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12/16/18 "Unfailing Joy"

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Philippians 4:4; Advent 3; December 16; 2018

Grace…

Do you ever have to laugh at yourself?  At something silly that you did or thought, or said.  Something silly, just plain silly?  You may not have thought a lot before you did something.  But, you went ahead and did it.  Let me tell you what I mean.

Several years ago, when we lived in the Chicago area, I had an old set of dining room chairs.  These chairs were not in the greatest shape, and the spindles on the bottoms of the chairs would keep falling out every now and then, we would sit down on them.  It led to a lot of problems as you can well imagine.  I tried a lot of things over the years for minor repairs like sanding the spindles down, and using carpenters glue, tried it again, used gorilla glue, listened to the guy at the hardware store, and a few other home remedies.  Nothing seemed to work.

So, one day in my frustration, I decided to just use some super glue.  It’s not made for it, I know.  I poured the super glue on and slammed the spindle into the socket.  But, the problem was that when I did this, the super glue shot out and went directly in my eyes, causing my eyes to be glued shut.  Immediately, I knew I was in trouble.  I called for my wife.  “Take me to the emergency room, I have super glue in my eyes. They are glued shut!”  On the way to the emergency room, thoughts went through my mind like, “Oh no, what if I never see again?” 

When we got to the emergency room, and proceeded to explain what happened, they immediately took me to a room, and started simply running water over irrigating my eyes.  Within a short amount of time, the doctor mentioned, “You’ll be just fine. The super glue has loosened up.”  You’ll be just fine.”    

Have you ever had something like that happen to you?  You want to do something well.  But, you get frustrated and start to complain.  And out of your frustration, you do something completely wrong.  And it backfires.  Sometimes you just have to be able to laugh at yourself and really rejoice in forgiveness, second chances, and mercy.

And in this Advent season we have so much to rejoice about.  As the Philippians text reminds us, “The Lord is at hand.”  The celebration of the birth of the Christ Child is so near. It is “at hand.”  We Christians believe with all of our heart that the birth of the little Child in Bethlehem so many years ago changed everything, right?  Right?

I honestly have to chuckle a little bit every year that the assigned lectionary readings for the 3rd week of Advent call us to “rejoice.”  Way back in Christian church history this 3rd week of Advent is called “Gaudete” in Latin—which means “rejoice!”  It’s usually indicated in other ways in the church too, like even the Advent Wreath with a pink candle, which is lit today to remind us that today is special, so rejoice!

And the point is this.  Sometimes we get all caught up in the hustle and bustle, and frustrations of life that we forget what we really have.  For many people the middle of December is “stressed out” time.  We don’t have this or that done yet?  We worry, we fret, we complain about the struggles of life.  The things that pester us, we lose our joy, and we forget.  Remember this, the Holy Spirit says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice! Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand.”

But, you might say, that’s easy to say when it’s just a chair falling apart, or minor things like that.  How about when we get major changes in life.  When it feels like you’ve literally been punched in the gut?  When it becomes personal.  A visit to the doctor tells us that we have major changes in life to prepare for.  Your boss decided that your branch office is no longer needed, and sad to say, you’re going to need to find a new job.  Your best friend is moving far away and you will miss her.  Those are the breathless, hard moments, where we don’t know what to do, at first.

Well, dear friends, it’s times like this that we are called by God to think about who we are and to whom we belong.  The Word of God reminds us today to rejoice.  And we certainly rejoice about that baby born in Bethlehem who is the Savior of the World.  This little baby named Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary and laid in swaddling clothes, changed the world, and brought God’s love down to earth.  And we rejoice that this same Jesus, will come back on the Last Day to take all who believe in Him to heaven, to be with Him forever, in a place prepared just for us.  This is great news!  This is the Good News for all people!

Beyond this, there is something even more for right now.  Through the Holy Spirit, St. Paul reminds us to rejoice because the Lord is “at hand.”  Paul uses the Greek word ἐγγύς .  It literally means “near and even present.” These words remind us that He is here with us right now.  He is present.  God is saying come with me a little farther.  Follow me a little more.  Hold my hand. I am ready to teach you something more. I am ready to open your eyes and your ears up even more.  Lift up your heads for the King of Glory is here with us right now, so rejoice.  He is with us in His Word.  He is present in our baptism.  You are a child of God.  And He is present in the Lord’s Supper.

Paul is writing to the Philippian people from a jail cell.  But he is writing to people whom God placed together, to grow in faith and love.  At the beginning of the chapter he wrote, “Therefore my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm thus in the Lord my beloved.”  I am convinced that he wrote this letter with a smile on his face as he though back to the people who were part of the church in Philippi.  They were people like Lydia, a woman who sold purple cloth.  And it’s likely that in that congregation was a man who was a one-time jailer who had imprisoned Paul years before.  A man who heard Paul singing praises to God at midnight—who saw a miraculous opening of jail cells.  A man who at one time almost took his own life, but God caused to be saved.  He was a man who asked the question, “What must I do to be saved?”  And Paul said those beautiful words, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved—you and your whole household.” (Acts 16:31)  And as the Bible teaches Paul baptized that jailer and his whole family.

In no less miraculous ways, we have all been brought together.  Each of us has a story too.  You may sometimes think it was no miracle, but God has called us out of darkness to His marvelous light—rejoice together for the Lord is near! 

