17th Sunday after Pentecost

17th Sunday after Pentecost (B)
September 16, 2018
Isaiah 50:9a
“Who are you?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is ½ of 1 verse taken from our First Lesson for this day, specifically from Isaiah 50:9a – “Behold, The Lord God helps me.”

This is our text. Dear fellow redeemed brothers and sisters in Christ,

So by now you know I wasn’t here last weekend. I went to Nebraska to attend the Nebraska vs. Colorado football game on Saturday afternoon. While in Lincoln I stayed with my mom and I noticed an interesting dynamic on Saturday morning. I was playing 3 different roles: son to my mother, brother to my brother Mike, and friend to my best friend Ross who had flown in for the game. Then, at the stadium, I played the role of “fan.” That’s 4 roles all before 3 PM. Crazy, right?
Every day we all have a role or roles to play each day: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, husband, wife, child, student, friend, employer, employee, cook, mechanic, maid, volunteer, and so on. With all the different things that we are asked and required to do on a regular basis, does it sometimes get confusing? Can you sometimes lose focus on your role and its expectations? Who are you? I mean, who are you really? I don’t mean what name is on your Florida driver’s license or in an existential “gaze-in-your-bellybutton” way. Take away the titles. Take away the different roles. Strip away everything and at your barest essence, who are you? That being said, the point I want you to know is this…YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE IN THE LORD GOD WHO HELPS YOU!
Well, that’s all fine and good but who is the Lord God? I mean, if this Lord is our helper, who is he? Who exactly is it that we hope in and helps us? That answer may seem like a no brainer. We’re in church, you’re the pastor. You should know this. Sure, it’s the answer to every Sunday School question…Jesus! But in THIS day and age…well, let’s not assume anything. There is such a radical misunderstanding of who Jesus is – who the Lord God our helper is. So the question in this age is a tragically valid one…who is Jesus and how does He help me?
Who is Jesus? How much time do we have? If you want to know Jesus, I mean REALLY know Jesus, then Mark 8:31 is a key verse: “(Jesus) then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected…and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” That’s Jesus. Son of God and Son of Man. He is the one who came to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and after three days rise again for the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation. That’s who the Lord God who is your helper. There is a simple yet powerful word in Greek that Jesus used a lot when talking about His purpose: , which is usually translated “must” but it really means “it is divinely necessary.” It was absolutely necessary for Jesus to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and then rise again to free us from the punishment for being our sinful selves. His suffering, death, and resurrection define Him, and it also defines us as his disciples.
Because he is your helper, because you are his follower, because you are his disciple, Jesus goes on in Mark 8 to explain who YOU are; who you ought to be and what you are called to do: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). You are who you are in Christ, the Lord God, and those in Christ deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow the Lord God.
If you know anything about Martin Luther, you know his Catechism question “what does that mean.” So…what DOES this mean to deny ourselves, take up a cross, and follow him? To deny ourselves means that you no longer make the rules, and that doesn’t sit well with our sinful nature. Sinful yourself tells you to skip church and Bible Study because there are better things to do. Sinful yourself tells you to leave the ministry and mission of our church and school to someone else. The sinful self tells you to let someone else take care of all our property, let someone fix all those buildings, let someone else worry about paying those bills.
Jesus says that if He is your helper and you follow Him, then you DENY yourself and listen to him instead. When we deny ourselves, that means Jesus makes the rules from now on.
Our Lord God also says that we are to take up our cross and follow him. The great ministry constant I’ve learned over 15 years is that “everyone has something.” You all have a cross to bear. Some of them are “heavier” than others. Some have their fair share of splinters. Some seem too bulky to manage on your own. Whether that cross is a cross of financial woes or health care issues or pain or addiction or depression or grief or loneliness or family situations, we too pick up that cross and follow him knowing that the Lord God helps us. When that cross is too heavy for you, Jesus picks up the heavy end and helps you along the road of life.
To be faithful, following Christians is not about being a “big” church. It’s not about being a “fun” church. It’s not about being an overly influential church. It’s all about Jesus. It’s about following our helper: denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following him. It’s being able to cry out with confidence, “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!”
The Christian existence is about a life of necessity. The necessity of faith, the necessity of forgiveness. The necessity of love. As a result, ; it is absolutely necessary for us to love others, because we have been loved first. ; it is absolutely necessary for us to share the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus. ; it is absolutely necessary for us to teach others – to teach our children…of who they are as the baptized and redeemed people of God and what that means for them in this life. ; it is absolutely necessary for us to stand up for the truth of the scriptures in a world that no longer wants to acknowledge the inconvenient truth of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Who are you? You are who you are in Christ. Who is Christ? He is Jesus, the Lord God who has come to seek and save the lost like you and I. Friends, let’s live like we know it and allow others see how much it helps us. Lord, our helper, we believe. Help our unbelief. May the Lord God truly help us to do so each and every day, and it’s good to be home.
Amen.

