Drink deeply from God’s Word

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s on Sunday March 19th.

You learn how much you appreciate something when it is in short supply or no longer available.  Case in point lately, warmer weather and daylight first thing in the morning.  By the end of the winter you really appreciate how valuable it is to be able to spend time outside comfortably, to spend an afternoon gardening, barbecuing, or to go for a walk.

Unlike the seasons, the living water Jesus gives to us, the relationship we have with God through our Savior does not come and go- but stays with us. As a result we can easily take for granted this gift that is so basic to our lives and our well being.

The opening psalms and verses and hymns we sing or speak at the start of worship would not be things we could say if we did not have this living water Jesus provides without limit- this new life in Christ.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, come into His presence with Thanksgiving?  If we were still estranged from God and enemies of God how could we make glad sounds of joy before the Lord, how could we even come into his presence?  Instead of longing for the courts of the Lord, we would fear God and want to hide from God.  We would not be able to invoke his triune name to begin our worship, we would not receive his name upon us, because we would not know God as our dear Father.

The fact is we do have the living water that Jesus gives. There is no shortage.  In our Epistle reading we see that we have this priceless gift because,  “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  The church has living water from the well of salvation because Jesus allowed himself to be broken on the cross.

While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us!  The people sinned against Moses in the wilderness, demanding of Moses water, even threatening revolt and his death.  Yet despite this great sin God still provided water from the rock Moses struck.  While Israel was yet in sin and rebellion against God, they were given a living spring to drink from.

Elsewhere in scripture St. Paul describes Christ as the rock that Moses struck, making a literary connection between Moses striking the rock to receive life giving water from God, and how Jesus was stricken on the cross for our sins, giving us life giving salvation.  The common link between these two events is that while we were yet sinners, God provided His gift to us.

In our gospel lesson we meet a woman who is clearly not without sin.  Her choices in life and scorning of God’s design in marriage were so shameful to her that she seems to have developed a habit to draw water at noon, during the heat of the day- to avoid contact with everyone else who would come earlier in the morning or toward evening.

She does not know about how to worship God or how to relate to Jesus, and yet Jesus meets with her and talks to her.  While yet deep in her sin, Jesus offers her living water.

She who has failed at marriage and continues to struggle with the same sin is given the chance to meet with Jesus at a well, the very same well where Jacob met his wife.  You can see a theme in the scripture where wells are places that are associated with marriage, Isaac meets Rebecca at a well and Moses also meets his wife at a well.

The Holy Spirit is showing how this woman is receiving the gift of the one true and perfect marriage between Christ the bridegroom and she as the church the bride of Christ- receiving living water from Jesus, the gift of salvation while we were yet sinners.

Once the Samaritan woman received this faith in Jesus, she could not help but tell the town that she believed she had met the Savior.

While the unbelieving world is yet in sin, we are called to love them and offer them the living water of Christ! In chapter 7 of the gospel of John Jesus describes the work of the Holy Spirit in the church: “Whoever believes in me as the scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”  We have the same gift of living water to give to the world as Jesus gave to the woman at the well.

We give this gift with great joy.  Isaiah chapter 12 proclaims: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation, and you will say in that day: “Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout for joy O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy one of Israel.”

When we drink deeply from the well of salvation we can’t help but point others to the great deeds the Lord has done for us.  We can’t help but acknowledge how great is his name in our lives.

As we make know God’s name among the nations, we share this living water to a world that is yet in the darkness of sin.  Sure it’s often hard to love those who hold many social and political values that seem to make a mockery out of God’s Word and God’s law.

It’s hard to love those who may hold human pride as their god and give no recognition to the one true God, who call evil good, and call good evil.  Who may call us bigoted or prejudiced or even fascist, simply for holding to a position that salvation is found in Christ alone and none other, or through our affirming that we hold that all of God’s Word is inspired even those parts that may condemn the sins of particular neighbors in our community. While yet sinners, Christ died for the world.

Jeremiah chapter 2 records the sin of Israel over looking living water provided to them.  “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

How sad to think that so many people today chose to make their own broken cisterns, slowly perishing of thirst as these flawed vessels consistently fail to hold any water. This imagery of the poorly crafted cistern full of cracks accurately describes what is happening when people try to find fulfillment and meaning in life apart from God.

When you have the opportunity to talk with someone who does not place their hope in Christ- try asking them questions about what brings them fulfillment and meaning in life.  Find out what if anything they look to for hope.  Likely they will either identify little that gives hope, or hope will be defined in terms of what they can create and shape with their own efforts.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman that everyone who drinks of the water of Jacob’s well will be thirsty again.  Whatever fulfillment people find, whatever thirst quenching they can dig up on their own, will be only temporary.

When we see people quenching their thirst for fulfillment in such a temporary and futile manor, we should not keep it a secret that in Jesus we have fulfillment and life in an unquenchable abundance, a spring flowing into eternal life.

Even within our own families and with our brothers and sisters in Christ here at St. Peter’s, we should encourage one another to drink deeply from the well of God’s Word.

If you have children who are enrolled in Lutheran Central, certainly make a point to talk to and invite new parents in the congregation to consider and look forward to enrolling their children in Lutheran central, a school that allows children to be filled with God’s Word in their daily schooling!

If you enjoy a topic from Sunday morning Bible Study, tell others in the congregation what they are missing out on and invite them to also drink from God’s Word with you in this capacity.

