THE ASCENDED JESUS HAS A WITNESS PROTECTION PROGRAM FOR US

5.28.17 AscensionA

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(image from paramentics.com)

 

THE FESTIVAL OF THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Luke 24:44-53

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

 

They saw something so significant, and this was too important to keep to themselves.  That’s what a witness is and that is what a witness does.

Normally a key witness with inside information is very valuable. Their testimony is essential in gathering evidence that can help in a trial or an investigation.  Our government has a way of taking care of people who have this valuable information.  It’s called the witness protection program.  If the testimony is significant, then the witness will be protected.  It gets pretty intense, too! Witnesses are given new identities, free housing, job training and employment, medical benefits, and round the clock surveillance all because their information is that valuable.   They need to be kept safe or else their testimony will be lost.

But here we are today seeing Jesus leave his followers.  The conqueror of death, left his witnesses in a situation where there were plenty of people who wanted them dead.  Does that sound like a good witness protection program? Should Ascension really be one of the big festivals of the church?

Don’t get me wrong, going away parties can be fun.  You get to remember the good times and share stories.  And Jesus certainly has provided us with plenty of good times.  He gives us quite a brief summary this morning: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day.”

Over the past 6 months we seen it all.  Jesus carried out everything in the plan of salvation to save us from sin and death.  Think back to when we were getting pounded by blizzards.  Think of the message that God shared with the world: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 

Do you remember the Magi, Jesus baptized in the Jordan River, his glory on the mount of Transfiguration?  Do you remember the next mountain, one just outside of Jerusalem, called Calvary?  Do you remember how he knew exactly what would happen in Jerusalem, but he rode the donkey because he is the kind of humble king who comes to save us?  Do you remember the miraculous meal he gave his disciples (and us)?  Do you remember what we were doing here about six weeks ago? The Son of God let a bunch of cruel soldiers nail him to a piece of wood like he was a criminal.

But’s that not where the journey ended.  Because just a little over a month ago, 170 people gathered in this sanctuary for the best day of the year to hear that Jesus came back from death.  The women led us out to Jesus’ empty tomb to marvel again at the complete and total triumph that he won for us. We are free from sin, free from death, free from the devil.  We witnessed it all over the past 6 months. God has made us witnesses ever since he planted this saving faith in our hearts. We saw the greatest person who ever lived and the greatest victory parade that has ever taken place.  And it was all for us.

But then reality might be sinking in just a little bit today.  It normally does at a going away party.  You remember the good times, but then… you have to say goodbye.  We all witnessed Jesus come and now we are all standing there with the disciples as he says goodbye.

So, why are we celebrating?  You might wonder how could the disciples worship him and return to Jerusalem with great joy?  Are we really supposed to be happy that our Savior is gone? I think sometimes it can feel a little bit like we are witnesses of these things, but that we are now left all alone to fend for ourselves in a world that wants nothing to do with steadfast Bible-based Christianity.  The protection for us witnesses does not seem to be working out too well.

I mean, where is Jesus when I need him?  Where is he when people start asking questions about my faith in him, my priorities, or my church?  Where is Jesus when I have really hard questions?  Where is Jesus when times are tough? Where is Jesus when loved ones are getting sick or hurt or even dying?  Where is Jesus when there is struggle and strife between his followers?

It can be hard to be a witness when this program seems to be failing.  When I feel like I’m all alone in the fight against sin and the devil, I can easily give in.  It can be hard to be zealous when I just don’t know what to say or when to say it.  It can be hard to speak with joy and confidence when I think no one is going to back me up.  It just might not sound like the greatest witness protection program for Jesus to up and leave his witnesses all alone.

But before we complain that life is too hard, before we start to blame God when things don’t work, before we start thinking there really isn’t much protection for us, maybe we should take a step back and view the situation as Jesus sees it.  Think of his view from heaven.  Can you see any enemies that Jesus still has to conquer?  Can you find any of Jesus’ witnesses who are working in a place that Jesus cannot protect them?  There is a reason Jesus left this earth and went back up to his throne.

Remember what Jesus said: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms. The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.  2000 years ago, Jesus ascended because he had finished the job he came to do. He fulfilled every word that God had promised.  Christ conquered all of our enemies once for all.  Our sins were destroyed forever on the cross.  Death was defeated by an empty tomb.  Hell was overthrown by a perfect King who is now preparing our home in heaven.  The devil can prowl around all he wants, but his head has already been crushed.  He’s all bark and no bite.  His only weapon is trying to tell lies, but we have The Truth on our side.

The world cannot hold us confined to run around in an endless maze of disappointments.  Jesus tells us to take heart because he has overcome the world.  And Paul reminds us our citizenship is in heaven; this world is just a motel. The sinful nature that lives inside each of us has been drowned in Baptism and is fighting a hopeless battle against the Holy Spirit who called us out of darkness into the light of life.  This is the day we celebrate the coronation of the Prince of Peace to his rightful place on heaven’s throne because he had completed all his work.  He didn’t leave anything undone.

