“The Grace of God Has Appeared” | Titus 2:11-14 | Christmas Eve

Growing up as a child, getting near to Christmas, I often heard, “If you aren’t good, you won’t get anything for Christmas.” Those are terrifying words to a kid. You start asking yourself, “Would mom and dad really not get me something for Christmas? What if I’m not good enough? How do I know if I broke the rules too many times? What if they’re just using this as a ploy to manipulate me into good behavior?” I’m sure most people don’t ask that last question, but I was a strange kid. And still, it worked. My parents would remind me that my presents depended on being good. So, I’d be good. I’d follow the rules, until I didn’t. Because I’d always forget or make a mistake and do something I wasn’t supposed to, or not do something I was supposed to. Being a kid is hard. Then, my parents would always trot out the same line, “You must not want anything for Christmas.”

I don’t know if your family opens presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but I’m guessing there are already some kids here who are starting to think, “Alright, if I’m not good, at least I don’t have to worry about losing presents.” And, kids, if you haven’t thought that yet, there you go. Just wait until you get your presents and you can do whatever you want. But, really, I think that shows what’s wrong with that sort of thinking. Please don’t think that I’m criticizing your parenting styles or anything like that. But it’s like this with anything, once the leverage is gone, then it’s gone. I already opened my Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Megazord. What were my parents going to do? Take it away?

But this idea is pretty normal for human beings. We are used to the idea that if we do a certain thing or act a certain way, we can get something. It’s why you probably have a job, because you work for a paycheck. It’s why you are nice to your pet cat, because otherwise it’ll attack you while your sleeping. It’s why you obey your parents, so you can get Christmas presents. Right? It’s not hard for us to think this way. In fact, it’s so easy, that people most often take that same thought and apply it to God. They assume that God works the same way that human beings do. If you do certain things or act a certain way, then God will reward you or take care of your or love you.

I want you to know that this is such a dangerous way to think about God. There’s two reasons. First, what do you start thinking when you do everything right, but everything still goes wrong? So no matter how you act, or how good you are, it doesn’t seem to matter or change anything. For example, there are Christians around the world that live under much harsher conditions that most of us. There are Christian moms in Africa who think they do everything right, but they still can’t feed their children. There are Christians in the Middle East who think they do everything right, but they’re still hunted down, jailed, and even killed, just because they believe in Jesus. What are they supposed to think? Did they not do enough good things? Did they make mistakes they didn’t know about? Can you see how thinking that God wants to reward you for the good you do is so dangerous? Because it leads us to despair. When we realize that God does not work that way, a person can find themselves lost and unsure what they’re supposed to do about God.

But the second reason is even more important. What are you supposed to think when you realize that you can’t do enough good, or avoid bad, enough to please God? What are you supposed to do when you realize that you are coming up to the end of your life, and you wonder about what is coming next? Is God going to accept you into heaven? Have you done enough? What about those things you shouldn’t have done in high school? What about those harsh words you said to your wife? What about all that secret that you think you have hidden from everyone? Do you see how that can eat at a person? I had an interesting conversation recently. It was with a woman who has been away from church for a while. She confessed that to me. She said it made it feel guilty. But, her biggest worry was that she had missed too much church. She was worried that it had changed things between her and God so much that she couldn’t go to heaven anymore. You could hear her voice tremble just a little as she asked me, “Have I missed going to church too much that it’s ruined my chance to get into heaven?” Do any of those examples sound like you? Have you fallen into this way of thinking—that everything depends on you an the good you have or have not done?

Tonight, I want you to know that God does not work that way. God is not carefully tallying up every good work you do. God is not waiting for you to do something wrong, so that he can take away your presents. He’s not “making a list and checking it twice.” Do you know what you have to do to fix your relationship with God? Do you want to know what it is that you can do to make sure that you get into heaven? Do you want to know that?     Nothing. There’s nothing. There is nothing you can do to fix your relationship with God. Not one thing. Because God does not work like us human beings. With God, there is nothing to earn, there is nothing to buy, not even a way to try and balance out the good with the bad.

Think about it like this. A young boy is stranded out in a deep lake, and it’s clear he’s struggling to keep himself afloat. He’s flailing and splashing about. He’s screaming and calling for help. On the shore, his mom is standing there next to a lifeguard. She tells the lifeguard to swim out there. He need to go and serve her child. But, the lifeguard doesn’t move. He just stands there. The mother becomes hysterical. She’s practically yelling into his ear at this point. The lifeguard never moves. He just keeps watching the child struggle. Until, finally, it’s clear that the child can’t get back and is beginning to tire. He’s barely able to keep himself above water. Soon, he’s not able to do much more than float there. Then, the lifeguard springs into action. He sprints into the water. He grabs the boy, and brings him safely back to shore. The mother is relieved, of course, but she still asks the life guard, “Why did you wait so long? Why didn’t you go and get him right away?” The life guard tells her, “As long as he was struggling to save himself, I couldn’t go. If I had, he might have dragged us both under. It wasn’t safe for me to go until he was weak and stopped working to save himself.”

It’s when we stop depending on ourselves, stop trying to save ourselves, and instead recognize our weakness, our helplessness, our sin, then put our faith in Jesus Christ, the grace of God in the flesh, that we find heaven is ours, that we find we are right with God, and that everything has already been done for us. I know it’s easy for us to think that God works the same as us human beings, but he doesn’t. Instead, he works in a way that you and I could never guess. In fact, it’s in a way that is completely unnatural to us. It feels wrong, because it’s an entirely otherworldly concept that does not come out of human logic, but the indiscriminate, reckless, undeserved love of God. It’s grace. “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all” (Titus 2:11).

That grace, that undeserved love of God, has appeared to us. There’s no better time to talk about this than Christmas, because it’s the same as talking about his appearing. Jesus Christ is God’s grace in the flesh. Down to his very core, Jesus is grace—he loves you even though you aren’t good, he loves you even though you are evil, and he loves you even though you haven’t earned his love. And that’s the point. God does not work the way you and I do. There is no work involved on our part, rather we do nothing, and watch grace do it all. We grace become a man. We watch grace take all our sins, not begrudgingly, or as away to obligate us, but willingly, happily. We watch grace die. God’s grace does all the work so that you and I can have the reward, the victory, the ultimate Christmas present. “Our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ…gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:13-14).

Even now, God is not waiting for you to mess up so that he can take this gift away. Just like there was nothing you could do to earn this gift of eternal life and salvation, there is nothing you can do to keep it. None of this is dependent on you. Jesus Christ has done it all. This is why we celebrate Christmas. It’s why we spend time singing hymns and carols. It’s why parents give gifts to their children, friends gifts to their friends, and so one. Our gifts are just a small way that we reflect the most amazing gift we have ever been given. It’s God’s grace in the flesh. It has appeared to us and given us salvation, and it’s yours for free. There’s nothing you need to do, Jesus has done it all.

But, here’s the last thing. Don’t be confused. Salvation is yours. Heaven is yours. Because Jesus is yours. But, did you notice the last words of that verse? That Jesus made us a people that are “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14)? Doesn’t that make sense? I’m not speaking according to human logic. Jesus is not trying to manipulate you into good behavior. He’s not interested in that. Instead, doesn’t it make sense that, because he has forgiven all our sins, because he has given us heaven, because he has done so much for us, and freely, willingly, not asking us to pay the price, but doing it himself—doesn’t it make sense that we respond? That we, too, freely, willingly, give of ourselves. Grace teaches us to say no to the evil things of this world, and to be eager to do good. Not because we are trying to earn something, but because it pleases Jesus. What’s better than that?

Maybe picture it this way. A young child spends all day at his little table, coloring furiously with every crayon in the box. When he’s finished, the entire page is covered in scribbles, mismatched colors, and unrecognizable shapes. The boy looks at it, and then gives it to his mom, who put it into a nice gift bag. The boy goes over to his grandparents house. There, the first thing he does, ignoring the Christmas cookies, the beautiful tree, even grandma, is run over and crawl into grandpa’s lap. He brings along his gift, and he gives it to his grandpa. Grandpa takes the bag and he looks at it and says, “That’s wonderful. It’s just what I wanted.” Giving gifts is a big part of Christmas. God has given you the gift of grace in the flesh. He demands nothing of you in return. The gift is yours. But, embrace that eagerness to do good that Grace has given you. It’s exactly the gift Jesus wants for Christmas. Amen.

“The Sign of Immanuel” | Isaiah 7:10-14 | Fourth Sunday of Advent

My life changed this last year. As many of you know, having a baby will do that. Suddenly, everything is different. There’s someone completely dependent on you for everything. I don’t think it would surprise anyone to learn that things probably changed far more for my wife, than for me. For her, so many things are different. She stays home with our daughter. She is the only one who can feed her. Her life has come to revolve around a schedule of naps that she doesn’t even get to take. But, regardless of how different her life is, these are still the things most people would expect. Babies change things, but people have been having babies since God created the world, so there’s plenty of information out there. This season as we have been getting closer and closer to Christmas, with the birth of the Christ on my mind, it hasn’t been difficult for me to reflect back on my daughter’s birth. There’s a lot about those two situations that were very similar, and there’s a lot that was different.

We spent about nine months getting ready for our daughter to be born. During that time we acquired all of the stuff that you need for a baby. We read books on how to take care of newborns. We took a class that taught us about childbirth, nursing, and so on. We made a plan for going to the hospital. We found someone to take care of our dog. Honestly, that’s about what you would expect. It was a pretty typical pregnancy experience, as far as I can tell (but I’ve only been through it once).

