All posts by shepsrq

1st Sunday in Advent

1st Sunday in Advent

December 1, 2019

Matthew 24:36-44

“Are You Ready?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you all in the name of our Triune Advent God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The text that engages us is the Gospel lesson from St. Matthew.

Dear fellow redeemed brothers and sisters in Christ,

So, how are you doing as far as getting ready for Christmas? Did you spend lots of time shopping on Thanksgiving or on Friday? But Thanksgiving is over and now there’s so much to do to get ready for Christmas, right? There are the cards to send, the gifts to buy, the decorations to put up, the gatherings to plan, and so on. On this first week in Advent in our Gospel lesson, Jesus is also urging you to get ready, but in a much different way for a much different event. This time Christ is not talking about his first Advent, his coming to Bethlehem. What we need to be concerned with, and what Jesus is addressing, is his second Advent, his second coming at the end of time. As a new church year begins, our focus is on getting ready for the coming of Christ. This is more than getting ready with cards and parties and shopping and decorations. It is seeing the first coming of Christ as a reminder that he comes to us today in Word and Sacraments, and that prepares us for the end of the age.

Our Gospel lesson is taken from a large section of teaching that Jesus provides to his disciples. Jesus told the disciples as they left the temple that the time was coming when that very same temple (70 AD) would be destroyed. Arriving at the Mount of Olives, the disciples asked when this would be and what was the sign of the end of the age? (24:3). In response Jesus spoke of things that will happen to remind them of the end both of the temple and the age. With this teaching, Jesus is not giving out secret codes, a timeline, or hints regarding the time of his coming. Instead, Jesus is calling his church, his people, to live in constant readiness because his coming will be at an hour when we do not expect him.

But that is not how everyone understands this text. Matthew 24:40-41 are some of the biblical verses on which much of the “rapture” theory is based. This is a belief that Christ will actually have two returns. The first return is a secret “rapture” in which believers are instantly taken away to spare them hardship before the end of the world. Many are “left behind;” one in the field and one at the mill are “taken” while their partners are not. However, these verses have nothing to do with a secret “rapture,” but everything to do with vigilance prior to the coming of Christ! We are instructed to watch because we don’t know the day or the hour when he will return.

If you ask people if they’re getting ready for Christmas, you’re bound to get various answers. But would you say that you are ready right now to meet the Lord when he returns at the end of time should it be today? Do your daily activities and decisions and priorities in your life reflect your state of readiness?

Jesus did tell us that he was coming back to take us to be with him, but that was 2000 years ago, and he hasn’t come back yet. That must mean that there’s plenty of time, right? Don’t be too sure about that. We are a people of sinful procrastination; we put things off until it is convenient or necessary for us to give it our attention. We’ve convinced ourselves that we are busy people, we’ve got a lot to do. We’ll find the time later to think more about getting ready.

Well, that’s exactly how the people of Noah’s day thought. Jesus uses the illustration of those people who were busy eating and drinking and marrying and they “knew nothing” about the flood until they were completely washed away by an event they didn’t even expect. Jesus doesn’t point out that these people were evil or wicked, but that they were caught up in the routines of life and ignored the warnings of Noah and the big honkin’ boat in his front yard! Constant vigilance is vital. We must be ready and ready NOW, not tomorrow for tomorrow never truly comes. Even as the flood caught the people of Noah’s day unaware, so the coming of the Son of Man will shock an unbelieving world. There is no time to put off our preparation; the time is now.

   There is an old fable in which 3 apprentice devils are going to be sent to earth to test their skills. Satan called in each one to interview them on their strategy. The first one told Satan, “I will tell them there is no God.” Satan rejected that strategy explaining that everyone knows there is a God. The second said, “I will convince people that there is no Hell.” Satan also rejected that strategy because everyone knows that Hell exists. The third approached Satan and said, “I will convince people that there is no hurry to believe.” “You will win many,” Satan complimented him.

So then, how do you prepare for the unexpected? How do you get ready for something that you cannot foresee? Primarily, we prepare by knowing that it is your Lord that is coming. It was your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was born as a baby in Bethlehem. Born as a flesh and blood man and yet still fully divine so that he could pay the penalty for our sin. The promised seed of the woman, through the line of Abraham, through the line of David, comes the promised Messiah. You and I are a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise; sharers in the deliverance brought to us by the Christ-child born all those years ago; you are the reason Christmas happened in the first place.

As recipients of the Savior, you have been blessed beyond imagination: blessed with numerous physical blessings which we remembered last week on Thanksgiving, blessed with pardon from sin, blessed with victory over Satan, blessed with hope for eternal life. Believing that Jesus came to live and die for you is the best preparation for Christmas and for his second coming you can do!

Today is the beginning of Advent. We now wait in eager, joyful, and slightly restrained expectation of the celebration of the coming of Christ to the manger stall. But this celebration is also a reminder that Jesus will also come again someday. The call to “watch and be ready” is a call to put our lives, our hope, our faith in the hands of your gracious and one-day-returning God. Our prayer of this new church year is the same as every year: “Come Lord Jesus. Come quickly,” because we’re ready. Right?

