Monday, December 29, 2008

Ponder These Things

I don’t know if you noticed. I don’t know if you pay attention to such things or particularly care. But this year, Christmas stuff began to appear in your local big box retailer before Halloween. Before a single “trick or treat” was spoken, aisles of red and green stuff began to take over the seasonal section. I make this observation not to condemn the commercialization of Christmas, but just to say, boy, we seem to be stuck on “What’s Next.”
Think about your own life. How much time do you spend getting ready for the next thing? How much energy do you spend preparing for the next big event? What happens after the next big event takes place? Is there any time to reflect on what just happened? Christmas is a perfect example. Think of everything that you have done over the past couple weeks to get ready for tonight and tomorrow. Will there be any time for you to just sit back and enjoy yourself? And after Christmas Day has come and gone, will Christmas stay with you? Or will we set our sights on shopping, or New Years, or just the routine of life as usual? We are great at looking forward to things. We’re stuck on “What’s Next.” We’re not so good at “What Just Happened?” We don’t give ourselves much time to reflect—or even much time to enjoy the moment. We’re missing out when we just scramble towards the next thing without taking time to think about what has happened and what it means.
Now, having said that, I’ve met plenty of people who have a defining experience in their lives that they think about often. For some, that defining experience was their military service in a war. For others, it has to do with their first taste of independence, or meeting their future spouse, or becoming a parent. For still others, that defining experience may be decidedly negative: the breakup of a marriage and family; a horrible accident, or just cruel, heartbreaking words that can’t be forgotten. I would guess that most of us do have a memory that we return to time and again—one that seems to define us, for better or for worse.
On this Christmas Eve, we are invited into the defining experience of a young virgin mother named Mary. We are invited to imagine what it might have possibly been like to give birth to the Son of the Most High God in a stable. We are invited to put the brakes on the holiday express—if only for a few moments—and think about what happened there in Bethlehem, for Scripture tells us that “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
What are the things that Mary treasured and pondered? I think we can safely start with the angel Gabriel’s announcement to her: that she would conceive and have a son named Jesus, who would take the throne of David and be the Son of God. Then to feel the unmistakable signs of that life growing inside of her. Certainly she would have reflected on Joseph’s reaction to this news—his own experience with an angel messenger—his acceptance of her and her miracle baby. She would have remembered the rough road to Bethlehem and the mounting frustration of being turned away again and again until the stable was offered as an option. Then there was the pain of childbirth, surpassed only by the wonder of this baby boy. As she held little Jesus that night, did she ponder the promises the angel had made? Did she run them through her mind again? “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High God. And the Lord will give him the throne of His ancestor David. He will be King over the people of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” We can only wonder if she heard those words as she wrapped her little one in strips of cloth to keep him warm and secure. It’s safe to say she would later ponder the abrupt arrival of shepherds from the fields, breaking the relative peace of the stall with a fantastic story. No doubt she would treasure the memory of their weather-worn faces as they reported their angelic encounter. She now had more words to turn over in her mind: “A great joy will come to all the people: the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, was born for you today in David’s town. This is how you will know him: you will find a Baby all wrapped up and lying in a manger.” That was her boy—her Yeshua. It was all happening just as the Lord had said. It is no wonder that Mary treasured and pondered these things. She would return to this defining experience and probably cling to it with all her might in the challenging years ahead.
You would do well to ponder these things yourself—and not just the events of Jesus’ birth, but the rest of His life as well. We would all do well to stop and create the time we need to reflect on the good news of great joy which is for us and everyone! As I mentioned before, this big event called Christmas is a perfect example of busyness versus reflection. It’s a timely example of “What’s Next” versus “What Just Happened?” But it is hardly the only one we could name.
The fact is, we fill our lives—we jam pack our lives—with stuff. Our homes are filled with possessions, our calendars are filled with events, our hearts and minds are filled with ideas and needs—but how much of that “filling” is truly “of God?” Wouldn’t we really rather get possessions for ourselves than give them away in God’s name? Don’t we effectively schedule God out of our plans—making Him the first option to get cut from our calendars? And don’t we really prefer the thoughts and ideas generated by Hollywood and man’s imagination to the ones generated by Holy Scripture? It turns out that this reflection stuff can be awfully uncomfortable, when it reveals that we often live our lives as if God doesn’t matter.
This Christmas Eve there is good news of great joy for you, because God still does what He did in Bethlehem. He breaks into our reality. The power of His message breaks into our lives like a brick being thrown through a pane of glass. Jesus comes to you whether you’re ready for Him or not; whether you’re looking for Him or not; and His arrival in your life demands a response. Jesus was not born into our world of a virgin mother so that you and I would have an excuse to party and exchange presents. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, did not agree to lower himself to the point of having his first crib be an animal’s feeding trough so that you could have a day off from work. No. The shadow of a cross falls across the manger where that baby lies. He will grow up to do what you and I could never do—that is, live a perfect life; exactly the way God wants us to live. But then he does something unexpected with that perfect life—He gives it as a sacrifice. He breaks into this world to lay down his life for you. He comes to take the punishment that we deserve for our sins, and he will pay for our selfishness dearly, nailed to a cross. He comes to become one of us in order to switch places with us—he gets our sin and our death; you and I get his forgiveness and life. And let’s not forget that He broke into our world not just to die our death but to defeat death. A ray of morning light also falls across the manger where the baby lies—the light of Easter morning! He rose from the dead physically, three days after dying, so that we would not fear death. Moreover, we rightly look forward to a time when we too will rise physically because Jesus did first. He broke into our reality to change it—to rise from the dead and to give us confidence that death is now nothing more than a doorway to a new kind of life made possible by his resurrection.
In your hearing of these words, the good news of a Savior, Jesus has broken into your reality right now. He wants you to know the peace of forgiveness. He wants you to know the confidence of life with him that never ends. He wants to show you the best way of life there is. He wants you to follow Him; to stop serving yourself and to start serving Him by serving those around you. But first, he wants you to believe that He broke into this world at Christmas to begin a journey that would save you from the slavery of sin, the terror of death, and the punishment of hell. He wants you to believe that He broke into this world to make a connection with you—a connection that gives you hope and happiness today—a connection that will never be broken. His arrival in your life demands a response. What is yours?
My prayer is that your response will be the “yes” of faith; the greatest gift of all. Ponder these things, and may it be a Merry Christmas for you

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Services at St. Paul's are held on Christmas Eve at 5, 7 and 11pm. Please join us!

For directions, please go to:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Light the Pink Candle

16(A) Rejoice always, 17(B) pray without ceasing, 18(C) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19(D) Do not quench the Spirit. 20Do not despise(E) prophecies, 21but(F) test everything; hold fast what is good. 22Abstain from every form of evil.
23Now may(
G) the God of peace himself(H) sanctify you completely, and may your(I) whole(J) spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at(K) the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24(L) He who calls you is faithful;(M) he will surely do it. 1 Thessalonians 5