The next time you feel like you are all alone, the next time you feel like you are hopelessly fighting a losing battle against sin, and the next time you lack confidence to stand up for your faith in Jesus, take a look around.  Do you see Jesus anywhere?  No.  You would if you were still lost in your sins.  You would if your home in heaven wasn’t already paid for in full. Your King has not left any battles for you to fight on your own.  Your King has not left any enemies that can crush you.  Your King has provided the full proof witness protection program when he died for all sins, rose from the dead, and kept his promise to clothe his witnesses with the Holy Spirit.

How this witness protection program still continues to work is quite astonishing when you think about it.  Jesus commissioned a few fisherman, a tax collector, a former Pharisee and just a couple others to be witnesses.  None of them were the religious nobility.  None of them were trained public speakers.  Not one of them had anything more than you do.  They had God’s Word and the Lord said they were his protected witnesses. The group started joyously in Jerusalem and the good news spread.  The Spirit brought a few thousand more to faith.  They joyously joined in the mission work.  Some of the apostles were killed, but the news still spread even more because death cannot hold back Jesus.  Some groups tried to change the message just a little bit here and there, to make it more sensible, logical, more human, but their heresies were exposed and the truth of Jesus still spread in this world like wildfire.

Jesus sat on his throne and empowered his small group of followers to boldly witness about him to all nations.  They didn’t know when or where or how Jesus would send the Spirit to bring more people to faith, but they knew it would happen… if they went and witnessed.  And so, the gospel of Jesus spread to Greece and Rome and Spain and Asia and Africa and Europe and then eventually the good news of forgiveness through faith in Jesus came over to America.

Jesus protected his witnesses all the way, so that at some point his grace also found you and found me. His witness protection program really works.  He gives each of us new identities as God’s children.  He gives us a free and eternal home in heaven.  He gives us on-the-job training through his word to do his work. And he watches over us every minute from heaven.

You see, that’s what ascension started.  That’s how our King works.  Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstresses, soldiers, cooks and clerks to be his witnesses.  He uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors.  He uses you and me.  He uses things like a Bible and Baptism to change lives forever.  It’s a witness protection program that seems so simple and we could even say weak, but it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.  It’s always about the power of King Jesus.

Part of Jesus’ witness protection program that he provides are those who preach and teach and lead the mission work.  Jesus is still watching over his church, by sending pastors and teachers to spread this good news.

Jesus provides the workers, but do you know where he gets them from?  Do pastors and teachers just appear out of thin air?  The answer is no.  When I was born did I have a big sign on my forehead so that my parents would know that I would end up as your pastor at Our Saviour’s?  Again, no.  Then, how does Jesus keep his witness protection program going?  How does he find servants for the ministry of the gospel?

Jesus uses fisherman, lawyers, farmers, doctors, seamstress, soldiers, cooks and clerks.  Jesus uses mothers and uncles and cousins and grandchildren and neighbors.  Jesus gets pastors and teachers from all walks of life to lead the work.  You see, it’s a cycle.  Jesus continues to use us in his ways as his witnesses.  And when you’re a witness, you tell what you see.

That’s what I get to do on a full-time basis.  It’s literally the best life on earth. To serve the Lord as a witness and to preach and teach and encourage other witnesses is a privilege and honor.  To be a part of this victory parade is humbling and exciting and difficult and awesome and heart-wrenching and inspiring.

Jesus began this witness protection program when he ascended and it is still going strong, because he is in charge.  Can you be a witness?  You already are, because when he spoke his name over you, God brought you into the program.  Can your children or grandchildren be full-time witnesses in ministry as pastors and teachers? That’s kind of how it works.  Jesus made it this way, and I think he knows what he is doing, don’t you?

Look what it did to the disciples.  They worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.  That’s what the Ascension does. It shows us our King who is ruling all things for us.  It shows us his death-defying power that saves us forever.  It shows us the home that we have with him.  It shows us that we are witnesses of it all.

God grant it.  Amen.

 

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WHAT IS LIFE LIKE IN THE EASTER VICTORY PARADE?

5.21.17 Easter 6A

Easter Season A

1 John 3:11-18

11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

 

The victory parade of Jesus defeating death still continues.  Whatever happened to you this week or last, whatever health trouble, work trouble, relationship trouble, financial trouble, or emotional trouble you have been dealing with does not diminish the truth of the gospel, that good news that says Jesus saves you.  No matter what has been ailing you spiritually, physically, or emotionally, you have a God who loves you to the point where he would let himself be arrested, tortured, and murdered so that you would not have to face the punishment for your sins.  And this God conquered death so that you get to talk about heaven as your very real, very certain, very perfect, very eternal home.  That is God’s love for you.

Let that sink in… God loves me to death, literally to hell, and then back again.  You know, that really works for me. I like that a lot.  Nothing can separate God’s love from me.  With my sin, I put unnecessary and unhelpful distance between God and myself.  I might ignore him at times.  I do things I shouldn’t, but God will still love me and want me to live with him forever.  He will still work through his Word to call me, to shatter my stony heart, to waken me from slumber, to turn my darkness to light.  He will still be the God who died for me and rose again.