Amen.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 17, 2019

Malachi 4:1-6

“Dead Man’s Curve”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson from Malachi 4, the final words of the Old Testament.

My dear friends,

When we moved to extreme northern Minnesota from Nebraska, my folks built a home right on the Rainy River. It was a beautiful spot…right on the water with Canada on the other side. Our house, though, was located on a sharp curve in the highway that sat at the junction of 2 long straight stretches. You can just about image the number of motorists who slid into the ditch because they were drowsy having been “hypnotized” by the long, straight road and they didn’t react quickly enough or the curve was icy which was the case about half the year. We got so good at watching the cars out on the highway we could tell from ¼ mile away whether they would make the curve or not. Some folks in our area jokingly called it “Dead Man’s Curve” because that was literally true. Tragically, a 16 year old kid, Michael Hervey, didn’t make the curve one night and crashed out in the field in front of or house. My brother Mike was first on the scene and he did the little he could. Michael Hervey died in the hospital later that night as a result of his injuries. Yup, I grew up on “Dead Man’s Curve.”

The prophet Malachi reminds me of that curve, only the view is not from a sudden deadly curve on Highway 11, but from the sudden return of Jesus on the Last Day. For Malachi, this great and terrible day was just around the curve. It was certain to happen, and Malachi urged the people to snap out of their spiritual hypnosis and drowsiness caused by the monotony of life and prepare for the final day of judgment. When Judgment Day came, you either made “Dead Man’s Curve” or you didn’t.

If you were judged wicked and arrogant, and then thrown out, that day would be terrible…talk about “crash and burn.” Malachi sees it like being thrown into an oven or furnace. Malachi sees the Last Day for those judged wicked as being burned to less than ash. Sound like a good eternal destination to you? No thanks.

However, if you are judged righteous by faith in Christ, if you made “Dead Man’s Curve,” that day would be one of joy, wholeness, and victory. As you might know, there was a small controversy over the statue in downtown Sarasota called “Unconditional Surrender.” It’s a statue of the iconic picture taken back in 1945 after the Japanese surrendered officially ending World War II. Some complained that the statue glorified sexual assault. Uhm…not quite. Instead, it is a reflection of what the total joy of absolute victory feels like. For believers, the Last Day will bring that kind of joy magnified infinitely.

Malachi pictures it like a calf jumping in spring. Okay…not as cool as a big statue, but it is what it is. I’ve seen calves do that. Not only was our home on the river, it was also adjacent to my grandparent’s farm and they had cattle. Especially in the spring, the calves were so happy. They’d jump around, kicking up their hooves, suddenly running for no reason. It is pure, raw joy as they discover the world around them.

On the Day of the Lord, those who are righteous – those saved by grace through faith in Jesus, will be like that…having survived “Dead Man’s Curves,” we’ll be so excited, so healthy, so awake and so alive! No more pain or tears. No more “Dead Man’s Curves.” No more ridicule by unbelievers about our faith or our church, no more sin to make us feel as though God is distant from our lives. It will be just the opposite; on the Last Day He will become our lives…for all eternity. That’s not a bad thing…WAY better than being reduced to ashes, right?

Malachi’s words make the heat from the furnace on the Last Day just too close for comfort; like the awful concentration camp images from World War II. Maybe that’s the way it should be. And that’s the way it would be for everyone except for the hope that Malachi provides when he mentioned two key figures: Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah…Elijah and Moses…men who lived several hundreds of years apart, but once stood together on one very special day. We call it Transfiguration.

More than 900 years after Elijah lived, Jesus went up on a mountain. The disciples Peter, James, and John are with him. Jesus was transformed right before their eyes with dazzling, bright white light. And who else was there? Yup…Elijah and Moses! And Peter says, “Master, it is good that we are here” (Lk 9:33). And Bingo was his name-o! How right he was! For Jesus then proceeds to navigate them right through “Dead Man’s Curve.”

How? Watch as Jesus comes down that mountain and heads straight for another big, important day of the Lord…a judgment day like no other. This day is Good Friday…the ultimate “Dead Man’s Curve.” On the cross, Jesus takes the judgment against us on Himself. Our sin, our wickedness, doubt, anger, rebellion, and arrogance become His, and “the sun of righteousness” (v 2) gives us His righteousness.

Then comes another calf-jumping, big, important day: Easter. Jesus rises from the dead, and His victory becomes ours. By the resurrection, Jesus sends death itself rocketing off “Dead Man’s Curve” never to return. The resurrection makes “Dead Man’s Curve” nothing more than a minor bump in the road.

Just like Peter said at Jesus’ Transfiguration, it is good for us to be here, in church, because every time we worship it’s a Day of the Lord because He is here and we are with Him and we are strengthened for all of life’s dangerous stretches and curves. What a difference that makes in our worship! It’s not about you or me. It’s about Jesus. It’s about coming to hear His Word. It’s about growing closer to Him. It’s about surviving the journey of life another week in order to approach the altar and being so close to Jesus that you take His body and blood into yourself during the Lord’s Supper. Yes, most assuredly, it is good to be here because Jesus leads us safely through all of the “Dead Man’s Curves” of life.