If you would like to have a fellowship that meets in your home about two times a month, where you learn and discuss God’s Word and encourage one another in your faith, pursue making this opportunity to drink from the well of salvation in your home with others a reality. Any pastor would be more than happy to walk you through how to make this happen. Drink deeply from the well of salvation here at St. Peter’s.

If you would like to be a part of a group that meets at church one evening a week to read through the Bible one book at a time, a simple Today’s Light study, this can be arranged, there is plenty of room in the church- don’t let the phrase “We’ve never done this here before.” Stop you from drinking deeply from the well of God’s Word.

While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  God loves us for who we are, not for what we have done or promise to do from God.  Receive the gift of living water from our Savior, not out of guilt or obligation, but in simple thanksgiving. Share this gift with others and rejoice in how great our God’s name is on the earth. Amen.

Be perfect?

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s last Sunday:

Have you ever noticed most children’s board books about the Bible seem to use the same few Bible scenes: Creation, Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and Lion’s den, the birth of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus.  You might see some other variation, but one picture book page you probably will never see, is Jesus teaching the disciples and the crowds to love your enemies and pray for those who hate you and persecute you.

We don’t teach this to children at the youngest of ages.  Perhaps it’s too strange a concept to teach to children, to think about loving enemies and praying for those who are unkind to us or even hate us.  Come to think of it, it might be a confusing message for adults.  Wait aren’t those the bad guys, why are we loving the bad guys, when there are plenty of good folks all around to love?

The going school of thought for the people of Israel, and just as well for us, is to like those who are good to you and dislike those who are threatening to you.  Jesus reflects this assumption as he begins his teaching with “You have heard it said.”

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  With authority Jesus reshapes our view of how we should see the world.

Jesus is not contradicting the Old Testament when he references it and provides clarification, but He is addressing the true meaning that has been obscured by how teachers of that time interpreted the Torah.

In last week’s reading from Matthew we heard Jesus talk about the true intent of permitting divorce as not being about approving separations, but about protection for those who are put away by their spouse.

In the same way the commandment about eye for an eye tooth for a tooth was intended to provide a fair guideline for punishments for wrong doers, preventing escalation of violence and revenge.  The commandment was not giving permission to hate those who wrong us, but instead calling for loving consideration in administration of punishments.

It is part of our sinful human nature that we take something like a command to provide for fair punishments and see it as justification for making people pay for their transgressions against us.  It is human nature for violence to escalate in a cycle that keeps getting greater.

In other words, if people are in the wrong, we want to let them know it and we don’t want it to be forgotten.  In recent years with the growth of social media and online chat forums our society has experienced communication of the right and the wrong on a large scale.  I generally make the choice to stay away from social media, but I have heard many people tell me how emotionally taxing it is to read comments of people writing back and forth with great anger over opposite political viewpoints.

Through the anonymous nature of the internet people often display less inhibition and restrain, letting their anger pour out at people they do not even know or see face to face. We can easily lose sight of how destructive anger is to our well being.   The teaching of Jesus to love your enemies is essentially scorned by us in the midst of a self conviction of being right.  A conviction of being right no matter what, and viewing those who disagree as enemies is a state of being that has lost touch with the humility that we ourselves are not the all knowing God.

For Jesus’ disciples there is no such thing as keeping tabs on the transgressions of others as contrasted to their own rightness.  As disciples of Jesus, even the enemy is to be treated like a neighbor.  This does not mean that we allow others to harm us or take advantage of us, but simply that we approach everyone from the starting point of God’s love and compassion.

We here at St. Peter’s are called to see the world with a humble awareness that we do not see as God sees. Think of how different the world can look when you have sunglasses on.  Depending on the lenses the colors can look darker or brighter, the glare from the sun is neutralized.  Things can look different through sunglasses.  What if we could wear a type of glasses that would allow us to see as Jesus sees! What would we see in other people if we could look without our sin, if we could look from the perspective of the perfect love of Jesus.

I’m not about to take out a patent for the idea of such a type of glasses, but God’s Word does provide essentially this same service.  The scripture tells us that God provides to both the good and evil, “He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  God gives his gifts to all.  This is true not only of the gifts of creation, but also of Jesus, who came to give his life as a ransom payment not for a few, but for many!

On the cross Jesus prayed for those who crucified him, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”  Out of this perfect love Jesus showed, the church also learns what it means to love the lost and even those hostile to the gospel.

We show ourselves to be sons of the Father in heaven when we love our enemies.  The purpose of loving enemies is to show the truth and reality of our relationship with the father.  That because God is holy and loves all, we also shall love all.   We show the world how great a love Jesus has, that his disciples love even their enemies.

At the close of our gospel reading Jesus illustrates the selfishness of exclusively greeting our friends.  “What more are you doing than others, do not even the gentiles do the same?

In the society of status and patronage that existed back then and exists just as much now, you want to give to those who give to you in order to build up a series of claims over others.  Because accumulating wealth possessions, status and honor are important to many in our society today, who we are friends with and who we choose to greet can have implications for how much success we have in life.

In the next chapter of Matthew Jesus will announce “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”  If wealth and status is our treasure, how much greater will be our temptation to greet only those who we call brothers.

Jesus intended that the disciples find their treasure in Him.  As a result he follows up the statement about greeting only your brothers, with this statement of summary of what it means to love your enemies: “You therefore must be perfect, as Your heavenly Father is perfect.”

We know the drill when it comes to God’s expectations of us to be perfect.  On our own we fail every time, we discover that we cannot earn our own salvation, we fall short of perfection, we need a Savior.  But this is not what Jesus means about being perfect.