Today (the Third Sunday in Advent)we light the pink candle on our Advent wreath. Have you ever wondered what’s up with the three purple and the one pink? And why the pink one today? Finding the answer is as simple as looking at the colors. Pink is lighter than purple. Purple is darker than pink. That’s easy enough to understand. Still, what’s the connection? Well, today’s Scripture readings are, like the pink candle, lighter than the ones we’ve been hearing this Advent. They’re lighter in the sense that they focus on the comfort and peace and joy that comes from the Lord Jesus. They focus on the positive results that our King creates by coming into our lives.
Let’s face it; this Advent season carries with it some darker themes. We are reminded that this present world will come to an end when Christ returns. In his office of Judge he will make an eternal separation between the faithful and the unfaithful. We hear the cry of John the Baptist and are confronted with his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is heavy, serious business. It can be uncomfortable as we squirm in recognition of our own sin. This is necessary. Making a straight path for the King to come into your life is hard work. But today the pink candle burns brightly. We enjoy the light and joyful quality of God’s mercy. We are touched by the Lord’s tenderness. He just wants to hold his sons and daughters close, and His sacrificial love makes it possible.
In Isaiah 61 we hear Jesus outlining His mission and life’s work. His Father is sending Him to preach good news to the poor; to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim freedom for the captives; to proclaim the time of God’s favor and his just judgment against sin; and to comfort all who mourn and grieve. With beautiful poetic language he promises to exchange his gladness for our mourning; and praise for despair. Jesus would fulfill this promise by rising from the dead, never to die again, three days after his crucifixion, and his resurrection has become our source of life, hope, peace and perspective. So we light the pink candle today and rejoice in our Risen Lord.
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians he says: “16(A) Rejoice always, 17(B) pray without ceasing, 18(C) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Paul is saying here: Light the pink candle in your life! God wants you live thankfully. God wants you to live prayerfully. God wants you to live joyfully. But this is exactly where we fall down, more often than not. Thanks to sin at work in us, our memory tends to be awfully short. When problems come charging at us, we forget who stands by our side. We forget that He’s won the ultimate victory. We forget the many ways He’s delivered us in the past. We just see the problem; the loss; the threat barreling down on us and we react in fear or despair or anxiety. Human reactions, to be sure, common to all of us—yet still we need to stop and turn around. We need to remember who goes with us. Jesus, our companion on this journey, has already gone down through the valley of the shadow of death—for you—and come up and out into life that never ends. He’s blazed that trail for you. You need not fear it. He shepherds your every step. He is always faithful to you. This is our source of rejoicing! We rejoice because the resurrection of Jesus trumps any card that the devil tries to play to hurt us or scare us.
Let’s be very clear about one thing: this call to rejoice is not a command to Christians to slap on a fake smile in bad times, or a cold word of advice to “just get over it.” Rejoicing happens not by denying our troubles, but by looking above and beyond them to the Lord. Rejoicing happens when God’s Word (with the Holy Spirit) breaks into your life once again and brings you face to face with Jesus. Rejoicing happens when God’s Word reminds you that your strong Shepherd has never left your side. Christian author Sherwood Wirt has written that “joy is the enjoyment of God,” and to that I would add that “joy is the enjoyment of God and the gifts He has given you through the actions of His Son Jesus.” You are God’s child by baptismal adoption; your sins are forgiven in full, thanks to Jesus; your life is unfolding according to His plan; He has promised that you will never be without Him. No difficulty that you face can rob you of these gifts.
Our joy is in the Lord Jesus. Let the pink candle shine. Amen.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Boar's Head Festival Coming Soon

The Second Annual Boar's Head Festival is coming December 12 and 13. This is an incredible production that must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Is it a Christmas concert? The ultimate Christmas pageant? A living Nativity sermon? Yes, yes, and yes, and yet it is more.

Please click this link:

for more information.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Watching for Jesus

1"Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6But at midnight there was a cry, 'Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9But the wise answered, saying, 'Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.' 10And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' 12 But he answered, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' 13Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."

Out of curiosity, I entered the phrase “End of the World” in an online search engine. Can you guess the number of results that came back? How about one billion, 860 million? Yes, it is safe to say that lots of us are keenly interested in, if not obsessed with, the end of the world. Just think of the disaster movie genre—if it’s not a volcano or flood, it’s a radioactive monster or alien invasion that threatens to destroy the world as we know it. Right now the hip end-times date is the year 2012. Because of a link to an ancient Mayan calendar, many of our new age friends are pointing to the year 2012 as, well, that’s when the accounts part ways: for some it’s when the flying saucers will descend, for others that’s when the mega-asteroid will slam into earth. Still others take a more soothing tack: they claim that is the year when humanity will take a huge evolutionary leap forward, all at once, I guess. I am not making this up. What I find amusing and ironic is that these type of books have a special shelf on which to sit at your local bookstore. These books are filed under the heading: Speculation. And that is precisely what they are. Speculation. Guesses. Daydreams in print. Human beings go a little bit nuts when their thoughts turn to this world coming to an end.
Now, that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. It will, without question. The master teacher Jesus tells us that it will. He doesn’t tell us this to scare us out of our wits, though. He wants us to be prepared. I even think he wants us to look forward to it a little, because of what will happen after this world’s end.
Jesus tells the story of the wise and foolish virgins in order to make the larger point, “Watch therefore, for you don’t know the day or the hour” when the end will come. Jesus wants his people to be watching and waiting for His return. But what does that mean? What does this watching consist of?
Well, one thing it does not consist of is speculation. Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus challenge his followers to unscramble the puzzle that reveals the secret date of the world’s end. That hasn’t stopped Christians from trying. In the first generation of the church, the Apostle Paul had to correct the Thessalonians on this very point. At the end of the first millennium there were those were convinced that Christ would return in the year 1000. In our day, there have been no shortage of those who have attempted to set a time for Jesus' return only to be put in a position of having to recalculate. As surely as our Lord came in flesh and blood to suffer and die for the sins of the world, so surely will He come again as Judge. But His consistent teaching is that we do not and will not know and we do not need to know the day or the hour. God calls us not to speculation but to preparation.
Jesus says, "Watch." What does this watching consist of? Let’s not imagine that it means gazing up at the sky day after day, or being paralyzed with fear that “today might be The Day.” Our watching is active and purposeful. Our watching consists of vigilant attention to the voice of our Good Shepherd as He speaks to us in His Word. We are living in that evil age which Paul spoke about when he said, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from the truth to wander into myths" (II Tim. 4:3). We are to watch wisely by focusing our attention on God's Word, hearing it, learning it, taking it to heart, and living it out while there is still time.
But have you and I been foolish? Have we fallen asleep on God? Are you procrastinating when it comes to paying attention to God’s Word? Do you think of God’s Word as something you’d like to get into “once things slow down a little bit”? If so, I plead with you to reconsider. The foolish virgins in our story believed that there would always be enough time to get the oil they needed. They were wrong. Imagine their shock seeing that closed door and hearing the voice from behind it saying, “I do not know you.” But they were part of the wedding party! They were dressed the same—had the same kind of lamps, probably. Going by appearances, they should’ve been let in too—but they were not ready. They were not prepared. They thought they had all the time they needed. They were busy and distracted and they missed it. May God’s Holy Spirit prevent us from making the same mistake--and may that same Spirit ignite an urgency in us—an urgency that causes us to take action—an urgency that causes us to obtain the spiritual fuel that we need—an urgency to break through the things that hold us back from serving Jesus.
We are living in the time when the oil is still available. In fact, there is more than enough oil. For the oil-- the forgiveness of sins purchased by Jesus through His death on the cross-- is for you and for the whole world. There is no shortage of supply, no decrease in production of His grace and mercy. This oil is distributed now in the preaching of the Gospel and the giving out of Jesus' body and blood in the Holy Supper. This oil is distributed now in the ongoing blessings of your baptism. This oil is distributed now through Christian people looking to make a difference in their families and churches and communities. The wise cannot get enough of these things for they always give us more of Jesus, and the more we get of Him, the more ready and eager we are to receive Him when He comes again in glory.
As we wait for our Bridegroom to come, we have time to tell all who would listen about how great He is. May that be the spirit in which we wait and watch for Jesus.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Who Are These Saints?

13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?"

Who are these clothed in white robes?

They are mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. They are Asian, American, European, African, and all points in between. Some were famous. Some were virtually unknown. Some were successful. Some were failures by the world’s standards. But all have one thing in common; one thing that connects them eternally: Jesus, the Lamb of God, is their Savior, Lord, and King. For this reason and this reason alone they are rightly called “saints.”

This section of the book of Revelation is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring in all of the Bible. Here is the result of Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and transforming resurrection. The result is a countless collection of people, made holy by God. They’re wearing the white robes he provided. They’re worshipping and serving God, and at the same time He is tenderly serving them. The wonderful fruit of Jesus’ labor is brought to harvest. His people live with Him in Paradise Restored.

So who are these clothed in white robes? The storytellers and opinion-sellers of our culture are divided on the matter. Some suggest that the saints are easy to spot. They are the exceedingly rare, Mother Teresa types. Their good deeds make it obvious. The message that is sent between the lines is that if you’re not doing something spectacular, you’re not a saint. Not even close.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have those who insist that everyone is a saint, if by the word “saint” you mean that you’ll go to heaven when you die. The assumption from this perspective is that just about everybody ends up in heaven, unless you were just a horrible, despicable, evil person. Then that’s different.

