Sunday, May 21, 2017

See Christ In Your Mirror.


Sermon for Easter 6, May 21, 2017

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours through faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord.  Amen.

James 1:22-27   22 Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror;  24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.  25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.  26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless.  27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

See Christ In Your Mirror.

Dear fellow members of the body of Christ,

            We live in a world where bits of our lives are captured for preservation in photographs, selfie snap shots, and media posts online.  The pictures we take lock elements of our lives in a sort of time-warp that lets us look back to see what we looked like at the various times.  As we page through our Facebook pages and scrapbooks of old photographs, we are reminded of how much we change throughout our lives.  As we view these pictures, we follow our growth from tiny babies into adulthood, and then the changes as we age.  Sometimes, we are startled by what we see as we page through the snap shots of our personal histories.

When James wrote this letter, he didn’t have photography available as an illustration, so he used a mirror for his reference point.  His message is that we shouldn’t forget who we are, because who we each are is visible as one looks in his mirror.  So, I ask you, when you look in your mirror each day, whom do you see?  Do you see your old sinful nature, or do you see someone who has been transformed by his or her growth in faith?  My friends, through James, the Holy Spirit encourages each of you to See Christ In Your Mirror.

            We start this text reading the simple statement, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”  Did you ever imagine that you could be deceiving yourself?  It’s pretty easy to do, though.  We come to church on Sunday morning, and we go home glad that we are Christians, and glad that because of Christ our sins have been forgiven.  But then, how do we live?  If we don’t live each moment of our lives obeying God’s Law, we may be deceiving ourselves. 

It’s kind of shocking to be told that we lie to ourselves.  We know from reading the Bible that the devil is a liar, and so, it becomes easy to blame him for our sins much like Flip Wilson did years ago in his comedy routine saying, “The devil made me do it!”  But here, the Lord reminds us that we need to take responsibility for ourselves.  If we disobey any of God’s Law, we deserve punishment, even if we deceive ourselves into thinking that how we live doesn’t really matter.  But, dear friends, our lives do matter to God.

            James wrote, “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror;  for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.”  From your days in Catechism Class, I’m sure your remember the three uses of God’s Law, and that the most important use for Christians is as a mirror.  God’s Law shows us what kind of people we are.  It reflects our image as sinners, as those condemned to eternal destruction. 

However, anyone who hears God’s Word, and doesn’t live according to it, is forgetting something very important for his eternal life: that there are two images of every believer.  The other part of God’s Word, the Gospel, shows us that we are each made perfectly holy through what Christ has done for us.  So, as your look in the mirror, do you see only the sinner, or do you also See Christ In Your Mirror?

            When you look into the mirror of God’s Law, you can’t help but see the condemned sinner.  As we page through the spiritual photographs of our lives reflected in the law, we see our guilt reflected there; we see that we each have substituted other things for God.  We have misused God’s name from time to time.  We have failed to live our lives in perfect worship.  At some point in our time here on earth, and usually at many points, we have failed to obey our parents and superiors.  Each of us can find snapshots of our lives that show us hating someone, or lusting for someone, or wanting something that isn’t rightfully ours.  We have said, or thought, things about others that are not God-pleasing.  Thus, the mirror of God’s Law does a really good job of showing us that we deserve to be condemned by God. 

            But then, if we continue hearing God’s Word, we see a new image reflected in the mirror of the Gospel.  James wrote, “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.”  There are many people in our world who want to make the Gospel a law of works, but that isn’t what James is doing here.  James is telling us to see the fulfillment of God’s Law which is Christ Jesus, and never to forget what He has done for us.  Jesus came for this very purpose, to obey every statute of the Law perfectly, because, quite frankly, we fail in our obedience.

            “The perfect law of liberty,” is that joyful good news that Jesus became our perfect substitute.  The holy Son of God came and put Himself in our place, and lived His life in perfect obedience so that every law would be fulfilled.  Jesus came and put Himself in our place, also, on that cross at Golgotha so that the debt of sin would be paid for once, for all.  Now hear what God has declared for all people: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)  We call it God’s great exchange: Jesus took our sin and in exchange, we receive His righteousness.  This is what James refers to as “the perfect law of liberty,” that Jesus died to set us free from sin and death.

            In this text we are reminded, also, that we must continue in the liberty Jesus won for us.  If we forget what Jesus has done and return to our old sinful ways, we are putting ourselves back under bondage and the curse of the devil.  Therefore, we must “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”  James tells us that if we continue in the work that God shows in His Word, we will be blessed in what we do.  We will be blessed with joyous eternal life in heaven.

            Dear Christian friends, this is sanctification at work in us: keeping us continually growing in God’s Word, continually striving for greater obedience to God’s Law.  This is the third use of the Law: guiding us how to live a life more pleasing to God, to be a greater blessing to those around us, to demonstrate continually the forgiveness that Jesus won for all, to be a continual representation to an unbelieving world that Jesus has washed us clean of all sin with His holy precious blood, to live as the body of Christ to which we have been called.