Jesus does not mean that we are to be perfect in the manner of earning our salvation apart from Him, or perfectly fulfill the law.  What he means is that we live our lives abiding in him, instead of living our lives by our own terms.  God is holy and we as heirs of the promise are also called to be holy.

It is as if Jesus is saying, ‘don’t think you can just take a short cut and skip this one because it is hard’, we are to be perfect towards others in the sense of following the clear command to love because God first loved us, to forgive because God first forgave us.

To be perfect is to strive toward meeting our vocation and purpose as disciples of Jesus.  We see this is Ephesians 4:13 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

In other words, even though it seems near impossible for us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, these actions are exactly the type of things that life in Him should lead to as we continue to mature in our faith.

The call to be perfect is a call for maturity, completeness, and perfection.  Trusting in Christ we press on toward this completion.  This call to maturity suggests that as a congregation we should not become overly complacent and comfortable with our progress of growing in the faith.

Instead we should look past the minimum standards of attending worship and teaching our children the basics of our faith.  We should strive to grow together as a congregation to attain a unity of how to live as disciples in the challenging surroundings that we find ourselves in today.  Seeking every opportunity to be built up with God’s Word against the temptations of life in our culture today.

This was exactly the message pastor Barlow taught last Sunday from 1Corinthians chapter 3, the need to continue to change from immaturity in our faith to maturity.  The need to avoid spiritual malnutrition, and find true sustenance through letting the Word of the gospel dwell in us richly.

We have been given the blessing to be the body of Christ, with the result that no challenge is too great, even the calling to love our enemies.  May God grant this to us through the power of our perfectly patient Savior, Amen.

 

Come Follow Me

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s Brownstown, IN on 1/22/17.  Thematic content inspiration comes from Concordia Commentary on Matthew by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs.

Have you ever had a good fortune fall into your lap in the most unexpected of ways? Maybe you have your phone in your pocket and it dials someone in your address book that you didn’t intend to call. Through that call you end up talking to an old friend which leads to an idea about where to spend a future family vacation or a different career direction to take. Sometimes one phone call, one email can change the course of a day, a week, or even our whole life. Sometimes things happen in our life through the most unexpected ways.

God comes to us in the most unexpected ways.  In the first four chapters of the gospel of Matthew, leading up to today’s reading we see these amazing ways in which God comes to us. Right at the start of the Matthew’s gospel the genealogy of the birth of Jesus references five women. In the ancient world it was customary for only men to be listed in the genealogy, Fathers begat sons and so on.

But in the genealogy of Jesus, we hear about Rahab the Canaanite, and Ruth the Moabitess, both gentiles. We also hear about Tamar and Bathsheeba, women whose stories we know as connected with the sins of Judah and king David.  The line of Jesus comes to us in a way completely different than the wisdom of man would expect.

The next unusual circumstance is when the angel appears to Joseph and tells him that the birth of Jesus will come in a way completely different than the expectation of pious believers.  A completely new thing will happen in the virgin birth of Jesus in a manner that will appear to the unfaithful as scandalous.

Next the birth of the Savior is celebrated in most unusual circumstances. Poor and lowly shepherds from a nearby field are the ones who are given the first birth announcement.  Pagan gentiles, the Magi from the East appear to acknowledge the birth of Jesus, while Jews in the royal capitol are unaware of the birth of the true king of the Jews.

As Jesus reaches adult years John the Baptist appears to prepare the way for Jesus, preaching and baptizing in fulfillment of the scriptures.  But when Jesus appears to him, John is amazed, how can this be that Jesus is seeking to be baptized by John, Jesus is submitting to taking the place of a sinner in the river Jordan!  This is nothing like what John expected.

Immediately prior to our reading today, Jesus overcomes the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, emerging victorious.  But instead of going to Jerusalem to be king, after John is arrested he withdraws to lowly Galilee of the gentiles to begin his ministry and fulfill the Old testament prophecy.

“People who have walked in darkness have seen a great light”   The people of Galilee were victimized by circumstances of geography. Galilee was on the very Northern border of Israel and thus was exposed to attack from outsiders, as well as loss of identity through migrations of peoples of different culture and religious beliefs.

As a result they were as the scripture described people who experienced gloom and anguish. They were seen in contempt by the heart of Israel in Judah.  They were down and out, and certainly not highly regarded.  Out of this lowly place Jesus chooses to go, to bring a great light and hope to those who were in darkness.

From this context of offering one amazing surprise after another Jesus begins his public ministry. We heard those first words Jesus spoke, Matthew 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus was announcing that in his very person, the reign of heaven, God’s visitation of the world had begun.

The kingdom of God is near, because in the person of Jesus, everything that has to do with God’s reign in the world is present.  The coming of God’s kingdom is none other than Christ himself.  Through Jesus God is doing his work of restoration, freedom, and redemption in history.  Whatever is disruptive to God’s kingdom coming to us, like our sin and unbelief, Jesus works to remove.

This reign of God’s kingdom is not something we see in expected ways like fire and brimstone and angelic hosts singing around the throne of God. Instead it is seen through the servant love of Jesus.  Through the forgiveness Jesus will win on the cross.

The reign of God’s kingdom is not limited to those who are in the right place and the right time in life, those who are most esteemed in society or those who are most religious. Instead God’s kingdom comes to the most unlikely candidates, sinners and those like ourselves who have nothing to offer in ourselves before God.