It’s all too easy to let toned-down versions of these cultural ideas bleed into our own. A friend of mine pointed out once that it is instructive to hear what people talk about at the funeral home, and especially what they say about the deceased, in particular during calling hours. It’s instructive to hear how much time is spent praising the good qualities of the deceased, in contrast to the time spent talking about Jesus; talking about how the departed person trusted in Jesus for salvation; talking about the difference the resurrection of Jesus makes. That observation reveals a lot about human nature. It brings to the surface some of the thoughts we have about life and death and heaven that may or may not square with what God has said in His Word.

So what does God have to say about saints? Well, one thing’s for sure. Being a saint is not a matter of achieving some spiritual standard of excellence. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be any. The picture the Bible paints of people like Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Paul is not flattering. Scripture unflinchingly puts their sins out there for the world to see. Imagine if your life was an open book in that same way.

On the other hand, Jesus claims, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He also says, “if you don’t believe, you are already condemned because you don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.” Heaven for everyone, regardless of faith, is an idea totally foreign to the teaching of Jesus.

So again, who are these saints? These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They have made it through the tragedies of this torn-up world, and they have been cleansed. They have been purified. Their robes have been soaked in the blood of Jesus, making them holy. Their whole lives have been soaked in the blood of Jesus, making them acceptable to God. Jesus’ holiness and perfection was wrapped around them at their baptism. It is the garment they wear into eternity. You see, a saint is someone who trusts in Jesus and Jesus alone for access to heaven. That’s it. A saint is someone who knows that sin has disqualified them from the prize—yet they believe that Jesus earned the prize and gives it away as a true gift. A saint is someone who knows that there would be no white robe or multitude or living water or wiping away of tears if it were not for Jesus.

Who are these saints? I believe you know many of them. There’s one who tried to talk God out of making him serve, then led his people out of slavery. There’s one who prayed to the Lord for a son, and true to her word, gave him back to the Lord for a life of service. There’s one who denied even knowing Jesus three times, who would go on to preach thousands of people to faith. There’s one who fought and worked to get the true gospel message back into the Church. There’s one who risked her life doing the work of a missionary. There’s one who taught Sunday School for hundreds of children through the years. There’s one who never got to serve in the way he wanted, but whose faithful example led his son and grandson to became pastors. There’s one whose loving guidance of her son was the only godly example and pure relationship he’d ever know. There’s one who had his life totally tuned around by the grace of God. There’s one who visited the sick and shut-in just because she wanted to. There’s one who liked to build and fix things as his service to the Lord, who could care less about recognition. There’s one whose business prospered, but not at the expense of his faith and family. What other saints do you see in that multitude? There aren’t any superheroes in that crowd—just real people. People like you and me. People who had struggles and hurts, flaws and quirks, strengths and gifts. People saved by Jesus. People pulled out of the devil’s hands by Christ, the champion.
Let’s not be in a hurry to push this vision of the white-robed multitude out of our minds. After all, it describes your future. By God’s choice, you are part of the “all” in All Saints. This is your Day, too, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Song of Speratus

I don’t know if I should admit this or not: The hymn “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” preaches a better sermon than I ever could—and in a lot less time. This hymn is a treasure of the Church because it unpacks the heart and soul of Christian faith. It is an A#1 example of how the hymns we sing should both uplift us and teach us.
Salvation unto us has come/by God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom/They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone/Who did for all the world atone; He is our one redeemer.
Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone/and rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known/with love and hope increasing.
For faith alone can justify/Works serve our neighbor and supply/the proof that faith is living.
There, in just a few of lines of poetry, you have the gospel itself and the proper relationship between faith and good works.
I want to tell you about the man who wrote these amazing words. The words of this hymn embody the spirit of the Reformation Era, and there’s a good reason for that: the man who wrote them was a key participant in the Reformation movement, the movement that challenged the church of the Middle Ages with a return to Grace Alone; Faith Alone; and Scripture Alone. The man’s name was Paul Speratus, and his story, while dramatic by our standards, was fairly typical of those who led such reform.
Paul Speratus became a pastor in 1518. Early in his ministry, he started reading some books written by an upstart German monk named Martin Luther. Those books changed the course of his life. Speratus began vigorously emphasizing Reformation ideals in his preaching. He began to unfold for his listeners the wonders of God’s love for undeserving sinners. He began teaching that people are saved from eternal punishment by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Because of this, he was forced to leave three churches within a two-year span.
Two things happened next—he got married, and he went to the University of Vienna to earn a Doctor of Theology degree. But when he preached a sermon defending marriage of the clergy—a sermon that also featured that “faith alone” gospel theme—the university faculty branded him a heretic—a false teacher—and then things really got bad. He was imprisoned for a 12 week period, surviving on bread and water. He was threatened with death by fire during that same time. However, by God’s grace and the work of some good political rulers, Speratus was freed and ended up in Wittenberg, Germany. There he fianlly met Martin Luther, and became so involved in the Reformation movement that he helped Luther compile an early hymnal, doing translation work, as well as writing his own hymns. “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” was a product of this time—a product of this man’s life—a product, more than anything, of the true gospel message taking root and blooming in the human heart. You can hear it all through the lyrics.
Since Christ has full atonement made/and brought to us salvation/each Christian therefore may be glad/and build on this foundation/your grace alone dear Lord I plead/your death is now my life indeed/for you have paid my ransom.”
In these words you hear someone who has finally “seen the light.” And yet there was a significant personal cost Speratus paid for seeing the light of Christ. It meant rejection from the very Church that was supposed to carry this good news to the world. It meant imprisonment and the threat of death itself. As extreme as that may sound, it was not unusual for people like Paul Speratus to go through things like this as they were recovering the Bible’s true message of forgiveness in Christ. The personal cost they paid for seeing the light of Jesus was worth it to them—and they courageously confessed their saving faith in Christ regardless of consequence.
I tell you the story of Paul Speratus in order to ask you this: what personal cost have you paid in order to follow Jesus? Or maybe I ought to step back and ask: Are you willing to pay a personal cost because of Christ? Would you be willing to go through what Paul Speratus went through for the sake of the true gospel of Jesus?
Only you know the answer to that question. What I know is the personal cost that Jesus paid in order to make you his own. Here’s the message that Speratus and others like him were willing to be imprisoned and threatened for—from Romans 3: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Do you understand that phrase, “Propitiation by his blood”? A propitiation is a sacrifice or a payment that sets things right. Jesus made that payment with his blood. The personal cost he paid to rescue you from destruction was huge. He left heaven to come to earth. He left glory to come into our pain. He left praise to endure mockery. He left perfection to become sin. He was nailed to a wooden cross. That’s what sin deserved. That’s what your sin deserved. Jesus took it. He pushed you out of the way of judgment, and it slammed into him. He is punished. You’re not. You are forgiven. Free. You have no debts to settle with God. You have no peace to make with God. He has made peace with you through this propitiation by Jesus’ blood, to be received—how? By faith. By believing Jesus’ blood payment washes your sins away; by believing his resurrection explodes the curse of death. Not by how hard you work; not by how good you think you are; “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight”. No. It can only be received as a gift. You receive when you believe.
Let me not doubt but truly see Your Word cannot be broken/
Your call rings out, “Come Unto Me!” No falsehood have You spoken/
Baptized into Your precious name/my faith cannot be put to shame/
And I shall never perish!
Do you know how dearly you are loved? If you have any doubts, look at the personal cost Jesus paid in order to keep you His. Or as Paul Speratus put it, “Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live.”