            Through James, the Holy Spirit relays three examples of how we are to live as the body of Christ saying, “If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless.”  We are in this world but we live as the body of Christ.  How we speak testifies to what we believe.  To bridle our tongues doesn’t mean to silence them but to guide them on the way.  A little later in this letter James wrote, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be.” (James 3:10)  Our mouths witness to what we believe.  If we pour out trash talk and vulgar words, we are confessing before God, and the world, that we do not believe in Jesus, but have abandoned the love of Christ.

            Right along with what we speak goes how we live.  The text says, Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”  True faith in Christ demonstrates its concern for those around us who have need.  The widows and orphans of James’ world were often in dire straits.  In our society, there still are those who struggle with the various ills of a troubled world.  Being concerned for the less fortunate, and for the afflicted, is part of our work as the body of Christ.  And we should be particularly concerned about those who are not yet part of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and those who do not yet have God as their Father.  For them, our mouths should declare the Word of the Living God.

            As the body of Christ, we, also, are to avoid any hint of immorality.  Part of living a Christian life is to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”  Certainly we know this isn’t easy.  Each and every day of our lives, we are bombarded by the temptations of the world and the weaknesses of our own sinful flesh.  Temptations and trials will come our way, yet we should not make it easy for the devil to lead us astray.  We should be working to focus all of our efforts on those things that God tells us are pleasing to Him.  We should avoid anything He has forbidden and do everything He has commanded.

            Yet, on our own, we would certainly fail.  Therefore, See Christ In Your Mirror.  See that you have been washed clean from all sin at your Baptism.  See that Jesus has changed your heart as He brought you to faith through His Word.  As you look in your mirror each day, see Christ who through faith lives in you.  You are not alone in fighting the temptations that the devil flings against you.  Remember that Jesus promised to be with you always, not just here at church, but everywhere you go.  As you look in your mirror, see the snap-shots of all that Jesus lived for you in His life.  The wonderful, perfect life of your Savior is counted to you when you are brought to faith in Him.  That is what God sees as He looks at the believer.  God sees that the blood Jesus shed from the cross has washed you clean from every sin.

            My friends, as Christians, we live on this planet with two pictures of ourselves always in full view: that we are both saint and sinner at the same time.  We know sin is still seen in our lives even though we have been brought to faith in Jesus.  But, for those who trust in Jesus, the image of a perfect child of God is also reflected.  That is the reflexion to view every day of your life, seeing that you are a redeemed, holy saint in God’s eyes.  The perfect holiness of Jesus, brought to you through God’s Word, through Baptism, and through Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament is what God sees when He looks at the believer.  So, throw away those pictures of the old sinful man.  Focus, instead, on what Jesus has done for you.  Focus on Jesus who lives in you.  Jesus’ perfect redemption, brought to you through the work of the Holy Spirit, gives you the strength, and the ability, to live more and more each day as the body of Christ.  Trust Jesus, let Him live in you, and See Christ In Your Mirror.  Amen.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto everlasting life.  Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.


Sermon for Easter 5, May 14, 2017

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours forever from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

1 Chronicles 16:23-34  Sing to the LORD, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day.  24 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.  25 For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.  26 For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.  27 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy in his dwelling place.  28 Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength,  29 ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.  Bring an offering and come before him; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.  30 Tremble before him, all the earth!  The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.  31 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, "The LORD reigns!"  32 Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!  33 Then the trees of the forest will sing, they will sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.  34 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.

Dear friends in Christ,

            If our salvation had anything to do with obedience to law, this text would certainly terrify us.  The number of commands, here, is almost shocking for David commands us and the whole world to sing, to proclaim salvation, to declare God’s glory, to fear Him, to ascribe His glory and strength, to bring offerings, to worship the Lord, tremble before Him, rejoice, be glad, say His victory, to resound in gladness, to be jubilant in praise, and through this all, to be giving thanks.  That’s more commands than the Ten Commandments.  But, how many of us can honestly say that we do these things on a continual basis?

            The first thing we need to understand is that King David doesn’t sing this song as an instruction manual for how to appease God.  Instead, David is singing his joy and gladness for God’s mercy.  This is part of a song of praise to the Lord at the time God was blessing Israel with His presence.  It’s what thankful believers do—we Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.

            As David was establishing himself as king over Israel, he recognized that it was, in fact, the Lord who was giving David his position of leadership.  At this time, too, God was working through David to re-establish faithful worship practices in Israel.  David was rejoicing because the visible reminder of God’s presence and mercy was being returned to prominence in the faith-life of Israel. 

The Ark of the Covenant had been missing from the tabernacle of Israel for decades.  King Saul had never managed to return it to the rightful position if, indeed, he had even tried.  However, David doesn’t rejoice for himself here.  He gives praise to the Lord for everything.  Therefore, let us look at this text not trying to learn what we must do, but what God has done for us, for it is in God’s work that we learn of our salvation.

            David danced before the proceeding ark and sang, “Sing to the LORD, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day.  Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.”  The ark was topped with the mercy seat.  It represented what the Lord intended to do for His people to cover their guilt.  We know today that this mercy is found in Jesus.  Among Jesus’ last words to His disciples were these: "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)  The victory for forgiveness of sins was won for all on the cross.  But, who could know of Jesus’ saving work if it isn’t proclaimed to the people?  God doesn’t give us this command as a test, or as a way for us to gain entrance into His kingdom, but rather, so that we believers might share God’s goodness with all people.

