All posts by shepsrq

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

June 23, 2019

Luke 8:26-39

“Who Is In Control Here?”

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 from Luke 8.

My dear friends,

For modern, enlightened, technologically-advanced folks like ourselves, we dismiss talk of demons and demonic activity as reflecting an old, primitive worldview; “the people in the Bible didn’t know any better, but we do.” Do we? Do we really? Who is in control here?

For the people of Jesus’ time—indeed, for Jesus himself—demons and demonic possession were an every day reality. Know how many times the word “Demon” shows up in the Gospels? 60 times! Casting out demons was a most significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Are demons real? Absolutely! One must be careful not to overreact, however. Some people see a demon behind every scary bush, every offensive song lyric, every naughty website. But don’t go too far the other way and just assume that in our modern world the demons packed it up and went “bye-bye.” Satan’s greatest accomplishment was to get Adam and Eve to rebel against God and introduce sin into the world. His greatest trick was to convince the world that he isn’t real. No one ever fights against what we don’t believe is there. So…who is in control here?

Where Jesus is frequently met by crowds, in this particular instance in Luke 8, he is met by only one man. The reasons for this become immediately clear. There is no crowd because they know this naked maniac resides there. The man is completely out of control and on the verge of self-destruction, one who is already living among the tombs in the midst of death—perhaps a death that he himself longed for at times.

The demon identifies itself as “Legion.” A Roman legion’s official strength was anywhere from 3000 to 6000 men; an overwhelming force has overtaken this man. It is clear that the man is not in control in any way. If he had moments of clarity, imagine the depth of this man’s burden and defenselessness and vulnerability and helplessness; you think he wanted to be this way? No way! That’s not the life he wanted for himself and no doubt he very much knew he wasn’t in control; he was in control of nothing.

The Gerasene demoniac is more like us than we may realize. “No way,” you no doubt reply, “I’m not possessed by a demon and I’m in control of my life.” Is that right? Granted, I’ve not seen any signs of demonic possession, but how in control are you really? The idea that we’re “in control” in life is an illusion. We put on a “brave face” for everyone else – so everyone can see “shiny, happy people” – but in truth most of us under that paper-thin veneer, are barely keeping it all together. It wouldn’t take much for the whole house of cards to come down, would it? So I ask again…who is in control here?

Our “demons” aren’t bogey-men who hide around dark corners. They are far more insidious, more subtle but every bit as dangerous and exponentially more scary. They drag your mind to some very dark and unpleasant places. Events “just happen,” and next thing you know, BLAM! You’re living a life of isolation – from God and other people – living amid the tombs of pain and regret and anxiety and worry and uncertainty. And there is always – ALWAYS – sinful rebellion against God that keeps us isolated, bound, and on the verge of losing control. So, who is in control here?

My dear friends, it’s during the darkness and pain and shame and uncertainty that we are called to remember that the word of Christ is eternally authoritative; it changes our tragic sinful human realities. Consider what happened. There was no magic wand, no holy hand grenade. Jesus speaks. He speaks and the man is clothed, in his right mind, and he gets to go home. Who is in control? JESUS IS IN CONTROL! He always has been and always is. Even the cross of Christ shows that He is in control. Through his innocent suffering and death, He reverses Satan’s accomplishments. Sin and death are resolved; Satan has no more cards to play. Your sins are forgiven, you are restored to God. He is in control.

It is here – Church – that we are ever mindful of the power of God’s Word. Through the teaching and preaching of Christ’s eternally authoritative Word, through the Word in and with the bread and wine, and the water in Baptism we see who is REALLY in control. In Baptism, you’re no longer a naked maniac running around. God clothed you in the righteousness of Christ, forgave your sins, marked you as one redeemed by Christ, and welcomed you home.

However, before we start “high-fiving” each other in Christian victory, let’s not forget. A significant human failure also appears in this text. The townspeople come out and they see the man clothed and in his right mind and the herd of swine bobbing in the sea. Their response to this control exerted by Jesus? They ask Jesus to leave their region. They are afraid to be too close to him. Sound familiar? We want God to be in control, but not TOO MUCH in control. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is to see God at work and pretend nothing has really happened. Or we vacillate the other way. It’s neither God nor a demon; we assume stuff “just happens” because God doesn’t really work in our lives any more than demons do.

We are so technologically advanced that it’s almost too easy to dismiss texts like todays. By faith we know that God is in control. As Christ came to us through Baptism, and as He continues to come to us through His Word and Sacraments, He remains with us always, completely, and totally in control. Now…go live like God is in control of your life, proclaiming all that God has done for you in Christ.

Amen.

Holy Trinity

Holy Trinity

June 16, 2019

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

“Why?”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. The text that engages us is the First Lesson read from Proverbs chapter 8.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Just for fun, when I started writing this sermon, I “googled” the word “why.” Know how many results I got? 8.46 billion…with a “b.” Must be a WHOLE LOT of people out there looking to the Internet to find answers to their “why” questions. And maybe you have some too.