And when the perils of life come your way, instead of worrying, acting out in anger, present your requests to God with thanksgiving, knowing that He will hear, and He will understand in a way that is best for you.  And let the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your thoughts and minds in Christ Jesus.

There’s an old saying in life, that says, “Keep your chin up!”  And what it means is in all circumstances of life, look at it with hope, and be confident.  In the church, we have the statement, “Lift up your head, for the king of glory is coming.”  People can have all sorts of reasons why to keep their chin up.  But nowhere else than in the church, can you truly know the peace of God, the nearness of Christ, the blessing of the Christian life, and the joy of following Him in a Christian congregation.

Look around…here you have people—a great group of people that God has brought together—people young and old—uniquely called.  I hope that they bring you joy, like they do with me.  They are people loved by God.  Called from places near and far away.  Long time Christians, and new ones alike.  Take joy in them.  In hearing their voices.   In praising God together.  In being in their presence.

In a moment, you are going to hear the hymn, “Joy to the World”.  It was written by Isaac Watts in 1719, to proclaim God’s fulfillment of His promises in Jesus.  Joy to the World, the Lord has come!  Let heaven and nature sing.  That’s you and me too!  God is in charge!  Joy to the world!

This Advent….This Christmas…and always, dear people, let joy be your guard.  Let it protect you from the grumbling and the super glue of life, because the Lord has come.  He is truly here!

God grant it…

12/9/18 "Live Prepared"

“As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, the voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”  Luke 3:4; Advent 2; December 9, 2018

Grace…

“Semper Paratus”!  It is the motto in Latin of the United States Coast Guard.  And it means, “Always Prepared!” Always prepared for whatever lies before them.  The Coast Guard needs to always be prepared in rain or snow, high winds, the heat of the summer, or the icy cold of the winter.  Always prepared to help, assist, and rescue those in danger on the lake or ocean.  Always prepared!  Semper Paratus! Always prepared.

Of course it’s a very difficult task to be always be prepared.  And with the weather, at least in our area, being so difficult to predict, and the people of our area even being more difficult to predict, it’s almost impossible to always be prepared for everything.  The weather is one thing—but how can you always be prepared for people?  Prepared to rescue a fisherman who went out during a storm?  Or prepared for a teen who just wandered out on the half-frozen ice? 

So, my question for you today is, “Are you always prepared?”  You might say, “Well, it all depends—on what?  In this Advent season that we are in, the what is—are you prepared to celebrate once again the birth of Jesus?  Are you prepared right now?  And…in addition, are you prepared for His return”?

Our text for today from the Gospel of Luke takes us to John the Baptist, the man God had sent to prepare the way for Jesus.  This preparation was a long time coming.  Like a master craftsman who spends his waking moments on details in preparation, God was preparing for this time well in advance. 

God had planned to send the Savior of the World, but before He sent Him, He sent a forerunner.  He wasn’t found in a king’s palace in Jerusalem.  He wasn’t found in a fine school at a rabbi’s feet.  No, John came as the text says, “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord make His paths straight”

God could have used any method to prepare the way for Jesus.  But, He chose this rough and tumble prophet, this man who wore camel skins, and ate locusts and wild honey to make the preparation that was needed.  And just what was the preparation?  John came to address our sin, first and foremost.  “You brood of vipers!” he said,” Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.!”

“You brood of vipers!”  Who is he talking to?  Most often when we hear these words we might think—“Well, he can’t be talking about me!”  It’s got to be the Pharisees and the scribes.  They were the ones who were deceptive like a snake, sneaky, and hypocritical.  They were the ones who said one thing and did another.  It can’t be me!  But, if you notice in the text, John is speaking to the crowd.  That is, all people--.  You and me alike. 

If you want to prepare for the Savior, then John is saying, face up to your sin in your life.  Sin is not some cutesy little game, some little child’s play.  Sin is evil in thought, word, and action.  It is the evil that we do, and the things that we leave undone.  And, so often, we want to try to blame it on others.  It’s not my fault we think!  And like the Pharisees and the scribes we, at times, also talk behind other’s backs, undermining them and hoping that they fall. Dear Lord, forgive us!

Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Today, we thank God for the gift of John the Baptist.  He’s the one God sent to warn us to change!  To repent!  As John says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!”  That is, look at your life.  If you are truly sorry, truly repentant, then your life will show the change! 

God wants you to be prepared.  But so often in our lives we let our guard down.  Sin creeps back in very easily into our lives, through the back and side doors, through the foundation, and sometimes right in the front door.  Sin often presents itself as something fun, at first, and before you know it, it engulfs you and even blinds you to the error of your ways.  John takes off the blinders, speaks the truth, and opens our eyes to prepare the way for Jesus. 

And as we repent, Jesus comes.  He comes to bring health and healing.  He comes to bring forgiveness and hope for life.  This Child who came in Bethlehem was also the One who came to take every sin, and every burden to the cross.  To suffer and die and rise again so that we would see the salvation of our God.  He came that we would be prepared at all times and have life to the full.

So often in our lives when we are asked if we are prepared for Christmas, we begin to stress out and worry!  But, we worry about things like trees, and decorations, and clothes, and lights.  And it causes us to lose focus, and become downhearted and downright fearful. 

God instead looks at our hearts. And points us to Jesus.  Right after this lesson John says this, “I baptize you with water, but He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  We have been baptized into Jesus, and are connected to Him in every way, so that there is hope for every situation, and you truly live prepared.