            David’s jubilant song continued: For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; He is to be feared above all gods.  For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.”  How great is God’s love?  “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(Romans 5:8)  What David knew, though his pagan enemies couldn’t understand, is that has God loved us in spite of what we were.  The God who created the heavens and the earth, fully aware that we had rebelled against Him in league with the devil, sent His Son to rescue us from that evil rebellion.  God didn’t send His Son to condemn us, but to save.  That’s what the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant proclaimed to Israel.  It’s what Jesus sent His disciples to proclaim to a world of sinners.  It’s what the Holy Spirit proclaimed to each of us as the water of Baptism was poured on our heads. 

Why should we fear this God who saves?  Jesus taught, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.(Matthew 10:28)  As a forerunner for Christ, David knew that the One true God is both our Creator and our Judge.  The God who loved us enough to give His Son to die for us is also perfectly righteous in His judgments, and those who do not trust His Word will be cast into outer darkness.  Human ideas of what a god should do, and all the idols we or the devil might dream up can do nothing for us.  Only the Lord God will save; only He can save.

David sang, “Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy in his dwelling place.  Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength, ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.  Bring an offering and come before him; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.”  Someday, our own eyes too will see heaven.  Someday, we too will personally view the glory of God’s magnificence.  However, even right now, we get to see God’s glory in His mercy, in His forgiveness for sinners like you and me. 

What do we have to offer that could pay for the corruption in our hearts or the evil in our thoughts, not to mention the sins of our hands and our mouths?  Honesty declares that nothing we can do could appease God’s righteous anger for sin.  Therefore, God’s Son did the appeasing by suffering our deserved pain and death in our place.  The obedience we should live, Jesus lived for us.  The victory over the deceiver is given to us by faith in Christ.  What choice could the believer possibly have but to fall before the Lord in humble thanksgiving and praise?  Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. 

David looked to the end of the world and sang, “Tremble before him, all the earth!  The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.  Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let them say among the nations, ‘The LORD reigns!’"  This world will be what it is, but heaven is our home.  When Jesus returns, the world will tremble in fear.  The Bible tells us that every knee will bow before the glory of our Lord, and Jesus warns that “the days are coming in which they will say, 'Blessed are the barren, wombs that never bore, and breasts which never nursed!'  Then they will begin 'to say to the mountains, "Fall on us!" and to the hills, "Cover us!" '” (Luke 23:29-30)  However, no one in heaven and no believer on earth will be afraid on the day of Jesus’ return, for our King will be bringing the final judgment—the separation of the wicked from the saved, and the whole Kingdom of our God rejoices.

Here is the song of the faithful.  It proclaims how we live our thanksgiving in everything we do: “Let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!  Then the trees of the forest will sing, they will sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.  Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”  When Jesus entered Jerusalem to begin His final triumph over sin and death, the people shouted out praise to His name, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” but Jesus’ enemies objected and commanded the Son of God to silence His followers.  To this, though, Jesus replied, "I tell you, if they keep quiet, even the stones will cry out." (Luke 19:40)

All around us, the fields declare their obedience to God as they push forth a new crop.  As the spring rains bring leaves on the trees and flowers dot the landscape, they declare the goodness of our God who provides for all people, friend and foe alike.  How will we do as the plants of the earth?  In every moment of living as a Christian believer, our lives will Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. 

Let us worship as those who trust completely in God’s Word of promise.  Let us work and farm in jubilant praise of our Lord.  Let us do the everyday tasks of our lives with this thought constantly before us, that Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer, is the reason for everything we do.  Let us make every decision for the use of our time, talents, and resources be based on giving thanks to the Lord for bringing us out of the darkness of Satan’s lair into the light of the Kingdom of God.  Let we walk in the care of our living Savior, Redeemer, and King and serve Him with joy and gladness

Give thanks to the Lord for He is good.  Living in sanctified trust in Jesus is what God’s people do with every breathe we take.  His righteousness covers us.  His holiness is credited to us.  His love, His sacrifice, makes us right with the Father above.  What else can we do in return but to sing praise to the God of Israel?  Dear friends, Give thanks to the Lord for He is good. 

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore.  Amen. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Shepherd’s love gives you worth.