Do you know what that’s called?  When someone does not base their love for me on my performance but loves me simply because they want to, that’s called grace.  And with God’s grace there’s no fine print.  There’s no obligations.  There is nothing that can change that kind of love called grace, because it’s not about me and who I am and what I do, it’s about God and who he is and what he does.

Like I said, that works for me.  God has a personal knowledge of me.  He has a personal way of dealing with me.  I’m not just a name on a long list.  I’m not just a number.  As Luther put it, “God has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts.  Sanctified and kept me in the one true faith.”   That’s a good thing for me to cherish when I feel weary and burdened.  That’s a good thing for me to hold onto when I feel alone.

But sometimes I’m selfish and I take it too far.  You do, too. I like that God knows me and loves me, but I can put too much attention on me.  I like that God is on my side, and in this self-obsessed, ego-infatuated, me-myself-and-I world, I put the focus on this relationship between God and me, failing to enjoy the fact that God has this kind of relationship with others, too.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”  That’s a key word at the end.  Yes, I have a personal relationship with my Savior.  He brought me to faith and I now stand with him and will live with him forever.  But it’s not just me and him.  That pronoun is a first person pronoun, but’s it’s plural.  It’s “us!” That means Jesus loves more than me.

For the selfish heart that stubbornly says, “My faith is between me and God,” the fact is faith in Jesus connects us into a family.  Did you catch that in this letter John wrote.   John says “brothers and sisters” and “dear children.”  God’s grace called us by the gospel of Jesus Christ into his family.  That means there are others.  And these others are not foreign or strange.  They are family.  They were bought with the same blood of Christ.  They were baptized into the name of the same Triune God.  They were called, enlightened, and sanctified by the same Spirit.  They are built on the same solid foundation of God’s truth.  These fellow believers enjoy the same message of law and gospel.  They have the same eternal home waiting for them.  That lasts a lot longer than the family relationships we have on earth.

How does this family operate?  Is it a smile and a nod once in a while at church?  Is that how family works?  Is it nice words?  Some small talk with coffee and doughnuts?  A congratulations at a baptism?  A birthday greeting on facebook?  That just doesn’t sound like the way a family works, does it?

John says, “we should love one another.”  What exactly is the definition of love John is using?  Is it attraction, like a teenager trying to get a date for prom?  Is it a positive feelings for someone, like waving to your neighbors across the street?  Is it familiarity from spending a lot of time together, like a son mimicking his father?  Is that what love is?  That is not even close to the way God is using it here.

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.”  That’s how God loves people.  He shows his love in actions.  He shows love by doing such amazing things for people who do not deserve it.  He sacrifices himself.  That is love.  That is the love that exists in the family of God, as John continues, And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” 

Love is being willing to lay aside your preferences, your opinions, your goals, your time, your energy, even your whole being for someone else.  Love is not just saying they matter more, but showing it.  And this section is not addressed to spouses – although it certainly applies – it is addressed to those within the family of God.

But families don’t always get along, do they?  They don’t always have this kind of love.  In fact, in a family it can get downright nasty.  Did you hear that example of Cain and Abel?  Cain didn’t have the right attitude toward God or toward his brother.  Maybe he thought he could keep it hidden from Abel.  But God saw it all clearly.

God still sees it clearly.  He sees when it’s not just a busy schedule that separates his people, but careless selfishness.  He sees when it’s just the lips moving and the heart is ice cold.  What is happening to God’s family, when brothers and sisters cannot love one another with joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control?  We are just like Cain.  We are self-obsessed.  We are ignorant and arrogant.  We are killing love.

Do you know what that is called when you kill love with hatred, with jealousy, with slander, with gossip… It’s called murder.  And if there is one thing this world loves, it’s hate.  Hatred toward people who lean politically.  Hatred toward people of different creeds.  Hatred toward different races and ethnicities.  It’s killing us.  It’s killing our world and it works its way among even God’s people.

And so into our world of hate, the love of God pierced the darkness.  It began with a promise to Cain’s parents, that hatred would not cut God off from his people, but God would put the hatred between his people and Satan (enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers).  The love of God shined brightly the night Jesus entered our world.  Angels sang of peace between God and men.  The love of God walked the earth, willing to show kindness and goodness to all, even the enemies who hated him.  The love of God allowed those enemies to kill Jesus, so that we would know what God’s love does for us.  But the love of God did not end in death.  Jesus passed from death to life.  He would not let hate ruin his kingdom.  With love, his death brought forgiveness and peace.  He would not let his people be ruled by evil and sin.  With love, Jesus destroyed sin, death, and hell.

I have a new life in Christ and so do you.  We have this life where there is peace with God and each other, a life where Christ lives in us through faith, a life where hatred does not control us, a life where I look for ways to show the love of God to my brothers and sisters the way God showed his love to me.

There is a world of people just like Cain, who cannot understand this sort of thing.  It’s foreign, nonsense. They don’t know Christ or care about him so how can they have his love in their hearts?  Instead, they serve themselves.  They hate any opposing view that does not fit their own.