15th Sunday after Pentecost

15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 2, 2018
Mark 7:14-23
“God Makes Gross Good”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, our great Triune God. The basis for the sermon today is our assigned Gospel lesson from Mark 7 as previously read.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

After last week’s dessert auction, the last thing I need is more calories. That being said, have you ever heard of Jelly Belly jelly beans? Originally heralded as a “gourmet” jelly beans, you can now buy them just about anywhere and they are SO GOOD! What makes them so appealing is the unique and amazing flavors: buttered popcorn, cotton candy, bubble gum, chocolate pudding, and toasted marshmallow just a name a few. There is even a Dr. Pepper flavored jelly bean…right on!
However, make sure you check that packaging before you buy them! Jelly Belly also markets a product called “Bertie Bott’s Beans;” apparently is a candy-making wizard in the Harry Potter franchise and he must not be very good I suppose. I say be careful because the Bertie Bott’s Beans look the same as Jelly Belly jelly beans, but the flavors are…uhm…much different. Grass. Earwax. Dog food. Dead fish. Dirt. Dirt? Really. Yes, dirt flavored jelly beans. Gross. Those are just a few of the nasty Bertie Bott’s jelly beans; some flavors are too gross to mention in church.
In our Gospel lesson, the Pharisees and Jesus are at odds about gross and not gross, but not regarding jelly beans. The issue is dietary purity. Today’s Gospel lesson continues last week’s Gospel lesson in which the Pharisees – the preeminent Jewish religious sect that tried to impose their vision of morality and obedience to the Law on Israel’s people – had just finished rebuking Jesus because His disciples ate with “dirty” hands (7:2). By dirty I mean they were ceremonially unclean and not ritually pure according to the Pharisees’ legalistic guidelines. The Israelites had LOADS of rules like this to follow mandated upon from the Old Testament and then rigorously enforced by the Pharisees like no meat with blood in it (Gen. 9:4), no young goat meat boiled in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21), and they had to ritually wash their hands, cups, bowls, and vessels (Mark 7:3-4) or they would be “gross” in the eyes of God.
Now, don’t kid yourself. The Pharisees were not that concerned about the purity issue itself. To them the bigger issue was Jesus; to the Pharisees, Jesus was religiously incorrect – His doctrine in their eyes was gross and dirty. This was a clear attempt to publically shame Jesus and Jesus knew this…of course. So He addresses the real issue; He literally gets to the heart of the matter which is the matter of the heart: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him?…What comes out of a person is what defiles him.” The, to the disciples, Jesus explained, “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:18-23 ESV). Jesus is right. What comes OUT of a person – out of our gross, sinful human hearts – is what pollutes us; what makes us gross and dirty in God’s eyes.
Consider Jesus’ list again. Evil thoughts – you’ve never had an evil thought about an obnoxious co-worker or noisy neighbor or rebellious child? Sexual immorality – you’ve never looked at a member of the opposite sex with lust in your eye or desire in your heart? Theft – you’ve never taken something that didn’t belong to you be it an item or credit for an idea? Coveting – you’ve never wanted something that belonged to another? Slander – you’ve never spoken a harsh regarding a neighbor, your significant other, a fellow believer, maybe even your pastor? Foolishness – you’ve always had a sound, clean mind never given over to drunken thoughtlessness? Bologna. You’ve done it…and I’ve done it too. And if we have stumbled in sinful guiltiness once – just once – we are guilty of breaking the entire Law of God (James 2:10) for which we deserve death (Romans 6:23). What an absolutely gross cesspool the sinful human heart can be. How ironic that the heart gives and provides human life, but also betrays us in sinful thoughts, words, and deeds fir which we deserve death! How ironic is that?
But how much more glorious and wonderful is God’s grace toward us! God makes your gross good, that is, even with our sinfulness and guilt and shame, He forgives us because of Christ Jesus. We have a Savior willing to disgustingly hang bleeding and dying on a cross – abused in every way – so that we might be cleansed of the grossness of our sin. You have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb given and shed for you. Cleansed through the life-giving, soul-sustaining waters of Baptism. Cleansed by God’s precious Word of absolution: sinner, as gross as you are, you’re forgiven.
God’s grace is NOT a license to more gross behavior. The Christian life isn’t a set of do and don’t rules, but it’s different lifestyle. It is having a faith not about clean hands and pots, but a changed heart. It is living and loving God with all your heart and soul and strength. It is loving and caring for your neighbor as yourself. The changed heart isn’t so concerned with food choices as it is extending mercy to another hurting soul. The changed heart doesn’t worry as much about whether your cup or pot is ceremonially clean as it does witnessing to eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus alone. The changed heart is less concerned about defiled hands and more concerned with busy hands that shape a shared life together in and through Christ. The Pharisees didn’t get that and that kept them from seeing who He really was and is.
Friends, I get it. I know there are times when you feel like the world is handing you nothing but gross, dirt-flavored jelly beans: constant unrest and shootings like we had in Jacksonville, family issues, money concerns, the pain and loneliness and anxiety, your health, your co-workers, and those around you who make life tough. But God has taken the dirt and impurity – the sin – and cleansed us making us forgiven…redeemed…your gross is good…through the blood of Christ and uses your life events for good. We have been blessed in order that we can be a blessing to and for others.
If you open a box of Bertie Bott’s Beans and you get “booger” flavor, I can’t help you; there’s a lot of gross in there. Instead, when life gets tough and uncertain, don’t open a box of candy. Open your Bibles and hearts and eyes and ears to God’s holy Word and know that God makes all your gross so very good, just like a Dr. Pepper flavored jelly bean.
Amen.