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bearing Fruit

Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. Isaiah 5: 1—2

It was a lousy year for tomatoes, at least in our garden. Nowhere near other years. There are many reasons why that could be. But in the end, it just was an off year. For the serious gardener, a bad year can mean more than just mild disappointment. A fairly large investment of time and energy can go right down the tubes if the conditions aren’t right, or disease strikes the plants or there are hungry animals in your neighborhood. Things can get pretty frustrating.
In both Old Testament and Gospel lessons we hear about a frustrated gardener. His vineyard yielded some pretty sad results. The garden pictured in Isaiah 5 had everything going for it, yet it still produced “wild grapes,” which is another way of saying that the grapes were sour. Things go a little bit crazier in Matthew 21, where the vineyard workers go on a rampage, eventually killing the son of the owner. These stories do not end happily. In Isaiah 5, the gardener resolves to tear down the wall so that the vineyard can be trampled and laid to waste; In Matthew 21, the only right conclusion to come to is that those workers ought to be punished for their crimes and the vineyard be handed over to people who are a little more sane—or at least faithful to the owner’s wishes. Both of these passages interpret themselves for us: God is the gardener and owner of the vineyard; the vineyard is Israel, his Old Testament people, and the vineyard has been one huge disappointment. The gardener was looking for good fruit and found only sour grapes; the owner of the vineyard was looking for a harvest, only to find out that his workers were not just disobedient but homicidal. That puts our cherry tomato shortage in a bit of perspective.
The Old Testament tells the unflattering tale of Israel’s inability to bear good fruit. When God sent a prophet to snip and prune, that prophet often paid dearly for his service—sometimes with his life. Finally, the Greatest Prophet Jesus walks into the vineyard in order to announce that the kingdom is being taken away and given to people who will do kingdom work. And predictably the greatest Prophet pays for this announcement with His life. Not exactly a wonderful comment on human nature.
Human nature, being what it is, might also try to use these vineyard stories to portray Jewish people as hard-hearted, ignorant fools. Human nature (with a little help from the devil) would tempt us to look at these stories and say, “How could they be so dumb?” But that, in itself would be dumb. Human nature always tries to deflect, finding someone else to blame, or at least someone who looks worse than we do. A far, far more unpleasant exercise is to see if the shoe of God’s judgment fits. Or, in this case, to ask ourselves and one another, are we also that vineyard Scripture describes? Are we producing godly fruit? Are these vines full? Bare? Heavy with wild, sour grapes? What do you think?
Where we as individual people have become lazy; where we have been happy to receive God’s gifts but not so happy to share them; we need to change our minds and our actions. Where we as a church have neglected to go after the lost; where we have substituted the values of Jesus with worldly wisdom, we need to stop; repent; and change. God is not above taking the vineyard away from those who will not tend to it.
However, if we will admit to our poor gardening and confess our lack of productivity, we will be exposed to the only power that can cause us to grow—that power is the good news of Jesus; the Gospel. That power—power that flows from our crucified Lord—pronounces us not guilty; forgiven. God is willing to plant, water, and grow faith in your heart that trusts the words of absolution—that trusts the full pardon Jesus delivered—that trusts the cleansing adoption of baptism—that trusts Jesus to distribute remission of sins through bread and wine. Freedom from the burden of guilt, a meaningful and victorious life, and resurrection with Jesus—these are things that only God can provide—and provide them he does—generously, patiently, continually. He keeps bringing out the gifts. They all depend on Him.
But, for reasons all his own, he would have us share in the gift-giving. The gifts depend on God—yet He depends on you and me to pass them out. Producing godly fruit is a matter of passing out God’s gifts to people. It’s not always easy, but it’s almost always exciting. Working in the vineyard is challenging and yet satisfying—so many people who finally take the leap and start passing out God’s gifts discover that this is what they’ve been looking for their whole lives. What type of “fruit” do you sense God is asking you to produce? How can you become actively involved in handing out God’s presents?
Today we put the spotlight on the LWML, or Lutheran Women’s Missionary League. As their title suggests, these are Lutheran women who not only support missionaries, but are missionaries themselves. Millions of dollars worth of mission projects are funded through their Mite Box collections. There is an urgency to their work that we would all do well to learn from. St. Paul’s Friendship Circle is our congregation’s grouping of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, and it is my sincere prayer that some of you ladies who are kind of “on the bubble” or not sure how God wants you to serve would really look into our Friendship Circle and give it a try. All of us who work in God’s vineyard want to make a difference—Christ has planted that desire in us. The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League can provide you with real opportunities to make a difference for the cause of Christ Jesus.
So, it was a bad year for tomatoes, but just like the Indians, Cavs and Browns, there’s always next year. Fortunately, you and I can start producing godly fruit today. Put your trust in Jesus and start giving His gifts to someone. Then just watch the growth that He gives. Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Will You Change Your Mind?

"What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, 'I go, sir,' but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. Matthew 21: 28—32

Just about everyone knows this type of disappointment: someone promises you something, then they don’t deliver. If you’ve been disappointed enough, you don’t even let yourself get your hopes up anymore, because you know there’s a difference between knowing the right answer and doing the right answer. There are a lot of people who know what they ought to do—and promise to do it--and far fewer who actually live it.
The simple story Jesus told the ruling priests and the elders brings this idea to light. One son says “no” to his father, but changes his mind and goes to work; the other says “yes” but never gets around to working. Who does the will of his father? Of course, the one who changed his mind and worked! And I suppose someone could look at this brief tale and conclude that the moral of the story is: “We ought to be people who keep our word. If you make a promise, follow through on it.” Certainly, we should strive to be people of integrity. But, as usual, Jesus wants to go deeper than that. He wants to go deeper than behavior. He wants to know about your heart and your motivation. He wants to know if you’ve really changed your mind.
In our story, the son who did the father’s will is the son who changed his mind and went to work. Jesus moves right from the story to its application: he told the religious establishment of His day that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of them because those “sinful” folks heard John the Baptist’s preaching and it changed their minds. But it didn’t change the minds or lives of the priests. It didn’t change the minds or lives of the Pharisees. It didn’t change the minds or lives of those who believed their “religiousness” made changing their minds unnecessary. Not only did it not change their minds, but they were enraged by the very suggestion that their minds needed changing, and they began looking for ways to punish and silence those who dared to say such things. They knew that they were guilty and that they needed to turn around. But they would not—call it pride, stubbornness, sin—they would not change their minds and go God’s way.
Does that sound like you? I didn’t say, does that sound like someone you know; I said, does that sound like you? Do you recognize your need to change—or do you refuse to believe that you need to? Do you recognize yourself in the son who says an easy “yes” to the father, but then doesn’t do what he’s asked? Are you OK with a little bit of church or a little bit of Jesus as long as you don’t have to change your mind and the way you live your life? Christians can start trusting in their own “religiousness” as much as they trust in Christ! Or more than they trust in Christ! We can start thinking, “Well I’ve done this, and I’ve done that, and I’ve done this for that many years, and I did that with them,” but the bottom line is: Are you a changed person? Has Jesus changed you with His forgiveness; with his mercy? Have you let Him?
It’s the change of mind—the turning around—that God is looking for. And I say all of this as someone who is no less guilty than you. I sin too and I’m pretty well versed in it. Sometimes when people are leaving a worship service, they’ll say, in reference to the sermon, “Pastor, I really needed to hear that today,” and I often answer by saying, “So did I!” And it’s the truth! If I happen to really nail you in a description of a particular sin, how do you think I know? I struggle with it too. And just like you, I need to hear God’s Word, because God’s Word cuts through all the static and all the junk and all my self-justifying arguments and excuses and says: Look. You are a sinner. You choose the wrong. You neglect the right. You need to repent.
Convinced of this, I still need to hear God’s Word, because it says to me in my embarrassment and shame, your sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ. That good Word tells me that Jesus stamped “paid in full” on the account of my sins as He died on the cross. When God leads you to realize that your only option before Him is to say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” He has led you into life-saving truth. He then is happy, overjoyed even, to be merciful to us, to give us the gift that He purchased with the passion and death and rising again of His Son: the gift of forgiveness and restoration.
When God’s Word moves you to repent, you become the son in Jesus’ story who at first said “no,” then changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. Believing the Gospel, you willingly go to work for your Father. Trusting that Jesus has granted you full pardon of your sins, you look for ways to ease the burdens and increase the joys of others. Lord, change our minds, change our priorities, change our lives so that you are clearly visible and active in us; in Jesus’ name: Amen.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Makes a Lutheran Church “Lutheran”?

How would you answer that question? Is “being Lutheran” a matter of:
· drinking lots of coffee
· sitting in the back during worship
· being part of a particular ethnic group
· worshipping in a distinct manner
· resisting change

Let’s start with the name itself. We are named after a German monk, not Martin Luther King. Martin Luther took a stand against non-Biblical tradition and through study of the Scriptures brought the Gospel and justification by grace through faith to light once again. That is the Lutheran “center of gravity.”

Let us also understand that Lutheran = Christian.

Ultimately, being a Lutheran Church is NOT a matter of:
· what we drink
· where we sit
· our ethnicity
· how we are structured as a congregation, district or synod

It is a matter of what we believe (our confession of faith).