Malachi 4:1-6 is the end of the Old Testament. How does the New Testament end? From Revelation 22:20-21: “He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all.”

Amen.

22nd Sunday after Pentecost – Veterans Day

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

November 10, 2019

536th Birthday of Martin Luther

“Can Soldiers Be Saved?”

Grace to you and peace in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today, as we celebrate the 536th birthday of Martin Luther and our annual commemoration of Veteran’s Day, I thought that in place of one of my sermons, you should hear what Martin Luther had to say about whether or not soldiers can be saved.

My dear friends,

When I write a sermon, I do so using 14 point font and double spacing and that normally fills 5 pages of text to then be preached. When Martin Luther wrote about the salvation of soldiers, using the same formatting, it took 61 pages! 61 pages! Needless to say, I had to do some MAJOR editing. So, what follows is a heavily edited version of what Martin Luther taught about the salvation of soldiers. Since Luther didn’t use PowerPoint, I won’t either.

In the first place, a distinction must be made between an occupation and the man who is in it, between a work and the doer of it. An occupation or a work can be good and right in itself and yet be bad and wrong if the man in the occupation, or the doer of the work is not good and right, or does not do his duty rightly. It is the same way with the occupation or work of the soldier; in itself it is right and godly, but we must see to it that the persons who are in the occupation and who do the work are the right kind of persons, godly and upright. This we shall hear.

To put it plainly, I am dealing here with such questions as these, — to be a soldier, go to war and slay and stab, rob and burn, as one does to enemies in times of war; whether this work is sin or wrong; whether a Christian must only do good and love, and kill no one, nor do anyone any harm. I say that this office or work, even though it were godly and right, can nevertheless become bad and wrong, if the person engaged in it is wrong and bad.

That the sword has been instituted of God to punish the evil and protect the good and preserve peace, (Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 3:1) is proof, powerful and sufficient, that fighting and slaying and the other things that war-times and martial law bring with them, have been instituted by God. What else is war than the punishment of wrong and evil? Why does anyone go to war, except because he desires peace and obedience? Although slaying and robbing do not seem to be a work of love, yet in truth even this is a work of love.

There are some who abuse this office, and slay and smite needlessly, for no other reason than because they want to; but that is the fault of the persons, not of the office, for where is there an office or a work or any other thing so good that self-willed, wicked people do not abuse it?

Paul in 1 Timothy 2:1, teaches Christians to pray for rulers. Solomon teaches everywhere in his Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to obey the king and be subject to him. Now no one can deny that if subjects set themselves against their rulers, they make themselves judges, which is not only against the ordinance and command of God, who will have judgment and vengeance belong to Him, but also against all natural law and justice.

Here you will say, perhaps, “Yes, if everything is to be endured from the tyrants, you give them too much and their wickedness only becomes stronger and greater by such teaching.” I reply: My teaching is not for you, if you are willing to do whatever you think good and whatever pleases you. Follow your own notion and slay all your lords, and see what good it does you. My teaching is only for those who would like to do right.

Look at the real soldiers, those who have been in the game. They do not draw sword suddenly, do not brag, have no desire to smite; but when they are compelled, so that they have to do it, then beware of them; they do not jest; their sword is tight in the sheath, but if they have to draw, it does not return bloodless to the scabbard. On the other hand, the crazy fools who are the first to fight wars make a fine start and are the first to draw their swords; but they are also the first to run away and to put up their swords.

Let this be, then, the first thing to be said on this point, — War is not right, even between equal and equal, unless it is fought with such a good conscience that one can say, “My love for my neighbor compels and forces me to fight for them, though I would rather avoid it.” In that case, it can be called not only war, but due protection and self-defense.

For a distinction must be made among wars. Some are begun out of a desire and will to fight before one is attacked, others are forced by necessity and compulsion after the attack has been made by the other party. The first kind can be called wars of desire, the second wars of necessity. The first kind are of the devil; God give him no good fortune! The second kind are human misfortunes; God help in them! Be instructed, therefore, dear lords! Keep yourselves from war, unless you have to defend and protect yourselves and the office which you bear compels you to fight.

When the battle begins, soldiers should commend themselves simply to God’s grace and adopt a Christian attitude. Since no good work saves men, every soldier should say this exhortation in his heart or with his lips, — “Heavenly Father, here I am, according to Thy divine will, in the external work and service of my lord, which I owe first to Thee and then to my lord for Thy sake. I thank Thy grace and mercy that Thou hast put me into a work of which I am sure that it is not sin, but right and pleasing obedience to Thy will. But because I know and have learned from Thy gracious Word that none of our good works can help us and no one is saved as a soldier but only as a Christian, therefore, I will rely not at all on this obedience and work of mine, but put myself freely at the service of Thy will and believe from the heart that only the innocent blood of Thy dear Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, redeems and saves me, and this He has shed for me in obedience to Thy holy will. On this I stay; on this I live and die; on this I fight and do all. Dear Lord God the Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me by Thy Spirit. Amen.” If then you want to say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, you may do so, and let that be enough. Thus commit body and soul to His hands, and draw sword, and smite in God’s name.