14th Sunday after Pentecost

14th Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018
“Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked”; Questions about doctrine/theology

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we finish this sermon series called “Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked.” Today I will try and answer your submitted questions about Christian doctrine and theology.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
And so, here we are. 23 questions answered. 7 more to go, but I only have time for 5. No better time than the present to get started.
“I love and trust in God too much to ‘fear’ him? Why do we ‘fear’ God who loves us so much?” The 1st Commandment is “You shall have no other Gods” and Luther’s explanation says we should “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” How can I love what I fear? It depends on what you mean by the word “fear.” There is a healthy way to fear God. To take God seriously as our Creator and Judge and someone who will punish those who disobey and/or disbelieve, then that’s true “fear” of God because God CAN be a threat as such. But that’s not what most references in the Bible mean. In most cases, “fear” of God means “to stand in awe of,” “to honor,” and “to revere.” Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” To “fear” God is to truly stand in holy reverence and awe and thankfulness for all He has done to create, sustain, and save us from sin, death, and the devil and that amazement before God is the beginning of wisdom.
Okay, next question. “When I was a kid we had communion once or twice a month. In my friend’s church they have communion only on Easter. Can you explain this or the reason?” Sure…be happy to. In Acts 2:42 we learn that “(the believers) were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.” At the time of the Reformation, Lutherans continued the universal practice of the Church since Biblical times of celebrating the Sacrament at least every Sunday and holy day. Article 24 of the Augsburg Confession says, “because (worship) is for the purpose of giving the Sacrament, we have Communion every holy day.” Many congregations and church bodies today, though, celebrate the Lord’s Supper only a couple of times per month, or maybe just a few times per year. So what happened to cause infrequent Communion celebrations? Rationalism happened…Piety happened.
In the 18th century, Rationalism changed the whole landscape and life of the Church. Churches were made into lecture halls and the altar dwindled into insignificance and, in many cases, was removed. From the hymns all distinctively Christian thought was removed, and simple, repetitive rhymes were added in their place. Sermons became long-winded moral expositions about loving neighbor and not so much about loving God. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were robbed of their meaning and private Confession was totally abolished. Most Reformed, non-Lutheran churches still reflect those radical changes. The frequency with which a congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper indicates how important it is in their lives. Theologian Herman Sasse wrote, “Worship without the Lord’s Supper is hearing about redemption without participating in it.” At Good Shepherd we offer Lord’s Supper every Holy Day. Congregations that celebrate 1-2 a year clearly indicate a complete misunderstanding of the Sacrament, its historical practice, and its benefit in the life of believers.
“(I have seen) incense used at weddings and funerals in the Catholic Church. Do we?” Incense has been employed in worship by Christians since antiquity, particularly in the Eastern churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and some Anglican churches. It has been and can still be found in the occasional Lutheran Church. It started as a helpful practice. Burning animals on the altar smelled bad and burning incense helped mask the odor. The smoke of burning incense is a symbol of the prayer of the faithful rising to heaven: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you” (Ps 141:2). A thurible is used to contain incense as it’s burned. Whenever the thurible is swung to incense people or objects, it is always done in groups of three swings. The burning of incense may be used in worship at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, at certain celebrations, at funerals, and especially at the consecration of a church or altar. In many old and orthodox churches, incense is used frequently. In Lutheran circles its usage has diminished so much that to use it in worship today would alarm and confuse most worshippers.
Now, the final 2 questions: “What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?” and “What (does) the church think about gay marriage and what if (the pastor were) asked to (preside at one)?” Oh…look at the time. Maybe we’ll stop there for today. Just kidding.
Okay. What does the Bible say? Well, to list a few:
• “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. … Do not defile yourselves by any of these things” (Lev. 18:22,24).
• “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination…” (Lev. 20:13).
• “Women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Rom. 1:26-27).
• “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners…immoral persons, sodomites…and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:9-10).
Through His Word, God teaches us very clearly that homosexuality is a sin. A person who persists in homosexual behavior stands under the condemnation of God’s Word, but this is true for anyone who persists in sin without repentance. While this may be an unpopular message, it is the truth taught to us by God in His Word. As with the case of any sinner, we want to assure all repentant sinners of the forgiveness of Christ. The Church rejects NO ONE, for we are ALL sinners. It is never wrong to care about another child of God, and judgment is not our job. Never withhold your love. Be cautious with your words. As a Christian you don’t have to compromise your Biblical beliefs to “fit in;” forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation with the unrepentant. Start with the image you see in the mirror, then love, forgive, show compassion to all people, and in all things do the right thing. Would I preside at a same-sex marriage? No. Same-sex marriage is not really marriage as God instituted it, so why would I preside?
And there we was…done. Lord, have mercy!
Amen.