That confession of faith is spelled out for us in the Holy Bible and the Lutheran Confessions contained in the Book of Concord.

A Lutheran Church is a Lutheran Church because it has pledged to remain faithful to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and her pastor has done the same.

Do we know what our Lutheran Confessions say? Does it matter to us?

Monday, September 15, 2008

490 Times & Counting

“…in anger his master delivered him to the torturers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Matthew 18: 34—35

Dear Friends,

It’s a provocative story. A man who owes a gigantic debt has it forgiven, wiped from the books. He has the proverbial “new lease on life.” And how does he use his newfound freedom? He uses it to put a stranglehold on a co-worker who owes him a small sum. From the sidelines, we can boo and hiss at this villain. What a jerk. And we can cheer when he gets his comeuppance—the king who forgave the debt now sends him to the jailers—the original Greek cranks up the intensity, rendering “jailers” instead as “torturers.” “Yes—the bad guy got what he deserved. We can now go back to business as usual.”
But not so fast…Jesus wasn’t quite done…for he drops this at the end: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." With this final twist, you and I are forced to participate in this provocative story. This story is not about finances owed; it’s about forgiveness owed. If you bear any resemblance to the villain in this story; if you have been forgiven a debt that you could never hope to repay, only to turn around and be unforgiving, you’ve got problems. Which means we’ve all got problems. If we don’t turn from our unforgiving ways, there are torturers in our future. Knowing this, we still ask, over and over: “Do I really have to forgive?” You know the answer and so do I.
Forgiveness is the heart and soul of the Christian faith. It’s why Jesus was tortured and died on the cross, so God could provide forgiveness, debt-free, to all. Forgiveness is what enables us to belong to God, and yet there something about forgiveness that just bewilders us. The question that prompted Jesus to tell this story in the first place is a good example. Good old Peter asked: “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Now, I’m sure Peter thought he was being overly generous when he said “seven times.” I mean, this is “three strikes and you’re out” times two plus one for good measure. Peter probably thought his suggestion of “up to seven times” was a very virtuous one. And truth be told, we probably do too. We might even think it’s a little much.
So what does Jesus think of Peter’s suggestion? He says, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Don’t hear that as a new number. Hear that as a new attitude. Hear that as, “there should be no limit to the forgiveness you offer to people.” To flesh out his point, Jesus then told the story about the unmerciful servant, and just in case his listeners didn’t get it, he spelled it out: “…in anger his master delivered him to the torturers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
That leaves all of us in an uncomfortable position. We know what we harbor. We know what we hang onto. We know what we withhold. If this Jesus-story is nothing more than a pep-talk to get us to go out there and be more merciful people, do you think it’ll work? If this story is nothing more than God’s way of saying: “Forgive others or else,” do you think it’s enough to change us? There’s got to be a better reason to forgive than fear of punishment. And—good news—there is.
The problem you and I have with forgiveness is not so much a “giving-of-forgiveness problem.” That’s a symptom. The real problem we have is a “receiving-of-forgiveness problem.” That was the unmerciful servant’s first mistake and it’s our mistake, more often than not.
Think about it. That servant was under an extraordinary debt, which was compounding daily. There was no chance that he could ever repay it. This meant for him total ruin of his life. And in a moment of mercy; a moment of compassion on the part of the King, the debt is cancelled. The debt is forgiven and it is gone. It is not as if the terms of the debt were re-negotiated. It is not as if now the servant has to work less or has less to pay off. He has nothing to pay off. He has no more work to do to get out from under this mountain. The threat of ruin is replaced with complete freedom. He has a life again. He has a family and a home again. And somewhere between the master’s office and his encounter with his fellow servant, he forgot what had been done for him. Or, even worse, he began to believe that he deserved what had happened to him. Doesn’t that sound stupid? He had a “receiving-of-forgiveness” problem. For whatever reason, he didn’t understand the magnitude of the gift he had been given, so it didn’t translate into new attitudes or actions.
And isn’t that the trap we fall into? You and I are under an extraordinary debt, a debt we owe God for sins committed, good works gone undone. There is no chance that we could ever repay it. This means for us total ruin of our lives, here and eternally. And in a moment of mercy; a moment of compassion on the part of the King, the debt is cancelled. The debt is forgiven and it is gone. He pays it off with His own blood. It is not as if the terms of the debt are re-negotiated. It is not as if now you have to work less or have less to pay off. You have nothing to pay off. The threat of ruin is replaced with complete freedom. You have a life again. You have a life again and you have options. Somewhere between the sanctuary and your next encounter with your fellow servant, will you forget what has been done for you? Or, even worse, will you begin to believe that you in some way deserve what has happened to you through Jesus Christ? Or will the magnitude of the gift you have been given dawn on you, so that it translates into new attitudes and actions? Will you realize that the mercy God showed you when he laid your sins on Jesus is the same mercy that he has for that brother of yours who continually sins against you? Will you see that the forgiveness the Son of God earned for you on Calvary’s cross and guaranteed in his Easter resurrection is the same forgiveness earned for your brother, or sister or whomever it is? Your brother’s pardon is the same as your pardon. Your sister’s forgiveness comes from the same place as your forgiveness. It all comes from Christ—His passion—His cross and suffering—His death—His resurrection! So forget about trying to dig deep for some feeling of forgiveness; forget about forcing yourself to forgive through an act of will—the only basis for your being able to forgive another person is the Word of the Lord concerning your forgiveness. You don’t say, and neither do I, “Because I am a good person, a patient guy, a merciful gal, I announce my forgiveness to you. Instead, you and I say, “In the name of Jesus, and by His authority, I forgive you.” In other words, forgiveness is not our work, it is Christ’s; if we are in Him and He in us, we won’t get in His way. We’ll receive and give His forgiveness, with His infinite love as our power source. With Him, seventy times seven is only the beginning. Amen.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Become Like Children

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18: 1—4

Jesus’ acceptance of children has shaped His Church in profound and lasting ways. His love for children is on full display in the passage that serves as our Gospel Reading for today. His Church has, especially in our modern era, tried to model and mirror Jesus’ attitude toward children by providing opportunities for their growth. The Church’s desire to “receive the little ones” has given birth to Christian Day Schools, Christian Preschools; and yes, Christian Sunday Schools. On this Rally Day, hopefully what we’re rallying around is a teaching ministry aimed right at children. Who could argue against it? A Church that does not honor or serve its children is, point-blank, ignoring the spirit in which Jesus interacted with young people and even babies.
However, as important as instructing our children in the Word of God is, it’s not the main point of today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus doesn’t plop a child down in the middle of his disciples in order to say, “You guys really ought to start a Christian School.” In fact, Jesus does this to say, “This child could school you guys. You’ve got to learn what this child already knows, or you’ll never make it in the kingdom of heaven.” The point of this reading is less about teaching our children, and more about what they can teach us.
It seems the disciples had been bouncing around the question “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” Usually when people ask such questions, you know what they’re getting at. It’s a pastime: who is the greatest pitcher of all time? What is the greatest movie of all time? From greatest player to greatest president; from greatest singer to greatest school—we concern ourselves with who is number one, which is almost always based on high performance. The disciples were doing this with the kingdom of God. So Jesus calls to a child, who comes and stands in the circle, as it were, and says: "Truly, I say to you, unless you(B) turn and(C) become like children, you(D) will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4(E) Whoever humbles himself like this child is the(F) greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Now understand that Jesus’ answer here is like answering the question “Who is the greatest pitcher of all time?” by saying, “Well, there’s this kid in Little League right now that’s got great stuff.” The reaction was likely a collective “Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?” What does it mean to “turn and become like children”? It’s pretty important that we know. Jesus said, if you don’t turn and become like [a child], you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. What do children have that we need?
Let’s think for a minute. What would you say is the biggest difference between children and adults? Lots of ways to answer that question, of course. I would suggest that one of the biggest differences between children and adults is control. Control over their lives. Adults have it. Children don’t. Or put it this way—they shouldn’t. Here’s one example—the child that declares, “When I grow up, I’m going to stay up all night, play as many video games as I want, eat only Captain Crunch cereal…” you get the idea. Parents set the rules, and, best case scenario, they enforce them. The bottom line rests with the parent, not the child. By the way, in the culture of Jesus’ time, children had even less control over their lives than they do now. Roman citizens—fathers of the household, in particular—had the right to execute their children if the situation warranted it.
So what does it mean to “turn and become like children”? I believe that it means more than just ‘having a child-like faith’—though that’s part of it. I believe that when Jesus says “turn and become like children” He means “surrender control of your life to God.” Become the child and let God be the Parent. Let Him set the rules. Let Him set your agenda. Let Him guide your steps. And do so willingly, trusting that He has your best interests in mind. Turn and become dependent on God. Turn and give Him control of your priorities. Surrender control of your life to God.
Is that really what you want? Of course, there’s that sinful person inside of us who’s going to say “no.” There’s that sinful person inside of us who’s going to insist on being a free agent. There’s that sinful person inside of us who puffs out his chest and says, “I did it my way,” and if my way takes me to hell, oh well. To that person inside us—to that person who is us—Jesus says, “unless you(B) turn and(C) become like children, you(D) will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Surrender control of your life to God.
Jesus isn’t asking anything of you that He hasn’t already done. He surrendered control of His life to His Father, and His Father asked Him to give up His life. This was by no means easy, and the Gospels reveal Jesus’ great distress in Gethsemane, with the whip and scourge and cross just hours away. But Jesus went through with it. He submitted to His Father’s will. He endured the whip and scourge and cross so that your sins could be pronounced forgiven today. He died on that cross so that His body and blood could be served to you today, forgiving your sins of pride and lust for power and the chronic need to be number one—they’re all wiped clean away. Having surrendered His life to His Father, His Father then returned Jesus’ life to Him on Easter morning. Whoever believes in Jesus’ death and resurrection will have life returned to them as well, better life; risen life; not only a future home in heaven but a new birth today.
The old sinner lives in fear of losing control; that surrendering control of my life to God will mean that I lose. The Holy Spirit reveals the truth: giving control of my life over to God means that I win. Yes, I lose some things that are worth losing, but what the believer in Jesus gains is far greater. To use the apostle Paul’s phrase, it is a “peace that surpasses understanding.” It is victory over death. It is communion and relationship with God. It is better than all our thinking, because it is rooted in and flows from Jesus our Lord.
Turn and become like children. Return to your Father God and let Him parent you. Accept His guiding hand and the decisions He makes for you. Happily receive the gifts He gives to you. Surrender control and let Jesus drive you. You are his baptized, adopted, beloved child. Amen.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Blueprint for a Caring Church