This reign of God in history, among us, is also present today through the unlikely means of the Word of God and the sacraments. How unlikely that the specific reading of God’s Word in this place on this day should be the vehicle by which God’s forgiveness and restoration are given to us today.  How unlikely that I should even be here preaching God’s Word, as months earlier I had not even heard of the town of Brownstown, IN.

Next while walking by the sea of Galilee Jesus calls out to Peter and Andrew: “Come follow me”. Peter and Andrew were likely skilled fisherman, but they were improbable candidates to be the first disciples Jesus called. They were not learned men or men with great authority.  God calls unlikely candidates both to hear the good news of the kingdom, and to proclaim it.

These two fisherman were invited to drop everything in life and follow the Son of God.  Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.  Follow me and enter into a life that has a completely different purpose.

In the context of Matthew chapter 4 as Jesus first proclaimed the coming of the kingdom and called the first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus has in his very presence brought the kingdom of God to the world in all of its fullness.  Yet he had not yet died on the cross as the climax of this reign of God.  At that time He had not yet risen from the dead and given the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.

We experience the reign of Jesus as now and not yet.  Jesus has fully won for us our salvation, yet Jesus has not yet brought this salvation to consummation- he has not yet returned to perfect our bodies and create the new heaven and earth.

Today we eagerly await his return in glory.  But in faith, we already find in Christ that we have everything.  As we live our normal routine everyday lives God’s kingdom In Christ comes to us in power.  When we walk through the dark shadows of life God’s Word gives us light and salvation.  Even at times when we feel down and out, God’s kingdom comes to us in power through the word and promise of our Savior who walks with us every step we take.

In the context of the nearness of God’s reign, Jesus called his first disciples.  We see the same pattern in the calling of both sets of two disciples and can recognize it also as a pattern for us. Nobody becomes Jesus’ disciples by his own initiative.  Unlike any other teacher disciple relationship, Jesus calls humans to completely trust and serve him.  He is sharing the very initiative of the Son of God.

Jesus offered to the disciples at this calling a future plan for them: “I will make you fishers of men.” They will be made fishers of men in time, as Jesus teaches them and eventually gives them the authority to go out in his name.

We are not given the specific authority of the apostles, for we are not given the privilege of being physically present with Jesus and representing him in the way the Apostles were charged with. However we are given the call to follow Jesus in the form of being believers.  Jesus calls all of us to repentance and belief in him as Lord.  “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus continues to come to us in unexpected ways.  Through the kind word of a friend or family member we are encouraged to seek God’s Word.  Through a book we read or something we hear on the radio our faith is renewed, and we experience Jesus making himself present to us, appearing to us in the form of His Word.  We have in His Word that invitation, “Come follow me”

Part of the urgency of repenting that the kingdom of God is here is the awareness that Jesus will return again.  We do not have unlimited time with which to get on track in our lives toward God’s kingdom.  We don’t know when he will return, but we do know that he Will Return.

It is as if He has already returned when in worship we delight in praising God for the gift of salvation.   As we experience the joy and comfort of having our sin forgiven, it is a foretaste of the feast to come when our Lord returns.   This delight is the essence of our Lord’s invitation: “Come follow after me.”

 

From Heaven Above to Earth I Come: Unity

Here is the sermon I gave for the Midweek Advent worship service at St. Peter’s Brownstown, IN  on 12/7

Is unity just a dream, just an ideal we strive for?  Is unity only for the new heaven and earth when our bodies are perfected, when sin is no more and when we are worshiping before the throne of God?  When God’s Word speaks about Unity, just what exactly does it mean?

Unity is not just something for the far off future, it is for the body of Christ today. Psalm 133 describes how wonderful a thing it is when we have unity within the Church:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.

Unity is likened to images of God’s blessings showered down on us from above. This short and beautiful Psalm provides imagery of God’s blessing and favor to his people as manifested in the service of Aaron as the first ever high priest.  The anointing of oil represented God’s forgiveness and salvation to his people. The oil dripping down his beard and the dew drops accumulating into water and streaming down the mountain are parallel pictures of God’s abundant blessing showered upon His people.

Likewise, our unity is a gift from God, a blessing that comes from above and that also gives a picture of our salvation. For as we hear Jesus teach in John chapter 17 “that they may become perfectly one, so the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”   Our unity in Christ shows the world that Jesus is sent by the Father, and that the Father loves us just as much as He loves his Son.  Just like in Psalm 133 our unity is an illustration of God’s blessing and love come down from above.

As the body of Christ our unity comes simply through our common submission to Jesus as our Savior.  Ephesians chapter 4 makes this clear as it describes the reason for the pastoral office in terms of our unity of faith.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

God’s Word makes clear that the design of the pastoral office and other teachers in the church is to build up the body of Christ with firm doctrine. Unity is a natural result of all of these teachers proclaiming the same message of Christ crucified.  We can think of the same unity of message from all those pastors we have all known over the years. Maybe different styles of preaching and teaching, maybe different personalities, but the same message.

We have a remarkable degree of unity in our national synod.  It is no small thing that we can take for granted that any church we visit, any members we talk to, are going to agree that the Bible is God’s inspired Word that we want to learn to follow and listen to as much as possible.  This is not the case with many other church bodies.

At our most recent tri annual Convention, the LCMS was unanimous in the resolution to provide protection for the consciences of women objecting to conscription for military service.

These reasons include the biblically-ordered relationship between men and women, women as God’s vessels for bearing life, and the requirement for husbands to love and honor in a way that follows Christ’s own sacrifice for His bride, the Church. Other reasons are found in natural law and several serious reason-based arguments.