13th Sunday after Pentecost

13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2018
“Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked”; Questions about Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we continue my monthly sermon series called “Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked.” Today I will try and answer your submitted questions about Jesus.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Last week’s sermon on Heaven was kind of long and involved. That’s what happens when you have 11 questions to answer about Heaven. I don’t expect that today’s sermon will be much shorter and certainly not any easier. There were 7 questions asked about Jesus, so I will try and answer them all and I will address them in “chronological order,” that is, in terms of Jesus’ earthly life.
Here is the first question: “If Jesus was (born) a Jew, why aren’t Christians Jewish?” Yes, Jesus was born Jewish. By the time that he was executed by the Romans, however, many Jewish people would have considered Jesus guilty of blasphemy because of His actions and teachings about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Gospels record several incidents where Jesus is accused of blasphemy for directly or indirectly claiming to be the Messiah/Divine. For example, when Jesus cured the paralytic man lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1-12), he saw the faith of those involved and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (v. 5). “Some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, ‘Who but God alone can forgive sins?’ Jesus said, ‘Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, your sins are forgiven, or to say, Rise, pick up your mat and walk? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins – He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home’” (Mark 2:8-11). Jesus’ claim to be God – to forgive sins – flew directly in the face of Judaism.
During the Passion, Caiaphas, the high priest, commanded Jesus, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said, “You have said so.’ Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has blasphemed!…You [members of the Sanhedrin] have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?’ They said in reply, ‘He deserves to die!’” Jesus is also identified as King of the Jews and Son of God. To say that Jesus lived and died “Jewish” and that all Christians are therefore Jews may be too simple. Jesus was not Jewish as such; He re-defined Judaism to include the understanding and worship of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. As a result, many Jews converted because they believed in Jesus as Messiah. Technically, the question should be why aren’t all Jews Christians, not the other way around.
Okay. Next question: “Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?” Answer? NO! Jesus was not married to anyone. So where did this idea come from? A lot of this nonsense started back in the late 1960s – early 1970s and a rebellion against any establishment. This led eventually to 1982 with the book “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” In this ridiculous book, the authors put forward a hypothesis that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had one or more children, and that those children or their descendants emigrated to what is now southern France. The “Holy Grail” is not an actual chalice they claim. It’s the womb of Mary Magdalene and the children she bore with Jesus. More recently, author Dan Brown built on this myth with the novel/movie “The Da Vinci Code” starring Tom Hanks. Watching Tom Hanks in “Da Vinci Code” and thinking its real is like watching “Forrest Gump” and thinking it’s historically accurate.
The main passage that Brown and others use as support for this crazy theory is a little known paragraph from the Gnostic writing the “Gospel of Philip” (63:32-64:10). The text describes Mary Magdalene as a “companion” of Jesus. History tells us that this text from the Gospel of Philip was composed in the 2nd half of the 3rd century. This is a full 200 years after the life of Jesus. All 4 Gospels are written well before that and are universally accepted as accurate. Not one Gospel even hints at Jesus being married to anyone. There’s a reason why Gnostic writings and others are not in the Bible…because they’re not the inspired Word of God; they did not pass the test for inclusion in the Bible (canonicity). These works were the “fiction” genre of the first 5 centuries; they are the “Forrest Gump” of their time.
Next. “Why is Jesus not on the cross (behind) the altar and only on some crucifixes?” Good question. I will explain. The simple difference between a cross and the crucifix is that on a cross there is no body of Jesus. A crucifix has the crucified body of Jesus on it. We remember Christ crucified when we look upon a crucifix, and we remember Christ risen when we look upon a plain cross. Our cross behind the altar is a cross to remember Christ risen! After the Protestant Reformation, a lot of Roman Catholic symbolism was rejected, and Roman Catholicism uses a crucifix to remember Christ crucified. Luther himself doesn’t seem to have minded, so in the Lutheran Church we can and do use both. Our main cross is empty to remind us that both the cross and tomb are empty because Jesus is risen.
Three questions were asked about the descent into hell: “Why did Jesus descend into Hell after being crucified and what did he do there?” “What does 1 Peter 3:19 mean “went and proclaimed to spirits in prison”? Act 2:31 says “Christ was not abandoned in Hades” Does that mean he went to Hell after his death?” In Colossians 2:15, Paul wrote “(Christ) disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them by the cross.” All orthodox Christian churches must confess the 3 ecumenical creeds in which we confess that Jesus “descended into Hell.” Jesus, after He was made alive again in the grave descended into hell, not to suffer punishment, but to proclaim His victory over the enemies in hell. If you know anything about NASCAR, you know that the winning driver takes a “victory lap” after the race. Jesus’ descent into hell is His “victory lap.” The souls in hell were not offered a second chance at salvation; instead Jesus announced His victory over death and the Devil. This is one of those article of faith items. We hold off on curious investigation or wonder “why?” A day will come when it will all make sense even if our current understanding is less-than-complete.
One last question: “What happened to Jesus’ mother Mary, Joseph, and all of the Disciples?” Most scholars agree that Joseph died before Jesus’ ministry began. He is present at Jesus’ birth, the first 2 years in Egypt, and the Temple trip when Jesus was 12, but not at His first miracle, his trial(s), his crucifixion, or the resurrection. If/how Joseph died is unknown. Mary was (of course) present at Jesus’ birth, His first miracle, His death, Easter morning, and she’s in Jerusalem after the Ascension for the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14-15). After that, Mary disappears. Some scholars speculate she moved into the home of John before his exile. Regardless, Mary is now in heaven with all the believers who have died in Christ, not because she gave birth to Jesus but because she trusted in His shed blood as payment for her sin. All of the 11 disciples except for John were martyred for the faith. According to tradition: Peter was crucified in Rome, James the son of Alphaeus was thrown from the temple and James the son of Zebedee was beheaded in Jerusalem, Andrew made it to modern-day Russia, Philip died in modern-day Turkey (Phrygia), Bartholomew and Thomas were killed in India, and finally Matthew, Simon the Zealot, and Thaddaeus were executed in Persia (Syria).
Next week…questions about Doctrine/Theology and until next week our prayer continues to be “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.” No questions asked.
Amen.