Sermon for Easter 4, May 7, 2017
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and from His Son, the Shepherd and Sacrifice.  Amen.
John 10:11-16  "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  12 The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  14 "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—  15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.  16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.  I must bring them also.  They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.
The Shepherd’s love gives you worth.
Dear fellow sheep,
            Sheep don’t have the best reputation in our world, and there’s a pretty good chance I’ve just offended some of you by calling you sheep.  However, I ask you to bear with me this morning as I explain a few things about Jesus’ sheep and what He tells us here in this text from John’s Gospel.  I pray that by the time I am finished you will gladly call yourself one of Jesus’ sheep, that you will know the extent of His love for you, and that The Shepherd’s love gives you worth.
            If you would go to the nearest auction barn, you wouldn’t need a large bank account to purchase an ordinary sheep.  Even though the lambs can be awfully cute, the adult animal typically doesn’t bear a high price tag.  Their reputation doesn’t do them any favors in this regard.  Sheep are thought of a stupid, stinky, and pretty much not worth owning.  And yet, the Bible doesn’t seem to view sheep that way. 
            Historically, the people of Israel were shepherds.  This is important for understanding how Jesus applies the metaphor of sheep to His followers.  Jesus wasn’t saying they were stupid for following Him, and no one listening to Jesus would have supposed that.  The people hearing Jesus understood that, to a shepherd, the sheep were his wealth.  The sheep constituted the bulk of the shepherd’s net worth.  They provided his livelihood, giving him milk, wool, and meat.  Therefore, believing Jews understood the Lord to mean that His people were worth a great deal to Him.
            Now, as to us being like sheep, it would be helpful to understand what sheep are actually like.  The animal isn’t inherently stupid.  They just do what sheep do.  If that looks stupid to us, it probably says more about our knowledge of sheep than of the animals’ actual intelligence.  But, sheep will be sheep.  That means that sometimes, they will put their noses to the ground in grazing and just munch happily along filling their bellies without regard to the world around them.  Thus, they sometimes wander far away from the shepherd in their quest to fill their stomachs, and in their wandering some become lost.  The same should be said about many people who wander away from the Good Shepherd simply by following the urges of their flesh and not paying attention to His voice.
            Now, you and I might consider sheep to be stinky and dirty animals.  However, no true shepherd would likely agree, even though sheep do have a certain odor that can be offensive to our sanitized noses.  So, imagine what we would smell like in the nostrils of our holy God if we had not been cleansed by our Shepherd.  The filth of our sins would certainly cause God’s nostrils to flair.
            It should also be noted that sheep are naturally defenseless against many of their enemies.  That is especially true if separated from the flock and even more so if separated from the protections of the shepherd.  Sheep have no natural weapons with which to fight the lion, wolf, dog, or bear.  At best the sheep might try to flee, but even in that they are weak and soon overpowered, and when cornered, they sometimes make a panicked, last ditch leap that, unfortunately, often puts them right into the attacker’s mouth.  Likewise, again, you and I on our own are far overmatched by the devil, the world, and even our inherited sinful flesh.  Therefore, even after being purchased by Christ, we cannot stand alone against the spiritual enemies that seek to scatter and devour us.  Separated from Christ, even fear becomes our mortal enemy.  As helpless as we are, you might wrongly assume that God would despise you, but The Shepherd’s love gives you worth.
            Adding all of that up, you probably recognize that we have very little to offer God to get Him to love and care for us.  Fact of the matter is, if we had to earn God’s love and care, we would still be roadkill sheep in the desert plains of life in this world.  The only thing that would want us are the buzzards of hell.  The Bible declares that all mankind was dead in trespasses and sins, putrid in the nostrils of God, yet that isn’t the end of our story, because The Shepherd’s love gives you worth.
            Jesus, God’s own true Son, came into the world and declared to those called to hear Him, "I am the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”  What brought Jesus into the world wasn’t any good we might do or any sacrifices sinners might offer.  No song and dance routine would wake God up from slumber to save us as the pagans imagined.  Rather, it was our Creator’s love that brought Jesus onto the scene.  The Bible tells us, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17)
            Dear friends, God didn’t look at what we could do for Him before deciding what He would give to purchase us from the kidnapper.  What God considered, instead, was our great need, our despair, and our certain death in hell if no one intervened.  So, because of pure love alone, God sent His Son to be our Shepherd.