Just as important our church body consistently with one voice opposes the greatest evil of our times, the legal rights to abortion.  We can be proud to be moral leaders in our society through our unity on supporting the cause of life from conception to the end of life.

unity ultimately comes from The Holy Spirit. The message of Christ as Savior that God ordained be taught is a message that is given through the Holy Spirit.  We have been united in our baptism to a common gift of faith.

1Corinthians proclaims: For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

Dieterich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together relates the inestimable value for Christians to have the opportunity to live among other Christians.  Bonhoeffer identifies the default mode of life as a Christian before the Last Day as one of remaining alone scattered in far countries.  Just as Jesus experienced his disciples deserting him to die alone on the cross, the Christian today finds life in the kingdom lived among enemies.  In the midst of this solitary environment “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”

Those are some amazing comments made by Bonhoeffer. We don’t often think of one another as an incomparable source of joy and strength.  But imagine what it would be like if every time you came to worship in the next few weeks you were the only one there other than the pastor and the organist. You would sure miss the other members of the congregation. We can easily overlook or take for granted how important the presence of fellow believers in our congregation is to us.

We may not always like each other, we may have had our feelings hurt or been misunderstood by one or a few people in the church at one time or another, but we actually derive great comfort from the presence of others.

Some people have asked me what it is like to have a 90 minute drive to come here? If I were to come only to sit at a desk and work at a computer it would seem like a long distance to drive. But driving 90 minutes is a very small cost for the opportunity to worship with so many members of the body of Christ.  To be in the presence of many believers is an invaluable privilege, not a sacrifice.

Part of the Western European heritage that so many of us share is reluctance to share feelings and be open about our appreciation and love for others.  In a way the unspoken myth is that we ought to be self sufficient unto ourselves and always be able to answer the question of how are you doing with “I’m fine, or even better, I’m blessed in Christ.” Yet Bonhoeffer makes a case that it is entirely Biblical to desire the fellowship of other believers and be encouraged by this:

“The believer feels no shame, as though he were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians.  Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of God’s spiritual–physical creatures.  The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother.”

Unity is not only within our congregation, but also within our family relationships.  The basic unit in our society as God has created and designed is the family and specifically through marriage. Even if you are single, you are defined by the circumstances of family and marriage that led to your birth.

Unity exists in our families in the same way, as a blessing from God above.   Ephesians chapter 5 describes the church’s submission to Christ as the model by which husbands and wives love each other.

Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands…In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church,”

Unity comes in our families comes from this foundation of husband and wife loving each other as Christ loved the church.  Submission is of course an unpopular word in our culture. But the submission described in God’s Word is not a ‘do as I say or else submission’ , but a practice of willingly accepting God’s blessings from above.  Submission in marriage is simply accepting the blessings from above of the forgiveness we have in Christ.

Unity is something we already have in Christ, and is something we can continue to strive for as we grow into the fullness of our faith. During this time of Advent, as we consider how the world changed at the birth of Jesus, let us pause and appreciate the cause for unity that our Lord’s birth brings to us.

A glorious shoot from the stump of Jesse

Here is the sermon I preached at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Brownstown, IN for the 2nd Sunday in Advent

Perhaps you have heard of the classic poem from the middle ages by Dante called Divine Comedy. A famous line describes the sign on the entrance to Hell: “Before me things created were none, save things Eternal, and eternal I endure. All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” To Dante it was clear that Hell is a place where hope is not.

Our world today knows even more about that than when Dante penned the phrase long ago. We’ve moved on from a time when we believed that through human achievement we could conquer most problems.  Sure we solve some problems through technology and advancements in different fields- but in the big picture problems abound. Sometimes we even create new problems that previous generations never had.

Perhaps the only people who still believe that the Human spirit can overcome all challenges and problems are those who have no faith in God and need to believe in  human achievement in order to believe in something.  But such human hope is always dependent on variable circumstances that change day by day.

It is easy to lose hope.  Yet the message in God’s Word for us this morning is that when hope seems the lowest, is when hope abounds all the more through the power of God.  This is a different kind of hope, that which is fixed on the steadfast love of God- and as a result is sure and certain.

John’s message came when people did not have very high hopes. Little remained of what was once a glorious kingdom under David and Solomon.  Following their tenures as king there was only the occasional righteous ruler such as Hezekiah. But otherwise it was a downward spiral of wickedness among the rulers, and even division between two nations.  What was once a mighty nation was now- a mere stump. Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians and now was weaker than ever.

Life was difficult in Israel, the Romans had long since occupied the whole territory and Israel had only its own civil wars and in fighting to blame that Rome ever came to their land in the first place.  Part of the occupation was the establishment of vassal kings such as Herod who were part Jewish in identity and part Roman ruling elite in lineage. As a result the purity of beliefs in Israel was irreversibly tainted.

Spiritually Israel was not what it once was. Pharisees and Scribes made pretense of being God’s people, yet cared only about themselves and their appearances.  John calls them a brood of vipers who only bore sour fruit in their lives and in their faith.  Perhaps when hope is lost it is tempting to put our faith in material things that don’t matter- the latest and greatest our society has to offer both materially and spirituality.

In this context of failures in Israel, John has a message of renewal unlike any other. The best of all possible news: a Savior is coming.

Israel was an old stump, forgotten about, decaying, and only a mere semblance of its former glory. Out of that stump a shoot grew.  Hope grew out of the Root of Jesse in the form of God himself.  Clearly this shoot described in Isaiah chapter 11 is Jesus.  Jesus is repeatedly named in the scripture as a son of David, he is the branch from the root of Jesse.