12th Sunday after Pentecost

12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 12, 2018
“Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked”; Questions about Heaven

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we continue my monthly sermon series called “Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked.” Today we tackle the topic of Heaven.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Heaven is one of those topics that everyone is interested in. Everyone. 2 months ago when I introduced this series, I basically said, “Here you go, kid. Take this piece of paper and write down any question you have.” And so you did. 11 questions – more than 35% of all 30 questions submitted – involved Heaven in some way. Now, you realize that this is like shaking your Christmas presents under the tree, right? We have some good information to work with, but we won’t fully know all the answers until the day we open that glorious, eternal gift and everything will be revealed. So…let’s get started.
First, some questions about entering heaven: “When we die, when will we enter Heaven?” “When we die do our souls immediately go to Heaven or do we ‘rest’ until Judgment Day?” “Why does the Bible say some will go to heaven right away but others will ‘sleep in the dust’ until called? (Daniel 12:2).”
As we Lutherans believe that Scripture teaches that at the moment of death the souls of believers enter the joy of heaven (Luke 23:43; Acts 7:59; Rev. 14:13), while the souls of unbelievers at death are consigned to “the prison” of everlasting judgment in hell (1 Peter 3:19-20; Acts 1:25). The departed souls remain in heaven or hell until the Day of Judgment, when they shall be reunited with their own bodies (Matt. 10:28; John 11:24; Job 19:26). The Lutheran church has always rejected as unscriptural the idea that the soul “sleeps” between death and Judgment Day in such a way that it is not conscious of heavenly bliss. Regarding the verse from Daniel 12, Daniel is supporting what we believe as Lutherans that at the end of the age, the dead shall rise and those who believe rise to everlasting life and those who do not believe are banished to everlasting contempt. Daniel is being poetic; the actual soul is long since departed, and the mortal remains wait “in the dust” for the Last Day at which time final judgment will be rendered.
We DO NOT believe your soul lingers here on earth for any reason including getting stuck as a ghost or being sent to an intermediate state like purgatory. In the moment of death the souls of the believers enter the joy of heaven. Jesus said to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Stephen said in the hour of death: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). On the day of the final judgment, the redeemed souls in heaven will be reunited with their own (now glorified) bodies and will begin to enjoy the bliss of heaven in both body and soul (John 5:28-29; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Cor. 15). What age will that body be? What will that body look like? Will my new, glorified body have a belly button? Don’t know…the Bible doesn’t provide those answers and I cannot speculate because I have nothing to work with. I know it will be newly glorified and free from sin…that’s it.
The question was asked “In 2 Corinthians 12:2 it reads ‘I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the 3rd heaven’ What is the meaning of levels of Heaven?” When Paul uses the phrase “3rd heaven,” he is using terminology known and used by the Jews in his day. In the next verse, Paul says the man was “caught up into paradise,” which Paul equates with the “3rd heaven.” The word “paradise” is a Persian loanword meaning an aristocrat’s private park, like Ca’ d’Zan, the winter home of John Ringling here in Sarasota. The Jews in Paul’s day believed God took the Garden of Eden and placed it into heaven, which is where the souls would go. “3rd Heaven” is not a mid-level Heaven between the 2nd and 4th floor/level. Instead, it is a term synonymous with “paradise;” Paul is referring to the place where the beauty and perfection of Eden will be restored and never end. In most other cases, the Bible simply refers to this perfect place as “Paradise or Heaven.” There are no levels as such; it’s all good!
Now, questions about our loved ones: “When you die, will you be back with your family?” “Will we recognize our loved ones when we get to heaven?”
Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, both of whom had died. Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man to hell. Yet, while in hell, the rich man could see and recognize Lazarus in heaven (Luke 16:19-23). Noted Bible scholar Francis Pieper explained that Jesus’ Transfiguration provides strong evidence that people who go to heaven will recognize each other. “At the transfiguration of Christ,” he wrote, “the disciples knew Moses and Elijah, whom they had never seen before.” Looking at the Transfiguration, Pieper concludes, “those who die in Christ and go to heaven will know one another.” If Pieper says so, that’s a BIG deal. He literally wrote the book on Christian Dogmatics…all 3 volumes. The Last Day will include not only the joy of seeing Jesus return, but also that we will have a joyous reunion with those who have already died in the faith (1 Thess. 4:14). Awesome, right?
Someone asked “If you have been married more than once, do you go with the first spouse?” I believe the intention of this question has to do with our relationship status in heaven. Whom will we be married to in Heaven? Regarding your relationships, Jesus said in Luke 20: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain…the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (34-35). Marriage was given on earth to point humanity to the ultimate loving relationship – our relationship with God and for the procreation of children. In Heaven, we will perfectly be in a relationship with Him and marriage will no longer be needed. We cannot grasp what it will be like to no longer be married or given in marriage after 50+ years of marriage, but in Heaven marriage doesn’t exist. You will know your spouse, but you will not be “married” to them as we know it now.
And now, the big finish: “How (do we) address suicide with loved ones and friends as it relates to faith.” Again, I think the intention is what do we say about the soul of a person who commits suicide? Every life is precious to God and should be precious to us. Life is a gift given by God and is to be taken by God and Him alone. Regarding death by suicide, our Synod does not have an official position regarding the eternal state of individuals who have committed suicide. Since the spiritual condition of an individual upon death is known only to God, one must proceeded cautiously in making judgments in this regard. Especially important in such situations is the state of mind of the deceased and whether the deceased was aware of what he/she was doing. Is suicide always an act of unbelief, which alone will damn a person? I would say “no.”
Does this answer all your questions about Heaven? No way. But we know that Heaven is the ultimate, most wonderful gift for us when we die, a gift secured by your faith in your living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who is the topic of next’s week sermon.
Amen.