You know, as I was thinking about this lesson today, I began thinking of how God has been preparing each of us, like a Master Crafstman—filing down those rough edges, shaping us for the unique situation that you are in.  You may be in some circumstance in your life that you may think that you are totally unprepared for.  But, God will give you the strength and courage and love that will prepare you for that situation.

Think of John the Baptist, who was shaped by God to prepare the way.  But also think of the people in the crowd who heard his message.  They too were prepared by God for their Savior.  Think also of people like Mary, and Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men. God had been preparing for them long before they ever were put in the situations that made them famous.

But, what about some of the “not so famous people”? What about them?  Because there were, without question, many others that God was preparing who never really became famous. They were moms and dads and children, brothers, and sisters, maybe nieces and nephews and distant relatives of some more famous ones.  God was preparing for them too.  Calling them to repentance and leading them to a relationship with their Savior.  In fact, the book of Ephesians reminds us that before the creation of the world God was preparing the way for each of us to be connected to Jesus.

And God desires to use each of us to prepare the way for Him.  Maybe it’s a friend at work or school; maybe someone in your neighborhood or community, maybe someone in your own home or family, who has some rough patches, and even some crooked ways.  They too are people loved by God.  Sometimes they just need someone who listens to them, cares about them, and invites them to hear about Jesus, and the hope that He brings to all people, so that all people (all flesh) will see the salvation of their God.  Live prepared that God has called you, for such a time as this.

God grant it…

 

12/2/18 "Increasing and Abounding in Love"

“And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you. So that He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  1 Thessalonians 3:12-13; Advent 1; December 2, 2018

Grace…

Advent is a great time of year!  It’s a time of hope, peace, joy, and love!  The Christmas trees are up, (or going up!)  Decorations are going up. (or getting there!)  Cards are getting ready to be written up!  Cookies and celebrations are in the works!  We’re singing the Christmas carols!  And maybe even preparing to go to a concert as well!  Advent is a great time of year, because Christmas is coming, right?

But, so often during this time of year, the busyness of life takes over even more!  And those things we “get to” do, as fun things, like putting up the Christmas trees, and decorations and Christmas cards and cookies sometimes become chores we feel we’ve “got to” do!  And of course with smart phones and Facebook, we see how everybody else across the country has all these things beautifully done with a smile already.  And we want to try to do the same.  But, all that busyness very easily can turn us into grumpy, “bah humbug” people.  We forget the reason for the season.  It’s a challenge! Even in the church, even among Christians.

Well, this morning, I would like for you to clear your mind of this busyness for a while.  Sit back, and rejoice in this Advent season, take a deep breath, relax, and imagine!  Imagine a simpler, less busy time before cell phones and text messages.  Before even landlines and mail that could bring you a letter in a couple of days.  Imagine back to the days of the Apostle Paul, about 50 AD.  If you wanted to find out something about someone else living in a different town, you had to go there yourself or send someone out for you.  It could take days, weeks, or even months before you had to go back.  You just had to wait and wait—and go on with life while you waited.

In our text from 1st Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul had sent out Timothy and had waited for him to come back.  Paul, himself, couldn’t visit the congregation he’d started in the town of Thessalonica.  The Bible says, Satan somehow kept him from that journey.  But, Paul knew the people in that church were suffering from persecution.  They were being pressured to give up their faith.  And Paul wanted to know how they were doing under the circumstances.  So, he sent Timothy to find out. 

Then one day, Timothy came back.  I can just picture that Paul would be so happy to see that Timothy was safe.  Then, he might ask, “So, what’s the news?  What’s happening to the believers in Thessalonica?  Are they still together?  Timothy would have a big smile on his face and say, “Yes!  They’re still together!  They’re standing strong in the faith.  They haven’t given up on Jesus! It’s good Paul! Lots of great news in Thessalonica.

And Paul is so thankful.  You can just see him offering up a prayer of Thanksgiving!  “Yes, Lord, thank you for what You’ve done!  Thank you for keeping these believers in the faith.  Thank you for this joyous news! He simply can’t thank God enough for the good news for the church in Thessalonica.

But, then Timothy fills him in on what else is going on in that church.  Not all is good.  Something is lacking in their faith, in the way they’re living out their lives of faith.  And so Paul gets busy writing a letter back to them.  Right in the middle of the letter, he breaks out in prayer.  He prays that he can come and see them soon.  He prays that these believers will “increase and abound in love.”  He prays that they will be found blameless on the Last Day when Jesus Christ comes back!  But what about that part of the prayer where Paul asks the Thessalonians increase and abound in love?  What was missing in this congregation that Paul would offer up this prayer to God?  “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.” 

While I can’t say all in detail, but right after this prayer Paul encourages the people there to please God more and more by not falling into sexual immorality.  He encourages them to please God by keeping this gift pure.  Then he urges them to love more and more by the way they do their work so that others will respect them.

Now…have you ever wondered what an apostle might say about your congregation today?  Imagine if  what report Timothy would bring back about Trinity Lutheran Church of Muskegon.  Picture Paul saying, “Now Timothy, this time go to that congregation in Muskegon, Michigan and find out about the believers there.”  Time passes.  Timothy visits.  He comes back to Paul.  The greeting is warm, and again there’s the question, “So what did you find out about them?”