We hear about the quality and nature of this shoot in our Old testament reading Isaiah chapter 11.  Listen again to what it says about what this shoot from the stump of Jesse was going to bring to Israel:   2And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  3And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,

4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

How did an old stump like that produce such a glorious shoot like God’s Word describes?  Consider what this reading is describing about this shoot.  The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him- Jesus has the very spirit of God! At his baptism in the Jordan River the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and remained with Him.  The secret to the growth of this shoot is God’s gift of unconditional love in visiting us with His presence.

Since we also have been baptized into Christ we can think of what gifts we have with God’s presence among us. The first we hear in Isaiah chapter 11 is the gift of wisdom and understanding.  In Luke chapter 2 we hear about how Jesus grew in wisdom in his youth. Because he first grew in wisdom we also can have wisdom in Him.

Society ranks wisdom as one of the most valuable commodities in the world. Wise counsel for how to live or deal with problems or invest money is always sought after.  Those with the highest credentials in academic achievement or job experience are seen as experts whose services are worth great sums of money.  The church may even be tempted to follow the counsel of experts, at a price, in order to achieve secular goals of success.

Yet true wisdom is not bought with a price but instead is a gift of God. James chapter 1 declares: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”  God generously gives us wisdom, it is a gift from above, just like Jesus.

We find in the Psalms the familiar connection between wisdom and our connection with God.  Psalm 111:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, all those who practice it have a good understanding.”

We are so often like a stump we are wearied by trials and disappointments in our lives.  Like all human kind we decay away from the original perfect design in which God created us.  In our state of brokenness we are tempted to look at the stump that is our life and assume that we need to scrap everything and start over with something different.

Often what is most appealing as a solution are the empty promises of this world. Wealth, success, victory over rivals, for those of you who are teenager, perhaps it is choosing to compromise on your values in order to fit in and become more popular.  For some it may mean seeking a spirituality of our own choosing that fits us perfectly. Whatever false idols appeal to us most and seem to fit us most.  Tragically we forget the roots we have in Christ under the stump.

Think of what it means when we have a stump where a tree used to be.  The tree was perfectly designed by God to have life and prosper. Yet due to the ravages of our fallen nature, that which was created wonderfully became diseased and fell down.  No matter what we try to put in the place of the stump, say an artificial decorative tree, it is less than what the original is. What is needed is to wait for the shoot from God’s original design.

Out of our state of brokenness that looks so meager or worthless by the standards of this world, a shoot comes up, the life of Christ in us! And it is a shoot that is able to grow into so much more than what we could replace on our own.

The hope of this shoot arising from a stump opens us up to welcome and love one another so that all together we may abound in hope.  Jesus comes to us today to bring us new life in the midst of that which is dead in us.  The root of Jesse springs forth into our lives. He is our hope when we feel grief this holiday season, when the losses in our lives weigh us down.

He is the hope of St. Peter’s .  If you have a perception of the livelihood of the congregation and think that it is not what it should be or what it used to be, remember that our life as an institution is always going to become likened to a worn out stump.

Instead of lamenting how the church is not what it should be, or wanting to impose solutions by human wisdom, what if instead we sought after God’s work in our midst, God’s presence in the form of the unexpected gift of our Savior- a shoot from the stump.

Very often the unexpected gifts that we receive in life are some of the best gifts.  John’s message in the wilderness to repent and prepare the way for a Savior was a surprise and the best news of all.  Although this was the message of God’s Word from the start, hundreds and hundreds of years had passed since Isaiah first foretold the shoot growing out of the root of Jesse.

Sometimes we think of John as a messenger of doom, as he urges the vital necessity of repentance. He calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers- we can tell that he is serious and doesn’t intend to mince words.  Yet behind this message of repentance is the good news that a Savior is coming for whom we need to repent and prepare the way for. John brings a message of great consolation. (As we sang earlier- he brings glad tidings from the king of kings.)  The message of repentance is always given in light of the good news of our loving God who comes to judge the world in righteousness.  May God grant this perfect judgement to us, in Christ Jesus, Amen.

 

Your King Comes to you

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Brownstown, IN for the first Sunday of Advent. Outline and opening story are from Concordia Pulpit resources.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived a king who was gifted wealthy and wise. The king made music on his harp and sang songs of praise to God.  He won battles and conquered his enemies, he had everything you could want and still more. But the king also had a son. This son was handsome beyond all the young men of the land. From his feet to the crown of his head there was not as much as a blemish. The hair of his head was full and thick, but the thoughts inside his head were wicked and devious.

He murdered his brother, and his father the king wept over the pain in his family.  Yet the king loved his son and called for his son to return again to the royal city.  The son came home, but his thoughts were more devious than ever.  He camped for four years at the gates of the capitol and played the politician.  He heard the complaints of the people and promised solutions. In time he won the hearts of the population, and at the end of four years he revealed his secret plan: “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, Absalom is King at Hebron!”

The message came to his father David, the king: “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.”  Then David said to his servants, arise and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. So out of Jerusalem David went, the king along with his servants and all the people who had followed him. In time they came to the Mount of Olives, across the valley from the city.  And David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered.

Does this story sound familiar? It is from 2 Samuel chapter 15. But even if you had forgotten the exact details of Absalom’s rebellion, the story has a familiar ring to it. It is our story.

We like David experience the brokenness of sin.  The treachery of Absalom is not all that different than what we hear in the news about revolutions and military coups, terrorist plots, and betrayals.  The brokenness of sin causes the same problems today as it has throughout our long history of warfare and conflicts.