Let’s start with “why is the color white today?” White is a color of perfection and purity. It is often used to celebrate high, holy days in church. The color for Christmas is white. The color for Epiphany is white. The color for All Saints’ Day and Thanksgiving is white. The color of Easter is…you guessed it…white. White is a natural choice for today’s celebration of the Holy Trinity. Today we focus on our perfect and pure Triune God and what He does for us, hence the color is white. Next week, we switch to green making 4 color and paraments and banner changes in 4 weeks, and right about now the Altar Guild wants to nail what’s left of my hide to their sacristy door.

“Why do we even have a Trinity celebration in the first place?” In the 4th century, a controversy broke out in the Christian churches. Focusing on Proverbs chapter 8 – our lesson for today – the followers of the priest Arius argued that the Son of God was a created being and not eternal God. They argued that there was a time when the Son of God did not exist. Much of their argument rested on a faulty Greek translation (Septuagint) of Proverbs 8:22: “The Lord created Me,” instead of “The Lord possessed Me.” To refute the Arian controversy, the Athanasian Creed was written and adopted by the Christian Church teaching all three eternal, not made persons of the Triune God. Every year the Church celebrates the 1st Sunday after Pentecost as “Holy Trinity,” and this celebration is the only time during the year that we use the Athanasian Creed in worship.

In our modern day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken up this ancient heresy. To support their false doctrine, they mistranslate Scriptures like Proverbs 8:22 and John 1:1. For John 1:1, their New World Translation says, “The Word was a god,” instead of, ‘The Word was God.” Big difference! Their false translation makes Jesus a second tier god alongside the heavenly Father. Clearly, this teaching does not fit with Holy Scripture, which teaches that there is only one God!

“Okay then,” you may think, “if the Triune God is so important today, then why are you talking about Wisdom from Proverbs 8?” First of all, you ask a lot of questions. Secondly, I didn’t want this to be a theological lecture on the Triune nature of God. Finally, when we talk about wisdom, we ARE talking about the Triune God, specifically Jesus Christ.

According to Proverbs, Wisdom was present already in eternity, before the creation of the world and, consequently, before there even was such a thing as time. Along the same lines, Jesus said, “And now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had with You before the world existed” (John 17:5). I don’t know what the Jehovah’s Witnesses do with that verse! Wisdom was present with God in the beginning (Pr 8:22). At the time of creation, Wisdom said, “I was beside [God], like a master workman,” (v. 30) verifying the co-eternal nature of all 3 persons of the Triune God.

I get it. I can see the glazed looks up here; like a cow looking at a new gate. When we come face-to-face with the eternally begotten Son and other mysteries concerning the Triune God, don’t be shocked if you’re confused. We are in realms beyond human comprehension. We can no more capture and define our eternal, omnipotent 3-in-1 Triune God within our minds than we can hold all of the Gulf of Mexico in a 5 gallon bucket.

Which, I suppose, leads to the next “why” question. In Proverbs 8:31, it says God “rejoices in his inhabited world and delights in the children of man,” then why do so many bad things happen to me? Why do we suffer so much?” Well…there it is. If “what is Heaven?” is the $64,000, then “why do we suffer” is the 64 million dollar question. “Why God, why? Why is my life the way it is? Why can’t You make my life better? Why won’t my kids or spouse listen to me? Why do my joints/my back have to ache all the time? Why can’t I have more than enough money to pay for once? Why did you have to take him/her out of my life? Why can’t you turn my life around?” Why can’t I for once wake up in a good mood? Why? Why? Why me, God? Why? It is a question that haunts us day in and day out.

Why? As God’s people, we live each day by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). We look around at the circumstances and events of our lives, and in our wisdom we want to know “why?” But there isn’t always an answer. Paul reminds us in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live…The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Living by faith means that we may not know the answer to “why?” It means we may not see the why, but we know and trust that, in God’s wisdom, there is a “how.”

As silver and gold are refined by fire, God is wisely refining our character through our suffering. We endure so that we can be an example to others. And we have to, and I mean that we HAVE TO remember that God sees the “big picture” and you don’t. In his wisdom, God is working all things for your good which will ultimately turn out more favorable than we ever could have imagined. It’s been my experience that joy cannot be found without the piercing anguish of sorrow and suffering first. “Why” is the wrong question. “How.” How is God’s Triune wisdom being applied to my life? That’s a much better question.

The true wonder of it all is that the almighty Creator has come to us to save us. Jesus is God; He is Immanuel. He is true God and true Man, a Savior who has suffered, died, and risen for us for the forgiveness of our sins. Without this loving sacrifice at Calvary, our God would be an unfamiliar god of wrath and anger and punishment. But that’s not who we confess Him to be. He is a God whom is Almighty, Loving, Eternal, and will return for final judgment of His created world; an event we need not fear, but is something we want to happen!

My prayer for you this summer is that you will come to a deeper understanding of your loving and saving God and what His Word – His Wisdom – teaches you not only for the summer, but for all eternity.

Amen.

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost

June 9, 2019

Acts 2:1-21

“Amazed and Perplexed”

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 Second Reading from Acts chapter 2.