Here I shall let this rest for this time. I commend you all to God.

Amen.

All Saints Day

All Saints’ Day

November 3, 2019

Revelation 7:9-17

“What Will Heaven Be Like?”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us is the First Lesson from Revelation chapter 7.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

There was a time when I lived in Minnesota that my hometown of Lincoln, NE was a manageable drive of only about 700 miles to the SW. So, one year my daughter Emily and I had tickets to a Nebraska football game in Lincoln, so we hopped in my Trailblazer and began our road trip with great enthusiasm…so happy to be going to see our favorite team play. Then, in St. Peter, MN we hit a significant detour. Then, outside of Windom, MN it started to rain and it didn’t let up the rest of the trip. Road construction made it tough going at times. But despite all the odds stacked against us, we made it and finally walked up to Memorial Stadium on a crisp, cool fall morning with 85,000 other people dressed in red cheering for the Cornhuskers.

As I look back on that now, I see that trip down for the game as a microcosm of the life of a Christian and especially what we celebrate today – All Saints’ Day. Let me explain. In life we also started out as teens and young adults all excited at what could be and might be as our lives unfold. Then, as we get older, life can get tougher. We hit the detours, the potholes, the ongoing changes/construction, and the rainstorms in life that makes daily living harder than we expected. Yet we strive on, persevering, living life by faith until we reach that glorious end result with the people whom we share so much with.

Today we get a glimpse of those who’ve made the trip…finished their race; today we see the members of the Church Triumphant. In Revelation 7 we heard, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation…they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple…They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them…the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v. 14b-17). And so, with that being said and knowing we will one day be there ourselves, let’s ask ourselves today as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, in addition to that description, what will heaven be like?

First, let’s cover a few basics. What does Heaven look like and where is it? With our limited minds and imaginations we like to think of where heaven may be, like it’s a great golf course or a forest or a scenic mountain range or a perfect, sun-drenched beach. Revelation 21 and 22 describe the New Jerusalem and the River of Life and the Tree of Life. Nothing about beaches or fairways or mountains.

Regarding where heaven is, I cannot give you turn by turn directions, as if you could drive there or fly a plane there. Instead, heaven is where God dwells in all His fullness. But I can tell you that heaven is where God dwells with His people. In a sense we have a small piece of heaven with us right here, since God dwells with us and comes to us in His Word and Sacraments. We have a little piece of heaven right here, right now. Martin Luther once said, “Eternal life begins here (on earth) in our hearts; for when we begin to believe in Christ,…we are liberated from death, sin, and the devil. Therefore, we have the beginning of life eternal in this life, a sort of mild foretaste; (on earth) we have entered the lobby (of heaven).”

Who will be there? Heaven is ONLY for those who believe in the Triune God as He reveals Himself in His Word and calls His people unto Himself by FAITH. Heaven is for those who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord. ONLY people who know and hold this promise dear, and ONLY those people, will join us in heaven. That’s not a popular message in today’s all-inclusive world, but it is true. Heaven is exclusive; it is ONLY for those with saving faith in Christ.

So, what will we do in heaven? That’s a good question. The Bible associates heaven with never ending banquets, that is, we will never have any wants or needs in heaven. Our new, glorified bodies will not require nutrition like our current sinful bodies do; “we shall hunger no more.” Will we work at our jobs? No. Will we play golf and fish and fly kites and stuff like that? I don’t know, but I doubt it. On this same topic, Luther once said, “I often think about (what will occupy us in eternal glory). I cannot understand what we shall do to pass the time; for there will be no labor, food, drink, and transactions. But I hold that in God we shall have enough to keep us occupied.”

What about our beloved pets? Will they be there? I know that question is driven by a sentimental love for our pets, and the Bible doesn’t say anything about animals in heaven. I guess I would say this: If there are animals that gave us so much joy on earth, could they also not be there to continue our joy in heaven? Maybe not…but maybe so also.

So, if there’s no food or football or golf or pets or beach time, won’t we get bored? I doubt it. Think about it for a second. “Boredom” is a human emotion brought about when we feel nothing is available for us to do. In other words, we’re lacking. In heaven there will be no lacking…none. In the eternal life of heaven, the heavenly host will only rejoice at the glory that surrounds them physically and spiritually. We will praise and rejoice and celebrate every second just like it feels when our favorite team goes undefeated and wins that championship, and that’s probably not going to happen in Nebraska again anytime soon.

And so this brings us to today. Today we remember all those who have gone before us in the faith over the past year. It hurts us to have them no longer in our lives day to day. And yet still today is a celebration for we know that the glory of heaven is already theirs! They have the glories of heaven now. Our loved one are gone, but not forgotten. They are no longer with us and we feel sad, yet because of their faith in Jesus Christ they are in a place where sadness and grief and pain don’t even exist. Heaven is their home; heaven is also our home by faith and one day it will be our eternal existence.