Let love be genuine.(B) Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10(C) Love one another with brotherly affection.(D) Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not be slothful in zeal,(E) be fervent in spirit,[a](F) serve the Lord. 12(G) Rejoice in hope,(H) be patient in tribulation,(I) be constant in prayer. 13(J) Contribute to the needs of the saints and(K) seek to show hospitality.
L) Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15(M) Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16(N) Live in harmony with one another.(O) Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.[b](P) Never be wise in your own sight. Romans 12: 9—21

St. Paul always wrote to congregations. Now maybe that’s self-evident to you, but it is worth thinking about nevertheless. St. Paul always wrote his letters, which we call epistles, to congregations—to groups of Christians living in the real world. These letters were never meant to be dry, academic exercises for the scholarly few. These letters are personal, pulsating with life and energy, written by someone with a vested interest in the church’s success. They were meant to be read in the public assembly of believers, which is to say, in worship. And so today let’s hear these words as if we were the Roman congregation that Paul was writing to. Let’s take stock of ourselves in light of the directives the Apostle gives here—which provide us with a blueprint for a caring church.
Paul begins this blueprint by saying: “Let love be genuine.” What a simple idea. I think it’s safe to say that more people have been brought into the church by the kindness of real Christian love than by all the theological arguments or worship styles or special programs combined. A person will get up and get ready and drive all the way across town and past who knows how many other churches if he or she knows that they will experience love and true fellowship at the church they’re going to. Now, Paul’s not saying we ought to make a show out of it—hugging and kissing and backslapping if that’s not your thing—instead he writes, “Let love be genuine.” Let it be real. Let it be sincere. Let it be unique to who you are, and who Christ is making you. Don’t get the idea that Paul is saying, “try hard to love each other.” When a group of people see one another as fellow sinners, saved under the cross of Christ, there will be love for one another. As Jesus said in the gospel of John, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." So let it be genuine.
In verse ten, Paul continues, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” How are we doing when it comes to showing honor and respect to one another? According to the journal U.S. News and World Report, 89 % of Americans think that incivility, rudeness, and a general lack of respect is a serious problem. Now listen to these statistics. 73 % think mean-spirited political campaigns are to blame; 52% think talk radio is to blame; and 1% think their own behavior is uncivil. Something doesn’t quite add up.
The fact is, thanks to sin, it is not natural for me to think about someone else’s needs before my own. It is not natural for me to set aside my own desire to be honored; it may not be natural, but it is possible, through the forgiving power of Jesus. We must never forget that Jesus, second person of the majestic Trinity, came into this world to become a servant. The King of Creation became its slave. Our holy and perfectly just God was treated as a criminal and hung from a cross, punished for sins that were not his own. They were yours, and they were mine. His rising to life on the third day means many things—one of which is that his sacrifice was accepted by the Father, and now it counts for us all. And so we trust in Jesus’ servant actions. His servant actions save us from self-destruction and eternal punishment. And his servant actions show us who we become with Him inside us.
A story comes to us of a king who organized a great race within his kingdom. All the young men of the kingdom participated. A bag of gold was to be given to the winner, and the finish line was within the courtyard of the king’s palace. The race was run, and the runners were surprised to find in the middle of the road leading to the king’s palace a great pile of rocks and stones. But they managed to scramble over it or to run around it and eventually to come to the courtyard. Finally, all the runners had crossed the finish line except one. But still the king did not call the race off. After a while one lone runner came through the gate. He lifted a bleeding hand and said, "O King, I am sorry that I am so late. But you see, I found in the road a pile of rocks and stones, and it took me a while, and I wounded myself in removing them." Then he lifted the other hand, and in it was a bag. He said, "But, Great King, I found beneath the pile of rocks this bag of gold." The king said, "My son, you have won the race, for that one runs best who makes the way safer for those who follow."
There is great reward in serving, but it’s not a bag of gold. The reward in serving is simply being like Christ, who stooped down to serve us in love. The reward in serving is fulfillment, the sense that we are finally doing what we have always been meant to do. We’re being who we are: people in whom Jesus Christ has made a home.
That’s critical for us to remember as Paul continues to draw the blueprint for a caring church. He writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them,” and a few verses later, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” None of the things just mentioned come naturally to us. If someone pushes us, it’s human nature to push back. Human nature is concerned with self first and foremost. Living in harmony means I look outside myself. And human nature knows that there is nothing much to be gained from associating with the lowly. If you and I belonged only to the kingdom of the world—the kingdom occupied by sin, death and Satan—then these words would be a fairy tale. The idea of blessing those who persecute you would be foolishness. The thought of living in harmony would be discarded as idealistic, na├»ve, wishful thinking. Associating with the lowly would be seen as a waste of time. But you and I do not belong to the kingdom of the world. As Jesus himself said, you are in the world, but not of the world. You are not of the world because Jesus has chosen you to belong to Him. You were adopted by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism. All the benefits and blessings of Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead have been applied to you through baptism, even the faith to believe has been granted to you as a gift. The believing Christian is, to use Paul’s language, “In Christ” and Christ is in him or her. You are a person in whom Jesus Christ lives and works, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the faith he brings.
And that truly makes us different. “Jesus in us” makes us different from those ruled by the kingdom of this world. With Christ as our life, we can and do bless and pray for our enemies. With Christ as our life, we can and do seek to live in harmony with one another. With Christ as our life, we can and do associate with those who by worldly standards are lowly—because we know that as we serve them, we’re serving God. A caring Christian—and a caring Church—dares to be different than the world. Caring Christians and the caring churches they populate cannot help being different—as they show forgiveness; as they act in mercy; as they work in harmony; as they welcome and help the lowly; as they do all these things and more, it’s Jesus doing it, through them. It’s Jesus doing it through you. I can think of no stronger witness to the reality of Jesus Christ than just living out His different way of life for all people you to see. The difference Jesus makes confuses people, in a good way. The difference Jesus makes attracts people—it opens their eyes, it challenges them to think that there might be something to Christianity after all. Living out this difference is what you were put here for. Living out this difference is what St. Paul’s was put here for. But make no mistake—what St. Paul’s does as a congregation starts with you. Being a caring church starts with you—and your connection to Christ Jesus. The blueprint is right in front of us. Let’s get to work being who we are—people in whom Jesus has made a home. Amen.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Speaking the Faith to Children

I led the following in-service for our preschool staff. Discussion on this topic is always interesting.