My dear friends,

I think you know what Christmas is about, and I think you know what Easter is all about, so what IS Pentecost about anyway? Let’s set the scene. Jesus has risen from the dead 50 days ago. He had ascended back into heaven 10 days ago, and now the disciples and members of the early church were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. Originally, Pentecost was the Jewish spring harvest festival named after the Greek word for “50” because it occurred on the 50th day after the Passover In the Old Testament, this celebration was also called the Feast of Weeks (Deut. 16:10) or the Feast of Harvest (Ex 23:16). This was meant to be the celebration in which the Israelites offered their first fruits to God in an act of thankful giving.

But that year, Pentecost took on a whole new meaning. The Jews were gathered from faraway places in Jerusalem – the religious center of Israel – to celebrate the Feast of Harvest/Weeks or “Pentecost.” But that year it was the Christians who gathered who received an amazing gift. Just as Jesus had promised in Luke 24:49, the Holy Spirit was given to those believers in Jerusalem. Now, Pentecost took on a whole new meaning. Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. Easter is the “birth” day of life over death. Pentecost is the “birthday,” if you will, of the Christian Church. It is the day that the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples which compelled them to go out and give a convincing witness to many people in many languages about their resurrected Lord Christ Jesus. And do you want to know something? The world is a different place because of Christmas. The world is a different place because of Easter. And the world is a different place because of Pentecost.

Acts 2:13 tells us that others (mocked them and) said, “They are filled with new wine.” Uhm…no. it was only 8 AM! In other words, the onlookers that day didn’t understand the actions of the faithful believers and so it was easier to mock and ridicule them rather than try to understand them. Sound familiar? Look at how the Christian faith is ridiculed and mocked in secular world today. Look at how those who believe in Creation are thought to be “ignorant” and “blind to science.” Those who support traditional marriage and do not support same-sex marriage are “hateful” and “old fashioned.” “Get with the times!” No…times change; the times need to get with the Bible not the other way around. Meanwhile those same people who mock and ridicule the faithful of God look at the events of this world – the crisis, calamity, chaos, and confusion – and they panic. And while they are perplexed by the events of the day, the faithful remain calm and fearless in the word of God: (Jesus said), “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28), “(cast) all your anxieties on (Jesus), because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). There are loads of people who look upon Christians who think we’re “drunk” or “ignorant,” but that is a far cry from what we really are. We aren’t ignorant or holier than anyone else. We are redeemed sinners forgiven by God’s grace and Jesus’ shed blood.

In verse 12 of today’s lesson, we are told regarding the onlookers that “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, What does this mean?” Again, we know full well how the world fails to understand the ways of God and His people so confusion and ridicule are natural reactions.

Despite the amazement and perplexity that day, Peter stood up and stated emphatically to the crowd in verse 14 “Give ear to my words!” Then Peter explained how the latter days of the New Covenant were a fulfillment of the amazing words of the prophet Joel. What then follows is Peter’s long, great sermon concerning Christ, and we will hear the conclusion next week.

However, the last verse we are given to consider is verse 21, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Wow. I think that what Peter was trying to get across to people is that they should not get caught up in the specific events of that day. They ought not get distracted by the great rushing wind or the flames or even the signs from the prophet Joel (v. 19-20). Instead, what is vital for people to know is the fact that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. You want to talk about being amazed and perplexed? (v. 12). The cross of Jesus Christ…that is amazement. It is amazing that God would love and care about this world so much that He would send His only Son into this world to redeem this world from its sinful rebellion and disbelief. And while it caused great perplexity then and still does today, the resurrection is utterly amazing! It is amazing that God would raise up Christ Jesus from the grave to show that His sacrificial death was a sufficient ransom for this world’s sin. It is amazing that we are joined with Him by our baptisms into His death so that, just as He was raised from the dead, we too will one day rise because our sins are forgiven and we believe in Christ as Lord and Savior.

What Peter said was right…everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved because eternal salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone and through no other way. As a result, we can live amazed and perplexed lives in the sense that we know that we have the forgiveness of sins because of the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ and that we have the hope of eternal life by virtue of our faith in Him. This truth continues to amaze and perplex many people, including those who live life by their faith in the Son of God. We are able to live amazed and perplexed lives by faith in the Christ of Christmas, the Christ of Easter, and most definitely, the gift of God which is the Day of Pentecost.

Pretty amazing, right?

Amen.

The Ascension of our Lord

The Ascension of our Lord

June 2, 2019

Acts 1:1-11

“But I Have Questions!”

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the Sermon is based on the First Reading from Acts chapter 1.

 

My dear friends in Christ,

You may not remember her name, but I bet you remember what she did. About 15 years ago she was kind of a “big thing”. Jennifer Wilbanks lived in Georgia and was supposed to get married in 2005 in front of 600 family members and friends with 14 bridesmaids and 14 groomsmen. Yikes. But Jennifer Wilbanks panicked. She fled her home, hopped a bus to Las Vegas, and ended up in New Mexico. Wilbanks made a distressed phone call home saying that she had been kidnapped. No one kidnapped her except her own fear, her own “cold feet,” and the event became national news. She became known as the “Runaway Bride.”