We see the brokenness of sin in our own families as well.  Sometimes there is nothing like the holiday season to bring out the worst in our families.  Whether it is because of busyness or other conflicts in our hearts, we can’t help but notice that family togetherness is not quite the same as what we see on a favorite Christmas movie from years past.

But it’s not just isolated incidents on holidays that show us the brokenness of sin in our lives.  In his book, Unspeakable Evil, Oz Guiness notes that most people suffer today under the weight of grinding evils that he calls, “numbingly ordinary.”

One need not be the victim of spectacularly violent abuse. One need not experience the heart breaking betrayal of marital infidelity.  Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, each destroying hope, marriage, and life. Imagine talking with the man whose wife explains that she simply stopped loving him years ago, but that she lives with him “for the sake of the children.”

Guiness comments about the suffering of those two people living in a marriage that has died years ago; two people, benumbed, living in separate orbits from their spouse, living lives of whispered resentment and disappointment. They are enslaved to their history of hurts and recite to one another the injustices each has suffered at the hands of the other. And after years of exchanging those litanies, silence is all that they continue to share. These are people who are perpetually grieving for the marriage that might have been.

It is discouraging to think about how marriages blessed by God and entered into with such optimism and hopes can go so wrong over a period of many years.  Like David we have wept and tasted the bitterness of our tears.  We feel the consequences of our sins, as problems we deal with today have to do with sins and bad decisions from our past. We feel that we have only ourselves to blame for our sins and the consequences they have for ourselves and others.

For all of us who have experienced the brokenness of sin, who have been driven from comfort by their failures and have cried out to God for deliverance, there is good news: Your king comes to you!

Behold your king, the Son of David, “is coming to you.”  Absalom was not David’s only son. Jesus is the son of David who comes to be the king that none of David’s other sons could be. Jesus is the royal son of David, whose Word is faithfully obeyed.

God took on our flesh so that we no longer would have the sorrow of a life story of brokenness.  Jesus has come to give us wholeness in Him.  Here and here alone we find our comfort and our peace.

Jesus comes to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives; from the place where David experienced shame, he comes to the holy city to renew the kingdom of God.  Jesus came to renew the very family dysfunctions that bring us sorrow. He came to renew those things about us which causes such grief and anguish.

In contrast to some other sons of David, Jesus is humble and gentle. Though popular with the crowds, he does not come to curry their favor and will in fact be rejected. He will be driven out of the city, not for his sin, but for the sin of all humanity.  He will die, rejected even by the Heavenly Father.

The king who rode into Jerusalem in humility comes to us.  As he comes to you in humility, we behold how to live in humility ourselves. We see in Him the true wisdom of God, where living is to be connected with God, not about trying to be ‘gods’ ourselves.

In repentance we meet our Savior.  As we find ourselves in the place where we are at rock bottom, grieving over how much of a mess our sin makes of our lives, we find that we are not cast away or judged deficient, but instead, forgiven.  We meet our Savior in surprising circumstances where our brokenness is not held against us.

In the humble forms of Word, water and bread and wine he comes to us, personally and individually to forgive our sins and renew our sonship with the family of God.  As Jesus comes to us in these ways we realize that the false idols of this world are as nothing in comparison to these gifts.

So behold your king, the Son of David coming to you this Advent season!  Different in appearance and quality than we would imagine, yet just the King that we need!Today and everyday we join with the people long ago in shouting hosannas to the king

The day of the Lord is nearer than we think’ as we heard in our Epistle reading.  Jesus will return, one marvelous day in glory.  And already today He comes to us in His Word, bringing his mercy and peace to us.

We are joined by faith to the hope of God’s people of long ago. Like them we await the King to return and establish the house of the Lord as the highest of mountains.

This season of Advent, we have cause for excitement.  We as the church have the sure promise that our King is coming to us.  No circumstances in our lives or on the earth change the fact that our King comes to us.  When we prepare our hearts for the coming of our king all other fears and worries and memories of brokenness fall away to the background. With our eyes fixed on the coming of our king, we can be content and secure in our identity as God’s people who are blessed beyond what we could imagine.

As this Christmas season begins in our society no amount of shopping, or holiday activities are required of us in order to receive our King.  We don’t need to prove anything to others, we don’t need to find that perfect gift for each family member.

We really don’t even need to exchange gifts at all. instead we can rest and enjoy the Christmas season knowing that our King has perfectly arranged for our life in His kingdom. Our king is coming, let us rejoice and open our hearts to receive Him.

 

A portrait of Our Savior

Here is the sermon I gave at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church Brownstown, Indiana for the last Sunday of the church year:

God’s Word for us this last Sunday of the church year paints a picture of Jesus.  Each scripture reading adds a different note to the canvas so that we get an overview of our Lord as both the Lord of our lives, Lord of the church and king over all of creation.  Our Epistle lesson from 1Colossians serves as the heart and center of this canvas- celebrating how Jesus is First born over all creation- and helping us to see that in Christ, all things hold together.

As the painting begins to take shape with our reading from Malachi, we get a glimpse of a background picture of God’s people.  The picture is different than we might expect. The reading describes how God’s people are unfaithful in their worship to God.  Some people are cheating God out of proper tithes and offerings. And others are questioning God.

What’s more those who scorn God’s Word even appear to prosper. “Your words have been hard against me says the Lord. “But you say, how have we spoken against you? You have said it is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper, but they put God to the test and they escape.”