Today, let us remember what heaven will be like: glorious beyond all comprehension where the souls of the faithfully departed await us and the return of our Lord. Let us remember to travel down this journey of life with perseverance even through the rain and roadblocks because we know what the finish line will be like. Let us remember that heaven is the eternal home for all of God’s faithful people where we will drink from springs of eternal, life-giving water, and God will wipe EVERY tear of grief from our eyes forever and ever.

Amen.

Reformation Day

Reformation Day 2019

October 27, 2019

John 8:31-36

“Unchanging Truth for Changin’ Times”

Grace and peace be to you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that serves as the basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson from St. John, the 8th chapter.

Dear friends in Christ,

 

It was 1964. The Beatles made their now-infamous appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show. They had 13of the Billboard Hot 100 hits at the same time. One of those hits was “I Feel Fine,” because “she’s in love with me and I feel fine.” Okay…but in 1964 not everyone felt fine. In 1964 Bob Dylan recorded the song “The Times They Are A Changin” which became the quintessential song of that era because things WERE changing; not everyone felt fine. JFK had been shot and LBJ was the new president. The Civil Rights movement was turning US streets into combat zones. The anti-Vietnam war movement was gaining strength and, in doing so, it polarized communities and families who either did or did not support the war. Yes, in 1964, the times they were a changin’.

Now it’s 55 years later. Around morning coffee, people still talk politics but it’s not LBJ and Ho Chi Minh and Nixon. It’s Trump and Hillary and AOC. Bombs no longer rule the world like in 1964…it’s bytes; gigabytes, terabytes. Information is the new weapon of choice. The times they are a changin’.

Today we observe the anniversary of Reformation Day, that great change within the church brought by God through Martin Luther back in 1517. Luther restored to its proper place the glorious truth that we receive forgiveness of sins through Christ, not by our works but as God’s free gift of grace. There are three Latin phrases that are vital to the ideas Luther presented in the Reformation and are the kinds of truth that NEVER changes whether its 1484, 1964, or 2019: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and Sola Gratia.

Sola Scriptura means “Scripture alone.” This means that we in the Lutheran church accept without reservation all the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as the divinely inspired Word of God and we acknowledge the Bible as the true authority in all matters of faith and life.

 

God’s word gives us unchanging truths in an ever changin’ times. Where did man and this world come from? Scientists will give you a variety of answers but the truth is found in Genesis. What is “right” and what is “wrong?” Psychologists and counselors have a number of theories claiming morality is subjective, but the truth lives in Exodus and the Sermon on the Mount. Why do bad things happen to good people? Psychics and astrologists will tell you that Pluto wasn’t around the right moon or your stars were out of alignment; read Romans 8:28 and Job and Habakkuk if you want the truth. God’s Word gives us unchanging truths in an ever changin’ times.

Sola Fide means “faith alone.” In our Gospel text, our Lord encourages us to abide in His Word – faith – and then we “will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Faith changes you. It makes you different in heart and spirit and mind. Faith is a living, busy, active, and mighty thing going on inside you. Faith is more than a warm and fuzzy feeling on Christmas Eve or Easter morning, it defines and shapes who we are in spite of the every-day trials and tribulations. It revises the way we think and act especially in uncertain and changing times. Faith gives you hope, and hope does not disappoint.

 

Sola Gratia means “grace alone.” Grace is undeserved love for unworthy people. Our Lord makes this clear in our Gospel lesson in verse 36: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” We are set free from the power of sin and death by the grace of God. We cannot work or earn something like salvation, but we receive our salvation only by God’s grace.

That was not the position of the church in Luther’s day. The church sold indulgences – they tried selling God’s forgiveness – that claimed to offer the merits of the saints so that people could buy or earn their forgiveness. People were taught that they must do something to cause God to look with favor on them. Buying indulgences, fasting, attending mass, praying, good works, or giving of some kind were thought to buy or earn forgiveness. Luther learned the glorious certainty and truth from God’s Word that we have already heard: “A man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28).

 

Sola Scriptura. Sola Fide. Sola Gratia. Those three phrases represent who we are and what we believe as Lutherans. We have been saved by grace through faith and we find this and other unchanging truths in Holy Scripture. Those words are important, but if they cannot change your life, then all they will ever be are mere words. Scripture, grace, and faith; If you cannot allow the life-changing power of God’s Word to set you free from your burdens and give you hope amid your guilt and your anxiety, then they ARE just words.

When life changes, we need more than words in order to feel fine. Maybe your last test didn’t turn out so well. Maybe your diet is not going so good. Maybe you’re lonely at night and concerned about not enough money coming in and too much going out. Maybe your relationship is on rocky grounds these days. Maybe your sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Maybe you don’t see a way out of your current crisis. Sola Scriptura. Sola Fide. Sola Gratia. Remember who you are, whose you are, and then through prayer watch how God changes the scenery of your life as He lifts you up with his loving hands by grace through faith.

Bob Dylan’s song concludes like this: “For the loser now Will be later to win For the times they, they are a-changin’…The slow one now Will later be fast. As the present now Will later be past…And the first one now Will later be last For the times they are a-changin’.” I wasn’t even born in 1964 but I still know the times ARE changin’; and you probably have your good days and your bad days. You may feel last now, but a day will come when you WILL be first. Know that, believe that, and live that because the foundation of your daily life reformation is your Savior Jesus Christ because it is for His sake that we are saved by grace through faith, and that truth will NEVER change even in all of your changin’ times in life.