When an event like that happens, we are left with lots of questions. Why did she do this to someone she supposedly loves? Will she face legal charges for making a false report about the kidnapping (“false information to law enforcement;” 2 years probation and $15,000 in costs)? Since the wedding is off, what are they going to do with 14 tuxedos, 14 bridesmaid dresses, and all that cake? There certainly seems to be more we don’t know than we do know in this situation. Don’t know about the cake, but what do we know? The wedding was called off, her fiancée married someone else, and Wilbanks went bankrupt in 2010.

In a similar way, Jesus’ return to heaven creates as many questions as answers. Jesus, after spending 40 days on earth after His resurrection, visibly ascended right in front of the disciples. You can almost see the looks on the faces of the disciples right after it happened; looks of fear and wonder and amazement that masked the questions they were secretly asking themselves. You may have questions too.

Question…where did Jesus go? That may seem obvious, or is it? Our Gospel lesson from Luke 24:51 says that Jesus was “taken up into heaven.” Okay, that seems easy enough…He went up into heaven. Follow-up question…what and where is heaven? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?

Depends on who you ask. In 1998, a movie was released called “What Dreams May Come.” In that movie, heaven is portrayed as an individual fantasy world where everything is exactly the way you would want it. In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Shoeless Joe Jackson wonders aloud if Iowa is actually heaven. I have lived in Iowa, and as far as I could tell, it was nice and all, but it didn’t seem like heaven. We all have an idea what heaven looks like: big, billowy clouds surrounding a location above the stars and galaxy as we know it. But what or where is heaven?

What is Heaven? We have John’s description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 for starters (last week’s 2nd lesson). In Revelation 21, John gives us just a glimpse of what heaven will be like: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them…and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (v. 3-4). Wow…we can only imagine what that will be like. As far as where? My friends, heaven is where Jesus is. Heaven is present wherever Jesus is present; it’s being in the presence of the great Triune God. That’s helpful, but when you get right down to it, there is more about heaven that we don’t know than we do know, and we will continue to not know until heaven is perfectly revealed to us on the Last Day and I promise you, you won’t be disappointed! God has never let you down before. Why would He now regarding Heaven? He won’t.

Okay, next question. Why did Jesus go in the first place? Why not just stay here on earth? Our First Reading answers that for us. Jesus had to ascend to Heaven for two reasons: so that He was not misunderstood, and so that the Holy Spirit could be given.

The misunderstanding was already apparent in the lesson from Acts today. The disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Seriously!? Even those closest to Jesus STILL wanted an earthly king, a Savior who would free them from Roman occupation and oppression. They still wanted our Lord to flex His might and bring freedom from hardness and make everything perfect – a “heaven on earth.”

And that is the kind of Savior that many people are also looking for today. In the midst of our tribulations and trials and temptations, when human life gets downright difficult and depressing, we have questions like “where is God? Why isn’t He helping me?” It sure doesn’t feel like He’s there when every joint and muscle in your body seems to hurt and you have questions about your future or the relational/emotional pain is so great you feel as if you’re going to burst! But we are not alone. We don’t have an earthly Savior but a heavenly Savior – One who knows what suffering feels like and who never promised us freedom from suffering. In fact, we can EXPECT to suffer.

“Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Additionally, “we live by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). We do not need to physically see Jesus to believe, and that’s what faith is. It is believing in Jesus Christ and his birth, life, suffering, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus ascended so He wouldn’t be misunderstood as an earthly Savior who runs around fixing all your life problems. He is a Heavenly Savior. He doesn’t always fix your temporary, temporal problems like you want, but He fixed the eternal problem of sin that we ALL needed to have resolved.

Jesus also had to ascend into heaven so that the Holy Spirit could be given to us. In John 16:7 Jesus said, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” If Jesus had not ascended, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t have come to us. And if the Spirit had not come, then no one could truthfully say that Jesus is their Lord and Savior for “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). And if we didn’t have the faith the Holy Spirit brings and the hope and promise that faith brings, where would we be in this life? We would be forced to live this life in constant uncertainty and total fear. But by our Spirit-given faith in Jesus, we no longer fear because of faith and hope, and hope does not disappoint.

When it comes to the ascension of Jesus, we know that He has temporarily gone to Heaven where He holds ultimate authority and is preparing to come again. This knowledge shouldn’t cause us to have questions, but instead lead us to give all thanks and praise to God for what He has done for us. In times of trouble, don’t pull a “Jennifer Wilbanks;” don’t run away. Instead, seek His face until the day that He comes again and you will find the peace and comfort and hope that you need to make it through the day and the days still yet to be.

Amen.

 

 

6th Sunday of Easter

6th Sunday of Easter

May 26, 2019

Revelation 21:9-14, 21-27

“Something Old, Something New”

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 Second Reading from Revelation chapter 21.