For Jesus, there was a time spent getting ready, too. Except, it wasn’t just nine months, although there was that, too. But, it would be more accurate to say that for Jesus, people had been getting ready for him for thousands of years. All the way back to the garden of Eden, humans had been getting ready for the Savior. It there that God first promised the Savior, calling him the Serpend-crusher. Adam and Eve held on to that promise. A great example of this has to do with Cain. I know we usually associate Cain with what he did to his brother Abel, but when he is born his mother says something very interesting: “I have given birth to a man, the Lord” (cf. Hebrew of Genesis 4:1). It seems like Eve though God was going to fulfill this promise right away. She looked at the birth of that baby as the fulfillment of God’s promise. Cain, though, was not the Promised One.

Still, this idea that the Promise was attached to the birth of children stuck. I think that you can see it all over the Bible. While believers held on to that promise, each child that was born reminded them that some day the child who was born would be the Child. But, the idea does change. Not only was each child a reminder of the promise, but how the child came about was, too. The promise of the Savior eventually comes to a man named Abraham. Abraham was also promised a child. But, the way that child would come about was unnatural. Abraham and his wife Sarah was old. They had no business having children, yet they did. Isaac, a promised child, was born to them, and he is a wonderful picture of the Promise Child. And each time this sort of thing happened, it filled in the picture for God’s people. When Hannah, a barren woman, prays to God and asks to have a child, in connection with giving him in service to the Lord, her prayer is answered. She had no business having a child, but God gave her one. Even right up to the time of Jesus, women who had no business bearing children were doing just that. Think of Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.

Yet, even that promise is narrowed by God. It’s what we see in our lesson for today. Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah spoke about the birth of the Savior. He spoke to a wicked, nasty king named Ahaz. Ahaz had no regard for the Lord or his Word. This was a man who was willing to sacrifice his own children to pagan gods. But, God sends Isaiah to reach out to him in mercy. God tells Ahaz to ask for a sign. Any sign, and he will give it to him. But, Ahaz refuses. So, God says he’ll give him a sign anyway: “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.’ Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:11-14).

In those words, you can hear God telling us more about this Promised Child. Each of the special births in Scripture pointed to him, but even more, there would be one special birth that would that would demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Savior had come. A young woman, who was still a virgin, would give birth to a child. While it was unheard-of that old or barren women would have children, it was beyond that for a virgin to get pregnant. It was literally impossible. For that sign to take place, a great miracle would have to occur. Each birth that helped believers look ahead to the Promised Child was a small foreshadow of the birth of the Savior.

Both my daughter and Jesus were born in the normal way. That’s what you would expect for a human being. There’s a certain process that God has established and that’s how humans come into the world. There is something different though. My daughter is just human. But, not Jesus. This wonderful prophecy from Isaiah tells us that the Savior would come, not only from an impossibly special birth, but why he would be so special himself. My daughter is just a normal little girl. She’s cute. She’s cuddly. But still, she has my sinful nature. She has the same sin as every normal human being, and that’s what you would expect.

It’s even what you would expect from Jesus, if his birth came about in the normal way, but it didn’t. Jesus’s mother was a sinful human herself, but he was incarnate of the Holy Spirit. This is what is so amazing about this prophecy from Isaiah. In it, we get to hear about Jesus’s special nature. This baby to be born would be Immanuel, “God-with-us.” There, in that Word, you can hear God narrowing the promise even more. To one person, the only person, born of a virgin, having no natural Father, but a supernatural one. Taking the nature of a human being, but also the sinlessness of God. Having two natures in one person, fully God and fully man. He is Immanuel, God with us. God in the flesh. God the Man, and the Man, God.

All of this would come about for those of us humans born in the normal way, born like my daughter, born like you, born like me. Just like that angel said, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus became a man to save human beings. Because human beings can do something that God can’t—they can die. That’s exactly what Jesus planned to do. The penalty for sinning, even for carrying around our original sinfulness, is death—separation of our soul from our body, and separation from God forever. Jesus, as true man, could die our death. Jesus, as true God, could do it perfectly, sinlesslessly, and yet at the same time taking all of our sin on himself. It was as if there were no other sinners. As if there was one sinner. So that God could punish one person—that one who was promised, who was special, who was his own Son—and inflict on him an infinite amount of eternal punishment.

Jesus came, not only to be God-with-us, but also God for us, God in our place. Who bears our punishment, who dies our death, who was placed in our grave, but then was raised. So that for all eternity it might be that we can live with our Promised One, and experience what that word, Immanuel, means more deeply. It is in our victory he won for us that we can understand what it means to have God with us. For all eternity, you and I will be blessed to gaze upon the unshielded face of Immanuel. We shall know for time-beyond-time that Jesus is God who is with us, not only in who he is, but the best beatific presence.

My friends, you and I are normal, sinful people. We hear the promise of that special virgin birth of Immanuel, and I urge you to take hope. I urge to look to him as the one who took your place and all your sins. I urge you to rejoice because God is a man, and the man Jesus Christ is God. He is Immanuel. Put your faith in him. Believe the sign of Immanuel. Amen.

“The Gospel Abram Believed” | Genesis 15:1-6 | The Second Midweek Advent Service

How long does it take before you start to think that someone who made you a promise isn’t going to keep it? For example, let’s say that you consider me a perfectly trustworthy person—so that anything I say, you believe is something I am going to do. Let’s say I promise to buy you a new car. You might think that’s a pretty big promise. But, you don’t have a reason to doubt me, until it’s obvious that I can’t. It might take a couple of years to save money, it might not be the nicest car, but I could probably do it. At what point do you start to think, though, that maybe I can’t keep this promise? There might be hints like years or decades pass, and you still don’t have your car. Maybe I lose my job as a pastor in some strange way—maybe the church burns down and everyone just says, “Well, it was nice while it lasted.” You might think that I can’t keep it because I don’t have any income. Or, maybe one day I pass away in some freaking accident playing chess. Then, you might really think there’s no way it could happen.

For Abram in our text, he knew God’s promises, and there we many reason why he might think that there was no way God could keep his promise. You heard about the promise last week from Pastor Kelly. God promised Adam and Eve that he would send a Headcrusher, the one who would defeat Satan and restore righteousness to them. Adam and Eve believed that promise, and you can know that because of the name that Adam gives his wife—Eve would be “the mother of all the living.” Our story picks up with Abraham. And, I know in your Bible, there’s only about 10 chapters between that story and the one we are looking at tonight—and in Sunday School and Bible studies, we tend to jump from Adam and Eve to Noah to Abraham—but there are so many things that happen in between that first gospel promise and our lesson tonight. In fact, thousands of years have passed.

When we meet Abram, he’s not even a believer. God calls him out of unbelief and reveals himself—that out of his grace he has chosen him to be his special family. This is a reiteration of the promise God made to Adam and Eve. There would be a special birth someday, and that child would be the promised child. People had been waiting thousands of years for that birth. Now, God told Abraham that he would one day have a promised son, and from that son would come the Savior. But there were many reasons why Abraham may have doubted this promise. Not the least of which was that thousands of years had passed. When I promised to buy you a new car, it was only a couple years or decades before you began to doubt me. But, thousands of years had passed. Did God’s promise still stand? Could you still put your faith in it? And, if you got passed that, there was another reason. Abram was no spring chicken. Abraham was already an old man, well-passed having children.

That was something Abram wrestled with tonight. He knew God’s promise. He knows that God would make him into a great nation, that the Savior would come from him, and that his family would inherit the Promised Land, but he wrestles with it. He’s an old man. Thousands of years had passed. His wife is an old woman who never had children. How is it possible that God could keep this promise? Maybe you can understand how Abraham is at the point that he is wondering about these things. Maybe you can understand how Abraham could think that God wasn’t going to keep his promise.

That sort of feeling is not uncommon among human beings. We wrestle with whether God can keep his promises. For example, how long has it been since Jesus promised us that one day he would come back, raise the dead, recreate the earth, and bring us into paradise? It’s been thousands of years. Does that mean God isn’t going to keep his promise? Sometimes, people sin, and they expect consequences, because God says there are consequences for sin. When they don’t come, does that mean God is not able to keep his word. This doubt that lives inside of the human heart is a normal part of being human, but it’s not a good part. It’s truly a sin.

When we doubt that God will keep his promises, it’s not good that we are questioning the idea of the promise itself. But, it’s actually worse than that. What does our doubt of God’s Word say about our view of him? Because if God says he is going to keep a promise, what do you think about God if you doubt he will? I know all outward circumstances may indicate that he can’t, maybe like Abraham you think that it just isn’t possible. But if you say, “No, God is not able to keep this promise.” It’s bad that you are questioning the idea of the promise, but it’s worse that you are doubt God himself. That means you have doubt about who God is. If God does not keep his promises, then he is a liar. If God does not keep his promises, then he is not faithful. If God does not keep his promises, then he is not really God. He doesn’t really have mercy or grace, but even if he did, you couldn’t trust him anyway.

This is important for two reasons. First, there are Christians who believe that having doubt is beneficial part of being a believer. They might even say that doubt is part of faith, or that doubt is a good thing. But, recognize when Christians say that, they are disagreeing with God’s Word. Faith and doubt cannot go together. When we talk about faith, we do connect it to God’s promises, but underneath that is faith in the one who gave them. If they say doubt is a natural part of faith, they are saying God wants us to doubt who he says he is. That is not okay. That is sin. Doubting that God is who he says he is is just a fancy way of talking about unbelief.