11th Sunday after Pentecost

11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 5, 2018
(Lamentations 3:22-33)
“Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked”; Questions about Suffering

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Today I begin a 4-week sermon series called “Stuff I Always Wanted to Know, But Never Asked.” Today we tackle the first topic of suffering.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Hey…no one can call me a coward! I could have buried these questions or ignored them or saved the toughest for last; I’ll start with some of the toughest questions. Yeah, there were only 2 questions submitted about suffering, but I think everyone will be interested in the answers. Today our topic is “suffering” and here are the questions (paraphrased) to be answered: “I have experienced so much (that’s) negative and at times I have quit caring about me and my future. How can I have solid faith amid such a cruddy past?” and “Why is God not answering me? (Does my) continuous suffering means he is punishing me? What is his will in my life?” See what I mean?
As people, as Americans, as Christians, we talk about suffering often, for it is a significant part of everyone’s life. When Christians talk about suffering, we always tell of how God uses our suffering for our good (Romans 8:28). Others may laugh at that notion, but that is the truth we confess knowing it’s easier to confess than actually live in that promise.
We don’t talk very much, though, of how to endure suffering. Don’t get me wrong or have the wrong impression; this is not a how-to sermon that is so popular in other circles, where we’re told that with certain 4-5 steps, all can be made better and God will smile kindly upon us. Not always. This is a sermon on what we do when we, as God’s people, are brought into suffering and what our attitude and understanding are, to see/find the good in our suffering, and how we try to discern God’s will – His plan – for our lives. Is suffering an indication that the “plan” has gone amiss?
I am going to try and answer today’s questions using verses from Lamentations. “Lamentations!” you might wonder, and I recognize it’s a very sad and gloomy book, but Lamentations shines a lot of light on these questions.
First of all, Jeremiah – the assumed author of Lamentations – reminds us of three things while we suffer in our lives. First, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (3:22). That’s good to remember when life gets tough; God doesn’t hate us one day then love us another. His grace and love is unconditional, unending, and perfect even when our lives seem less-than-perfect. Secondly, God’s mercies are “new every morning” (3:23). Every day is a new chance for God’s mercy to extend and make the day, situation, or life better. That doesn’t mean that it will be healthier and happier automatically, but the hope is always there!
Jeremiah goes on in verse 26: “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” Wait quietly? Who does he think he’s kidding? Wait quietly? But doesn’t God see how bad off I am? Doesn’t God care how uncomfortable I’ve become? Doesn’t He know how lonely I am? Doesn’t He know how anxious I am about my past and my future? Why me, God? I want some answers here, God! Now…does that sound like waiting quietly? Not so much. One of the first lessons they teach in Mass Communications is that you cannot listen if you’re always talking.
As the people of God, we are encouraged here in Lamentations and elsewhere to show silent, godly endurance and patience. If we’re not waiting quietly, how can we hear what God has to say to us? If our complaining and moaning and grumbling is non-stop, when do we have the time or opportunity to be still and know that He is God (Psalm 46:10)? The nightmares of grief and pain and trouble that we experience TEACH us something…they teach us to throw ourselves wholly upon the Lord our God and wait for the good that is yet to come! We will never hear God’s comfort if we’re always groaning.
And let us not forget, we have a God that was willing to do this Himself for us first. Lamentations 3:28-29 read “Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope.” Also, consider Isaiah 53:7 – “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Jesus would later fulfill Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s words: “And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer” (Mark 14:60-61, NIV). Even in the face of His own suffering that led to torturous death, Jesus remained silent. What an awesome example!
And in His silent sacrificial endurance, Jesus Christ gave His body and blood that you will not have to. He gave all that was needed for the forgiveness of our sins and life everlasting. He endured the suffering of hell itself that you might be spared that pain because you have eternal salvation through faith in Jesus. Jesus’ suffering was for a reason…and our suffering is for a reason, too.
Today’s questions want to know how to deal with the difficult life God has provided. Your life isn’t difficult because of God; it’s difficult because of SIN. The answer is He doesn’t provide a difficult life for us; He provides a “forgiven” life for us. We suffer for a reason. Not for punishment; God’s punishment against sin was poured out upon Jesus at the cross. We suffer because God allows us to suffer to draw us closer to Him. Job 36 tells us “(God) delivers the afflicted by their affliction” (v. 15). In other words, GOD IS AT WORK IN OUR LIVES WHEN WE SUFFER! When you are down to nothing in this life, God is clearly up to something! God does not choose for us to suffer; He chooses for us to be loved, to be forgiven, to be His own people in and through Baptismal faith.
Consider Romans 5, that great familiar passage which I have cited many times, teaches “we rejoice in our sufferings (how counter-cultural!), knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (v. 3-5). Just imagine…your suffering ultimately produces hope. God allows you to suffer in order that you would be drawn closer to Him. Only an Almighty God can pull that stunt off!
It is my prayer for you all – not just those 2 folks – that you will know in the midst of your own trials and tribulations – whatever they may be – that the promise and hope that God provides through His love and grace is far greater than anything you may be asked to endure. May you always draw strength from the hope that is yours in, through, and because of Jesus.
Amen.

10th Sunday after Pentecost

10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 29, 2018
Mark 6:45-56
“Who is Pushing the Swing?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the first half of the Gospel lesson from Mark 6 involving Jesus, the disciples, and the boat.