My dear friends,

Are you familiar with the old saying, “something old, new, borrowed and blue?” This popular bridal attire rhyme, which dates back to Victorian times (1837-1901), is really “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in your shoe.” Something old refers to a link with the bride’s family and her old life. Wearing something new is supposed to represent success in the bride’s new life. Wearing something borrowed, which has already been worn by a happy bride at her wedding, is meant to bring good luck to this new marriage. Wearing something blue was considered to represent purity and fidelity. Placing a silver sixpence in the bride’s left shoe was a symbol of wealth, not just financial wealth but a wealth of happiness and joy throughout her married life. Hey man…I’ve done 40 weddings in my career. I’ve seen bride’s and their moms want a whole lot worse, like riding a horse to the altar. I said “No.”

The Christian Church works with the same dynamic; we find special meaning in those words “something old, something new.” We either get comfortable or a little excited about the same “old” things: old hymnals and familiar hymns instead of contemporary worship songs; old liturgies and cherished hymns BUT also using the occasional “new” liturgy and digital screens and digital recording of each service; a blend of “old” and “new” co-existing right here at GSLCS!

But of FAR greater importance of the blending of old and new is the vision that we have today in the Second Lesson from John. John is not shown the old Jerusalem; he’s “been there, done that.” Instead, he sees the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven like a bride comes glorious and radiant. Well…all right! Let’s check out this “new” bride – the New Jerusalem. I have seen brides go to great lengths to look beautiful on their wedding day: hair and make-up done professionally, jewelry, fancy dress, expensive shoes, and so on. Likewise, this new city from God is beautiful…stunning. Look at the words to describe its brilliance: jewels, jasper, crystal, pearls, gold, glass and light. But it is NOT these items themselves that makes this new bride beautiful. Nope. What makes it radiant is the fact that the city reflects God’s glory because God dwells there! This city has no need for a sun or a moon because the glory of God gives it light (21:23). For those who reside there, it is a new, perfect existence over and against our old, current less-than-perfect existence. How awesome is that? A place where nothing ever goes wrong? Sounds like a place we want to be, right? I would certainly think so!

So…what keeps us out? Will everyone be able to enter the new, beautiful holy city Jerusalem? The answer is no. Not everyone gets in. You see, this city is illuminated by the glory of God. He dwells there; He is sinless and we aren’t. That’s a problem. For in every groom, bride, man, woman, and child, there is the darkness of sin and sin is what hinders our dwelling with God; it shackles our ability to love, it restrains our ability to serve and confines our ability to worship as we ought. Sin is what keeps ALL of us out.

What about us? The church? We get in, right? Don’t confuse membership here with inclusion there. We are members of the LCMS – the church on earth – and one day we want to relocate…move in…to the New Jerusalem. Just because you belong here doesn’t mean you automatically belong there. If that were the case, fewer people are getting in every year. From 2005 to 2015, our FLGA district suffered a 24% decrease in Baptized membership – the 6th highest decrease in our Synod. During that same time frame, every single district in the LCMS has experienced losses in Baptismal membership, some as high as 31% (New Jersey District). Churches are not immune to the power of sin. People get old and die, and many members of the LCMS have died and are dying. Members die; churches can die too. For the living, God’s beautiful church can still be filled with fighting and a general malaise that lures its members into complacency – to be content with being content – and, as a result, churches lose their missional focus and slowly begin to die.

So, what DOES get us in? Good question; I’ll answer that question with a question. Did you notice that the new city has 12 gates? Now that’s unique because most ancient cities of the Near East only had one, maybe two gates. And this city doesn’t need protection from outside forces. This city has no need for protection via the walls or gates. The foundations have the name of the Apostles and each gate bears the name of a tribe of Israel – the OT and NT people of God. The walls and gates are not there for protection. They are there to show those on the outside the only way in. To enter the New Jerusalem, only one gate is needed and that is Christ. In John 10:7 Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep.” In Matthew our Lord said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (7:13-14). Jesus sets us free from sin’s bondage and stain and sets us free to reside in the New Jerusalem.

Right before He ascended, Jesus told us to “Go, and make disciples of ALL nations.” God desires that everyone gain access (1 Timothy 2:4). He desires that everyone, by baptismal faith, be an eternal resident of the New Jerusalem and have that hope to cling to in the dark times of life; hope for when our earthly relationships fail, hope for when our earthly health fails, hope for when our earthly finances fail, hope for when our plan for a better tomorrow fails.

It’s in these times that this New Jerusalem and our citizenship there would be our hope in difficult and hard times as we get older and older each day knowing that God will make all things new, even ugly, broken sinners like us.

“Something old, new, borrowed and blue.” That makes for a beautiful bride. Thanks be to God that we are made beautifully new, to dwell with Him for all eternity in the splendor of the New Jerusalem – a daily hope old as time itself. Cling to that hope when both old and new fail you, whatever happens or does not happen, knowing every day you walk in His marvelous light confident that your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life – an old, old book promising you life; new, abundant, eternal, beautiful life.

Amen.

5th Sunday of Easter

5th Sunday of Easter (C)

May 19, 2019

John 13:31-35

“A Crisis of Love”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is today’s Gospel text from John 13.