Brothers and sisters, that is not us.  We are not ruled by what we hate.  We are ruled by the love of God.  We are so saturated with it, that we cannot possibly keep it in.  God’s love will never just be a me and God thing.  It will always be a God and us thing.  It will always be giving up what I want because God gave himself up for me.  I will put the needs of others first.

This love that flows from God through us will be visible.  It will be visible in this family of believers here.  It will be visible like good fruit is visible on a tree.  People will see your joy that exists not because everything in life is going smoothly, but because sins are forgiven and life in heaven is yours.  People will see your kindness, that isn’t looking for a reward but desires to help others in need.  People will see your faithfulness, that even though we live in fickle times, the risen Lord keeps us steadfast.  These brothers and sisters will see it and rejoice that God’s love can do such things.

That’s gospel ministry.  That’s the life we have in this victory parade.  Love is what defines us, God’s undying love that called us out of the darkness of hate and brought us into the light of life.  As Christ has love you, now you love one another. God grant it.  Amen.

MY DEFENSE IS JESUS’ RESURRECTION

4.30.17 Easter 3A

Easter Season A

Acts 24:10-21 (sermon also includes context from Acts 20:1 – 25:12)

10 When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. 11 You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. 12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. 13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. 16 So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

17 “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. 18 I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. 19 But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. 20 Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—21 unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’ ”

 

‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’  That’s what this is all about.  I, Paul, was on trial simply because I believed  Jesus rose from the dead, and I love to tell people.

Here’s how it happened.  I had made the long journey from my mission work in Greece to Jerusalem to visit the believers there.  They were going through some tough times and I had brought gifts from a bunch of our other Greek churches to help them out.  A couple of these faithful Gentile believers accompanied us on the journey.  After we arrived in Jerusalem, we met with the brothers and sisters there.  It is always nice to meet and greet with fellow believers carrying out God’s work in a different part of the world.

The thing is, sometimes there is confusion about my ministry.  See, the Lord called me to do mission work for Gentiles.  Jesus is the Savior for all people, so we can’t avoid a certain group or certain areas just because it might be difficult or misunderstood.  His promises work the same for everyone.  His death and resurrection give forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe, no matter where you are from.

Well, you can imagine that not everyone thought my work was a good thing.  For the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, they were overjoyed that the gospel of Jesus was bringing Gentiles to faith.  For the Jewish religious leaders, the kind of people who put Jesus to death, they were not overjoyed.  They were pretty raging angry.

While I was in Jerusalem, I went to the Temple to worship and some of these raging angry Jewish religious leaders saw me there.  They were not at all happy about this.  They started shouting at me, that I was preaching an anti-Jewish message wherever I went, that I spoke against the law and the Temple.  They even accused me defiling the Temple with Greeks, because they saw some of my travel companions with me in the city and assumed that I was so anti-Jewish that I brought them with me to the Temple, too.  They got so enraged and aroused so many people that I thought they would kill me right then and there.

News got to the Roman commander, who took some soldiers and rushed in to arrest me for causing such a disturbance.  When he asked what I had done, the crowd shouted all sorts of lies about me.  The commander just wanted me out of there so everything would calm down and he could investigate what happened.  After I told him I was a Jew, he let me speak to the crowd in my defense.

I explained everything.  I told them how I grew up in Pharisee school, studying under Gamaliel.  I told them how my passion for God’s law led me to persecute the followers of Jesus to death.  It didn’t matter, men or women, I wanted them in prison or dead.  I told them about my trip to Damascus to find more of Jesus’ followers, but on the way, Jesus found me and changed my life.  The things his followers proclaimed were all true.  Jesus died and rose from the dead to save us for eternity.  I was an eyewitness to it.  Jesus said he had a different job for me now.  Instead of passionately persecuting his followers, he wanted me to zealously preach and evangelize for more.  So, he told me to go the Gentiles with his good news of forgiveness and life.

It was at that point that the Jews started shouting again.  They said, “Rid the earth of him!  He’s not fit to live!”  The commander got me into the barracks safely.  He wanted to punish me for the chaos, but as a Roman citizen, I had the right to a trial.  The Jews didn’t really have any legal charges against me. They were just angry that I preached the good news of Jesus.  And they were especially irritated that I did this ministry to Gentiles.

The next few days were a whirlwind.  I stood before the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, to face their accusations.  The Roman commander didn’t hear any Roman laws that I broke, only that Jews really hated me.  He wanted to release me, but then my nephew found out about their plot to kill me when I was released.  So, the commander transferred me to Caesarea, because the Roman governor, Felix, lived there.

How about that for a week?  Well, five days later the Jews came to Caesarea with their lawyer, Tertullus.  He had this to say, “We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him.”  Then, all the Jews joined in the accusations against me.  They really didn’t like me much, as you can tell.

Sometimes that happens, doesn’t it?  Sometimes people don’t like followers of Jesus.  They don’t like what you stand for, even if they don’t really know or ask.  They don’t like what you say.  They don’t like what you do.  They don’t like your attitude about life and death and heaven.  At times, they will accuse you of being high and mighty.  And other times, when you make a mistake, giving in to sin, then you are a hypocrite for doing what everyone else is doing.