Amen.

LWML Sunday

LWML Sunday

October 13, 2019

Luke 17:6

“Moving Mulberry Trees”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel Lesson read from Luke 17.

My dear friends,

Sometimes we hear people talk about, or maybe you’ve lamented about how challenging it is to be a Christian today. I get that. The world has changed. The nation has changed. Increasingly, it is our children and grandchildren – young people – who are walking away from the church or choosing never to affiliate because the Church is seen as old-fashioned, irrelevant, judgmental, or hypocritical. None of those are true, of course, but it’s what they tell themselves so they don’t have to attend a church. Yet, remember there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9). Our world is not that different from the world of Jesus’ first disciples. Sure, we have cool stuff like cell phones and Wi-Fi and Uber, but fundamentally people are still people. And what do people struggle with? Forgiveness and faith.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that they would need to forgive others, even if they had been wronged, seven times in a single day. That was pretty counter-cultural. Religious experts had been teaching you only ever needed to forgive someone 3 times and that’s it. Jesus wasn’t talking about some teaching for ½ full churches or theology lectures, but a way of life for people. Forgiveness is the stuff of everyday relationships, not just “church.”

And it is hard to forgive. The roots of bitterness run deep and last long, like tree roots — like mulberry tree roots, stubborn and strong. No wonder the disciples responded to Jesus’ challenge to forgive with the words, “Increase our faith” (v. 5).

When His disciples said, “Increase our faith!” Jesus did not say, “Sure, presto! You have greater faith!” What He did say was, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Huh? A Mulberry or sycamine tree was known for its strong, deep root system and is celebrated for its shade and juicy fruit. The flip side of that would be a grain of mustard seed, the smallest known seed at that time. So…how is this supposed to work?

So, how do we understand Jesus’ words, “faith like a grain of mustard seed”? How can faith uproot and send deeply-rooted mulberry trees flying into the sea? You understand this is “hyperbole,” right? Hyperboles are exaggerated statements not meant to be taken literally, like I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” It’s like when Jesus taught that if your eye or hand cause you to sin, get rid of it (Matthew5). Jesus isn’t advocating self-mutilation, he used powerful language to make a point. Same thing here.

Okay, so what’s the point? The point is that all of this is best to understand forgiveness and faith in terms of our relationship with Jesus. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed” is simply yet perfectly trust in Jesus, a trust that abides in Him, depends on Him, and lives every day in Him. It is only in Christ that we move mulberry trees of life, even the deeply-rooted ones like bitterness or anger. Or loneliness. Or grief. Or guilt. Or doubt. Or addiction. Moving the Mulberry trees of life is possible only as Christ lives in us.

“Faith like a grain of mustard seed” says that I can forgive because I live and make decisions inside a strong relationship with Jesus Christ. “Faith like a grain of mustard seed” says I already have what I need to live my Christian life, and it’s not the “stuff” of this world. I have Christ, or better, Christ has me! The One who came and died for me, the One who broke through death and came to life for me, the One who called me in Baptism and made me His own — my relationship with Him makes seemingly impossible things possible.

So, in Christ, I confront the person who has “offended,” and this is an area where we’ve gone wrong. People are so quick to point out perceived offenses and perceived wrongs, but no one is quick to offer forgiveness. Faith can confront wrong, but also then I can and should offer forgiveness. I do the hard thing and share my faith with my neighbor. I make time to give/pack food for the hungry when I thought I was too busy. I drop a quarter in an LWML mite box, believing it will make a difference. I hold the hand of a neighbor in the hospital, even if they’re not my favorite neighbor. I phone a friend or family member who has become distant. Faith is a living, breathing thing to be used every single day…days filled with moving Mulberry trees into the deep by faith and faith alone.

So, in Christ, our church takes on a new kind of ministry mindset, especially in light of the time in which we live. We see our community – all the people around us that don’t come here – not as the enemy or a battle field, but as our mission field. And underneath it all, the lore you live and serve with others, you hear mulberry trees moving — hard things, seemingly impossible things, happening because Christ lives within us and is at work in us wherever we go.

The Lutheran Women’s Missionary League has always lived by mustard seed faith. Little gifts, mites, combined across our synod, make big things happen in mission across the world. Christ has been moving mulberry trees through the LWML since 1942. The women of our church have shown us what it means to move mulberry trees with just a little faith, making the seemingly impossible possible after all.

A painting by Vincent van Gogh is titled “The Mulberry Tree.” He painted it in 1889 while in voluntary confinement at an asylum in France. He had a mental breakdown of sorts, so he confined himself. It was at this time and place where Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” worth more than $100 million. I’m no art critic or expert, but the mulberry tree van Gogh gives us is impressive. It is strong with bushy foliage, and, in his painting, rich with tones of yellow and gold. It is rooted in rock and set against a deep blue sky. That’s what a good artist does; they take an ordinary item like a tree and give it character, beauty, strength, and even joy. That’s what God does with us; ordinary people doing the seemingly impossible by faith.