My dear friends,

Our world is in a crisis of love. Fox News hates CNN. CNN hates the NRA. The NRA hates PETA. PETA hates Fox News and round and round we go all day every day. For each of us, our parents were the first people to carry us, feed us, and protect us, but tragically, the nightly news reminds us some children have to be protected from their mothers and fathers. Our families are fracturing causing our communities to crumble along with them. As a nation we used to think our citizens unconditionally loved this country; “one nation under God,” we stand united. Our enemies always came from foreign lands, foreign shores. Not always the case anymore. More and more people are finding “love” through dating websites and social media apps to facilitate casual one-night stands instead of building long-term relationships. The medications we used to take to help us are now killing our children in the streets where they’d rather be instead of home, assuming they even have a home. Our world is in a crisis of love.

How did we get here? How do we fix this crisis? What is the answer? The answer, as always, is in Christ Jesus, for only in Christ’s self-sacrificing love for us can we finally and truly love one another and, in doing so, we can fix this crisis of love.

   The setting for the Gospel is what we call Maundy Thursday. It is evening in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, identified the one who will within hours betray him, and instituted the Lord’s Supper, an ongoing expression of divine love. And as a kind of last word, Jesus speaks: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (v 34). This is the “new old” command (Maundy=mandatum) to which Jesus calls us. Of course, the Lord taught in the Old Testament, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). So in one sense this command is not new. But it is new here because Jesus changes the wording. He’s changed the basis for love; “just as I have loved you.” He is about to fulfill love. Now, in that fulfillment, Jesus has given each of us an important, lifelong, critical task: to love one another with total self-sacrifice. That’s easy to say in here; harder to do out there.

God calls us to repentance, forgiveness, and love even of our enemy. Satan (almost forgotten him; he hasn’t forgotten you) calls us to consider the good things of life instead, to take it easy, to take care of ourselves; love and serve the “unholy trinity: me, myself, and I” instead of others.

Satan is luring us back to where we were before God’s searching love found us. He wants us staring at our screens – turned in on ourselves, not thinking of God’s glorious creation and good will, but only burning in our hate for others, for organization, and opposing opinions. So we become stingy in our commitments, dried-up in our relationships, curled-in instead of reaching out; we have become a very self-centered world. The world extends no further than the dimensions of our phone’s screen. Then we wonder why life seems so full of hate, so boring, so meaningless, so exhausting. We imagine God is far away…too far away to be an active part of my busy life; if only there were an app for that!

   To rescue us, to bring us back, our Lord Jesus, on the night of his betrayal and arrest, spoke with his 11 apostles: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him” (v 31). Now? Not Palm Sunday? The Son of Man is glorified now? Judas’s betrayal? It’s true. This betrayal, and its resulting suffering and death on the cross, is the glory of all God’s planning. Jesus’ passion is the fulfillment of all that God had promised through the prophets. He’s the one to bear our iniquity, the one to crush Satan for us, the one to set the captives free, the One to give you a reason to lift your eyes from looking down into your phone to instead look heavenward.

This eternal love of God broke forth into our cold and loveless world ever since the angels proclaimed it at night to shepherds in their fields: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11). God’s glorious plan since the fall was that Jesus would be born, betrayed, suffer and die. And resurrected to new life! Now THAT’S love!

Yet this plan, as ugly and unreasonable as it may seem, is truly glorious because it is done for only one reason: to rescue us. We had been trapped under the reign of death. His death destroys death. He dies in our place as our sin. His life means we can live, and in doing so, we can love.

Through our vocations, our callings – mother and child, husband and wife, boss and employee, teacher and student, family member and friend – God has given us places to love as he has loved us. We are to love not only when someone has done something good for us, but to serve everyone in love all the time. As God’s people we are to put aside our selfish desires and seek to serve our mother, our child, our spouse, our neighbor, even our enemy, the way Christ serves them—forgiving, sacrificing, helping, loving. And that CANNOT happen if you’re always holding a screen in your hand.

In 1867, the British philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill (not Edmund Burke) said in a speech, “All that evil needs to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Whether you prefer Fox News or CNN doesn’t matter. Instead, can you be like Christ this week? Can you love as you’ve been loved? Can you forgive because God has forgiven you? Can you serve because God in Christ has served you? Go forth, put down your screens, and do what you can in order to alleviate the crisis of love in your homes, communities, work places, schools, country, and even in your church. Friends, go forth and boldly love, because you have been boldly and freely loved as the Lord has commanded you to do: “love one another: just as I have loved you.” That’s not a suggestion..it is a commandment from the Lord. Just sayin…

Amen.