Answering the Questions of
Mini-Theologians (a.k.a. Preschoolers)

Where is God? I can’t see Him.

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." John 4: 24

“Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD.(B) Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
Jeremiah 23: 24

God is spirit, which, by definition, means we can’t see Him, because He has no body. However, He “fills heaven and earth,” according to Jeremiah 23: 24.

Therefore we can say God is everywhere and all around us all the time. A good comparison here would be air. We can’t see air, but we know it is there—we need it to live. Unlike air, God has given us special ways to learn about Him, such as His Word, the Bible; churches, pastors, and teachers; Christian families, etc.

Who is Jesus?

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1: 1-2; 14

…we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
1 John 5: 20

God may be invisible and everywhere (like air), but Jesus gives children (and us) something more to hold on to. Jesus is “God with skin on”. God became a human being, and that is Jesus. He died, came back to life, and went back to heaven, but one day he will come back. Because Jesus is “God with skin on”, He understands what it means to be hurt, afraid, hungry, tired, happy, etc. The love of Jesus comes to us through Christian people and whenever we learn about Him.

Where do people go when they die? Where is heaven?

And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Luke 23: 43

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

People who believe in Jesus go to be with Him when they die. That is probably the clearest statement the Bible makes about heaven. From the Bible’s standpoint, “heaven” is getting to be with Jesus forever, in the presence of those who have died in the faith. You get to spend time with your best friends and you never have to go home, because you’re already there.

What about those who do not believe? With young children, I would go in this direction: We don’t want to be apart from God. We believe in Him, so we never have to be apart from God. We will be with Him forever and ever, thanks to Jesus.

Where is heaven? That’s one of those questions like “Where is God?” Heaven is where God is. Right now we can’t see Him or heaven. We get “sneak peeks” of heaven in Christian worship, or when the gracious love of Christ is shared between people. At the Resurrection, Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:21) Finally we will be able to see everything!

Will our pets be in heaven? There’s no strong reason to say “no.” Animals were obviously a part of God’s original creation, and the Bible teaches that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8: 21) We can reasonably assume that animals are part of “creation itself.” You might not see your "Spot" in the life of the world to come, but there might be restored animals there to enjoy. That’s good news for children as well as adult pet owners!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

He Saw The Wind

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When) evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying,) "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid."
28And Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 29He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying) "Truly you are the Son of God."

What was Peter thinking? What was he thinking when he got out of that boat? I suppose we’ll never really know the answer to that question. I can remember as a child playing hide-and-seek with my father—sometimes he would pop out from some dark hiding place, scaring me half to death, but I vividly recall when he did that, running to him, not away from him. Maybe that’s what was going on inside of Peter. Maybe in his fear, his first impulse was to run to his Teacher, even though he’d be running on waves.
It isn’t that crucial for us to figure out why Peter called out “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” What is crucial is what happened next. What is crucial is that, for a few moments, it worked. Peter got out of the boat and walked on water and came to Jesus. To state the obvious, it was a scary situation. The disciples were in a boat in the dark in churning seas. Add to that scene the appearance of their teacher walking along on top of the waves—this would be more than enough to rattle anyone. But once Peter has the assurance that it really is Jesus, he hops out and goes directly to his Master and Lord. He just happens to be “going” on top of a wind-whipped lake.
Are you able to relate to that impulse? Have you ever been in a scary situation, a situation that would be enough to rattle anyone—and did you go directly to Jesus for help? Do you remember what happened when you did?
Well, we know what happened next to Peter. He had been doing the impossible. He had been stepping on the waves and it had been working, because Jesus was the focus. Getting to Jesus was the goal. But you know what happened next. Peter saw the wind. And when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid, and he began to sink. And this is precisely the point at which you and I can jump in and tread water with Peter—because we know what it means to “see the wind” and be afraid, even though Jesus is there.
It’s easy to “see the wind” when you find out your job is in jeopardy, and naturally, you fear for your family and how you will provide for them. Have you “seen the wind” at the doctor’s office, when he comes in the room and the news is not good? Have you “seen the wind” in a family that is fracturing, and breaking up before your very eyes? Have you “seen the wind” in current events—in wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters, end-times prophecies and predictions? Do you “see the wind” in a situation where there are no easy answers, and you are powerless to do anything about it? The cold wind of fear blows through our all of our lives, and when we give that wind our full attention, things get worse, not better. When we give the wind of fear our full attention, like Peter, we start to sink. If we’re giving that wind our full attention, that means we’re not giving Jesus our attention. Without Jesus, there’s only churning water, bitter wind, the fear of the unknown, and the terror of death.
Peter saw the wind, and he was afraid, and he began to sink. But Jesus was still there, and Peter remembered. Peter remembered Jesus, causing him to cry out, “Lord, save me!” And that is exactly what Jesus had come to do. He came not just to rescue Peter from drowning, but to rescue him from the storm of sin. He came not just to rescue Peter, but to do the same for you and me.
You may be “seeing the wind” right now in your life. The wind of fear may be howling, and you may feel like you’re sinking. If that’s the case, I urge you to remember Jesus. Call out to him, “Lord, save me!” That’s exactly what He has come to do. He has come not just to walk on water, but to walk up Calvary’s hill and take the punishment for your sins on the cross. Having paid for your sin in full, he walks out of the tomb on the third day—providing the greater miracle of eternal life to all who believe. In faith, we cry out, “Lord, save me!” And He does. You can walk on the water of your baptism, remembering the faith and life God gave you from the font. You can drink from the living water of Christ’s forgiveness—his blood poured into you, along with His Body at His Supper. Hear the very voice of Jesus saying to you today, “Take heart, it is I. Don’t be afraid.” A life of faith is a life of remembering. It is remembering Jesus is there, even when we see the wind. It is remembering to cry out, “Lord, save me.” “Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, hear our prayer.” It is remembering your baptism, and remembering Jesus in Word, Bread, and Wine. “Lord, save me” is our song, it is His church’s anthem, every “hosanna” we sing is the same petition: “Save us now,” Lord Jesus.
Matthew supplies us with Jesus’ response to Peter’s desperate plea. He writes, “31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you) doubt?" 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of Peter. He didn’t let Peter drown. In his justice, he probably could have. “Peter, you doubter, here’s your reward!” But none of that with Jesus. It’s all about mercy. And there in the fellowship of that little boat, with the disciples worshipping Jesus, confessing Him as God’s own Son—what do you know? The wind stopped.
In fear, we rush to Jesus. We see the wind, we’re afraid, we sink, we remember, we call out, Jesus rescues us, he restores us, we worship Him, the wind ceases. There is peace. A life of faith is a life of learning and re-learning this pattern, established on the blustery Sea of Galilee. “Lord, save me!” Amen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Pizza Buffet Spirituality