Yet Jesus is not far off. The Lord does hear his people.  Verse 17 “They shall be mine , says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” The picture of Jesus is one who is faithful, even if we are unfaithful.

Psalm 46 further defines the painting of Jesus as Lord of all.  God is our refuge and strength a very present help in time of trouble. As the Psalm describes scenes of disaster and calamity, it is not exactly the evidence we expect to know that Jesus is with us.

Yet the Psalm insists that Jesus is our refuge in the midst of the most terrible dangers and threats imaginable.  He is not a God who is too small to deliver us in times of trouble.  Some people want to paint a picture of Jesus as someone who simply isn’t powerful enough to help in all circumstances.

As in when life brings suffering that is hard to accept, then you won’t feel forsaken by God if you believe God is not able to help in the first place.  This is a perspective of a God that suffers along with us because he is imperfect and limited like us. This portrait of Jesus became popular in the aftermath of the holocaust and other tragedies associated with WWII.  People felt they could not believe in a God who is able to prevent such unspeakable injustices and suffering and did not.  SO instead they believe in a Jesus who is small and incapable of helping with the biggest needs of life.

But Psalm 46 makes no such allusions to the smallness of God.  No amount of our own suffering or hard luck on this side of eternity justifies our painting a picture of Jesus that is different than what the scripture teaches.

In our gospel lesson the picture of Jesus is refined in a way that redefines everything else the scripture shows us about Him.  On the cross we see a picture of the suffering servant.  His bloodied wounds declare him as king in an unexpected way.  The cross takes the center prominence over anything else the scripture tells us about God. The essence of the portrait of Jesus is his suffering for our sake.  This suffering brings with it the power to save us.

From this position of emptying himself of everything, Jesus offers to the thief on the cross the promise: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”   Here the picture of Jesus jumps off the page to be more than just what we look at from a certain distance and appreciate or admire.  With the picture of Jesus on the cross in Luke chapter 23 we can see that we are included in the painting. The suffering of Jesus is about us. It is about what Jesus does for us.

We are invited into dialogue with Jesus just like the thief on the cross, we ask Jesus: “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  The other thief on the cross had given up and could not imagine how Jesus could have helped him. We are called in faith to ask for Jesus to deliver us, knowing our redemption is right around the corner.

Finally we have the epistle reading from Colossians that provides a picture of Jesus with broad strokes that portray the Lordship of Jesus over all creation.  This section of scripture is thought to part of a hymn in which the early church recited to refute false teachings that saw Jesus as only a prophet or one of many heavenly beings to worship.

In verse 15 we hear that Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  The painting of Jesus we have established this morning is also a painting of God. The glory of our crucified Savior is the very image of the Father.  Jesus is also described as the first born over all creation. Verse 16 clarifies that the Son of God has existed before all of creation, and was the one who created all things.

This confession of faith in Colossians also stresses how Jesus is before all things and in him all things hold together.  Jesus is before all things, as in his death on the cross is the meaning and reason for everything in this world since the fall into sin. And all things hold together in Jesus because he alone brings together the scattered nature of the world caused by the Fall.

Jesus holds together those who have lived in the past of countless times and places and us today.  On the last day Jesus will raise all of God’s people from past and present- holding all of time together.

With this image of Jesus holding all things together, our picture of Jesus is complete.  How do we respond to this picture of Jesus as our Savior?  What does it mean for us that Jesus holds our very lives together.

Think about how scattered our lives would feel if we were to lose sight of Jesus as the one who holds our lives together.

We can be pulled in so many different directions in life. Work or school environments bring certain expectations for what type of people we should be, often enticing us to pursue and value wealth and material success above all else.  Without Jesus we could lose sight of who we are in order to fit in.

Friends and even family can pull us to live a certain way. Without Jesus we can lose sight of who God has established us to be.   In Christ we can live our lives with a consistency of purpose and identity that no false idols or empty promises can draw us away.  We only need look to the picture of Jesus God’s Word gives us, and we have a picture of who we should be in our own lives.

This picture of Jesus as our Lord who holds our lives together informs every decision we make- including how we live together as the body of Christ here at St. Peters.  When you give your time and abilities here at St. Peter’s it is not because people expect you to do so, or out of obligation, but in thanksgiving that Jesus holds everything together.

You have experienced a change from one pastor to another, and this change is not a cause for discouragement, because Jesus holds St. Peter together. Regardless of who the pastor is, Jesus is always the chief shepherd of St. Peter’s.  Year after year we find in our church the constant presence of Jesus, holding our lives together.

This stability is something you can build on in confidence. If you question whether you are still willing and able to serve within the church when the next year rolls around, you can rest assured that Jesus will bless your commitment. If you question whether you should give as much for your weekly offering because of less full time staff here than previously, then you are looking at giving to the church in the wrong way.

We don’t give merely to cover minimum operating expenses and to meet budgets. I understand from glimpsing at the bulletin figures that giving is actually even below what was projected to meet the budget. Instead God calls us to give in a manner that reflects our thanksgiving for all of the blessings of life in Christ that we have received.

We should think of our giving in terms of putting our faith into action.  Our weekly tithe is our opportunity to prove to ourselves that Jesus is before all things in our lives and holds all things together in our lives- including our yearly budget.

We want to see our congregation mirror and reflect that portrait of Jesus we have been meditating on this morning.  We will see a reflection of Jesus when we see ourselves not only caring for each other in our congregation, but also investing in how we as the church can be a blessing to the world.

We are at the end of the church year. Thanks be to God for the work of God’s Word in our lives and in our church in this last year. Amen.