin is an action, a word, a thought, or an attitude.  Sin is sin and it’s unacceptable.  Sin is sin and it’s damnable. Living like the Pharisees, with a really good outward appearance, cannot get you to heaven. A good outward façade cannot change the condition of your heart.

But I know someone who can.  I know someone who can change the heart of the matter.  I know someone who can obey the 5th Commandment.  He didn’t murder.  He didn’t hate or hurt.  He didn’t call people names.  He didn’t hold grudges.  I know someone who obeyed the 6th Commandment perfectly.  He lived a pure life.  His eyes never wandered.  His heart never lusted. He never gave in to passion or pleasure.  I know someone who kept his conversations pure and decent.  He didn’t think the colorful language was necessary.  And he did all of that for you.

Jesus came here not just to preach a good message, but to live it, too.  He had to because God knew that we could never earn righteousness for ourselves; it would have to be a gift of his grace.  God knew that our hearts would never be made pure by ourselves so he would do it for us. And so Jesus came to be the perfect Savior and substitute for us.  His perfect life gets to the heart of the matter.  His perfect life gives us the kind of righteousness we need.  And on the cross, he willingly handed it over.  He gave his perfect life as the sacrifice for our sins.  The perfect and innocent Son of God gave up his life for sinful and guilty people like us.  Jesus removed the broken pieces of the 5th Commandment, 6th Commandment, and all of God’s laws, and replaced them with the pure and perfect life that God expects from his children.

By faith in Jesus we have been purified.  And do you know what pure people do?  They don’t sin.  They don’t do sinful actions.  They don’t say sinful words. They don’t think sinful thoughts.  They don’t have sinful attitudes.

It’s hard to think that way, I know.  It’s hard to look at my life that is tainted by sin as pure and holy. But, brothers and sisters, if the perfect Savior has removed sins against the 5th Commandment, 6th Commandment, and all of God’s laws, if he has made us pure with his righteousness, then that’s the way God sees us.  He sees his own children who have been washed clean in baptism.  He sees a soul where the Holy Spirit has taken up residence and continues to keep us in faith.    That’s the heart of the matter.

With that kind of heart, do you know what kind of thoughts, words, and actions are going to follow? Good ones, holy ones, and God-pleasing ones.  The Pharisees had it backwards.  They thought their top-notch obedience would work its way to righteousness in God’s eyes.  But they didn’t see the heart of the matter.  Only a heart that has been cleansed by the blood of Jesus, only a heart that clings to the cross of Jesus, and only a heart that listens to Jesus can live for God.

So that’s what you will do.  You will live a holy life because God has made you holy.  It’s his power, it’s his grace, and it’s his holiness.  That is the heart of the matter.

Amen.