Please don’t misunderstand me, though. I am not saying that no Christian will ever wrestle with doubt. I’m not saying that. In fact, the second reason this is so important is because God wants to crush every doubt you have. I know some of God’s promises can be hard. I know it may seem that God is not able to keep his promise. But, it’s never true. Faith is trust, not just in the promises, but in God himself. The God who is always faithful and trustworthy. The God who is omnipotent, and yet cannot lie. The God who is able to keep every single promise, no matter how contrary the circumstances may seem. He’s your God. He’s good. He doesn’t ask you to weigh out whether it’s possible. He doesn’t ask you to count the years since he made the promise. He doesn’t tell you to doubt who he is. Instead, God wants you to trust him. Because he’s good. Because he’s faith. Because he loves you more than you can imagine.

So it was that night. God came to Abraham in our lesson. The very first thing God tells Abraham is, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1). Based on that proclamation of God’s goodness, Abram lays how his thoughts and what he is wrestling with. He explains how hard it seems to him to be for God to keep his promise. He’s old. It’s been a long time. Sarah’s old and she’s never had a child. He doesn’t have an heir of his own blood. Instead, a friend, a servant of his, would inherit everything that he had. So, God gives him the promise again: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (Genesis 15:4). Then, to make it even more clear and amazing, he takes Abram to a place where he can see the stars. He tells him, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them…So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5).

From there, it says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). This is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. If it’s not one you have marked, you should definitely highlight it or circle it or something. Because God repeated his promise to Abraham, but it wasn’t like anything had changed. Abraham was still an old man. Sarah was still an old woman. The same amount of time had passed. Yet, Abram sees all of this, and behind it he sees the heart of his loving, good, saving God. That one day, God would give him not only a son, but the Son. This was building toward something bigger and better.

Abram hears that and God’s Word convinces him that God is faithful, trustworthy, good, and above everything else, loves him more than he could imagine. So, Abram puts his trust in God. And God looks at Abram, and credits that faith as righteousness. It’s sort of like the transitory principle in math—if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. God looks at Abram and sees his faith in him. And God views that faith as the same thing, as equal to, righteousness. This has not changed for us, either. God looks at you, he sees your faith, and he sees it as righteousness. He credits righteousness to you by your faith. He sees you as perfect, sinless, and holy. It’s because of the promised offspring, that is Jesus, this righteousness comes to us. Because Abraham does have a son, Isaac. Isaac has a son, his son has (many) sons, and so on. Until there is an enormous nation of people descended from Abraham living in the Promised Land. Then promise of the savior, too, was passed down and down and down, until it came to one person. A virgin woman named Mary, who would give birth to the Son. It was because of that Son’s righteousness, that you, me, and Abraham are righteous.

That’s why it’s so important that we get this right. God kept his promise to Abraham to give him a son, Isaac, and later, the Son, Jesus the Christ. Put your faith in the Lord. Trust God. Not the ideas of the promises themselves, but God. He is faithful, trustworthy, good, and above all, loves you more than you can imagine. And he proves this to you, but sending his Son at Christmas to die for your sins on Good Friday. I know it can be hard to trust God’s promises, because they can seem hard. But, God wants you to trust him. Even if it seems like there’s no way he could keep his promise. Still, trust him. That’s how it seemed to Abraham, and God kept his promise. That’s how it seemed for 4000 or more years, until Jesus was born. God has kept every single promise. He will keep all his promises to you as well. Though it may seems hard, put your trust in God, because he is faithful, trustworthy, good, and above all, he loves you more than you can imagine. Amen.

“Faust, Nebuchadnezzar, & Myself” | Daniel 4:19-37 | The Second Sunday of Advent

A young man approached an old pastor one day with a question: “Pastor, I have heard it say that God wants me to love myself and be proud of everything I have done in my life. In response, the pastor told him this story:

“A certain man who owned a large trucking company went to bed one night and woke up in a dream. In the dream, he walked down a gravel road, surrounded all around by harvested corn fields. As he walked, he came to a crossroads. It was there he discovered that he was not alone. Another man stood there, as if he was waiting for him. The other man was very normal looking, aside from his crooked smile, but something in his eyes, something in his laugh, something in his voice made your skin crawl. ‘Who are you?’ he asked.

“The other man said, ‘I’ve been called, Dionysus, Bacchus, Mephistopheles, but it doesn’t matter. I have many names. But, I’ve seen you before. I know your name. I know what you want, and I can give it to you.’

“The two of them shook hands, and the man woke up.

“He went about his day as usual. He headed into his office at his trucking company. They shipped goods all around the country. In fact, his company was the second largest trucking company in the nation. In his office, he sat at his desk and turned on the television. Along the bottom of the screen, the stock ticker flowed passed and one caught his eye. It was a plummeting company. Their stock was falling fast. And he knew that company. It was his biggest rival, the largest trucking company in the world. Last night, the company had imploded on itself. They wouldn’t even be a company by the end of the year.

“The man opened his email, but he wasn’t shocked to see message after message. Companies with trucking needs were already reaching out for their business. He thought for a moment that it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Then, his phone rang. It was another competitor of his, the third biggest trucking company in the country. He wanted a buy-out. They’d merge their companies, and he would get to remain CEO.

“At lunch, he sat down with one of his financial advisors. They were also good friends. His name was Dan. Something compelled the man to tell Dan about his dream the night before.

“‘Why did you shake hands?’ He asked.

“‘I think we made some sort of deal, but I can’t remember,’ he responded.

“‘That doesn’t sound good to me. It sounds like you wanted something, and now you’re getting it. But, what did you give in return?’ Dan said. ‘I know you had a great business day. There’s not even anyone who can compete with you in the trucking market, anymore. But, do you think it’s worth it to make shady deals with creepy men in the dark of your dreams?’

“The man looked at his friend and shrugged. His mind in its excitement had moved on. Later that day, he had a press conference to talk about his future acquisition and comment on the fall of his largest rival. He put on his best suit. He walked up to the podium. He noticed a larger group of journalists and reporters than he expected.

“‘Is not my company now the most powerful trucking company in the world? It is because of my leadership and hard work that I have grown so much. It was all because of me.’ As he spoke, he felt a sharp pain in his head. An aneurysm had burst. He slumped to the ground.

“He awoke at the crossroads from his dream. The Other Man was already there. Waiting.

“‘It was all you,’ the man said.

“The Other Man responded, ‘Oh, I can’t take all the credit. I do not rule over all things. I do what I am allowed. Heaven rules, and I don’t play for that team. And he’s not done, yet. Because of your pride and boast…’ but his words faded away.

“The man awoke in a hospital room. He was hungry. He began to eat thrash around. He heard the tearing of cloth. He began ripping pieces of his hospital gown and eating them. He swallowed as much as he could, until a nurse came in. With some help, they strapped him down. But over the next seven days, he ate part of his pillow, the bed spread, his sheets. He craved fabric and cloth. He ate no food and drank little water.

“After seven days, he woke up in the morning, but he wasn’t hungry. He wasn’t in the hospital. He was at home, laying in his bed. There had been no cross roads, no huge day for his company, no aneurysm, no time in the hospital.

“Instead, he felt sorry. He was sorry that he hadn’t acknowledged where everything he had came from. He was sorry that he focused so much on himself. He was sorry that he often took all the glory and never gave it to whom it belonged.”

When the old pastor finished his story, the young man said, “That doesn’t answer my question at all! What does God want me to do? You didn’t even mention him in the story.”

The old pastor paused and took a deep breath. From memory, he said, “His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: ‘What have you done?’ (Daniel 4:34-35). Everything you have and everything you have had the ability to do comes from God, who is over all. If you are told to love yourself, to be proud of what you have accomplished, those who told you are wrong.”

The young man responded, “But didn’t I do it? I was the one who worked hard. I was the one who put in all the effort.”

The old pastor said, “Of course, you did! And wasn’t it a privilege to use the gifts God has given you in that way? He gave them to you, and he could take them in an instant. They aren’t yours. They are under his rule.”

The young man said, “What’s left for me? If I give God the credit, then there’s nothing. I get nothing. It was meaningless. Why would I even do anything, if I can’t take the credit for it? How can I be happy with who I am? What’s the point of life?”

The old pastor paused again, and took another deep breath: “Renounce your sins and acknowledge that Heaven rules. Praise and exalt the King of Heaven. ‘Everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble’ (Daniel 4:37).  I think you have missed the point. Who cares about the credit? Can’t you see that instead of praising God, you praise yourself? Can’t you see that instead of exalting God, you exalt yourself? Can’t you see that he is able to humble you, if he wants? Even if you could trade for everything you ever wanted, success adds no value to your life. It’s going to pass away.

“The blessings of this world do not last. Satisfaction with earthly accomplishments does not last. Young man, only One lasts, and it is he who makes all others last. He is the living One, and he makes others live, too. He is the only one who can give meaning and value to something, because he is eternal. Only what is eternal has any meaning. But your heart is dead in pride. You worship yourself and not the true God. Do you know why the man begins to eat cloth? Didn’t that seem weird to you? Why does that matter to the story? Truly, it doesn’t. Pride leads men to irrational actions. They begin to treat themselves like they are gods. But, the story doesn’t matter. The storyteller does.

“Anyone who loves their accomplishments, themselves, or the things of this earth—especially their own glory and fame—can be certain they will meet someone just like the Other Man from the story. And not Jesus, the Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith. The only one who can give you a true purpose. All people should renounce their pride. Turn from your self-worship. ‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord’ (Acts 3:19).” The old pastor finally finished speaking.

The young man said, “I’m sorry. I do love myself too much. I hate my pride.”

The old pastor said, “I forgive you. Your sins are wiped out. Eternal life is yours. May your heart be refreshed by that fact, that God has given you true value.”

The young man paused, and sighed. “Thank you,” he said.

The old pastor responded, “I haven’t done anything. Christ has done it all.”

The young man replied, “I know. Those words were not directed at you.”