Oh, Paul, there’s so much to be thankful for!  Jesus is at work in this congregation.  I was at a worship service, and I heard that they believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit!  You should have heard it Paul!  You should have heard them sing about faith in Jesus.  They rejoiced in what Jesus had done for them.  The day I was there, they heard about Jesus riding into Jerusalem triumphantly on the back of a donkey.  They heard about the cry that went up about Jesus as the King who comes in the name of the Lord.  So many there knew what happened after that palm-waving parade during that final week of Jesus life.  They confessed that He was beaten and crucified for them!  They trust that Jesus rose from the dead and that they have victory in His name.  It was great, Paul!  Jesus is present in that congregation and the people believe in Him.

What’s more, there’s a big cross in their church, with a heart to remember God’s continuing great love for them.  There’s stained glass windows and banners all around to encourage great faith.  During the week children from their school come into the church to hear about Jesus and sing praises to Him.  You’d be pleased Paul!  They also have people who show the love that comes from their faith in Jesus.  Some give food to those who are hungry through a food truck.   Some of their women work so hard in making blankets and clothing for the poor. They have a free community meal for all people some who are really struggling in their community.  They serve to help the poor in a neighboring supper house.  They even reach out to young teens by offering them hospitality, and a cup of hot chocolate on Mondays after school.  They send servant teams to help out the poor in Detroit.  They send mission teams to help the underprivileged in Guatemala.  And they work together each year to tell the true story of Jesus birth in a wonderful way that they call the “Christmas Nativity Walk.”  All because they have faith in Jesus Christ.

And Paul would give thanks!  Yes, Lord, thank You for what You have done!  Thank you for keeping these believers in the faith.  Thank you Lord for this joyous news.  Thank you Lord!  He simply can’t thank God enough for the good news he’s received about the church in Muskegon.

But, then Timothy would tell him that not all is well at Trinity.  Paul you need to know that the people there are still lacking in their faith, and living out their faith.  During the worship service I saw many empty seats.  People are missing out on worshiping Jesus!  They’re getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth in a season they call Advent.  It’s supposed to be a time to reflect on what our Lord came to do when He was born in Bethlehem.  They have extra services.  They have concerts and programs.  What happens though is that people get so busy with other things like decorations, shopping, parties, sports, TV, and video games.  They get caught up in the busyness of life.  It gets so hard for them to catch their breath and spend time with Jesus.

And then Paul would sit down and write us a letter.  And in that letter would be a prayer.  He would pray that our “love would increase and abound more and more for one another and all, so that God may establish our hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

And that prayer about increasing and abounding in love is answered when we focus in on the true meaning of this season.  God sending His Son, Jesus to this earth, out of love for His creation.  Not because He had to, but out of love.  He brings us hope for every moment of life!

“Thank you Lord for the people of Trinity.  Thank you for the faith you have given them!  Thank you that they are holding on to Jesus when so many pressures are trying to pull them away!”  And I pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit, that they would increase and abound in their love, more and more!

God grant it…

11/28/18 "Jesus Comes With Proof"

“The angel answered, “I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”  Luke 1:19-20; Mid Week Advent 1; December 3, 2006

 

 

Doubt…  Who doesn’t have doubt in their lives?  I suspect that it is almost as much a part of human life as needing sleep, getting hungry, or being thirsty.  And yet it is not.  It is not a basic need of life.  At root it is distrust, and even more when connected with faith, it is distrust of God.  For that reason, Martin Luther in a sermon called doubt “a most damnable sin.”

 

Doubt is a part of our sinful flesh that we do not like to own up to, because it is such a part of our life, like worry or fear.  To the point that some of us will brush it off with statements like, “That’s just the way I am.” Or the finger pointing to try to make themselves feel better, “He/She does it too.”  And that is true, so very true.  Remember some of the greats of our faith who doubted God—Abraham, Sarah, Thomas.  You may rank right up there with the best of them.  And yet that doesn’t make it any better.  This is part of  the condition that St. Paul wrote about in Romans 7—“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to god—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

 

So tonight, we study how Jesus comes to those who doubt, bringing the proof of God’s mercy.  And we are given the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Who among us would not feel sympathetic towards this lovely couple.  Even our text designates them as upright and even blameless…a way that the Bible designates people with great faith.  And yet, they were without the one thing they so desperately wanted.  They wanted a child.  They had prayed for years and years and yet no child.  Why?  What had they done wrong?  Please!  You can just hear those prayers—“Please, I beg you, Lord!  Give us a child!  And yet nothing happened.

 

And the years went on, and on, and on! And they passed by, past the time that Elizabeth could even have children.  Now it was no longer physically possible…they thought.  Now it was over.  They would go on with their life.  They would serve the Lord, but there was always something missing, and the question was still there in the back of their minds.  For these past 25 years, “Did God really hear our prayers?” (Oh yes, yes indeed, Elizabeth and Zechariah.)

 

Then came the time that Zechariah was called upon to fulfill and obligation of his birth.  He was given the special right of serving at the altar of incense in the Holy Place of the Temple.  This was, indeed, a special privilege that happened only a few times in a person’s life.  As a matter of fact, some Bible scholars suggest that this may have happened only once in a person’s life.  What a privilege God has given Zechariah, to be able to serve in His glorious temple in Jerusalem.