It feels like you can’t win.  You try to do the right thing, living your faith in Jesus no matter what the situation, but people don’t care or they get irritated.  They don’t want to know about Jesus and they certainly don’t want you talking about it all the time.  And then, when you do something wrong, they question your commitment.

It would be a whole lot easier to simply give up.  Do you know why I didn’t give up?  Even though I faced threats and dangers wherever I went, do you know why I continued to speak about Jesus?  Even though I have been beaten, flogged, stoned and left for dead, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and so much more, do you know why I will never ever stop?

Because my Savior rose from the dead. No one else can say that.  Not one of those Jewish religious leaders can comprehend how much hope that gives me every single day.  I don’t care if they take my freedom, because Jesus Christ has made me free from the slavery of sin and has given me a righteousness that makes me a part of God’s family forever.  I don’t care if they take my eyes, because Jesus Christ has changed my darkness to eternal light.  I don’t care if they take my hands and feet, because Jesus Christ will give me a glorious, perfect body in heaven.  I don’t care if they cut out my tongue, because I will be singing the praise of Jesus Christ for eternity.  It doesn’t matter what they do, I will never give up the truth that my Savior rose from the dead.  It is my defense in every situation and my hope for eternity.

When your hope is in Jesus, then what can mere mortals do to you?  Nothing.  Sure, people can inflict physical pain if they get so fed up with your faith in Jesus, but physical pain does not last like the pain and punishment of hell.  Sure, people can make you an outsider because you believe in Jesus and his eternal life, but you are never an outsider in heaven.  Sure, people can even take your life, but faith in Jesus’ resurrection means you have an eternal life.

That’s the way I looked at it.  So, there I stood on trial before the Roman governor, Felix.  The Jews hoped that they could get rid of me.  They hoped that my preaching would be gone for good.  But their hope was in the wrong thing.  They put their hope in a lawyer, in the governor, in their own passion to get rid of me.  It didn’t work, because hope in people or desires here on earth will always fail.  But when your hope is in Jesus, it is alive and always will be.

Jesus came back from the dead for us.  We have confidence in every one of his promises because he is alive.  If he says he is with you always to the very end of the age, then a living Savior keeps that promise.  If he says he will protect and guard you in all your ways, a living Savior keeps that promise.  If he says your sins are forgiven, a living Savior keeps that promise.  If he says your home is in heaven, a living Savior keeps that promise.

You know, Felix kept me in jail for two more years.  He was relieved of his duties and Festus took over as the governor.  And I had to go through the hearings all over again.  Eventually, I appealed to Caesar so that I could go to Rome, and as a Roman citizen, my appeal was granted.  The Lord did exactly what he had promised to do. Every one of those days in prison my Savior was still the conqueror of sin, death, and the devil.  Every one of those days he was keeping his promises to protect me, forgive me, and love me.  Every one of those days my hope was alive in him.  He kept his promises.  I went to Rome and testified to the truth to anyone who would listen.

That is the Savior I have and will always have.  No matter what the circumstances or the situation you experience, if people are trying to tear you apart and rid the earth of your life or if they are just making you feel like an outsider, don’t give up.  Our Savior is alive.  No one can take that hope away.

Amen.

 

A RICHES TO RAGS STORY

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Matthew 20

17 Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

 

The story of Tom Canty is fascinating.  Tom grew up in a rough part of London called Offal Court, but he pined for something better.  He was poor and miserable, an unloved son of an abusive father.  One day, while daydreaming of a better life, he ends up outside the palace in Westminster. A palace guard does not approve of this beggar boy being up by the fence and begins to get rid of the boy.  But another boy from inside the palace fence named Edward stepped in to help Tom and invited him into the palace to play.  As Edward hears how terrible Tom’s life is, he feels sorry for him, but he’s also interested in what life might be like on the other side of the palace fences.  The boys exchange clothes to see what it’s like to walk around, literally, in each other’s shoes.  They notice how they look very similar.  They even have the same birthday.  After a while, they go back oustide still looking like the other.  When Edward, who’s dressed up as Tom, starts telling a guard what to do, the guard throws him out.  Tom winds up in the palace as the prince.  It’s a rags to riches story that never seemed possible.

That story is fiction, written by Mark Twain for his three girls.  However, it does accurately describe what is going on today in the Gospel.  The mother of James and John wanted her sons to have what Tom had.  They did not deserve a place of power.  They were sons of a fisherman from Galilee.  They weren’t headed for great things.  I’m not saying they had a bad family life or that they were miserably poor.  Scripture doesn’t tell us that.  I’m saying fisherman from Galilee don’t get to be rulers of a kingdom that often.  But that’s exactly what mom wanted for her boys.

There’s a part of that story we love.  We like the idea that a mother would go out of her way to try and help her boys.  We like the rags to riches stories.  Whether it’s an athlete who came from a rough childhood or a business mogul who built a huge corporation out of his garage, these stories inspire the masses.