The two men met each other’s eyes before shaking hands and parting ways.


“Be Amazed at King Jesus” | Colossians 1:13-20 | Christ the King Sunday

Let’s start with a little self-examination. Think back to about ten minutes ago when we read our sermon text from Colossians 1. Here’s what I want you to ask yourself: “How much of that reading did I absorb while it was being read?” If I had to guess, your experience probably went a little like this. You heard, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness,” (Colossians 1:13) and you appreciated that thought. It’s a nice one. The Father has indeed rescued us from the darkness of sin. But while you were thinking about that, I was already reading on, “…and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). Hopefully, your brain caught up there, and maybe even put those ideas together, that the Father took us from the dark, sinful kingdom of the world and brought us into his own. But while you were thinking about that, I was moving on again. Try and keep track of what comes next: “…in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him” (Colossians 1:14-16). Can you keep track of all of that in your mind? We’re only halfway through the lesson! If you’re like me, at some point your brain just can’t keep track of all of it. I could feel my mind go sort of numb as it tried to connect and understand all the ideas the apostle writes to us.

Paul could have written a paragraph about each of these ideas, so that as you hear them read, you can chew on each of them. He could have explained how they’re connected together. He could have given excellent illustrations so that it really sticks in your mind. But, he doesn’t. Instead, it’s like trying to drink out of a fire house. He just turns it on full blast and says, “Get ready for a drink.” And then, so much information is being poured into your mind about Jesus and who he is and what he has done that you can’t keep up with it. There’s too much of it and it’s coming way too fast. The apostle Paul is not dumb guy. He does this on purpose. He wants these ideas to overwhelm you. You can tell because the section that comes after our lesson is much slower. He knows exactly what he is doing. So, why? Why do you think he does that? Why does he ask you to drink from this firehose of information?

There’s are probably many reasons Paul did something like this, but here’s just one. As Christians we get used to Jesus. Don’t misunderstand me—I think that’s a good thing. I think that it is good that we are comfortable picturing Jesus, praying to him, hearing his Word preached, and so on. These are good things, and Jesus wants us to be comfortable with him. We get used to him. I certainly hope that you are. I hope the picture of the crucified Chris is something you can bring to mind. I hope you can picture the empty tomb in your mind. I hope you have an image of Jesus in your brain of him as the Good Shepherd. I hope that coming up for the Lord’s Supper is natural and easy for you. I hope that you have these customs, rituals and rites. It’s good to be used to Jesus.

But, every now and then, although we are used to him, we need to be reminded that Jesus is still someone that we cannot grasp or imagine with our mind. God is something completely otherly.  It’s good for us, even if it’s just for one sermon, to remember that. You can think about it like your cell phone. My phone has a capacity of like 64 GBs. It cannot go past 64 GBs. At some point my phone will start telling me that it’s reach capacity, so I have to go in and delete something. Your brain is like that. There is only so much that can be stored in it. But, Jesus is infinite. We cannot grasp how huge, how immense, how great Jesus is. Jesus is infinite, but the way we think about him is not, and it can’t be. So in our minds, we have these images that hold as much of Jesus as we can, but that image will always be too small. That is why it’s good for us to be reminded about this, so that you do not begin to think that image of Jesus you have in your mind is the real Jesus. It isn’t. It may be what you are used to. It may be what you think about. But there is still more to Christ.

It is that exact realization that Paul wants you to have as you hear these words. And the truth is, even if we went through this lesson for a couple weeks, we would still walk away with tired brains overwhelmed by who Jesus is and how much he is. I can’t pack into a sermon everything that this section of the Bible contains. Instead, I want to help you do what the apostle is striving for. Why does he overwhelm you? He does it to remind you of the otherness of Jesus. But why does he do that? Well, it’s because you are used to him. You know Jesus. It’s why these first words are not that hard for you to grasp: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). That’s a concept that you love. It’s beautiful to you. That beauty, that wonder is exactly what he is going for.

Take that image of Jesus that you have in your mind and let it expand. As we go on, try to take what Paul tells us about Jesus and add it to the picture you have of him (if you can). Hold on to as many details from this section as you can. For just a moment, let your mind be overwhelmed and frustrated that it can’t do it. But, then, when you reach that moment, accept your limitations. And then be amazed at King Jesus.

Paul tells us that Jesus has saved us from our sin. In him, we have redemption, and the forgiveness of sins. Do you remember what those words mean? Can you define redemption? It’s what Jesus did to buy us back from sin, death and the devil. He used his blood to redeem us. These three ideas of rescue from darkness, redemption through his blood, and the forgiveness of our sins are all wrapped together: “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).

Jesus was able to accomplish that redemption because he is not just a man, he is very God. So that in eternity, the Father begot the Son, his firstborn, before the world, before time. So that there has never been a time when Christ has not existed. He is without beginning or end, and yet still begotten by the Father. Then, through him, everything you can see was created. All of it—even those things he did not directly speak to into being attribute their own genesis to him. But, not only have they been created through him, but their entire purpose and being is wrapped up in him. Everything has been made for Jesus. Jesus is the reason that all things exist. Without him, nothing exists or could continue to exist. He holds it all together. Jesus is the reason there is something, rather than nothing. He was here long before all of it, he stands outside of it, and keeps everything together: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-16).

Those are all very eldritch, ethereal thoughts, but that’s not where Christ stays. Instead, the Son of God from eternity invades space and time. He enters into his own creation and becomes part of it. All of it is through him, for him, and held together by him, but now he is a part of it. Christ becomes man. He does this glorious, unthinkable thing. He becomes one of us. God is a man, and as a man, he can die. He takes upon himself the sins of all people of all time, he suffers an infinity of hell for each of them, and then he dies. Not so that he can stay dead. But, just like he is the firstborn of all creation, he is also the firstborn of the dead. But he won’t be the only one. He gathers to himself a group of people, made from all nations of all time, who put their faith in him. Christ is the firstborn of the dead, but he isn’t the last: “And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18).

Jesus is true man and true God. Not part of each, but fully each. Within a man, it delighted God to have all of his fullness dwell. Everything that the nature of the Godhead is became one in Jesus the Christ. It was through him, and only through him, this one individual, that God was able to bring us peace. Only Jesus was man, so that he could take our sins and die our death, and only Jesus was God, so that he could do it perfectly and rise, fully vindicated by the Father. Through him, his cross, his blood, we have peace: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20).

I don’t know at what point your brain said, “He’s going too fast,” or, “I can’t keep track of everything that’s going on.” If this was a normal sermon, that would be a bad thing, but here, it’s not. Because within the unworldly otherness of Christ our King lies room for wonder. That’s why Paul writes this section that way. By all means, go dig into this text. But right now in a sermon, the point is not that you catch and remember every little detail here. What matters is that it leaves you with a sense of wonder. Wonder at how glorious he is. How unequaled he is. How unrivaled. How far he is beyond our reason. That he is inexhaustible, immeasurable, unfathomable, eternal, immortal invisible, the only God. And despite all of that, he comes to save you. He becomes a human to rescue you from darkness and bring you into his kingdom. To redeem you. To forgive all your sins. Be amazed at King Jesus. Amen.

“All People Will Face the Final Judgment” | 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 | The Last Judgment

Just some quick audient participation—how many of you have heard of the now defunct band, dc Talk? I listened to a lot of dc Talk when I was growing up and in high school. They were a fun blend of 90s hip hop and pop-rock, and the best part was they loved Jesus. Their most famous song was one called “Jesus Freaks,” and that was easily my favorite song by them. I didn’t just love that song because it was catchy and energetic, but I loved the topic. The song was about people looking at those who were so devoted to following Jesus and his Word, that people would call them Jesus freaks. And the chorus asked, “What will people think when they hear that I’m a Jesus freak?” Little Justin Heise loved that idea. Maybe you’ve had this same experience that you go back and listen to a song from your childhood and you realize that you really didn’t understand the song. That’s what happened to me.

There was way more going on in that song than I first realized. Let me read the second verse for you and see if you can get what I didn’t: “There was a man from the desert with naps in his head // The sand that he walked was also his bed // The words that he spoke made the people assume // There wasn’t too much left in the upper room // With skins on his back and hair on his face // They thought he was strange by the locusts he ate // The pharisees tripped when they heard him speak // Until the king took the head of this Jesus Freak” (Jesus Freaks, dc Talk). If you didn’t catch it, that verse was about John the Baptist, who lived in the wilderness, pointed people to the coming Savior, ate locusts, and eventually was decapitated by Herod. That last thing was what I missed. This song wasn’t just about people who were really into Jesus. It was about people who were willing to die for Jesus.

The song became so popular that it even inspired its own book series. The song, “Jesus Freaks,” led to dc Talk publishing Jesus Freaks, Jesus Freaks, vol. II, Jesus Freaks Martyrs, etc. These are thick books, each about 300 pages, with story after story of people who have suffered for their faith, died for their faith, been displaced, and so on. I didn’t know that was what the song was really about until I got to high school. That’s when I learned about the books, too. And you know what? I think that knowing the song is about that, makes me like it even more. How often does the truth of persecution enter into our faith here in the gold ol’ U S of A? Not very often. I know that you might hear on the news or on social media or whatever that Christians are being attacked in our country, but let me give you some perspective.

In our world right now, persecution is worse than it has even been in all of history. Maybe you’ve heard stories about how Nero would use Christians as fuel for his night-time garden parties. Maybe you have heard about Christians dying in the Coliseum. Maybe you’ve heard other stories about how the apostles have died. Or how bad things were men like Diocletian. But, I want you to know that things are far worse now—not only in terms of how people are persecuted, but also in terms of the number of people being persecuted. Here are some quick statistics.[1] Last year over 245 million Christians were victims of high levels of persecution. Over 4000 Christians died because they believed in Jesus. Almost 2000 churches were burned to the ground or destroyed. On top of that over 30,000 Christians were imprisoned, beaten, displaced, or arrested.