            I don’t know what an old sheep would sell for on the auction block these days, but I’ll bet it still isn’t much.  On the other hand, God decided to pay a great price to rescue you personally from the yoke of slavery.  God set the price for your soul as the blood of His own dear Son.
            Do you ever struggle with feelings of despair?  Do you ever wonder if anyone cares whether you live or die?  Jesus tells you right here that He cares a great deal.  Jesus cares about you so much that He willingly went to the cross bearing all of your sins so that He could take the death you had coming.  Jesus didn’t want you to be on the menu of Satan’s road kill cafĂ©.  Instead, Jesus laid down His life so that you don’t have to experience death in hell.  How much does God love you?  You see the trade He made to make you His own right there on the bloody cross of Golgotha.
            Dear Christian friend, when you see the price God paid for you, do you think He might be worth listening to, as well?  God didn’t trade dirt for you; He said you are worth the lifeblood of His holy, precious Son.  St. Paul had an interesting take on God’s love for you and me.  He asked, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)  The answer to this rhetorical question is that God created us to live; that He gave Jesus to restore us to life, and He will continue to give us every good thing.  In fact, Jesus answers, The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) 
            The question for us now, I suppose, is whose voice are we going to listen to?  Are we going to listen to the smoothest-talking preacher no matter what lies he might tell, or to the whispers of a world that doesn’t know God, or to the sly deceiver who had enslaved us?  Or will we listen to the Good Shepherd who died for us on a cross?  And, how will we know whose voice we hear? 
            I’d like to tell you that it’s always easy to tell, but the Bible warns us that wolves will come in sheep’s clothing, so even pastors can’t always be trusted.  Certainly, the devil possesses a sly and deceiving tongue—as our first parents found out.  Also, since the fall into sin, the world knows only evil and will be destroyed in the end.  So, what are we to do?
            Jesus said, The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.”  This was a point blank accusation against the leaders and teachers of Israel who had abandoned the Lord’s sheep by rejecting the Good Shepherd.  And, it points out to us that we can’t put our trust in mere men, or any earthly thing, or any deceiving spirit for that matter.
            No ordinary man could save us, not even the most committed and pious Christian could do so.  But, Jesus tells us, “The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  ‘I am the Good Shepherd;’ I know My sheep and My sheep know Me—just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father—and I lay down My life for the sheep.”  Where do we turn for safety and hope?  We go to the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb.  We go to the One who created the world and everything in it.  We listen to the words and messages that have come directly from our Creator through the power of His Holy Spirit who had those messages of salvation written down to testify forever.
            Dear friends, the One we can trust is the One who committed Himself to die on our behalf.  Furthermore, we can trust Him because, as He promised, He didn’t stay dead.  He has risen from the grave just as He said!
            Jesus declared, "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.  I must bring them also.  They too will listen to My voice, and there shall be one flock and one Shepherd.”  The purchase price for you and for every person who ever comes into this world was paid in full on the cross.  The blood spilled on that ugly hill marked every person on earth as belonging to God.  The devil can’t hold anyone away any more.
            To call His sheep out of the devil’s hold, Jesus sends His faithful people out to the world with the words of Scripture.  He doesn’t send us alone, either.  Rather, it is His Holy Spirit that works through the Gospel to give life to dead sheep and to draw them to the Savior’s voice.  You and I couldn’t do it alone, but the Holy Spirit comes to us through the Word of promise and gives us life, and it is this life that hears the voice of the Shepherd calling in the desert, calling His own to His side.
            When Judgment Day finally comes, we won’t find heaven divided.  There won’t be separate rooms for those who follow Paul, or Apollos, or John.  There will be no division by denomination, and there won’t be some there who earned God’s grace through works or even strength of faith.  No one listening to any voice other than Jesus’ will be found there.  All the other sheep of the world will be shoveled into the fires of hell.
But not those who listen to Jesus’ calling.  We have been made valuable and precious to Him, not by what we have done, but by what Jesus did for us about two thousand years ago and again at our baptisms.  You see, Jesus gave His life to purchase your freedom and since His resurrection from the dead, He has been shepherding all things to call you to your place at His side.  The Holy Spirit, sent from Jesus and His Father, came to you by His Word and washed you clean in the water of Baptism, making you clean and pure for your entrance to the Shepherd’s eternal pasture.  We could say much more about Jesus and His love for you, but if you ever wonder if God wants you in heaven, remember this: The Shepherd’s love gives you worth.  Amen. 