There in Jerusalem, Zechariah would go to that glorious Temple, which is God’s house to serve in this once in a lifetime way.  He would be allowed to go into the Holy Place, while the people waited outside.  He would light the incense on fire and the smoke would go up to God as a pleasing aroma.  He would pray for the people outside.  He would pray for the nation of Israel, for the sake of the people, for homes and families, for the sick and the bereaved, much like we would today.  He would pray prayers of thanksgiving, and probably prayers for his own life as well.

 

And then the unthinkable happened.  There on the right side of the altar was an angel. Fear struck Zechariah.  First of all, Zechariah was supposed to be alone…alone with his feelings…alone with God.  And second this being, this angel was different.  Something about him identified him as an angel.  And third, He seemed so intent on speaking to him.  He gazed at Zechariah.  What would this angel want with him?  Zechariah, this guy from the hill country.  Little, insignificant Zechariah? 

 

Do not be afraid Zechariah your prayer has been heard. Wow, he knows my name! He probably thought.  What prayer?  I just said many prayers.  Was it the one that I just asked about my dear Elizabeth?  “Your wife, Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.”  What did you say?  It can’t be…Physically impossible!  Yet, tell me about that child.  “He will be a delight, many will rejoice because of this birth. He will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah---to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Yeah right!  Sounds good.  But how can I be sure of this?

I want proof!  I’ve been waiting all of these years…I am an old man…give me some proof.  Oh, proof you want Zechariah.  Okay. 

 

Well, here we go!  The angel said, perhaps with a glare in his eyes, “I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God.”  Now these are very significant words to a devout believer like Zechariah.  Gabriel, the angel mentioned in the prophet Daniel.  Gabriel the angel who explained to Daniel the great mysteries of God.  Gabriel, the mighty one, who stands in the presence of God was now speaking to him.  But, no longer was he speaking calmly, or joyfully.  He spoke with righteous anger because Zechariah had doubted and not believed. “And now Zechariah, you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens.”

 

So for nine months Zechariah struggled with his doubts.  Perhaps you, dear people of God can understand.  Do you struggle with your doubts as well?  Maybe they are doubts like Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Does God really hear my prayers.  I have been praying these prayers so long.  Does he really listen?  Does He care? I have been stuck with this problem, this difficulty, for so long.

 

Two years ago when our mission team went down to Guatemala for the first time, one Guatemalan teenager put it this way…”I struggle with the doubt whether Christianity is really worth it.”  This was a young man who experienced crime and poverty in ways that we could never really imagine.  He saw that those who were in gangs, and in a life of crime were becoming rich.  And he wondered.  Perhaps we wonder too.

 

In the book of Romans, St. Paul writes, “Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!  Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been His counselor?”   For nine months Zechariah waited and he watched.  He watched as Elizabeth became pregnant.  He watched as the baby inside of her grew.  And as he watched his doubts were dispelled.

Just imagine when that child was born and they wondered what to name that child.  How confident that once silent voice of Zechariah was—“His name is John.”

 

John, which means “Gift of the Lord.” He was that for sure.  This child was the forerunner of the Lord, Himself.  His job was to point people to Jesus, the Savior of the World.  As we wait and watch and study.  Out doubts are also dispelled.

 

Although the inclination to doubt will always be there in this life.  Jesus comes to help us overcome.  A wise person once said about the Christian faith, “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs.”  I like that, because God has this way of always proving this faith.  Zechariah learned this.  So did the apostle Paul who said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

11/21/18 "Consider What God Has Done!"

“Only fear the Lord and serve Him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things He has done for you.”  1 Samuel 12:24; Thanksgiving Eve; November 21, 2018

Grace…

Life goes by so quickly!  It’s hard to believe how fast the year has gone, and now we are here celebrating Thanksgiving once again.  In the blink of an eye, a year has gone by and we are here.

Of course, it’s really not quite that simple, right?  There is the day in, day out, kind of routine that we are all in.  Whether you are a child, a student, an adult who does the daily routine that is called “work”, or if you are a senior citizen and you are retired, we all have a routine.  It involves the every day duties, where there are many joys, and also many challenges and sorrows. 

And, in all of those routines, have you ever“ considered” how God has taken care of you this past year? Have you considered how He has provided for you daily?  How He has taken care of your family?  How He has provided for our community, city, state, nation, and world?  Though we have failed, time and time again, God has been faithful, so very faithful in all of our lives.

Consider…It’s what Samuel called for the Children of Israel to do—more fully, to “Consider what great things God had done for them.” The Hebrew word that is translated as “Consider”, (וּא֔ר  re u) is translated also as “Look, See, Mark; or even Behold.”  In all of those translations, it is used to try to get an individual or group to stop and pause, to reflect on an item or a statement for some time, to try to grasp how truly great something may be.

In our text for today, Samuel was now coming to the end of his life.  He had served the Lord as the leader or “judge” for quite some time.  He followed in line after Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and Sampson.  Some of the judges we know a lot, like Moses and Joshua.  But others we know very little, names included in the book of Judges, like Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar.  As judge over Israel, it was Samuel’s job to listen to what God had to say, and let God be the ruler over all things.

But, the people of Israel were not content with this.  They saw how the other nations of the world had kings.  Kings who had palaces.  Kings who had servants.  Kings who declared war on other nations.  Kings who were successful.  And they wanted to have a king too!  They weren’t content with a judge like Samuel.  And they weren’t content with the Lord being in charge.  They wanted to be like all of the other nations of the world! They wanted a king!