But then there’s the other side of this mother’s request, the part that makes the other ten disciples indignant, really angry.  You can almost hear them say,  “What kind of question is that to ask Jesus?  Seriously James and John, you think you are better than us?  You think you deserve that much power?”  You think you can handle it?  How selfish can you and your mother be?”

That kind of self-centered view seems to describe a lot people.  We can see it all over in our world.  At work, at school, in Walmart, out to eat, on the news, in Hollywood – it’s not hard to notice how selfish people can be.  They want the world to revolve around them.  They only care about themselves and their future.  That’s all that matters.

In that story from Mark Twain, Tom Canty wanted more in life.  He only cared about changing his circumstances.  But this isn’t just something that affects characters in novels or people in our self-obsessed society.  This self-centered ideology is so natural for followers of Jesus, too.  Guess who James and John were?  Guess who their mom was?  They were devoted believers in Jesus. They gave up a lot to be followers of Jesus.  John is the one wrote 5 books of the New Testament under God’s verbal inspiration. We’re not talking about opponents of Jesus here.  And still, they were corrupted by their selfish desires for power.  That was one of the disciples’ ongoing discussions: who was the greatest.

And if you’re saying to yourself right now, “Well, I don’t think that way.  I don’t argue with people about who’s the greatest.  I don’t make the world revolve around me. I don’t ask for positions of power.”  Then I have to ask, you’ve never put yourself first, thought about your preferences over someone else’s, or wished people would treat you the way you wanted?  Or maybe put it this way: would you really want to be in Tom’s position?  Would you really want to be the one who has to give up so much while other people are prospering?  Jesus says “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave…”  Does a servant or slave really sound like a great life?  Would you really like being the doormat for people at work?  Would you really enjoy being the beggar?  NO!  I don’t think anyone of us would mind if life would go a little bit more according to my plan?  It would be nice to have a little more control.  Who would say no to a little switch like the one Tom Canty had in Mark Twain’s novel, instead of begging for money and food and going home to a terrible father, he was served hand and foot as prince of England.

It’s totally natural to think that would be great.  It’s totally natural for the mother of James and John to have a self-centered request for Jesus on behalf of her boys.  It’s totally natural for them to think that they can handle themselves on Jesus right and left.   We are naturally selfish, thinking that we are important and deserve good things.  We are born to care about our needs first.  And that kind of selfishness gets us nowhere with God.  In fact, that kind of selfishness originates in us because that’s exactly the way the devil thinks. He’s the one who tempted our great…grandparents, Adam and Eve, to think they were more important than God. When they gave in, they passed that selfishness down to every generation since. The rags to riches story is exciting and inspiring, but it naturally is just not possible for us.

Remember, however, that Mark Twain’s story is not just about Tom Canty.  It’s also about Edward Tudor, the real prince and son of Henry VIII.  See, he was thrown out of the castle.  At the time it seemed intriguing to him to see what London was really like.  He thought he could handle it, but when he was outside those walls, it wasn’t so great.  He met Tom’s terrible father and experienced the harsh reality of life without privilege.   He learned what it was like to serve rather than be served. He went from riches to rags.

There’s someone else who found out what that was like.  And he’s center stage in the Gospel for today.  Jesus was ruler over creation.  He sat on heaven’s throne, but he left that palace.  He wasn’t thrown out against his will like Edward.  He willingly came to the place of selfish sinners.  He put on our clothes.  He went from riches to rags.  He became lowly to the point of being beaten and mocked and killed as a criminal.

All of that wasn’t for an experiment to see what life was like here.  It wasn’t to set a humble and caring example to show us how to earn God’s love.  Jesus took our place to endure what we could not endure.  He suffered the punishment for sin so that we wouldn’t have to.  He gave his life as the full payment for our debts. The Son of God was not served, but he served us.  He was not treated the way he deserved, and he endured it to give us what we don’t deserve.  Our rags are taken away and replaced with his robes of righteousness.  We have free forgiveness because he served us with his suffering and death.

You know, eventually in Mark Twain’s novel, Edward got back to the castle to find that his father had died and Tom, who everyone thought was Edward, was now the king of England.  Well, (I’m summarizing a lot of this) Edward proved that he was actually the rightful king by providing the Great Seal of England.  Edward is restored to his position as king and he doesn’t punish Tom.  Instead, Edward gives Tom a new position as King’s Ward.  Tom is delighted to be in the King’s service.  And as a result of his time spent as a poor beggar, Edward rules England with more compassion and mercy.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus came back, too.  He went from riches to rags, but he didn’t stay in the rags.  He didn’t remain in the tomb.  He came back to life for us so that we would be helplessly lost.  He made everything right and took his rightful spot on the throne so that we would have a compassionate and merciful ruler for the rest of eternity.