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bear up under persecution to glorify God.

Sermon for Easter 3, April 30, 2017
Grace and peace be yours in abundance from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
1 Peter 2:11-20  Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.  12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.  13 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority,  14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  15 For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.  16 Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.  17 Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.  18 Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.  19 For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.  20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?  But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
Bear up under persecution to glorify God.
Dear sojourners in a foreign land,
            In the movie, Fiddler on the Roof, the main character, Tevya, considered all the troubles he had in life and all that the Jews had experienced as God’s chosen people throughout the centuries, and he complained saying, “God, couldn’t you choose some other peoples, sometimes?” 
The fact of the matter, dear friends, is that throughout history, God has chosen other people to be part of His kingdom.  Indeed, you and I are included in that family of believers.  Yet, being part of God’s people doesn’t mean that we will experience a heaven on earth.  On the contrary, in addition to the afflictions anyone can have in a sin-cursed world, Christians have the double burden of being hated by the world for Jesus’ sake.  The reason behind this hatred is that, technically, we have become foreigners—aliens living in a world controlled by the devil, and the devil doesn’t like anything to do with God.  Thus, Satan’s subjects honor their king by hating God’s people.
Peter was writing to Christians living in a hostile environment.  The Roman authorities originally considered the followers of Christ to be a subset of the Jews which allowed them to worship and live pretty much untroubled for some time.  That time had come to an end.  The Roman government, and many of its citizens, had become violently opposed to Jesus’ followers.  Christianity was now viewed as a separate religion, but also, one that was not sanctioned by the state and was therefore illegal.  In better days, Christians were allowed to live.  At the worst of times they were actively hunted for destruction.
But, where does that leave us today?  Officially, we have as much right to live freely as anyone.  However, you and I know that in our world many groups have been persecuted in the past, and persecution hasn’t taken a vacation.  If you are part of the in crowd all is well, but if you are seen as odd, or different, or simply devoted to Christ, the spiritual wolf packs can become quite vicious in their attacks.  It’s for times like these that Peter wrote to advise us to Bear up under persecution to glorify God.
Dear friends, it doesn’t sound like we’re in for much fun as we read the words written here.  Yet here, the Holy Spirit tells us how we will carry out the spread of God’s kingdom while the earth remains.  Once Judgment Day comes, salvation will no longer be available for the lost.  At that point, Satan keeps all those who don’t follow Jesus.  Therefore, the Lord Jesus has employed His followers to be ambassadors in this world still burdened by the devil’s treasonous influence.  There is no other place where lost souls might yet be rescued; we have to work where the devil’s hostages remain enslaved, and that’s right here on earth.
Working in this land subject to pain, death, and spiritual slavery isn’t for the weak of heart.  We can expect opposition from every side.  We can expect terrorist attacks both spiritual and physical.  We can expect that some of our fellow ambassadors will die in service to our King—maybe even some of us.  Why would we do this?  Well, it isn’t to win our own salvation because that could never be won by sinners like us.  Furthermore, we know that we don’t have to win what Christ has already won and granted to us by faith. 
What we are working for, striving for, and even fighting for, at times, is to rescue other beloved souls currently caught in the devil’s traps.  Those who remain ensnared by the devil don’t even know they are in chains.  The life of a slave is all they have known and in some ways it seems good to them.
But, Peter wrote, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.”  The citizens of the kingdom of earth think sinful desires are normal, even acceptable and pleasant.  The danger for you and me is that these desires feel so normal to us because we too have a sinful flesh.  Those wicked desires need to be fought against lest they lead us away from our Savior into service of the enemy. 
Now, our battle isn’t fought with weapons of war.  There are no swords, guns, mortars, or missiles that can bring peace to the troubled souls of earth.  Only Jesus can do that, and we are helping in this war as we reflect our beloved Savior by how we live.  The apostle wrote, “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”  We live in a world that seems to have been turned upside down.  Right is wrong, and sin is counted as good by the devil’s hoards.  Among the lost, rebelling against authority is a positive goal, murder of unborn babies is accepted, sexual immorality is applauded, and general mayhem is often praised.  When God’s people reject those things, Satan’s gang reacts with fierce opposition.  Yet, Peter reminds that even in the dark hearts of the devil’s slaves, faithful Christian service will be noticed, and the good works we do in faithfulness to our Savior will testify for us on the last day.  The love we show to those lost souls can make a difference.  The forgiveness we bring is the only salve that can sooth the pains that afflict even the most defiant unbeliever. 
As we live in this evil world, it would be tempting to rebel against those so influenced by Satan’s grasp, yet even wicked rulers hold their positions of authority by God’s appointment.  Therefore Peter tells us, “Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.”  This doesn’t mean that we may live like the heathens, but rather, that we should live according to God’s instructions in spite of what our neighbors might be doing. 
When we love those who hate others, when we share with those who are miserly, when we honor arrogant government officials and harsh task masters, we are actually living the life Christ has already purified on our behalf.  Foolish people reject the Lord.  Foolish people seek only the rewards of this short life.  Christians hold out a far better thing.  And even if we never reach the hearts of those who are currently lost, we will at least leave them without excuse on the day Jesus returns.
My friends, many of what are today called lifestyle choices are nothing other than the wounds of the devil’s claws grasping onto the soul of a poor lost victim.  It is currently quite fashionable to claim the freedom to live in any deviant way one chooses.  A man can decide to be a woman or a woman to live as a man.  Either sex claims the right to copulate with whomever or whatever they might want.  We dare not be enticed by this type of deceptive conscience numbing.  We are told, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”  Jesus didn’t die so that we could be free to sin against God; He died to set us free from that bondage of death.  Our task as believing Christians, is to live here on earth for our Redeemer and Savior, to be His representatives in freeing others from the evil curse.
To live for Jesus and to spread His kingdom requires some sacrificial love on our part: the Holy Spirit instructs us, “Show proper respect to everyone: love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.  Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.  For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God.  But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it?  But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.”
Dear friends, Jesus lived a perfectly holy life for you and me.  God’s royal Son humbled Himself to submit to all earthly authority so that we could be saved.  Jesus submitted Himself to the punishments only we deserved.  He died the death sin demanded and Satan had planned for us all.  Now, having rescued us from the demon’s wiles, Jesus asks us to live as a reflection of His humble servitude for the good of those still stuck in Satan’s perverse rebellion. 
We know our actions don’t win the salvation of souls, but gentle humility and faithful service to our King in heaven does allow us to announce the Good News that Jesus has already accomplished their release.  Submitting to even the worst aspects of life in this foreign realm can open doors that allow us to reach out to those being dragged headlong into Satan’s eternal prison.  None of those people need to suffer that eternal death sentence for Jesus has already declared the victory.  Their just sentence of death was, like ours, commuted on the cross when Jesus declared, “It is finished!”
And that is what we need to remember when the world doesn’t recognize us as God’s representatives on earth; our real foe is the old evil foe, the one who has fought against God since the Garden of Eden.  The sinners of earth are Satan’s victims.  Those currently lost remain unsuspectingly under his false control.  You and I were put here to help them.  Our goal is that of “God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:3-4)  God’s love for the suffering souls is why we Bear up under persecution to glorify God. 

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore.  Amen.  

God blesses two by making them one.