So, the Lord through Samuel relented.  He gave them what they wanted.  He gave them Saul, to be their first king.  Samuel warned them that they would have troubles if they had a king.  But, he also told them to “Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart.”

Consider what great things God had done for the Children of Israel.  He gathered them out of slavery in Egypt.  He brought them through the Red Sea and defeated Pharaoh and his mighty army.  He cared for them for forty years in the wilderness, showering them with manna every day and springs of water in the desert.  He defeated mighty nations before them and gave them the Promised Land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey.  And He cared for them each and every day, giving them food, drink, clothing, and shoes, house, and home, and protection from all their enemies of body and soul.  Each and every day….Day in and day out, God cared for them!

And still they forgot.  They abused God’s goodness to them.  They took Him for granted.  They wasted His precious blessings, and instead made detestable idols for themselves.  They fought and argued amongst themselves, and they desired what the rest of the world had, instead of rejoicing over the far greater blessings that God had given to them!

And yet…God still loved them each and every day.  He showered them with blessings, again and again and again.  Even though they fell into sin time and time again, He lifted them up.  He protected them from their enemies of body and soul, and promised them eternal life forever with Him.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, does this sound familiar at all to you?  Have you found yourself being grumpy and downhearted about your situation in life?  Have you found yourself to be critical of others and argumentative?  Have you been worried, and afraid about the conditions of our world?  If it wouldn’t be for special days like this, would you truly remember to be thankful to God?  Well then, Samuel’s message to Israel is a message for you too! For consider what great things God has done for you!

He has sent His precious Son, Jesus, to this earth to rescue you from the slavery of sin.  He has defeated Satan’s powerful armies through the cross and resurrection.  He has cared for you each and every day, showering you with food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, and home, spouse and children—things we call “daily bread”.  He protects you daily from all of your enemies of body and soul, and He assures you that He has prepared a place for you in heaven where there is no more sorrow, or tears, sickness, or death!  Consider what great things God has done for you!

I understand…it’s so hard to put it into words.  It’s hard to fathom all that God does for us.  It goes way beyond the things that are obvious.  God is working intensely for us each and every moment of every day, even using the challenging and difficult circumstances of our lives for our good.  That is why this word, “Consider” is so good for us today.  “Behold!  Look! And See what great things God has done for you!”

Because of sin, and the effects of sin, the natural tendency of human beings is to “curve inward on ourselves.”  (Like this metal spoon)  That means, by our sinful nature, we think when things are good “Look what I have done for myself!  I can do this and this and this myself!  And when things are bad, “Oh, woe is me!  How dreadful!  What will I ever do?”

That is why God’s Word is so important!  It bends us outward again!  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, it causes us to reflect the Light that comes from Jesus Christ.  It straightens us up and turns us outward.  Listen again to what Jesus has to say, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?...And consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these…  But, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”

God’s Word is the perfect remedy for us.  It points out our sin and gives us examples of how others have struggled in the past.  But, it doesn’t leave us there!  It turns us to Jesus Christ.  He gives us eyes to see and ears to really hear.  He gives us a new perspective on life.  A life where we consider how very blessed we are, how cared for we are, and how dearly loved we are. 

This causes us to join with the Apostle Paul to say, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again.  Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.”

So today (tonight) “Consider the great things God has done!”  Rejoice in them!  And reflect His light into this world.

God grant it…

11/18/18 "Here He Comes!"

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”  Daniel 12:2-3; Pentecost 26; 2nd last Sunday in the Church Year; November 18, 2018

Grace…

It was a day like no other.  There was just a very strange feeling to it.  Anyone who was alive at that time and old enough to remember it will never forget it.  And every now and then I think about the things people said, and the looks on people’s faces.

The day, of course, was September 11, 2001.  Two planes loaded with American civilians, but hijacked by Muslim extremists, slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City, and the Pentagon in Washington DC, killing over 3,000 people, and setting off emotion and fear throughout the rest of the United States. 

While there were many emotions that were going on throughout the day in a range from sorrow to revenge, the one that is etched in my mind is the one of fear.  It came especially from a man who stood at the doorway to my office and just looked in.  The look on his face had fear written all over it.  He said to me, “I know you don’t know me.  I live down the street.  I don’t go to your church.  But, I walk by it all the time.  But, can you tell me, something?  Is this the end of the world?”  Is it the end of the world?

Of course, I wasn’t able to fully answer him.  I looked at him for quite a while and explained to him, that the answer to his question is a mystery only known by God the Father, but there are signs that are surely present.   Jesus predicted that there would be wars and rumors of wars, and they are here.  Nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  But, the Bible also says, “These are but the beginning of the birth pains.”  So, the answer is, “Maybe.”  But, we will leave this question completely where it should be—in the hands of God.

Could it be?  Is this the day when Jesus will return?  Could today be the day?  God’s people have always been taught to be alert.  Because any day could be that day.  But, for a believer, the day of Jesus return is a day not to be feared and dreaded.  This is a day in which all of the promises of God are finally fulfilled.  Yes, before that day, there will be great trials and tribulation.  It’s a day that we knew was coming, and it’s a day which almost everyone in this world knows in the back of their mind is coming too.  The difference is how we prepare for it. Do we prepare in fear of the world? Or do we prepare through faith in God?