May that be our attitude the next time we say that it is difficult to follow Christ, even in this day and age of ½ full, supposedly joyless aging churches. What appears to be hard, and even impossible like bringing the young people back or reaching our immediate community, may be just the thing we need to do as we live with Christ day-in-day-out. And because Christ abides with us and within us, the difficult thing can be done with joy. It may not be easy, but it is possible in Christ.

Amen.

17th Sunday after Pentecost

17th Sunday after Pentecost

October 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

“When Things Get Worse Before They Get Better”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is one of my favorites…the Old Testament lesson from the prophet Habakkuk.

My dear friends,

You may not know this, but I wasn’t supposed to be here today. Originally, the plan was for me to be gone today because I had tickets to the Nebraska vs. Northwestern football game on Saturday. I could have been there when Nebraska kicked a field goal with no time left to win the game 13-10. However, I chose not to go and I sold my tickets to the game. It’s okay…I’ve already seen those teams play before. The last time I saw Nebraska play Northwestern (2013), Nebraska scored a touchdown on a last play of the game desperation pass into the end zone. 90,000 people went crazy. In that game 6 years ago things definitely got worse before they got exponentially better. In my life I have learned that, in sports…in life…sometimes things get worse before they get better!

The same can be said about Habakkuk and his contemporaries. Habakkuk prophesied to Judah in the reign of Jehoiakim in the last decade of the 7th century BC probably around 605BC and the Battle of Carchemish. It was a time of chaos, uncertainty, and violence for Judah. Habakkuk had gone often to the Lord in prayer for his people, and it just seemed things were getting worse before they got better. Because things were getting worse with no sign of things getting better, Habakkuk complained.

Habakkuk’s first complaint focuses on God’s apparent lack of response. Violence, wrong, and injustice seem to flourish, while God seemed distracted, disinterested, or otherwise pre-disposed. God responds by assuring Habakkuk that he is active, even now, orchestrating a coming invasion of Judah by the Chaldeans (Babylonians). That invasion, says the Lord, will bring his justice to Judah.

Huh? The Babylonians? What! Oh no…not them! Habakkuk, on hearing God’s plan for Judah, raises his second complaint. How can God take a wicked, idolatrous nation such as Babylon and use it against a more righteous nation such as Judah? Why would God even consider doing nothing while evil people triumph over those who are more righteous? Aren’t things only getting worse? Well, sometimes things get worse before they get better.

The Lord tells Habakkuk, “Still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” Uhm…come again? Seems slow? Delay? Did He say “wait?” Well…that’s a problem right there amigo. In our day of instantaneous gratification, the call to wait for anything is never easy. Know what else I’ve learned in life? Hope always involves waiting. Yet, it’s in the waiting that we learn dependence – we grow – and we’re being shaped by God. Most important, in the waiting, faith is strengthened and hope has everything to do with faith in what God will do in the future.

Finally, God offers Habakkuk and his most significant hope in 2:4 – “The righteous shall live by faith.” Wow. This also means that the righteous live by hope, and hope does not disappoint. Hope is inseparable from faith. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1). Faith, this assurance, is not just our trusting that everything will turn out all right. Whether things get better or are getting worse, faith is believing God will care for us because he has been reconciled to us by the One he promised to send – a promise as old as time itself.

As St. Paul makes clear in Romans when he quotes these words of Habakkuk, it is Christ Jesus who by his death on the cross and his resurrection has accomplished this reconciliation to God. Our sin, which would have forever placed us on the other side of God’s judgment—with the unrighteous of Judah, with the wicked Babylonians even—he took on himself and took away. Faith always has an object, and the object of our faith is the saving work of Jesus. This is the faith by which we live. Faith gives us confidence as we wait for things to get better.

Hope is the amazing gift of seeing the future shaped by faith. It’s why Christians with cancer can see themselves whole again—on earth or in heaven. It’s why a husband and wife torn apart by conflict, sitting with a Christian counselor, suddenly see a future they may have together. It’s the person broken down and worn out by life that keeps lifting their head off the pillow every morning and keeps going every single day trusting it will get better.

“The righteous shall live by faith” especially when things get worse knowing that they WILL get better and that things are already better through forgiveness, salvation, and life in Christ Jesus. But you may have to wait for things to get better. And waiting stinks.

The last three verses of Habakkuk are meant to be sung to a melody we don’t know. Yet they sing through the centuries what God-centered hope looks like: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, YET I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” our strength even in knowing that things get worse before they get better. That hope-filled promise is even better than the best Nebraska last-second win.

Amen.

16th Sunday after Pentecost

16th Sunday after Pentecost

September 29, 2019

Luke 16:19-31

“Too Late”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that engages us today is the Holy Gospel lesson previously read from Luke chapter 16.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Every day of our lives, God gifts us with an amazing and unique gift! Each day you live, you get time…24 wonderful hours to use however you want! It is given only once, so it is a valuable commodity. How valuable is an entire month? Ask a mother whose baby is born prematurely. How valuable is one week? Ask the editor of a weekly newspaper. How valuable is one night? Ask someone whose spouse has been unfaithful. How valuable is one hour? Ask someone rushed to the hospital in need of critical care; been there, done that. Have the scar to prove it.