Sermon for Rosa/Tubbs wedding ceremony, 4-29-2017
God blesses two by making them one.
Dear friends in Christ, and especially you two, Taryn and Matt,
            Grace and peace to you from God the Father and Jesus Christ, our Lord.  When you were little children, I’m sure your parents tried to encourage you to be independent and to learn to do things on your own, maybe even reading to you something like this Sesame Street book we read to our children, I Can Do It Myself:  It says things like, “I can tie my shoes.”  “I can button my buttons.”  “I can make my bed.”  I can do it myself.”  How big and grown up we all felt when we had learned to do those things for ourselves.
            Often times as adults, we imagine even more so that we are best off being independent: many modern women would be offended if someone told them they need a man, and many men like to imagine that they are better off without the demands of a wife. 
It’s interesting, though, that when God was creating the world, He stated that everything He created was good.  Yet, near the end of His creating days, God found that one thing wasn’t yet complete; He said, "It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him." (Genesis 2:18)  So, God finished His creation by making woman for the man, and then, God declared that everything was now exceedingly good.
            The wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, expanded on that thought when he wrote the third text you chose for your wedding ceremony.  In the name of our dear Savior, Jesus Christ, we read from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12  “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:  10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up.  But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!  11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone?  12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”  This is God’s Word.  Thus, by this text, we may conclude that God blesses two by making them one.
            Matt, Taryn, the Lord God is blessing you with a helper.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you were incomplete or somehow lacking something on your own.  Rather, God hereby gives each of you what He intends for your good.  From now on, you won’t have to face the difficulties and trials of this world all alone.  You have one who is to be your dearest friend, confidant, trusted companion, lover, and helper.
            When God recognized that it was not a good thing for the man to be alone, He created a helper, not someone to finish the man or complete him, but rather, a partner perfectly suited to what the man was created to be—a reflection of God and His perfect love.  At the creation, God recognized that the man needed the woman to have someone to care for, a partner with whom to produce children, and a special addition to his life for whom he could demonstrate his ability to love unselfishly. 
Eve, on the other hand, was created to be Adam’s perfect companion and complement, submitting to his leadership and care, and helping the man demonstrate the love God has for us all.
            Of course, we all know that the perfect love and harmony Adam and Eve enjoyed those first days was destroyed when sin entered the world.  However, that didn’t change the blessing that marriage is intended to be for both the man and the woman.  As Solomon reminded his son in the book of Proverbs, He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD.” (Proverbs 18:22)
            My friends, as the coming days stretch into years, and even decades, we pray that the Lord will richly bless every part of your lives.  At the same time, we know that this world will bring difficulties, challenges, and yes, even sorrows your way.  Today, the Lord gives you each someone to help you endure through those times, someone to bring joy to your heart as you learn to work together, a fellow defender against evil, and a trusted teammate in raising the children you may be given.
            Matt, as you remember the instructions the Lord gave for you as a husband, to love your wife with a selfless, unconditional, sacrificing love, you will be rewarded with Taryn’s submitting to your kind care and concern.  Working together, every challenge will be bearable, every task a rewarding joy.  And Taryn, as you trust your husband to protect you, to love you unselfishly, and to do what is best for you and the family as a whole, you will respect your husband in a way few others ever would.
            Now, we must admit that because you are both human and afflicted with the sinful natures we all bear, you will fail to do this perfectly, just as we all do.  However, as Solomon noted, A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”  Thus, the Lord Jesus stands ready and willing to assist you in keeping your marriage promises to each other.  Your faithfulness in living in Christ will do much to make your journey together a peaceful and joyful union.  As believers in the Savior of the world, your prayers will be heard and answered.  Marriage is also the perfect place for you to demonstrate your faith in God’s promise that your sins are forgiven, and the sins you forgive each other here on earth are forgiven in heaven as well.
            The Lord Jesus has already lived as the perfect Bridegroom for His Church and continues to do so.  For all people, Jesus gave Himself as the perfect sacrificial love that freed us from the darkness of the devil’s treachery and the curse of death.  Two weekends ago, we celebrated Christ’s resurrection from the grave which is God’s clear proclamation to the world that Jesus’ love for you, and for all, is complete.  Jesus committed His life to perfect love so that His holiness could dress you in perfect righteousness.  Then, on behalf of His Bride, the Church, so that you may be forgiven of every sin and thereby be welcomed into His Father’s house, Jesus made the perfect sacrifice of love that put His body on the cross to die in payment for the sins of you, His beloved ones. 

Therefore, my friends, take this as your assurance and hope, that Jesus’ love, wrapped in and through your marriage, will keep you strong as a couple, will answer your prayers, will strengthen you to stand together against any trouble or trial, and most important even, will open the doors of heaven to you on that day He returns to take you home to heaven.  God blesses two by making them one.  Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Don’t fear; God counts faith in Him as righteousness.



Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father's Son, will be with us in truth and love.  Amen.

Genesis 15:1-6  After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward."  2 But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?"  3 And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."  4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir."  5 He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them."  Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."  6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Don’t fear; God counts faith in Him as righteousness.

Dear friends in Christ,

            The patriarch, Abram, in company with three Amorite allies had just led a small contingent of servants to a great victory that rescued Abram’s nephew, Lot, from captivity.  Abram’s victory over five kings was complete, and one of the recued kings offered him all the plunder for his help.  Out of faithful trust in the Lord, Abram refused to accept anything but the provisions his men had used in the rescue.  He didn’t want anyone to think his wealth had come in any way but from the Lord. Abram wanted the world to know that the Lord, alone, was his protector and provider.