These people committed no crimes. They were people just like you, except they live in another part of the world where being a Christian is illegal or discouraged. But there’s more. Last May the BBC released an article saying that levels of Christian persecution were at near genocidal levels.[2] The most striking statistic that they state is that in a place like Iraq, in 2003 there were about 1.5 million Christians living there. Now, there are less than 120,000. And just to punctuate this, that article came out five days after what happened in Sri Lanka at Easter. I know we live in a topsy-turvy world these days, but do remember what happened there last Easter? On Easter in tiny little Sri Lanka, on the highest Holy Day on our calendar, on the day we celebrated Christ rising from the dead, when highest number of people would be at church—people came in and hid bombs in those churches to kill and injure over 1000 people.[3]

In our country, we might get a scoff out of someone because we are a Christian. Or, someone might let slip the name of our precious Savior as a curse word, but these things don’t rise up to those levels of persecution. I think that there’s a reason for that. There are psychologists who might attribute it to some sort of martyr complex, and that might be a part of it, but I think it’s shame. I think it’s shame that we are so blessed to come to church every week, to sing God’s praises, to live in a country with freedom of religion, to live with minimal persecution, and yet it doesn’t produce zeal in us. Our Christians are not excited. They’re indifferent. They think hymns are hard to understand, and most people don’t give them a second thought after they end. Jesus is a guy most Christian hang out with for an hour on Sunday. But that thought of dying for him, that thought that this faith might cost you your life, rarely enters your thoughts. Sometimes, we Christians can really put the pathetic in apathetic.

I don’t want you to misunderstand me. It’s truly a blessing in our country that we are not persecuted. Christians in America have enjoyed an unprecedented time of peace. But it really makes you wonder. If you were to stand before a hungry lion, that’s pawing at the ground, ready to eat you, and you were given the choice to deny Jesus and go free, or confess your faith in him and die, how would you hand that situation? If you were locked up, cold and hungry, inside a Soviet prison, and every day you were offered your freedom if you just denied Jesus, how long would it be before you gave in? It makes you wonder about those things, but in America, we don’t need to wonder about them. We aren’t facing those issues. So, instead, I think a better question for us would be, “If they were killing Christians in our country, would they even know that I am one?” Do you live so vivid a Christian life that the only way they could shut you up about the gospel is to kill you? If Christians were persecuted in our country, would they come looking for you?

This is exactly the context into which the apostle Paul writes the letter of 2 Thessalonians. He is writing to Christians who were experiencing high levels of persecution. They were being beaten down. They were left confused. Their family members were dying. Their livelihoods were taken away. What were they supposed to do or think? So, Paul writes to them: “All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thessalonians 1:5). The fact that these Christians were suffering wad evidence for them that God was right. That God had looked at each of these Christians and said that their sins were forgiven. He declared them not guilty, and now just as Christ suffered for them to win that verdict, they too suffered. Christ has made them worthy of his kingdom, and now they suffered for it. On it’s face, that may not sound comforting, but just picture how it turns persecution on its head. Persecution wasn’t about confusion and chaos. It was about confidence that God had counted you worthy in his Son. With that motivation, they could go undergo anything.

But he doesn’t stop there: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-7). It does not please God to see his people suffer. Do you think that God would permit those who are his enemies to gloat over his people, over those he died for, over those who he worked so hard to redeem—as if his love counted for nothing? No way. God is just. Out of his justice, he would pay back all those would troubled his people, and for his people, comfort. “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-10).

There will come a day when all people must face judgment, the last judgment. It will be on that day that those who reject and deny Jesus will be punished. It will be on that day when Jesus comes on the cloud with his angels, that they will be cast from the presence of God. It will be a terrible, dreadful day. But, the worst is still to come for those who are enemies of God, because there punishment will never end. It will go on and on and on, endlessly. Do not doubt my friends that all people will face the final judgment, and you will, too. It’s no good to only look like a Christian. Jesus doesn’t want people who look like Christians, but inside they’re his enemies, too. Those people will face the same judgment as his outright enemies. And here is the clincher, you don’t know when this is going to happen. It’s just like in Jesus’s parable that we heard earlier. The king is coming back, we don’t know when, but we are sure he is. Are you like that faithless servant that King commanded be killed?

Beloved friends, believe the gospel. Believe the message that has been spoken to you. It is through this message that you are readied for his coming, so that when he comes you will be among his people declared holy who glorify his arrival, so that when he comes it’s a marvel for you and not a terror. “He comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you” (2 Thessalonians 1:10). Jesus comes back to judge all people, but he is a merciful judge. He demands nothing of you, and instead he does everything for you. He lives for you. He dies for you. He rises from the dead for you. And soon, he comes back for you. All people will be face the last judgment, but—rejoice!—because Christ has counted you worthy of his kingdom.

Now, go live like it. Go out into the world and live a life that vividly shows that Christ is your Savior, that you love him and he loves you. Go live like you have nothing to fear, because you don’t. Though people may ridicule you, though they may lock you up, though they may beat you, though they may kill you, at least you won’t have to face their eternal punishment. Go and live a life that so preaches Jesus that no one would ever doubt that your Savior loves you and that you love him. Amen.

[1] Statistics come from here: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/

[2] Article here: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48146305

[3] Info here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_Sri_Lanka_Easter_bombings

“There’s Nothing Better” | Luke 16:19-31 | The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I want to start by apologizing. Before my daughter was born, people would want to short me pictures of their babies, and I would look at them, but honestly, it was just another baby. Yeah, it was cute, and I could tell that the parents were excited. But I also know that I have friends who get annoyed by that sort of thing. For example, they don’t want their social media pages getting filled up with pictures of people’s babies. I didn’t share that sentiment, but I knew it was out there. I even vowed to be careful not to annoy people when I started having pictures of my own children. Then, my daughter was born. It’s like a switch was flipped inside of me, and all of a sudden, I want to show everyone all the pictures of my kid, and I want to talk about her all the time, and I want mention her in every sermon, etc. My brother Kyle already mentioned to me that it’s getting kind of annoying. Up to this point, I haven’t really talked about her in a sermon, and I’m going to right now, but it’s for a good reason. I also promise not to do it again for a while. Maybe.

My baby was born naked and screaming. When Paul says that “we brought nothing into the world” (1 Timothy 6:7), he was so right. Charlotte was born with nothing, but like every single person she needed things. But as of late, what has become even more striking is that now she wants things. She’s started doing this thing when she is in her crib where she’ll let out like a half-cry, and then she’ll look at the door really quickly to see if we’re going to come in and pick her up. Because that’s what she wants. She’s should take a nap, but she wants one of us to come in and pick her up. In that small little action, done by a baby who is not even four months old yet, we see a small picture of what human nature is like, how’s it’s bent inward, how it is driven and dominated by selfish desires. Charlotte’s just a baby now, but those desires are going to grow in her. One time, you were a baby, and those same desires have grown in you.

Within each of us, are these selfish desires for things, for people, for power, for sex, for control, for whatever. I don’t think that this is news to you. I’ll bet you can think of the thing you want right now. In fact, I’ll bet there’s something in your heart that you want so much that you’re willing to sacrifice to get it. I bet you’re willing to work hard. I bet your willing to give up sleep, or some luxuries, or time relaxing. I can give you an example of something I talk to people about pretty often, from all different age groups and both genders. People come to me and talk about how they feel bad they can’t lose weight. They feel like they’re fat. To some extent, I can agree with them. I should probably eat less pizza roles. But, here’s the point behind what I am saying. It’s not that things like this are bad. It isn’t bad to want to get a promotion at work, it isn’t bad to want a new car, to want to have more financial security, to lose weight, or whatever it is for you. But why do you want that? Let that question sit in the back of your mind for a bit.

In the Gospel for today, Jesus tells us a story about two people. Both of them are fascinating characters. The first is a rich man. We don’t know his name. We don’t know where he lived. All we know is that this guy has a ton of money—his house is big enough to have a gate, his clothes are died purple, he has more than enough food. His life is pure luxury. The other character is named Lazarus. Why does Jesus tell us his name and not the name of the other person? I don’t know. But it’s interested that he does—that this poor, disgusting beggar receives the honor of a name, but not the rich man. Lazarus is so poor, and so weak, that he can’t get food for himself or even shoo away the dogs that come and lick his sores.

What do you think these two characters want at this point? We don’t get a lot of details, but I think more is said in the silence than we might first recognize. The rich man lives in luxury every day. Think about that. There are no days when he is pampering himself or living his best life or enjoy life to the fullest. In some ways, I bet you can think of this rich man as the person who has everything they want. He’s like that person who wants to lose weight, and does; who wants a promotion, and gets it; who wants a new car every year, so he buys it; etc. Whatever he wants is his.

What about Lazarus? What does he want? Does Lazarus want to be rich? Does he want to have a house so that he doesn’t have to be homeless? Does it seem like Lazarus wants anything earthly? Again, we don’t get a lot of details, but look at what happens next: “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22). What is in Lazarus’s heart, if after all of his suffering and pain he goes to Abraham’s side, to heaven? It’s faith. Lazarus, he may have some earthly wants, like food, but his ultimate want is shown here. He wants to be in heaven.