Our text for today is from the book of Daniel.  The book of Daniel is a book about struggles, and battles, and war.  The prophet Daniel arises at a time when God’s people were taken off into exile in Babylon about 586 BC, and were taken about a thousand miles from home.  The first six chapters of the book are the history of God’s people as they were taken and lived in Babylon.  Daniel became an advisor to King Nebuchadnezzar by interpreting the king’s dream.  His friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were cast into a fiery furnace for not bowing down to an idol. He, himself, was thrown into a den of lions for continuing to pray to the true God.    But the true God, the triune God, the Ancient of Days, was with His people as they fought their battles against the old evil foe and the world around them.  These men were heroes of the faith, bright shining stars for the Lord!

The second six chapters of the book of Daniel describe more battles that God and His people would fight.  These chapters are prophecy for the future.  Most of Daniel’s prophecies are in symbolic, picture language—sometimes known as apocalyptic.   We see many of the same pictures in the Book of Revelation: strange creatures, symbolic numbers, battles between spiritual forces in heaven and on earth.

Therefore, the book of Daniel is divided up into two distinct sections:  one is historical, and the other is prophetic.  Some of the prophecies had immediate fulfillments in the decade and centuries that followed Daniel, while there were also prophecies that had an even greater fulfillment in Jesus.  This is the case before us in our text, looking ahead to when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.  Today we look at the last battle in the Book of Daniel.

Daniel says, “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time.”  He’s describing a time that will take place just before the last judgment.  It’s a struggle for believers in God, living in a world ruined by sin.  It’s a world that hates God’s message and hates God’s messengers.  The people of God also struggle as they wrestle with temptations and with the weakness of their own sinful flesh.  We speak of this time in between Jesus first coming and His second coming as the “end times”.  And guess what, we are in them right now! Do you know the struggle?  The struggles of dealing with temptation and weakness?  And still Jesus is ruling, in all authority!

Everything before Jesus first coming was preparation.  The Law, the sacrifices, the ceremonies and festivals.  Jesus came and fulfilled the law and all of the promises of God for us.  He died completely for our sins and rose again so that we would have the forgiveness of sins and hope for every situation in life.  He promised that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. 

And now, things are being brought to a close for the final fulfillment.  It’s coming! It’s closer than ever before-- the deliverance of believers in Jesus as He is coming again to take us to be with Him where He is.   There, we will live with Him, in pure joy, forever and ever.

It’s true--every generation thinks it’s going to be the last generation, because every generation thinks society can’t get any world than it already is.  And yet the world seems to continue to get farther and farther away from Christ and His Word.  When we look at the news on TV, or the internet, or our newspapers, we wonder, “Where has the love for God gone?  Where is the concern for our neighbors?” We are pilgrims in an unwelcoming and unholy land.

So, how can we get through this mess called life, in these troubled times? God gives Daniel the answer—an answer that was as good back then as it is now.  God gives us a promise of deliverance.  “At that time”, He says, “shall arise, Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.”  Michael is the only archangel mentioned in the Bible.  Gabriel is the messenger angel, but Michael is the general of God’s army of angels, which protects God’s people from the forces of evil.  Michael serves as God’s special agent to keep to His people from the devil’s plans and purposes.  The Lord, our Immanuel, (God with us!) remains present with His people.  He is here to save us!  God promises that there will be a time of final and ultimate deliverance!

“But at that time (Daniel says) your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”  Daniel is seeing the final deliverance on the Last Day, which St. Paul described with these words, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first…”  At the last trumpet call, in the blink of an eye, God’s angels will gather up all His people.  No one will be left behind.  It’s a breathtaking picture that God gives.  Here comes Jesus down out of the clouds with the archangel shouting the command for all to appear before Jesus.  At His call, the graves give up their dead, and body and soul will be reunited.

Then the judgment will begin.  All will be gathered before the throne, both believers and unbelievers.  On that throne will be Jesus, our Savior.  He was given that position by His Father, as the Redeemer of all the world, who gave His life on the cross for all people, all those gathered before Him that day.  Those who do not believe in Him, who reject Him as their Lord and Savior will awake to shame and everlasting contempt—which is hell, where there will be eternal suffering and pain with no joy, only sorrow.

But, whoever believes in Him will be saved!  Where He is there they will also be with Him forever, where there will be no more suffering, pain, tears, or death.  Daniel says of them, “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above, and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” There we will shine like the brightness of the heavens and sing God’s praises with the angels!  This is the source of courage we all need to face the trials and the struggles of life!

Jesus will come again in glory!  The first time He came to us in humility, laid in a manger, walked the paths of Galilee, and was nailed to a cross.  He comes to us today, in the preaching of His Word, in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, bringing us forgiveness, courage, and love.  But, He will come again in glory, just as He promised, and He will keep us and protect us to the end!  Today, God’s Word gives us good news, a wake up call, a head’s up!  A day to prepare and look for His coming!  (And we say)  “Amen, Come Lord Jesus come!”

11/4/18 "Good News We Need"

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Matthew 5:11-12; All Saints Sunday; November 4, 2018

Grace…

Most of you have probably heard of the Tour de France, the most famous and one of the longest bicycle races in the world.  It covers over 2,082 miles in 21 stages.  Several years ago, I read a story about an interesting and unique bicycle race in India.  The object of this race was to go the shortest distance possible within a specific time.  At the start of the race, everyone lined up at the line and when the gun sounded all of the bicycles, as best they could, stayed put.  Your feet had to be up of course…Racers were disqualified if they tipped over or one of their feet touched the ground.  And so they would inch forward, very slowly just enough to keep the bike balanced.  When the time was up and another gun sounded, the person who had gone the farthest was the loser and the person closest to the starting line was the winner.