Time is a valuable commodity. In Luke 16, Jesus speaks first how important it is to use our resources wisely. Now today, He are encouraged to wisely use the time we are given, to use our time wisely, because we never know when it will be too late.

In this parable today, we see two men whose time is “up,” as they say. In terms of this world, both Lazarus and the rich man are out of time; they are both dead. This parable is very unique. Normally parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings; this is the only parable which does not limit its action to this world. It is also the only parable out of 55 different parables in which the characters have names (Lazarus, Abraham, Moses); all other parables use only titles and personal pronouns.

The rich man is very wealthy. He lives in a home with a gate; maybe not a big deal in Sarasota, but in ancient Near East it was! He also wears clothes made with purple die. For centuries, the purple dye trade was centered in the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre in modern day Lebanon. The Phoenicians’ purple dye came from the Murex sea snail, and it was so exceedingly rare that it literally became worth its weight in gold. Purple was reserved for royalty; only they could afford purple. Lazarus, a man with nothing in this world, lies at his gate begging and longing to get the crumbs from the rich man’s table. Dogs are licking his sores. A 1st century Jew would never allow an unclean dog to do this; it would have been a horrifying situation and Lazarus couldn’t stop it. Lazarus is destitute and his situation is dire. The rich man lives dignified and his situation is desirable.

But death is the great equalizer! The only thing that matters following death is the condition of the heart, the soul, the faith of the deceased. Possessions and wealth are all left behind; what God considers is not found in a checkbook register. Now that death has come, the positions have been reversed. Lazarus is in, with ABRAHAM no less; the rich man is out.

When death came, the rich man found that he was too late in a number of ways. The rich man found that it was too late to care for those around him. The rich man had an opportunity to care for the needy every day, but he chose otherwise. What he gave to Lazarus, if anything, was the scraps from his table. Giving scraps? That leftover giving is not done in love, but from guilt. True giving as motivated by faith is giving away what is precious not just the leftovers.

So often when Christians give our money, we also give the “leftovers.” First Fruits giving is hard; It’s easier to give the crumbs to the poor leaving the best for ourselves. Those with needs are all around us – sometimes even at our front door. Do you know how many times I’ve given needy people food from our All Faith’s food barrel? Sometimes the needs are obvious: people need food, clothing, or shelter. Sometimes the needs are not so obvious: people are hurting, lonely, scared, addicted, tired, or countless other emotions that diminish the quality of that person’s life. It was too late for the rich man to use his time wisely. It’s not too late for you. You still draw the breath of life; it’s not too late for you.

Additionally, for the rich man it was also too late to see the chasm, to see the difference between heaven and hell. These images are among some of the most tragic and serious warnings in the Bible. Our culture, though, avoids such ideas by denying their truth. People tend to sinfully down play the existence of an actual heaven and actual hell. In their minds, the existence of heaven and hell are good for Sunday School stories and sympathy cards and that’s about it. For many, if the idea of “heaven” or “hell” motivates you to live a better life, then that’s okay. For too many, since you can’t see either one, how can you believe it exists, right? That, my friends, is a dangerous gamble to make. Yes, God is a God of love, but He is also just and His wrath against sin is terrible. Hell is the ultimate manifestation of the consequences of the Law, and by the time one ends up there, it’s clearly too late!

For God’s people, it’s not too late! Lazarus must have had faith in God, for he ended up in heaven. The parable is NOT about if you’re “good” you go to heaven and if you’re “bad,” you go to hell. Let the Bible interpret the Bible and over and over the Bible teaches salvation by grace through FAITH alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). After a life of faithful suffering, Lazarus now enjoys the eternal glory of heaven.

For the rich man, it was too late to hear and heed the life-giving Word of God. It’s not too late for you. As children of God, our faith, our hope, lies in Jesus Christ revealed to us in the Word. Christ shed his innocent blood for us at Calvary to buy us back from sin; to lift us up like Lazarus and provide for our every need when we could not. Were it not for Christ Jesus and His sacrificial death, then we would ALL share the fate of the rich man. In the Parable, Jesus foreshadowed what He would do for us…rise again from the grave and what an eternal DIFFERENCE that makes! Because of God’s grace and His plan for salvation for humanity, because of our saving faith in Jesus, it is not too late for us. We are encouraged to be ready now…right now…before it does become too late.

Life moves pretty fast – we even say “time flies” – and the one burden you don’t want to carry is regret. Regret is like luggage; you clumsily carry it around, there’s never a convenient way to deal with it, and rarely do you get rid of it. Don’t let it be too late. Say what needs to be said. Do what needs to be done. Let your faith be evident as you take the time to serve your neighbor. Use your treasures wisely, especially your time. It’s been said that, in life, there are two pains: the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Do the right thing today, even if it hurts, so you never carry the pain of regret…especially that you didn’t use your time wisely. Remember…you only get it once; don’t let “too late” become your regret.
Amen.