But why? I told you to keep that question in mind. Why do you want the things you want? Why did the rich man want that continuous, luxurious life? Here’s what Jesus wants us to see. For the rich man, his highest treasure, his greatest love, the thing he thought would satisfy him above all else was this luxury. He was using it to fill up his heart in the hope that he would stop feeling so empty. That finally, everything in life would be worth it. Do you know how I know this? It’s because of what he wants after he’s dead. After his life has ended, he goes down to the grave, and just like he came into this world, he has nothing. He finds himself in hell, suffering torment unimaginable, the exact opposite of luxury. He wants just one little drop of relief, but he can’t even have that. He says, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24). But Abraham says that’s impossible. No one can go from heaven to hell, or hell to heaven.

But there’s more to Abraham’s reply. Abraham tells him to remember his life. Doesn’t he remember the luxury? Doesn’t he remember how wonderful it was to have that big house, those clothes, all that food? He had all those good things. Wasn’t that enough for the rich man? No. He wanted the luxury, and he thought it would fill him up, that it would satisfy him, but it didn’t. And now, it doesn’t matter. Now, he’ll never be satisfied. Now, he will only ever know torment. Fortunately, the rich man has a back-up plan: “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (Luke 16:27-28). The rich man has brothers, who apparently are headed to this same place the rich man is. Does that mean they’re also rich? Maybe, but the rich man’s problem was that he was trying to fill himself up with the wrong things. Maybe that’s all their doing. Maybe the brothers are pouring themselves into their jobs, into because elite athletes, to having political power, to experiencing lots of pleasure, or whatever. No matter what they would fill their hearts with, it all ends in the same place. Hell.

What the rich man wants isn’t possible, again. Doesn’t it saying something about hell that the rich man continues to want things in hell, only now, he can never get what he wants? Admittedly, he asks for something pretty impressive. He wants Lazarus to rise from the dead and warn his brothers. That makes sense in a worldly sort of way. I’ve talked with more than one unbeliever who has challenged me to prove God exists in some way. Or, to show some miracle, and then they’ll believe. You can sort of sense their reasoning. They think that if God is real, and miracles are possible, why doesn’t God just do a bunch of miracles so everyone believes in him? But, Abraham’s response is striking: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Do you understand what those words mean? Abraham points out that his brothers have God’s Word, and if they don’t listen to God’s Word, then nothing will convince them.

Maybe you doubt that. Maybe you think that’s not true and that a miracle would really convince someone. But, you know what? In the Bible, Cain talked to God directly, and still did not believe in him. Pharaoh got to see the 10 plagues and the other signs Moses did, and he still rejected God and hardened his heart. Even the Israelites who were led out of Egypt, they saw the Red Sea parted. They tasted manna. They heard God speak to them from Mount Sinai. Yet, twelve chapters later, they’re worshipping a golden calf. What did Cain want? What did Pharaoh want? What did those Israelites want? That’s an important question, but it’s not as important as “Why did they want it?” Do you know why people want so many different things? It’s because they’re trying to fill up their heart with things that can’t fill them up. The human heart is an infinite black whole. What about you? What are you trying to fill your heart with? And before you say that you are trying to fill your heart up with God, recognize that I cannot read your heart or mind. You don’t have to convince me. But if you are trying to convince yourself or God, then you probably have sin to confess here.

I talked about the rich man quite a bit already, but did you catch what happened to Lazarus. He didn’t become rich. He didn’t get a big house. All it says about him is that “now he is comforted here” (Luke 16:25). Lazarus had nothing earthly to fill himself with, so he filled himself with something heavenly. He listened to God’s Word, and he believed it. After a life in which he knew very little luxury, he found himself full. Comforted. That it was all worth it. That is the most important part of Abraham’s words to the rich man. God’s Word is enough. It’s enough to convert people. It’s enough to comfort us. It’s enough to satisfy us. It’s enough to teach us how to be saved. It’s enough.

And through that Word, Jesus promises you something more and something better than anything you could ever find here on earth. Everything in this world is going to pass away. You came into it without anything, and you will leave it without anything. But when you leave it, what will you find? Will it be the agony of hell? Or the comfort of heaven? And just to make this point even more clear, even more powerful, look at our verse of the day, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). What did Jesus want? It was you. He had the riches of heaven. He lived in light unapproachable and majesty unbounded. But for you, he left it all. He became poor. Like Lazarus, he was homeless and walked from place to place. Even though he deserved to be served by all, he chose to serve all—even though that meant dying on a cross for you. Jesus, too, came into the world with nothing. And why? Why did Jesus want what he wanted? It’s grace. It’s an unimaginably great, undeserved love for you. Jesus became poor, so that you can become rich. He emptied himself to fill you up. Be like poor Lazarus and desire that heavenly comfort above all else. This is the infinite promise of Jesus, and the only thing that can actually fill your heart up. There’s nothing better. Amen.

“Christ Saved the Worst Sinner” | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

(Pastor starts wearing black.)

There are some things about God that amaze me. I don’t just mean the creation of the world. I mean, I’ve traveled all over. I’ve walked the deserts of Asia minor. I’ve hiked the mountains of Turkey. I’ve swam in the Mediterranean Sea. I’ve been all over the known world, now, and I have to say that it’s beautiful. There’s really some lovely things to see. It’s so appropriate to be amazed at God’s creation. It’s just like my favorite writer, King David, once said, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Yeah, I’m a big fan of nature. I think it’s pretty amazing, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. When you think about things that amaze you about God you might think of delicious food, friendships, lovely music—you might even say, “Hey, Paul, what about babies!” And I agree, those things are truly wonderful, but they aren’t the most wonderful things.

Here’s what I think is even better. Have you ever had one of those days where you feel really weighed down—a day when your heart is heaven, your guts feel tight, you’re on edge, you feel dirty? I had days like that. I had days when I felt like I could just never match up, and to be honest. That’s exactly what you should expect if you’re trying to earn your way to heaven. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not doing that anymore, but for a very long time I was. I thought that there was one thing that God wanted: obedience. He wanted me to take his commandments and follow them exactly, and if I did that, one day God would accept me into heaven.

I can say, with a little bit of bragging, that I was the best at it. No one tried harder. I know every single one of God’s commandments. I obeyed every single festival and holiday in the Bible. I made sure that I gave 10% of everything I had to God. And then, I ramped it up. I decided I could do even more if I became a Pharisee. Do you know what a Pharisee is? It’s like a type of teacher. In my time, if you go to a Jewish synagogue, it’s probably run by the Pharisees. But, do you know what the Pharisees were best known for? Keeping God’s law. And not only keeping it, but they went so far as to add some more laws so that you wouldn’t even come close to breaking God’s law. I’ll give you an example. You know the second commandment, right? You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God? We wanted to be so sure that we wouldn’t use God’s name wrong, that we stopped saying his name altogether. They thought it would pretty hard to break that commandment, if they never actually used his name.

And still, I took it one step further. I didn’t just become a normal Pharisee, I became the strictest kind I could. I learned from a Pharisee who was so famous and well-respected that everyone in the whole world knew him, a man named Gamaliel. But you know what? I didn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough that I should keep all of God’s laws, or be a Pharisee, or keep them better than everyone else, I wanted to show beyond the shadow of a doubt, to God, to other Jews, and maybe even to myself, that I could be sure I would be saved.

There were this new group of people running around. They were mostly Jews, but they weren’t really Jews. It’s hard to explain, and to be honest, I didn’t understand it at first. I thought they were just a bunch of fringe lunatics. We got those sometimes in Jerusalem. They called themselves, The Way. They met in the temple, they met in synagogues, and they acted a lot like Jews. As far as I could tell, they followed these twelve men around, who taught them from the Bible. But there was something off about them to me. It wasn’t until I heard the preaching of a guy named Stephen that I was able to put my finger on it.

I still remember that day. They had brought Stephen out into the open, and everyone surrounded him holding large rocks. I knew what was coming. This man had obviously committed some terrible sin, and if I had to guess it was probably blasphemy. Blasphemy is when someone says something untrue about God, or claims to be God, or in somewhere misuses God’s name. Do you remember what I said about the second commandment before? This Stephen had done something that the Pharisees hated. He had said that God had come to earth, as a man, and that God had died, and that we the Jews were the ones who put him to death. He said a lot of things that day, but one thing was clear. He believed that God was some guy named Jesus. I had heard of Jesus before, but he was dead. Yeah, there were rumors going around that he had been resurrected, but those were just rumors. Dead people stay dead.

They killed Stephen. I didn’t participate, aside from holding people cloaks for them. It gave me some time to think. I saw an in for myself, a way that I could advance and become the Pharisee of Pharisees. These members of the Way, these Christians, they needed to be dealt with. If they were preaching this sort of message, and growing as fast as they were, somebody needed to deal with it. And I was that man. I set about it with zeal. I rounded up Christians. I beat them. I arrested them and threw them in prison. Do you know why? Because this was the way I could live with myself. At least I wasn’t a blasphemer like they were. At least I followed God’s commands. No one was working harder than me to get into heaven. It was the only way I could start to feel good about myself.

But it never really stuck. Maybe you’ve tried this yourself. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can’t make yourself feel better. I think that people do this all the time. Especially when sin is involved, we tend to try and find a way to fix the issue, or to hide it, or to pretend it isn’t real. We try to do anything we possibly can to avoid acknowledging and confessing that sin. In my later years, I’ve even noticed that Christians do this sometimes. They can come to churches like this. They can stand in front of God and confess their sins, but you know what? In their hearts, they still hold on to them. They think that God can take care of some of their sins, and they can take care of the rest. Or maybe they think that if they start doing enough good stuff, then they can make up for their sin.