My dear friends,

Children love to swing; that is a universal truth. Who doesn’t? There’s nothing like it. Thrusting your feet toward the sky, leaning so far backward that everything looks upside down. Swinging on the swings is great! Recently I went to Okeechobee for my granddaughter Abbey’s birthday party and even though it was a hot/humid June day, the three of my grandkids wanted to swing on the swings; little Eli just LOVED it! Children just love to swing, right?
I learned a lot about trust on a swing. As a child, I only trusted certain people to push my swing. If I was being pushed by people I trusted (like Dad or Mom), they could do anything they wanted. They could twist me, turn me, stop me mid-swing…I loved it! I loved it because I trusted the per¬son pushing me. But let a stranger push my swing (which often happened at family re¬unions or down at our cabin in NE), and it was hang on, baby! Who knew what this newcomer would do? When a stranger pushes your swing, you tense up and hang on in fear.
Most of us now, because of our age and the condition of our bodies, wouldn’t even THINK about getting onto a swing. I’m a lot closer to 60 than I am to 6 and I fear what a trip on the swing might do to my back and knees these days. The fear of the unknown, and what might happen, that’s what keeps us off the swing. We are afraid to get on because we’re afraid about what might happen especially if someone else pushes. And just who is “pushing your swing” these days? Joy or worry? Peace or apprehension?
Let’s talk for a moment about fear, about confusion, about anxiety, shall we? In today’s Gospel lesson we get all 3 and then some. Jesus sends the disciples into the boat to go across the Sea of Galilee towards their next destination, Bethsaida. The disciples quickly find themselves in an anxious and difficult situation. They are trying to row, but the wind was against them not to mention it’s now the middle of the night (4th watch or 3-6 AM). The disciples are exhausted and on edge. The conditions, the wind and waves, are no match for Jesus though as He simply walks on the surface of the water in the dark. Much has been made over the years about verse 48 and the phrase that Jesus “meant to pass them by.” There are lots of theories as to what that might mean, but that’s not what I want to focus on. I’m more interested in the disciples’ response.
In verse 49, the anxious, afraid, wet, and exhausted disciples look out into the night and things quickly go from bad to worse. They see Jesus, but they think He is a ghost or apparition; the Greek word is the same word from which we get our word “phantasm.” Should we be surprised that they fail to see Jesus? Mark reminds us that they also didn’t understand what had just happened in the feeding of the 5000 (6:52), so why would they recognize Jesus now? In much the same way, we too rarely see God walking past in our lives or we fail to recognize His bountiful, blessing presence for us amid the storms of our life. But that can be a different sermon for a different day.
They see this frightening image and they, as Mark specifically wrote, “were thrown into confusion.” Mark doesn’t use the word for “fear” as Jesus will in verse 50. The boat may have been pushed by the wind, but the disciples are being pushed by confusion and fear. To maintain the imagery from earlier, it’s like they have no idea who is pushing the swing. Jesus, however, calms their fears by climbing into the boat and telling his closest followers, “Take heart. Do not be afraid. It is I,” or in Greek, Jesus calls Himself “I AM,” His divine name. in response, the disciples are “exceedingly amazed,” and they keep rowing with now-calm waves, but also still-hard hearts.
We live in a stormy world. Morality and common sense are at an all-time low. Everyone is always offended by someone else. Love for God and neighbor are long-forgotten, out-dated concepts. Families are coming apart at the seams because of sin and sinful behaviors. Not only that, but everywhere one takes the time to look, private storms of sin occur. Family struggles with illness, death, and grief, strained marriages, broken hearts, lonely evenings. Fear and anxiety abound. People are doing their best to hang on in this tense, confusing, and anxious time we live in. Fear, it seems, has taken a hundred-year lease on the building next door and set up shop. Oversize and rude, fear is unwilling to share your heart with happiness, so happiness complies, packs up, and leaves. Do you ever see the two together? Can one be happy and afraid at the same time? Joyful and afraid? Confident and afraid? No. Fear is the bully on the playground who gets you on the swing and does terrible things. Fear may fill our world, but it doesn’t have to fill our hearts.
Fear never wrote a symphony or love poem, negotiated a peace treaty, or cured a disease. Fear never pulled a family out of poverty or a country out of bigotry. Fear never saved a relationship or marriage. Fear never drove a church’s ministry. Courage did that. Faith and hope did that. Love did that. People who refused to cower to their fear and anxiety did that.
Paul wrote in 2 Timothy that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (1:7). What was it again that Jesus said once He got in the boat? “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” Know when else this same encouragement is given? In both Matthew 28 and in Mark 16, the angel tells the women who have come TO THE EMPTY TOMB to not be afraid. Why not? Because Jesus is risen from the dead, that’s why. Don’t you see? We are Easter people, and that doesn’t mean we only worship 1-2 times a year. We are sin-forgiven, baptized, redeemed children of God. We are people of hope, not fear. We are people of grace, not anxiety. We are people of love for God and neighbor, not worry. Because of Jesus’ work on the cross and because of the now-empty grave, we are driven by the power of God and His life-giving Word, faithful love, and self-control and not the confusion and fear the world tries to lay on us.
Friends, especially in these difficult days we remember who is pushing the swing. We put our trust in Christ Jesus. God in Christ won’t let us fall out of the swing. Don’t be afraid to take a risk for the kingdom: share the Good News of the Gospel with that neighbor, invite that friend to church, make that life-changing decision, challenge your financial giving, stop that destructive, addictive behavior, get into God’s Word on a daily basis.
I end with the same question I started with. Who is pushing your swing? In the right hands – the pierced hands of our Lord Jesus – you can find joy and love and grace and hope and peace…even in the worst storm of fear and anxiety.
Amen.