There is a place we sometimes go (that shall remain nameless) that is a pizza buffet. You pay one price and then you can eat all you want. I really like pizza, so it seems like a good deal. But the thing is, the pizza itself is just OK. It’s not bad pizza. We wouldn’t go back if it was bad. But it’s not great pizza, either. You can eat until you’re full, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as deep-dish, Chicago-style stuffed pizza.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God routinely uses food language to communicate His love to us. It’s language that we get. Everyone knows what it means to be thirsty or hungry. We can tell the difference between a carefully prepared meal and a bag of junk food. I think we even understand, at some level, that sharing a table with someone means something; it implies a relationship that we desire and want to nurture. Our Lord uses all these food-related ideas and more as a way of describing his desire to serve us and give us life.
For example, you have today’s Old Testament Lesson, which really is enough to make your mouth water. The Almighty God invites everyone to his feast. He talks about His gifts in terms of water, wine, milk, and bread. He sets His table with “the richest of fare.” Come, enjoy the best, the Lord God says. It’s free. It’s for you.
In our Gospel lesson, it’s more of the same. There Jesus sets the table for thousands of hungry people and miraculously satisfies their hunger. The Lord of creation demonstrates his compassion by meeting physical as well as spiritual needs. There’s also a hint here, I believe, of an even better meal that is to come, a meal at which Jesus will again take bread, give thanks, break it, and give it to his disciples. Jesus uses food language—and food itself—to nourish us and build up our faith. He wants to give you nothing less than full pardon of your sins; confident life in Him today; and true peace in knowing you do not stand condemned, but you stand to inherit eternal life, thanks to his passion, death, and resurrection. He sets the table with these delights and says, come and eat. I made them just for you.
But back to our pizza buffet for just a minute. If you remember, my biggest gripe with it, and it’s not a huge gripe, is that the pizza is just OK. You can fill up on the stuff, but it’s not like having something really good and tasty. That’s not a big deal. What is a big deal is when people bring a pizza buffet mentality to their spiritual lives—when they chase after happiness or fulfillment and fill up on things that are just OK. God asks the question through his prophet, Isaiah: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” Why, indeed? Why do we fill our lives up with things that are just OK—things that don’t bring us any closer to Christ? Why do we work to fill our homes with things that cannot remove guilt, or soothe a conscience, or just make us better? Why do we devote so many hours to staring at images flickering on a screen, when there’s so much life to be lived, and so many greater God-given gifts to be enjoyed? Are you eating what is good? Do you regularly feast on the richest fare that Christ provides? Or are you spending money on what is not bread, and laboring for things that cannot satisfy? Are you going to the pizza buffet looking to pig out on something, anything, hoping that it will fill you up?
It doesn’t take long to become spiritually malnourished. Just keep your Bible closed. Just stay away from church for a while. Tune out the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Stay away from the Supper of our Lord. Stop speaking to Him in prayer. Forget about your baptism. That’ll do it. If you stop eating food, you’ll die. We know this. Faith is no different! And this is one of the greatest dangers we face as Christians. We start filling our lives with commitments and pursuits and pastimes that aren’t bad—they’re just OK. But in filling our lives with “just OK” commitments and pastimes and pursuits, we forget the great stuff. We pass on the holy things, the best things. We think we don’t have time for them. We settle for the OK buffet. Then when life knocks us for a loop, we find out, too late, that faith has shriveled—it’s atrophied like an unused muscle—we have no clue what the Bible says about our situation or even where to look. Our strength is gone and we can’t think straight because we haven’t been eating the good stuff!
It’s not too late to start eating right. Again, through Isaiah, God says: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Eating what is good begins with believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It begins with savoring His mercy—he will not punish us according to our sins. It begins with appreciating His grace—He wants to serve you, feed you, and give you life. Eating what is good means finding out more about this Jesus, who would rescue us from Satan’s power, by learning about Him in Holy Scripture. Eating what is good means believing that a simple, humble church service (with new hymnals to boot) is, in fact, the setting in which Jesus serves us. That’s why it’s called a Divine Service—God is our server. Every time we gather, our Lord brings out the great stuff and gives it away for free. He adopts through Holy Baptism. He convicts sinners, distributes forgiveness, creates faith, and instructs us through His Holy Word. And yes, he sets a table and feeds us His own body and blood to forgive our sins and to keep our faith lively and active. When you keep eating what is good, you will discover that your appetite for the great stuff, the holy things of God, will grow. You’ll find yourself saying “no thanks” to things that are “just OK,” in order to have time for the really good stuff—the stuff that tells us again who Jesus is and what He did for us; the stuff that tells us who we are because of Jesus—that “stuff” being the Holy Bible, good devotional materials, the Divine Service, whatever is Christ-centered. This is the food group that we need. This is the food group that the Lord attaches His promise to. He says: “Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Did you hear the promise? Eat what is good, and your soul will delight—not in something “just OK”—but in God’s “richest fare,” the best gifts God has to give, lovingly prepared for you by Jesus himself. The promise is that your soul will delight! You will find your way home to the feast of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Take the Lord God up on this promise. Eat what is good. Amen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Oak Island, Toes, and Treasure

If you ever want to hear a really weird story, look into the history of Oak Island, Nova Scotia. Oak Island is the site of the so-called Money Pit, a place where numerous excavations have taken place to recover treasure believed to be buried there.
The story begins way back in 1795, when a 16-year-old boy and his friends discovered a circular depression in the sand and started to dig. They seemed to find layers of logs and stones on their way down that had been placed there deliberately. They gave up digging at 30 feet.
Eight years later, a professional company made a 300 mile journey to dig at the same site, and at 90 feet down they allegedly found a stone on which had been inscribed, in ancient characters, “forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried.” Since then, approximately ten official excavations have taken place, using a variety of techniques to try and reach the level described on the stone, only to have the shaft fill up with seawater or simply to find nothing. Even so, as of 2005, a portion of Oak Island was for sale with a price tag of $7 million dollars, and as of today, nothing of value has ever been found in the Money Pit. I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not the time, the money, and the loss of life has been worth it.
That kind of makes me wonder what your treasure is and how far you would go to get it. Would you go as far as this Green Bay Packers fan? He tailgated and then stayed through the entire 1997 NFC Championship game. Because the temperature was 17 degrees below zero, he acquired frostbite, and three of his toes had to be amputated. His response to all this? He said, “You know what? I got 7 good toes that I can lose—If I can go, I’ll stay the entire game next time.” It evidently was worth it for him to lose toes to be present at a professional football game. That was his treasure. So what’s yours? How far would you go to get it?
Jesus told a couple stories about treasure that I think you’ll find intriguing. You heard them as part of today’s Gospel lesson, but listen again and let our Lord paint the picture for you. He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
As stories go, the plots of these tales are simple enough. Upon further inspection there is an interesting contrast between the two. In the first story, there’s a sense that the man stumbled across the treasure in the field. Nothing in Jesus’ story (or in common sense) suggests this guy was out poking around fields looking for treasure. The treasure, you could say, found him. In the second story, however, you’ve got a merchant actively searching for fine pearls. He was on the hunt, looking for the best. And he found a pearl of great value. And even though one man was looking for treasure and the other one wasn’t, their reaction to finding their treasure is the same. They recognize the worth of what they’ve found, and they sell all they have in order to possess the thing they value most. Although Jesus’ parables lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, certainly one point Jesus means us to “get” in this case is that those who find the kingdom of heaven—the kingdom of God—the kingdom of Jesus Christ—treasure it. It becomes the thing that they value most, whether they were looking for it or not.
That kind of makes me wonder what your treasure is—and how far you would go to get it? Does all the evidence in your life point to the fact that God’s kingdom and His concerns are indeed your greatest treasure? Or does the evidence take you in a different direction?
Let me ask the question a little differently, thanks to our Packer fan. What would you be willing to lose a couple of toes for? A better-paying job? A bigger house in a nicer neighborhood? Would you lose a couple digits for the sake of popularity or power? A better body—or improved health? The chance to meet someone you admire? Would you do without a couple toes if it meant that someone you know would come to faith in Jesus and be saved?
Now that’s a little extreme of course, but you understand my reason for asking is to make sure you recognize what Jesus and His kingdom are worth. Because it’s one thing to know who Jesus is and it’s another to treasure Him. It’s one thing to admire Jesus and it’s another to put all your trust in Him for forgiveness, new life, and salvation. It’s one thing to toss a dollar in the plate as it passes by and it’s another to sell all you have and buy the field; to invest not just your finances but your very self in His kingdom.
You see, Jesus didn’t do what He did on the cross to just make you a better person; He didn’t endure the whip to just give you life pointers; He didn’t let the nails pierce his flesh to make sure you were well off and successful. He did it to prevent you and me from having to endure eternal torment in hell! He did it to save our lives for eternity! He did it so that you can look death right in the eye and say: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that I will see Him” Jesus bought and paid for a full ride to heaven for us with his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. That means there’s no hell for you; no bitter separation from all that is good at the end of your life! Do you see and believe that that’s what Jesus is worth?
In a way, you are the treasure that was found in a field. You are a pearl of great price. Jesus sold all He had to buy you. He gave all He could give to redeem you from sin’s downward spiral. And He did so with joy. He did so with passion. He did so knowing that this is what He had been born to do—to lay down his life for his friends, and take it up again on the third day. All because you are his pearl; his treasure; his creation; his child. What is that worth to you? Amen.