And in his mercy, he gives us a position of service.  We get to be in witnesses of the King of kings.  We get to do helpful and beneficial tasks in service to the Savior of all.  We get to tell people how great Jesus is.  We get to tell people that he went from riches to rags and back again so that we could go from rags to riches.  We get to tell people that Jesus isn’t a mean judge, but a merciful ruler who saves his people from harm.  Every once in a while the work might get hard or even dangerous, but there is nothing to fear with Jesus as our Savior.  He has done away with anything that can hinder or destroy us.  He has freed us from all the selfishness that surrounds us.  He has given us a new way of looking at people, not as obstacles getting in the way of what I want but as souls for whom Christ died.

We get to be involved in this work as individuals and also as a church.  Jesus joins us together in this family of believers where not everyone has the same interests and abilities, but everyone has a job of service to the Savior.  The job is not to be like the mother of James and John, looking for the positions of power.  The job is to serve the Lord.  Maybe it’s with your voice, by singing praises beautifully or inviting those you know to worship or teaching children about their God or praying diligently for so many people.  Maybe it’s with your time to help plan and prioritize our ministry.  Maybe it’s with gifts that make projects and plans possible.  Maybe it’s with your hard work to help take care of our properties.  Maybe it’s with your cooking.

Every one of us has been put into the service of Jesus, because he first served us with his whole life, his suffering and death, and his resurrection.  Now, he rules for us so that we can serve him without fear.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus’ riches to rags story means we have a rags to riches story that never ends.  Amen.

MIND-BLOWING MERCY MOTIVATES MINISTRY

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12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. 13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. 14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. 17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

The reports were horrific.  The buzz was unnerving.  The images burned into memories like the fireballs burned through those World Trade Center twin towers. What kind of people could do such a thing? Who could hijack a plane and fly it, with innocent civilians, into a building like a bomb? How could this happen?

As the events of 9/11 played out, we learned the shocking and sad answers.  It was a group of Islamic extremists called, al-Qaeda. They were angry with American involvement in the Middle East.  They could not stand how Muslims were being treated around the world.  The teachings and confessions of their Muslim religion only added fuel to the fire.  They wanted to show the world what happens to enemies of their god and his followers.

It’s still sobering to remember that day 15 years ago, that some could be so evil.  But it’s not the first time terror has been unleashed in our world.  It’s not the first time that politics and religion mixed into an explosion of hate and terror.  History is littered with this kind of thing. Today we are listening to someone we know, appreciate and love, who knows a thing or two about being so obsessed with fighting for his religious viewpoint and taking it to the next level of extreme.

Now, you might think that I am embellishing the truth a bit, but listen to him as he explains his life: I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.  This is none other than the Apostle Paul.  Once known as Saul, he was a student of the Old Testament in the tradition of the Pharisees.  At that time he thought he had it all figured out.  He thought he knew what God was like and what God wanted.  He was all about laws, traditions and being good.  As Paul studied and learned from his teacher his passion only grew.  He became the cream of the crop among his peers.  His zeal and feistiness was second to none.  It got to the point where he could not stand hearing about Jesus from his followers.  Paul knew how hate can boil in the human heart.  He knew what it looked like when the hate could not stay hidden anymore and came lashing out at innocent people. He knew what it was like to spew venomous words at people who were not like him.  He knew all of it so well.  And he did it all in the name of God –  who he thought God was, anyways.  His self-fulfilling work at that time, was to find Christians and shut them up.  Whether that meant in prison or lifeless in a pile of rocks, he was all for it.

It’s shocking when you think about it: Paul’s life wasn’t all that far off from these terrorist groups. How could Paul be so bad?  A blasphemer?  A man who spoke slanderous and defaming lies against the message of Jesus and his followers?  A persecutor?  A man who loved to see Christians suffer?  A violent man whose passion was to get his hands dirty with the blood of those who were not like him?  How could it happen?

I think I know.  This week, I went on YouTube to watch some of those 9/11 reports and interviews.  One of them was a tell-all interview with President Bush, recalling the events of those days.  A couple things that he said kind of hit the nail on the head.  As he visited Ground Zero he recalled that “there was a palpable blood lust from the workers at the site.  They were interested if we were going to find the enemy and bring them to justice.”  And I know exactly what that feeling is like.  You probably do, too.  When President Bush spoke from Ground Zero only a few days after the attacks, I was cheering, too, as he said, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”  A few years later, as I saw the reports and videos of the “Shock-and-Awe” bombing campaign of Baghdad along with all the other steps our nation took to defend our freedom and bring justice on our enemies, I was watching in approval.

It’s really not that hard to see myself as a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man.  I’m not in a better category because these hands have never been responsible for another person’s death.  When I have that same “palpable blood lust” as the workers at Ground Zero, that makes me just like Paul, who wanted to get rid of Christians.  It doesn’t matter if we call it terrorism or persecution or hatred, do you want to know what God calls it?  Murder!  Plain and simple.  “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.”

And do you know something else?  It doesn’t matter if it’s rape, or having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or looking at pornography, God calls it adultery.  It doesn’t matter if it’s stealing from a store, forgetting to return something you borrowed, selfish jealousy, or discontent with what you have, God calls it theft and coveting. Or maybe this summarizes it the best: “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” In other words the problem is not only the terrorists from al-Qaeda or ISIS.  The problem is not only with the blasphemers, the persecutors, and the violent people out there.  The problem is in these sinful hearts of ours.  The problem is me and you. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth:  terrorist, violent persecutor, and pastor are all the same.