9th Sunday after Pentecost

9th Sunday after Pentecost
July 22, 2018
Jeremiah 23:1-6
“I Made it Through the Reign”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the first lesson that was previously read from the prophet Jeremiah.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

This is a story that my fellow non-snow-bird Floridians will understand. I was driving back from Orlando recently and I approached Sarasota around that 3:00 PM time frame. Everyone who spends their summer in Sarasota knows what happens around that time every day this time of the year. I could see the dark, nasty clouds to the south rolling towards Sarasota and about the time I got to University Parkway, it was like someone ripped a hole in the sky: constant lightning, booming thunder, and an onslaught of rain that can only be described as “torrential” battered all of us unfortunate enough to be on I-75 when it hit. It took almost 20 minutes to get to Bee Ridge Road, which is normally about a 5 minute drive. It was some of the worst driving conditions I have seen in almost 40 years behind the wheel. I couldn’t exit I-75 fast enough.
When I think about making that awful drive through the rain, I remember a popular song from 1980 performed by Barry Manilow, “I Made it Through the Rain.” It’s a song about a guy who made it through more than the dampness of being caught outside in a rain storm. The “hero” of the song persevered through dark and lonely days, and was able to make it through the “rain” or the troubles and hassles of life with the help of others who also endured.
Well, today as we reflect on the lesson from Jeremiah 23, we can also remember that song title “I Made it Through the Rain,” but change “R-A-I-N” to “R-E-I-G-N.” The prophet Jeremiah lived at a time when there was poor leadership among the people – REAL poor leadership – and God through Jeremiah had some very serious and harsh words for those in positions of leadership. On the flip side, He also has something to say for those on the other end of the reign of a poor leader – to the harassed and helpless flock under the leader’s care. God promised the flock that there would be rest; they would be rescued from the reign of hapless shepherds and given the safety and peace that they need.
Jeremiah lived at one of the most difficult and trying periods for the Israelites. He was a prophet during the divided kingdom – a kingdom that was only ½ a kingdom since the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been smashed by the Assyrian empire. But even before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the Israelites experienced some pretty terrible reigns from some pretty terrible kings or shepherds. A simple of reading of 1 and 2 Kings reveals a hit list of kings who “did evil in the eyes of the Lord:” Nadab, Baasha, Zimri, Hoshea, Joram, Jehoahaz, Jeroboam, Omri, Ahab, and Manasseh, all who were particularly naughty. These kings were awful; they reigned contrary to the will of God. Jeremiah proclaimed, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (verse 1).
Yet, God does not say that the sheep will rise up and overthrow or impeach the shepherd. He doesn’t shout “#Resist”! No, He desires that we keep the Fourth Commandment. But then, what do we do about those who abuse power? We resist unlawful government; we obey lawful government. Above all, we obey God, not man (Acts 5:9), and rather than rise up, we trust that it is God who bestows punishment on the shepherds for what they have done. “Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,” declares the LORD (verse 2). That is exactly what God did. When His judgment came, it was complete; “torrential” you might say. King Zedekiah, the illegitimate king of Judah, was raining a horrible reign down on the citizens of Judah when God used the Babylonians to come and take both a now-blinded Zedekiah and the flock away into exile. It looked like all was lost. The City of David…gone. Temple…gone. The Davidic line from which the promised Messiah was to come…that looked like it was gone also.
However, this was not the end. For God also promised through Jeremiah, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture…I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified” (verses 3-4). Just as the evil shepherds had scattered the flock, God promised He would intervene and restore the good remnant. How? “I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land” (verse 5). God only needs a branch, a shoot, a stump, to bring about the oak of righteousness (Isaiah 61:3).
That is exactly what God did. God’s people were restored. The exile of the Israelites from Jerusalem – the City of David – lasted from 586 BC until 538 BC or only 48 years. The people returned to Jerusalem and eventually rebuilt the temple and the city wall. And the restoration didn’t end there.
Into the restored kingdom, Jesus Christ, the Lord Our Righteousness, came just as had been foretold, to bring restoration and healing for His people. Sinful people needed more than homes, a temple, and city walls. All people need to be restored in our relationship with our sinless and holy God, and that is what Jesus did. He took all of our sins, all of our disobedience, all of our uncleanness and our lack of righteousness, and took it upon Himself and allowed it to be nailed to the cross. Because of Christ and His righteousness which is given to us, we have forgiveness of our sins, the promise of salvation, and the hope of eternal life even amid torrential rainfall.
Is the world around us a peaceful, perfect place? No. Are we free from bad leaders and poor shepherds? No. But has the Lord Our Righteousness lived and died for us? Yes. By His death and resurrection, do we have the forgiveness of sins, the peace that only God provides, and the promise of eternal rest and restoration in heaven? Absolutely. We may have to put up with a little rain from time to time and feel uncomfortable and unpleasant, but that’s is nothing when compared with the glories yet to be revealed to us when the Good Shepherd calls us to dwell eternally safe in the house of the Lord forever, for then we will have truly made it through the rain.
It’s good to be back home with you, despite the rain. Amen.