One time I sat down with a man in Philippi. His name was Shlomo, and I tried to help him see this. I told him not to hid his sin. Don’t try and pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t try and cover it up. I remember I even had a great analogy for it. Think about mold. If you have something that is gross and moldy, and you cover it up, it just gets worse. The mold spreads. It starts to stink. Some people treat their sin like that. They think that if they can just keep it hidden, everything will be okay. But Shlomo needed to know that wasn’t the case. Sin will rot and mold. It festers. If you choose to coddle your sin, that’s what will happen. Do you struggle with that? Is there a sin that you are coddling? Don’t do that. Bring it out into the light. Let Jesus kill it.

That’s what happened to me. Maybe you already know the story. I’ve told it so many times I can’t remember who I have told it to. But I was going to a city called Damascus. In fact, I was going there to arrest more Christians. But as I went along, I suddenly found myself on the ground. I was blinded by this bright light, and a voice thundered. As I looked up into the sky, I saw a man, and he asked me a question. He said, “Saul, Saul,” that was what I was known as back then, rather than Paul, “Why do you persecute me?” And I was shocked. Who was this person? He obviously wasn’t a normal guy, if he was up in the sky, glowing and shining with heavenly radiance. He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

To be honest, it was too much for me. I thought Jesus was dead. I thought that he was a normal, dead person. Yet, here he shone like God from heaven, and that’s when it clicked for me, I think. Imagine the turn around that happened in my mind as I realized that these Christians had been right all along. God really had come to earth. He really had become a man, and I was speaking to him. This whole time I had been the one speaking incorrectly about God—I was the blasphemer. So many more things happened to me than I have time to tell you about right now. But, I’m sure that they’ll be written down in some book someday.

Here’s the last thing I want to say. That same Jesus Christ, he looked down on me and saw a persecutor, a blasphemer, and a violent man. In fact, despite all my good works, despite the fact that I thought I was the best person of all people, the one most deserving to get into heaven, I saw that it was the opposite. I was the worst person. I was the worst sinner of them all. Here’s the thing that amazes me about God. Jesus looked down on that kind of person, and he still showed me mercy. He still saved me.

(Pastor removes black robe.)

If there’s anything that I want you to take away from this message, it’s the “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Not the people who try hard, not the people who are good enough, not the people who think they can get to heaven on their own. He saves sinners—even the worst one, me. You’ve heard my story today. You know that I am an example of the kind of person God saves. The worst sinners. The ugliest ones. He saves me. Believe that. If Jesus saves me, then he saves you, too. Maybe you think you are the worst sinner, maybe you struggle to feel forgiven. Maybe every day is hard as you wrestle with your sin. But, you know what. Christ saves the worst sinner. Believe that Christ has saved you. Everyone who believes in that message has eternal life. So believe it. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).

“Conquer the Dragon” | Revelation 12:7-12 | Festival of Saint Michael and All Angels

Jesus saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Can you picture that? Our greatest enemy being cast out of the sky by our greatest hero. I think it helps, too, if you picture Satan as he is described here, as a dragon. Here is this massive, deadly creature, falling from the sky faster than you can see. On minute he’s there, and the next he’s already crashed into the earth. That is a fantastic picture. But how does that happen? When Jesus describes that scene, what time is he talking about. If you are like some people, you assume that this is talking about the beginning of the world. Sometime after God created everything, one angel, who we now call Satan, fell. We don’t know exactly how that all went down, but at some point Satan rejected God. We don’t know exactly why; we don’t know exactly when. The Bible does not answer those questions for us. But, we know it happened, because shortly after Satan shows up as a serpent. He sets himself up as God’s enemy, and the enemy of those first two human beings, and brings about humanity’s fall as well.

But is that the time we are talking about? Was Jesus talking about what happened at the beginning of the world? And when we read from the book of revelation today, were we talking about that same time? We were no longer talking about just a mere serpent, but one who has eaten and gorged himself into an enormous dragon. Is the picture of that war—fought between Michael and the faithful angels against the Dragon and his demons—is that a picture from just after creation? I don’t know think so. I don’t want to fret too much about the time frame, but I want you to know that if you realize that these words—this war spoken of—was fought on one particular day, and continues until now, then you will find yourself ready. And you must be ready. Because today we’ll talk about angels, spiritual war, and how you Conquer the Dragon (1) because of the blood of the Lamb and (2) because of the Word.

I don’t know how much fantasy literature you have read in your life, but if I had to guess it’s probably not much. We have a book club at Saint Peter, and the one time I had everyone read a fantasy novel didn’t go too well. I get that. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. And dragons fit perfectly into fantasy literature. They’re giant scaly beasts that breath fire, guard treasure, and can eat people whole. But here in the book of Revelation, we’re not talking about fantasy. Friends, dragons are real. Let that sink in for a moment. If you were at the Minneapolis zoo, and suddenly, an announcement came from the loudspeakers that a lion had gotten out, and no one knew where it was. How would you feel? Would you think, “No big deal. Let’s grab a hot dog and go see the giraffes.” Of course not. You’d probably try to get as far away as possible. But imagine how you would feel if you start heading for your car, when you hear a roar in front of you. There stalking you among the rows of cars, you see the lion looking right at you hungrily. Can you picture that? Can you feel the imaginary fear of that situation?

Now imagine that it’s not a lion, which is deadly and scary, but that it’s a dragon. It’s forty feet tall. It’s breathing fire and snacking on the zebras. And now it’s looking at you. It’s got wings. It can fly. And now, it wants to know what fried you tastes like. You are not going to confront any lions tonight. But, you will confront the Dragon. He’ll be there waiting for you when you get home. He’ll be there when you rest your head, when you go to work—even right now as you sit in this church. The Dragon is here. He’s hungry. I’m not talking fantasy, because hell is not a made up story. There’s much we don’t know about Satan, but I can assure that Satan has one goal for you. He wants you to burn forever. He’s smarter than you. He’s faster, bigger, stronger. In every way he has the advantage, and you should be afraid of him. He’s a dangerous opponent. Don’t be caught unawares. Don’t underestimate him.

Conquer him. Conquer the dragon. I know he’s bigger. I know he’s scary and more powerful, but you can do it. Just not by yourself. Listen to what the Apostle John writes in the book of Revelation: “There was also a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought with the dragon. The dragon fought back along with his angels, but he was not strong enough. There was no longer a place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down—the ancient serpent, the one called the Devil and Satan, the one who leads the whole inhabited earth astray—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Revelation 12:7-9). In this battle, you have allies. And, they’re stronger than the dragon. We don’t talk a lot about angels, not because we don’t like them, or because they aren’t important, but because they like to be in the background. Angels don’t really show up in the Bible very often either, except when something big is happening. In a couple months when we celebrate Christmas, we’re going to hear the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest!” When Jesus rises, we hear the angels say, “He is not here. He is risen!” Those were huge events, and the angels were there, but most of the time they stay hidden.

So, we don’t talk about them very often, but it’s good for us to have this festival and talk about what they do. In our culture, angels tend to look like humans with wings, and often times they’re pictured as little babies with wings. That is not how the Bible talks about them. Angels are horrific, terrifying warrior creatures, and if you saw one, you would be as scared of them as you are of the Dragon, but with one difference. These creatures are on your side. They fight the dragon. They’re led by Michael, an angel powerful enough to drive back the dragon and throw him down to earth. But, even that, all happens behind the scenes. Here in revelation, this hidden battle is shown to us, but just a glimpse. It’s just enough for us to see who wins, and how to do it.

Listen to this song sung in heaven: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ, because the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, the one who accuses them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). Do some of those words sound familiar to you? They should. We include part of this passage before communion sometimes, and it fits perfectly. In Communion, we receive the forgiveness of sins. It’s truly a time when God’s salvation, power, kingdom and authority come to us. And if all of that is ours, then that Dragon’s power, kingdom and authority is done away—especially his accusations. Those are Satan’s main tool. He is the Accuser. But, his accusations have no power if every single sin has been taken away. Listen to how the song goes on: “They conquered him because of the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 12:11). Did you catch who the word, “they,” refers to? It refers back to the brothers. We’re not just talking about men here, though. Any Christian who has been accused by Satan has conquered Satan.

That victory comes by Jesus’s blood. I asked you earlier when you picture these verses happening, and here is the first answer. That day as Christ suffered and died on the cross, there was an enormous battle happening. It was a battle Satan and his demons lost. It was a battle won by the Christ on the cross. His angels drove back Satan, and Jesus crushed his head. Because of the blood Jesus shed, the victory he won that day was given to you. When the dragon comes your way, and he will, conquer him because you have been forgiven in the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ.

But, there’s more to this. The battle that was fought that day continues. Satan and his armies will never win, but they will find on. It’s a battle of attrition. It’s not about victory anymore. It’s about hurting as many people as possible. It’s about dragging as many people away from God as they can to find their damnation in hell. It’s about grieving our Savior who died for all. But, still, conquer the dragon. The battle goes on, but Satan is still cast down: “They conquered him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony. They did not love their lives in the face of death. 12 For this reason, rejoice, you heavens and those who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, for the Devil has gone down to you. He is full of rage, because he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:11-12).

Satan fights his unwinnable battle and he knows his time is short. When I talked to Pastor Kelly about this, he compared to the end of a football game. Those last two minutes are often the most exciting. Who’s going to win? Can they stop the clock? Are they in field goal range? Everyone is on the edge of their seats. We are living in the last minutes of this earth. Satan is trying as hard as he can to claim as many as he can. I want you to know that that these words say is true. He’s full of rage. He knows his time is short. So, he wanders this earth. But, you need not worry. On that day the lamb’s blood was shed, the victory was truly won, but each time that message is spoken, the victory is renewed. Christian conquer the dragon when they speak the gospel. In fact, right now, if Satan is present, I want him to know that we are forgiven because of the blood of Christ, and because right now I proclaim the gospel. Jesus has saved us. Let Satan rage, but you, O Christians, rejoice. When you speak those words, when I speak those words, Satan is driven out. “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ” (Revelation 12:10).