4th Sunday of Easter

4th Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday
May 12, 2019
John 10:22-31
“Not What We Expected”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the Gospel lesson from John chapter 10.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
When I say the word “sheep,” what do you think of? For those of you who grew
up apart from sheep, you probably think of those darling creatures hopping and skipping around the feet of Little Bo Peep with their glistening white wool and natural beauty and softness they possess; they would be a perfect pillow, right? Those of you who DID grow up around sheep know completely different. You know the truth. You already know that sheep are dumb and dirty and not all that beautiful. Maybe not what you expected, but that’s the truth.
In St. Louis there is a free zoo called Grant’s Farm. One of the animals you could get close enough to touch at Grant’s Farm was the sheep. Spending time near these things forever changed my attitude about sheep. Their thick wool picked up every branch and twig they got near and got firmly lodged in that tangled, matted mess. They were always bumping into each other and stumbling around; sheep are less than graceful. Their heavy wool hung off them like a big, heavy blanket and summertime in St. Louis was the last place you wanted to be under a blanket. Contrary to popular myths, sheep are not the soft, darling creatures we think they are. Again, probably not what you expected, but it’s true.
When Jesus spoke of sheep in today’s Gospel lesson, it was a less than soft, darling situation. It was a downright ugly situation. Tension was mounting after the events of John 8 and the Jews wanted to stone Jesus, even taking up rocks to do so (8:59). The pressure and jealousy of the Jews was building after our Lord then healed a man born blind in John 9. In John 10, the Jews approach again to know if Jesus was the Messiah. Why? To worship him? Hardly! They are itching to stone someone; looking for a reason to kill Jesus like they had tried in John 8! Not what we would expect from religious leaders, but it’s true.
Let me set the scene for you. It is winter in Jerusalem and it is the Feast of Dedication; that means the Jews were celebrating Hanukkah. Jesus was now walking in the temple area, specifically Solomon’s Colonnade, when the Jewish leaders (Pharisees and Scribes) approached him. “Jesus…how long are you going to keep us in the dark? Are you the Messiah or what?” they asked with fake grins on their faces and rocks in their hands.
That begs an interesting question. Where did they get the rocks? The conduct of the Jews is just the same as it was when our Lord said, “Before Abraham was I am.” They regarded His words as blasphemy, and proceeded to take the law in their own hands, to inflict the punishment due to blasphemy – death by stoning (Numbers 15:36). Okay, a harsh punishment, yes, but that should be what we expect from the Jews of that time. But again, where did they get the stones for stoning?
The Greek word for “picked up” here, is not the same that is used in chapter 8. Here it means “they carried.” No doubt the stones used in stoning to death were not pebbles, but large stones. In other words, we can expect that these moderate sized stones were not lying around in the Temple. The Jewish leaders must have still been carrying them around since their original confrontation with Jesus in chapter 8; they had to carry stones from some little distance for their murderous purpose. We can hardly suppose there were suitable stones just lying around within an old finished building like Solomon’s Colonnade, though there might be stones at a little distance on account of the repairs of the temple. Now…think of the implications of that…carrying around a heavy stone just waiting to use it. I’ll come Bach to that in a moment.
Are sheep the pearly-white creatures we think they are? No…they are not what we expect. They are gross and dirty and they have no way to clean themselves up. That is the way it is with our sin. All of us are born with that awful sinfulness stuck in the wool of our soul with no way to get it out. Romans 3 tells us that we are all sinful and Romans 6 tells us that the wages of sin is death. Sin, then, is why people die…why ALL people die. They are still carrying that heavy blanket of sin and that blanket makes us feel pain and depression and sickness and loneliness and resentment and eventually physical death. Additionally, like the ancient Jewish leaders, we also carry around heavy stones each day – stones of regret and anger and frustration – and we cannot wait to finally throw the stone because we think it will make us feel better. But it doesn’t; the intended relief isn’t there…it’s not what we expected.
The Good Shepherd searches out for us lost sheep and finds us tangled in the muck and brush and the heavy blanket of our sin. But Our Good Shepherd Jesus took his task a step further than most shepherds. He laid down his life for the sheep. In John 10:11, Jesus told the Jews that in addition to being the Good Shepherd, he lays down his life for the sheep. That’s NOT what you would normally expect from a shepherd. A regular shepherd was a hired hand, an employee. They lived by the motto, “live to tend another day.” If the flock is damaged or lost, well, the shepherd finds another flock. Not Jesus. As the Good Shepherd he laid down his life for stinky, sweaty, smelly sheep like us bumping and stumbling our way through this life.
The Good Shepherd calls to you by name every day in and through His Word, and his sheep know his voice. As a result, the sheep follow that Shepherd, and the Shepherd doesn’t give up on the sheep. We no longer live under our yucky blanket of sin but we live under the banner of his grace and love; he isn’t about to let go, for his grace and his mercy and his love are too strong and too great for that. Are you hearing His call? Are you spending time in His Word? If not, perhaps that’s why you feel lost and alone. Just sayin…
It’s easy to love when the one you love is lovable; we would expect that. But even in our rebellion and disobedience, our Good Shepherd continues to love us and hold us fast in the tight grip of his grace. He washes the guilt and stain away from the wool of our soul and he encourages us to drop the heavy stones that we carry around every day for no reason whatsoever. You don’t need that stone; stop fighting a fight that’s already been won.
So much is made of the problems and difficulties of this modern non-church-going world. It becomes easy to be cynical and doubt God’s grip on the world or his sheep. Dear friends, The Good Shepherd is not about to let go. Jesus went to the cross to make it that way for you. And the cross? Well, that’s also not what we expected for sinners such as us, but what a glorious way to bring hope into our otherwise hopeless lives.
Amen.