Imagine getting into that race and not understanding how the race really works.  When the race starts, you pedal as hard and as fast as you possibly can.  You’re out of breath.  You’re sweating.  You’re delighted because the other racers are way back there at the starting line.  You think this is fantastic. 

At last you hear the gun that ends the race, and you are delighted, because you think that you are the winner.  Except you are without a doubt the loser because you misunderstood how the race is run.  The rules seemed upside down.

In our text for today, from the Gospel of Matthew, often known as the Beatitudes, it seems like the things Jesus values are upside down too.  Everything seems to run against the grain of what is normal in our world.  Unless you have read this lesson from Matthew before, it seems like everything is the opposite of what is expected in life. Maybe even if you’ve studied it before.

I mean, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted? “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth?” Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy?” Who, among us naturally wants to mourn, be meek, and be merciful? By nature, we want to be the opposite!  But, this is exactly where God’s powerful Word gently takes hold of us, changes us, leads us, and helps us to have a new perspective on our lives.  Jesus wants to see the big picture!  He wants us to see things as He truly sees them! 

Our text in Matthew chapter 5, is really the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  Just prior to this lesson, Jesus had called His first disciples, and was healing many people.  The crowds were gathering around Him from all over the area, Galilee, Syria, the Decapolis, and Jerusalem, and they were bringing their sick and troubled to Him, those who were paralyzed, those who had epilepsy, and those who were possessed with demons.  And Jesus healed them.

And then as the text tells us, Jesus went up on the mountain and began to teach them.  I would suggest to you that in His teaching, He was also bringing healing to them.  For just as troubled as they were with various physical diseases, the people were also troubled with their spiritual perspectives on life. Their natural sinful nature had taken hold of them and it was wreaking havoc into their life. These were real people with real life problems, like you and me.  And they needed a change in perspective!

Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.  You’re a real person with real life problems too.  And life is often so complicated!  There are all kinds of temptations to sin, to grumble, complain, and fight.  It’s a mixed-up world with so many emotions.  People fly off of the handle and argue with each other at the drop of the hat--Even life-long friends, even family members, even, sad to say, within the church.  It’s very easy to get caught up in this antagonism too.  But, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  Have you ever tried to make peace between two people or groups of people?  It’s hard work.  And sometimes some of the people get mad at you, even though you’re simply trying to bring peace.   But, Jesus understands, and He calls you peacemakers “sons (daughters) of God”.  He understands!

For Jesus is the one who came to bring peace between God and man, heaven and earth.  People had turned their back on God and had gone their own way.  But, Jesus kept searching for them.  The woman at the well, the man with many demons, Zacchaeus, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and really all people, including you and me, had gone their own way away from God.  The words of the prophet Isaiah are so true, “We all like sheep have gone astray…”(Is. 53:6) But, Jesus came for all of us.  He lived these beatitudes.  These are His values.  He was the One who was meek.  He was the One who hungered and thirsted for righteousness.  He was the One who was merciful and pure in heart.  He was the One who was the peacemaker.  He was the One who was persecuted for righteousness sake…for your sake, so that you would have peace with God.  He suffered and died for your sake and mine.  And on the third day, He rose again so that everyone who believe in Him would have eternal salvation in heaven forever!  This is Good News We Need to Hear!

Today, Jesus calls us again to “Come, follow” Him.  As followers and believers in Him, He calls us to have a new perspective in life.  Although sin, death, and the devil have been defeated, they still try to raise up their ugly heads.  The devil tries to twist, distort, and skew our perspective, so that quite often it seems like the proud, the arrogant, and the warlike win out. 

But, Jesus says the opposite is really true!  God’s will, will win out in the end!  The meek (the humble) (Jesus says) they will inherit the earth.  The merciful will receive mercy.  The peacemakers will be called sons (and daughters) of God.   In fact, Jesus even goes a step further saying, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kind of evil against you on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven!”  Jesus says there is a great reward that is waiting for us, and that’s Good News We Need to hear today!

Today is All Saints Sunday.  It’s a day to remember those people who have gone before us in faith. They went through many hardships and persecutions in life, but they trusted in God.  They overcame and are receiving their reward in heaven.   They are people like the heroes of the Bible, Peter and John and Mary who trusted in God even though they were mocked and reviled.  They are also people like many of your relatives, your ancestors, who believed in Jesus and overcame.  The Holy Spirit kept them firm in the faith, and today we praise God for them!

We also remember those who are being greatly persecuted today.  Especially in other parts of the world like Syria, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea where Christians are routinely persecuted in a variety of ways. Recent estimates show that over 200 M Christians worldwide are experiencing high levels of persecution.  We pray that these saints hold firm in the faith and remember the Good News from Jesus who promises a great reward in heaven for them.

And also today, we remember each of us, going through life right now.  And life is often so hard.  Some of us are mourning, some of us are facing mockery from other people.  And although the persecution is not outright and physical like it is in other parts of the world, it is still there.  Satan and the pressures of this world make life very difficult for the followers of Jesus.  But, remember, by faith through the power of your baptism, you are a saint in God’s eyes.  You are blessed by God, and He will provide for you!  Jesus gives you His perspective.  And today we remember that God is preparing a great reward for you in heaven.  This is Good News we need to hear!

God grant it…

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