Conquer the dragon because of the blood of the lamb and because of the gospel. Do you want to know how to do it? It’s like this. Have you ever had an argument with someone, and they’re vehemently trying to make their point. For example, if someone would say to you, “You know, the Packers are the best football team. The Vikings are terrible (and they are).” If you want everyone to get super angry, you can start trying to convince them that the Vikings really are worth following, but after everyone gets angry, likely no one is going to be convinced of anything. Everyone loses. But, what if you just agree. “You think the Packers are the best. Cool.” Then there’s no argument. It’s over. When the Dragon comes your way, and he accuses you, “You are a sinner. You are not worthy of God’s love. You deserve hell.” You know what you do? You agree with him. He’s right. But your next words take away all of his power: “But Jesus saved me anyway.” Go conquer the dragon, friends. Amen.

“If You Remember Love, Then Love” | Deuteronomy 24:17-22 | Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

I’m about to ask you a trick question, but don’t let it catch you off guard. Do you follow everything the Bible says? Well, since you’re all good Lutherans, I bet you’re ready to say, “No way, pastor. I confess that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good….” Which is true. No matter how hard you might ever try, you cannot keep God’s Word perfectly. That’s exactly why every week, we gather again in God’s house to confess our sin, and hear that Jesus has paid for every single sin by dying on the cross. But, that’s not what I am talking about. I told you it was a trick question. Do you follow everything the Bible says? I sure hope not.

I noticed that no one brought a goat or a bull or even like a small squirrel today, to sacrifice as a burnt offering (although, a squirrel isn’t an acceptable Old Testament offering). I am guessing that nearly all of you are breaking the Old Testament command to not wear clothes that have mixed fibers. That’s what God says in Leviticus 19:19, “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” And, this last week, I pulled up in front of family fresh, and there was a huge line, standing in the parking lot, waiting by a big truck to keep some fresh seafood. But, I sure hope you weren’t standing in that line. The Bible says, “All creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales…you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat” (Leviticus 11:10-11).

But, I’ll be honest, I love lobster. I wear clothes made of different types of fibers, and I didn’t bring any animal to burn on the altar today. And I know you are thinking, “Pastor, we don’t have to follow those commands of the Bible,” and you’re right. But, do you know why you are right? This is a huge deal, because to many people in the world, Christians say that we need to keep the words of Scripture, but then it’s clear that we don’t keep them ourselves. Part of that is admitting that we are sinners, because we are, but part of it is being able to explain how God’s Word works. We are not just picking and choosing which parts of God’s Word we want to follow. Those passages I just referenced are God’s Word. They are important, and we having something to learn from them, but we don’t need to follow them. Why is that? If someone challenged you about this, could you help them understand why you don’t follow this part of God’s Word?

There’s two ways to think about this. One is from a worldly perspective, and one is from the Bible’s perspective, and both ways are useful. First, the worldly perspective. If you go to another country, for example Singapore, you need to follow the laws of Singapore. Do you know what happens in Singapore if you litter? Caning. They literally take a bamboo cane and hit you across the back with it. It doesn’t sound too bad, but most people pass out from the pain after the first or second hit. Then, they wait for you to wake up and make sure you get the rest of the strikes. It probably won’t surprise you to find out that Singapore is one of the cleanest countries in the world. But, right now, you probably aren’t worried about caning at all, because it’s not legal in the United States. I’m not saying that you should go out and litter, that’s still illegal, but you don’t have to worry about caning if you do. Singapore has no jurisdiction in the United States—no authority or power to punish U.S. citizens. That’s a round-about example of showing how some laws in the Bible work. In the Old Testament—especially in those first, five books written by Moses—many of the laws are given to the Old Testament nation of Israel for religious practices and government. But, you don’t live in Old Testament Israel. Those laws do not have jurisdiction over you in the same way they did over the people in that land, at that time. That’s first reason. We call these civil and ceremonial laws, and they don’t apply to you because you aren’t part of that country.

The second reason is much richer. This reason is straight from the Bible, and it’s beautiful. The best passage to talk about it is from the book of Colossians: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). In the early church, they really had to struggle to figure these things out. There were many Christians who thought that they needed to continue to keep these laws. God’s Word here points out that the laws given in the Old Testament were like a shadow. They were like staring into a bright light, and you could see the silhouette of something, but not exactly what is was. But, then Jesus came. Jesus was the reality. It was his shadow they saw. They didn’t need to try and keep the law, because Jesus kept it in their place. They didn’t need to offer sacrifices anymore, because Jesus came as the one sacrifice, offered for all people of all time. They didn’t need to follow the laws of a single nation, because Jesus intended to bring all people from every nation together into his church. Those laws served their purpose, and they’re still God’s Word, but for those two reasons, you don’t need to follow them. First, you aren’t a part of that country. Second, Jesus’s work has taken away the need to follow those laws. (The fancy way of saying that is that Jesus has abrogated them.)

But, before you start thinking that you don’t have to keep any of the laws in the Bible, I want you to know, not all of the laws in the Bible were given only to God’s Old Testament people. Some of his laws were given to all people of all time. Meaning, there are still laws you should keep, and when you don’t, repent. Sometimes, we call this the moral law. These are laws that you are already familiar with, probably from the Ten Commandments, like do not murder, do not steal, do not worship any other God, but the Lord, etc. These laws apply to everyone, and God makes that clear when he talks about them in Scripture. He didn’t just expect the Old Testament people to avoid murder, can you imagine what that would be like? In fact, God even went so far as to take these laws and to write them on your heart. He gave you a conscience so that you know these things are right or wrong. No one needs to tell you not to stab someone in the face. Your conscience will make sure you know that’s wrong.

So, now that I’ve put all of you to sleep talking about the exciting topic of the abrogation of the Mosaic covenant, I want to ask you a question. If what I just said is true, why do we have a reading from the book of Deuteronomy today? And, are the words we’re going to hear for all people of all time (moral law) or are they just for God’s Old Testament people (civil or ceremonial law)? I don’t think that it’ll be too hard to figure out.

17 Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.  18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. 19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.  20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.  21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.  22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-22)

Were you slaves in Egypt? Do the farmers in our congregation need to worry about leaving some of their crop in the field so that people who can’t afford to buy food can come and pick it? When was the last time you went out to beat an olive tree or harvest your own grapes? Hopefully, you have figured out that these words are for God’s Old Testament people. These are civil laws that God gave to them, but they don’t have jurisdiction over us.

So, why are we reading them? If we don’t need to follow them, then what’s the point of having a sermon on them, aside from listening to your Pastor geek out about obscure theological points? Remember how I started how with a trick question, and told you not to be caught off guard? I hope you weren’t caught off guard, because you still need to follow these words—not as an Old Testament Israelite, but as a Christian. You don’t need to worry about how you glean, or harvest grapes, or whatever, but there’s a lesson behind these words that is exactly what you should do. You can think about it this way. God’s civil and ceremonial laws were just for the ancient Israelites, but they were sometimes just forms of God’s moral law. You can think of it a little like modeling clay. The clay is still clay no matter what shape you make it into. God took the clay of his moral law, and shaped into a specific law for his people of that time, but the clay was still clay. The moral law didn’t change; it just had a shape for that time.

The law that God wants you to follow is this: if you remember love, then love. In these words from Deuteronomy, God gives specific instructions to his Israelites. He wants them to show love for those who needed it most in Israel—the widows, the orphans, and foreigners. God knew it would be easy for the Israelites to forget about these people, or to oppress them, or even to take advantage of them. And because God likes to pour out his love on the poorest, most helpless people, he makes a special point of making a law for these people in Israel. Having said all of that, I hope that you realize that God still cares about those sorts of people. He still wants you to be caring about orphans, widows, and foreigners. If you don’t believe me, he even points this out in the book of James: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).

When was the last time that you thought about who the person in our community or congregation was that needed help the most was, and decided to help them? Have you really considered the fact that there are widows and widowers in our congregation who are still hurting for their loss? There are people, whether they are children or not, whose parents are gone that have never stopped grieving. We don’t very many foreigners in our congregation, but maybe that says something about how we show love, too. There are many foreigners in our community. How come there aren’t so many in our congregation. The truth is that the lesson behind these verses really is pretty anti-American. In America, you don’t leave stuff behind for people who are less fortunate than you. You make sure you get as much as you can. In America, generosity towards strangers is looked down upon, because you need to take care of you and yours first. There are people all around you that need love, that need to be blessed by you, that need to see God’s love behind your love.

That’s really what God wanted the Israelites to do. God wasn’t giving them an arbitrary command here. He wasn’t saying, “Follow this command, or else.” He gives them the great motivation. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:22). He was saying, “O Israelites, you used to be slaves! You used to have nothing. But, I gave you everything. When you were poor and helpless, and I brought you from that country and gave you one of your own! Remember the love I showed you, then go love others.” That was the motivation for the Israelites. Here’s the motivation that God gives to you: “O Christians, you used to be slaves! When you were the most poor and helpless, when you had nothing to save yourself, I was generous. I sent my Son to give his life. He gave you everything. Remember the love I showed you, then go love others.”

I hope that you are thinking about someone right now. I know I am. I can think of people that God wants me to reach out to and love however I can, because he has loved me. God has been so generous to us. Let’s be generous in whatever way we can with others. If you are thinking of someone right now, find a way to show them love as soon as you can. Don’t put it off. Don’t wait until it’s too late. There’s no need to be stingy; your God isn’t. He’s generous with you. Remember his love, then go love others. Amen.