Maybe you’re shocked and stunned by that. Maybe it’s hard to connect these dots just like it was September 11, 2001. Maybe you’re realizing that it’s impossible for people like us to adequately care for this ministry because we are consumed by things like selfishness, slander, and hate. Maybe you’re realizing and have realized for a long time now that the only thing that is really easy for us is sin.

And yet this blasphemer, this persecutor, this violent man Paul says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.”  How could God do that?  How could he give Paul strength?  How could he consider Paul trustworthy?  How could he appoint a man filled with such hate and cruelty into his service?  How could God make Paul a missionary to reach others?  I mean, there had to be better options?

But there is no better.  There is only best and worst.  And here’s the reality for all of us who are with Paul lumped into that same category.  This is the part where Paul wanted every ear to perk up.  This is the part where you pay attention because God is about to blow your mind.  This is the part where you elbow your husband and tell your kids to sit up straight.  Here’s a trustworthy saying:  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”  God looked down at a world filled with terrorists, murderers, rapists, thieves, racists, gossips, and liars.  God looked down at a world of disrespectful, selfish, arrogant, and sometimes just dumb people. God looked at Paul and he looked at you and me.  And he had mercy.  He could have and should have burned us all in a fire that is much hotter and much more eternal than the fires that brought those towers down.  But he showed mercy.  He looked at the worst and gave us his very best.

It’s not that you and I had some spark that set us apart from the rest.  It’s not that you and I had a something great to offer God.  It’s not that our works are better than others.  What happened is that there is a God who loved the unlovable.  Jesus longed to give us what we could not earn for ourselves.  Jesus saw lost people like us and went on a mission to find us.  It’s all because of him.

For the times when our hearts will filled with hate, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  For the times when we lashed out with blasphemy against our God or those around us, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  For the times we persecuted people who are not like us, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  For the times we broke God’s law and his heart with our sins, Jesus came into the world to save sinners…of whom I am the worst.  That’s why it’s called mercy.

Mercy is what changed Paul so much.  He didn’t deserve any of it.  He’s not the shining example in this section.  Jesus is. Jesus was willing to look for people who didn’t want to be found.  And he never stops.  Paul says, “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” Paul had a Savior with never-ending love who found a violent, blasphemous, persecutor of the Christian faith and actually turned that man into a Christian.  He had a Savior who not only brought him to faith, but also then enlisted him into his service.  Paul was unworthy for such a task, but the Lord made him worthy.  Paul was powerless to serve with the kind of heart and help that was needed, but the Lord gave him the strength.

Paul’s Savior is also your Savior, and so what changed Paul so much is also what changes you.  You may look in the mirror and see an ugly sinner, but your Savior sees someone for whom he died to save.  You may see someone who is worthless and powerless, but your Savior sees the limitless power and heavenly worth he has given you.

This series about ministry could not begin on a better note.  When it comes to taking care of a church you and I aren’t the focus, but it’s the mercy of our Lord.  When all common sense said not to, he went out to look for the rebels and the rejects, the haters and the blasphemers, the violent and arrogant, the lusters and the liars.  His unlimited patience showed mercy to us.  We are no longer lost.  We are saved.

It’s that kind of mind-blowing mercy that changes our ministry.  The job of taking care of our church is not hard when we realize God’s mercy is taking care of us.  It’s not hard when we realize, we aren’t touting our own names around town, but his.  It’s not hard when we realize his mercy is producing the results.  It’s not hard when we remember that his mercy is unlimited.

You know, there are a lot of motivators out there.  On September 11, 2001 it was hate and evil.  I’ve been there before, so have you.  Other motivators are rewards, if you do a good job you will get something in return.  Guilt is a motivator that we use too often.  I feel bad about something I did or said, and I’m trying to make up for it.  The list goes on.  Well, today God says you can throw that list out of the window.  He’s got one thing that will motivate you.  It’s called mercy.  Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  You are not lost anymore.  You are not bound for hell anymore.  You still struggle with sin, yes, but your sins are all taken away from you – past, present, and future.  Christ came to change the worst into the best.

That kind of mercy motivates us to do one thing – thank the Lord.  That’s really what ministry is, it’s finding ways to say thank you to a God who saved you.  Not everyone is a Paul.  Not everyone will be able to travel around talking to any and every one about Jesus.  Not everyone will start churches wherever they go.  God used a persecutor and violent man to do that work.  So God will find ways to use you. He’ll use you to plan projects.  He’ll use you to say “Hello, welcome to our church.”  He’ll use you to make food for others.  He’ll use you to listen to someone who needs an ear.  He’ll use you to fund new activities.  He’ll use you to show mercy to someone who is lost.  How mind-blowing is that!

There’s really only one response that seems fitting, and Paul wrote it down for his young colleague, Timothy, and for us so that we wouldn’t forget it:  Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.