3rd Sunday of Easter

3rd Sunday after Easter
May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-22
“From Foe to Friend”

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 Acts 9.

My dear friends,

Pretend for a moment that you’re going on vacation and you have a pet. You have no one else to ask but one of your neighbors. There is the kindly little old lady next door who loves pets, has dogs and cats of her own, and who has been the best next-door neighbor you’re ever had. OR…do you ask the “wild child” neighbor who lives on the other side of you who revs his motorcycle at all hours of the day/night, never takes care of his lawn, owns 3 large angry-looking pit bulls, and keeps throwing empty beer cans into your yard? Which one will you ask to watch your cat? What’s that you say? “The wild child?” Really! Thought you’d pick the little old lady. Choices like that might seem to defy human reason.
Yet in today’s reading from Acts, we find our Lord making just such a logic-defying choice, as Christ selects Saul – SAUL – the persecutor of Christians, to be his chosen apostle to carry the Gospel of Christ to the nations. What? That makes NO sense whatsoever!
In the earliest years of the Christian Church, it would have been difficult to find a more dedicated foe of Christ than Saul of Tarsus. From supporting the stoning of Stephen to rounding up and imprisoning Christians in Jerusalem, Saul did his best to destroy the Christian Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1–3). As we heard, Saul sought and received permission from the high priest to travel to Damascus to arrest the Christians there and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Arrest Christians? Does that sound like the guy you would ask to be the guest preacher on Anniversary Sunday? I’ll bet not! Jesus, though, had other ideas. Saul set out on the road to Damascus to imprison Christians, but Christ met Saul on that road to set him free.
Christ began by confronting Saul with his sin. The risen, glorified Jesus came to Saul in a flash of blinding light—and having brought Saul to his knees on the dirt of the Damascus road, Christ said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (v 4). In his blindness, Saul called out, “Who are you, Lord?” [The Lord answered,] “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (v 5). It’s ironic…although Saul’s physical sight was gone, he began at last to see things clearly. In persecuting the Church—the Body of Christ—he had been persecuting Christ himself. And Christ, whom he persecuted, is himself the Lord God. That’s not good!
With that heartrending knowledge, Saul was sent by Jesus into Damascus. Over three days of fasting and prayer, he had time to consider what he had done and to begin re-thinking the Scriptures he had long known. Then the Lord sent to Saul a faithful man named Ananias—one of the Damascus Christians Saul had been intending to arrest.
Imagine being in Ananias’ shoes for a minute. “What Lord? Go and baptize WHO? Saul? I gotta get outta Dodge!” Yet, Ananias came to Saul, laid his hands on him, Saul’s eyes were opened to see, and Ananias baptized him into Christ Jesus. Saul was brought out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light. Now that Saul had been brought into the light of Christ, he would serve as the Lord’s instrument to bring that light to the world. Saul had been Christ’s foe, but Christ graciously transformed him into a friend.
In the Second Reading today from Revelation 5, we learn that on the cross, Christ by his blood “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9); every “wild child,” every Saul, every sinner. No one is outside of God’s grace.
And in his gracious wisdom, our Lord chose to send that message out to sinners through sinners. After all, who better than the forgiven to share the good news of forgiveness? Who better than a man like Saul, who could describe himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), to speak the comfort that Christ is the friend of sinners?
So, beginning from Damascus, Christ sent his Gospel through Saul—also known as Paul (Acts 13:9) —to places like Arabia, Asia Minor (including Greece/Turkey – our destination for our trip in 2020), and Europe bringing Christ’s name before Jew and Gentile alike.
And along the way, Saul suffered greatly for the name of Christ—much like others had once suffered for Christ at Saul’s own hand. But through that name of Christ that he proclaimed, countless souls through the ages have found light, life, strength, peace, and hope in Christ—just as Saul himself did.
Just as Christ was not content to let Saul continue on his dead-end road, our Lord did not want to see any of us lost…not even the wildest child, God desires that “all people (are) saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). So, as he did for Saul, our Lord came to us. As he did for Saul, Christ came to you personally to give you the new life that he purchased for you on the cross. By water and the Word, he shined his light into your heart. Having paid your ransom on the cross, he came to you personally and unshackled your chains whatever they are and no matter how heavy they are. Everyone’s “faith moment” – your own “Road to Damascus” experience – was different, but it was also not a “one-time” deal. Christ continues coming to you in his Word and at his Table—comforting you with his forgiveness, strengthening you in his grace, giving you his peace, giving you hope for a better tomorrow, and giving you life that lasts forever especially when your “forevers” become “nevers.”
Though we have earned none of this, it is all ours as God’s free gift in Christ. For, as we have seen in Saul’s experience and our own experiences, we have a merciful Lord who transforms foes into friends.
For that is the kind of God we have: a God who astounds us with his amazingly gracious choices…sometimes choices we never would have thought of. A God who reaches out to people like Saul—and like you and me—who have lived as his foes, and he chooses us to be his trusted and loved friends.
May we continue to celebrate and thrive in that blessed, eternal friendship for the next 37 years and beyond. Happy Anniversary, Good Shepherd.
Amen.