However, I find it interesting how the Lord God addresses Abram immediately after this incident in which Abram had demonstrated such faithfulness.  “The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward.’"    Doesn’t it strike you as a bit odd that the first thing the Lord tells victorious Abram is “Don’t be afraid.”? 

God had made Abram a very rich man.  The man had a multitude of servants, immense flocks and herds; it is thought he might have been a successful trader as well, and Moses tells us that Abram was loaded with gold and silver in vast quantities.  So, on the heels of such a great victory, why would Abram be afraid?  And, what did he hope to receive from the Lord?  Was it glory he sought?  Or more power?

 We could speculate about many things, I suppose, but Abram’s response gives us a pretty good clue.  Abram said, "‘O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’  And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’" 

This was now at least the fifth time Abram had received a message from the LORD.  The previous conversations foretold that Abram’s descendants would fill this land he was now living in as a foreigner.  After decades of marriage in which Abram had gone into Sarai’s tent perhaps literally thousands of times expecting their union to produce a child, nothing had yet come of it.  God’s promise of a son for Abram remained unfulfilled.

Now, we need to understand that Abram’s disappointment was more than just mere sorrow for not having a large family.  Abram knew that in this promised child lay his salvation—also that of the world—for the Lord had said, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:3)  Abram had a load on his mind.  Was he afraid he and Sarai were growing too old for the promise to come true?  Was he afraid that his sins had made him ineligible to receive this blessing?  To all of Abram’s concerns and fears, the Lord tells him simply, "Do not be afraid.”

How about you and me, what are we afraid of?  Are we afraid that when we plant corn, if it doesn’t rain, the Lord won’t give us a crop?  Or if it rains too much, too soon, are we afraid, then, that it won’t be possible to get a satisfactory crop?  Do we fear that the money won’t be there when loans have to be repaid?  Are we afraid of any number of diseases that could rob us of our health?  As we get closer to our graves, are we afraid that maybe we aren’t good enough for God to want us in His heaven?  That last fear troubles far more people than many of us might suspect.

The message of our text is simply this: Don’t fear; God counts faith in Him as righteousness.  Of all the things Abram could have been afraid of, the only one that really matters is the fear concerning salvation.  However, if we have God’s forgiveness and salvation, then in the grand scheme of things, everything else is just fluff.  So what if the crop fails, God has promised to give us all good things.  So what if the banker hauls all our stuff away, what of it can we take to heaven anyway?  So what if we die?  We know heaven is our real home!

Now, I know that might sound a bit flippant, but all of the stuff of this world, both the good and the bad, really doesn’t matter in the end.  What matters is that God was faithful to His promise to send a Savior for the world through Abram’s descendant. 

Abram had to wait many more years before he could begin to see the promise fulfilled.  Only at the age of one hundred did Abram finally meet the promised son, and that son had only two sons.  So even that would have seemed like a very slow start to the promises God had made.  Ultimately though, none of that mattered to Abram.  “Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.”  All of the Old and New Testaments should convince us that this same surety is ours.  God will do exactly what He says He will do and at the exact time He has planned to do it.  Any worry we might have is simply not trusting God to keep His promises.

As always, we have plenty to be sorry for.  But, that’s why God sent His Son into the world.  God didn’t send Jesus to save those who would be worthy.  In fact, no one on earth would ever qualify.  Therefore, no matter what fears might ever trouble us, we can turn to God’s Word and find comfort, strength, assurance, and certain hope.  When we worry about how much the ground will produce or how the economy will do at any particular time, we can be strengthened by the assurance of the Scripture: that “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) 

The Holy Spirit knew we would have troubles, so He promises to take care of us.  Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)

Last Sunday, we celebrated a resurrection from a grave.  That doesn’t happen if God’s Word can’t be trusted.  However, that is exactly the point of Easter: God’s Word is completely reliable.  When Jesus rose out of that tomb alive once more, that was God’s announcement to the world that Jesus’ word from the cross, “It is finished!” meant precisely what He said.  The devil is defeated.  Sin has been paid for.  The promise to Abram that his Descendant would be a blessing to the whole world has been accomplished. (Genesis 12:3)  So, when the Lord declares your sins forgiven, He means it.  When He promises that His Son took away the sins of the world, you can rely on that message. 

The Bible makes no demand that we earn God’s forgiveness.  It simply offers us the gift of forgiveness and salvation through faith in Jesus.  And, even that faith isn’t something we do on our own for Paul writes, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3)

Therefore, if we should start to be afraid that we aren’t good enough to earn forgiveness, have no fear, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.(2 Corinthians 5:19)  Furthermore, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set [us] free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)  That was God’s message to Abram that long ago day when He said, "Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward."  God always keeps His promises!

Dear friends, Don’t be afraid; God counts faith in Him as righteousness.  Your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, and since the curse of sin has been removed from us on the cross, even death need no longer trouble us, for “If we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more.  Death no longer has dominion over Him.  For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.  Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 6:8-11)  This is the blessed faith God gave you in your baptism.  Don’t be afraid; God counts faith in Him as righteousness.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.