December 30, 2012

God Wants You - Dec 30, 2012

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This sermon was originally written by pastor Vance A. Fossum and provided by "Ministry by Mail". Audio read by pastor Caleb J. Schaller. For more go to


1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.
In the name of Jesus—who came into the flesh of man in order to serve us all—dear fellow-redeemed:

As the telemarketer have reminded us with their continual invasion of our homes, it’s not always good thing to be “wanted.”

The fugitive from justice is not at all pleased that his “wanted” poster hangs on the Post Office wall. We were not always happy as children when our mothers would call out to us that they “wanted” us. How often didn’t we holler back, “What for?”

Whether or not we are pleased at being wanted by someone depends upon what it is for which we are wanted.

Many will compete for our attention during the coming year. Some will lie and cheat to get something from us for themselves.

The Devil wants you too! But do we recognize his approach through others who want us for this or that purpose? Eve did not recognize that it was really Satan who wanted her for himself when she heeded the invitation of the serpent. Joseph, on the other hand, fled from Satan when Potiphar’s wife wanted him!
What others may want of us in the coming year may be in direct conflict with what our Savior God wants of us. Everybody wants you, some for evil purposes, some for good, but God wants you and me for our highest good—here, now, and forever!


You who have been elected to the Church Council have been chosen by the Lord Himself to serve His congregation of believers. You are wanted for this service by your God. But you are also going to be wanted by many others in the months ahead. The same is true of each of us in our various callings—parents, children, teachers, laborers, business men, public servants, or whatever.

When there is a conflict and choice to be made, on what shall we base our decision? May we remember that first we belong to the Lord our Redeemer-God, who has purchased us!

In the words of our text Paul is warning against the immoral use of the body. He wanted to emphasize God’s dwelling in us, and how we should make use of our bodies which have become the temple of God’s Holy Spirit.

The entire life of the Christian is compressed into these two short verses. That life was made possible when the Son of God poured out His life’s blood as payment for the sins of the world.

Today we remember the circumcision of our Lord. Through the Law of Moses, God commanded this cutting off of the foreskin of eight-day-old male child. So began our Lord’s keeping of the Law perfectly for us and the first shedding of His blood for our sins.

All people were “brought with a price”—the life of God’s own Son! His life became our possession when the Holy Spirit worked repentance and faith in the Gospel of Christ in our hearts. At that time the Holy Spirit Himself took up residence in our bodies.

But the mysterious indwelling of the Spirit of God and the life He brings is such a gift of God that the believer is no longer his own master. All the other gifts from God to us are possessed by us, but this gift of the Spirit possesses us!

Being possessed by the Spirit through faith in Christ changes people. As a young boy I read a biography of Ty Cobb, Hall of Fame baseball player. If any man ever felt that he was his own master, it was Ty Cobb. Cobb was filled with himself and the desire to win at all costs. He was well known for his “dirty” play on and off the baseball field. His own teammates hated him. But near the end of his life, Ty Cobb was brought to faith in Jesus, and on his death-bed he talked of nothing but his Savior! Ty Cobb had learned the truth of Paul’s words: “ are not your own; therefore, glorify God in (all the acts of) your body and your spirit (will) for they belong to God!

In the coming year the unbelieving world will continue to go its own way, disregarding the commandments and teachings of God in order to maintain its unrestricted pursuit of whatever pleases the flesh. But let us remember that, through His blood, Christ “has purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the Devil,” so that we “should be Christ’s very own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (Small Catechism, 2nd Article). Surely none of us owes anyone more than we owe Him who gave Himself into the most horrible sufferings and death for our sins, so that we might have life eternal! (cf. Romans 12:1 ff.)


There is another and most wonderful reason that our Lord wants you and me in His service!

Most of those who want you in this life want you for their own benefit. This is human nature; and the Devil surely does not intend any good thing for you as he attempts to gain you into his service. But your gracious Lord wants to bless you through your service to Him!

The Bible teaches that the good works of the Christian receive a reward from God because they are the fruits of a living faith that loves God for His free gift of salvation in Christ.

In speaking of the preachers of the Gospel, Paul wrote earlier in this same letter: “each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” (1 Corinthians 3:8)

In writing to Timothy about disciplining himself for the purpose of godly living, Paul wrote: “Bodily exercise is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

Luther points out that the 4th commandment, as recorded in Exodus 20, contains a promise of reward to the believer. Children are commanded to “honor Father and Mother, that their days may be long upon the earth” (Exodus 20:12).

These are rewards of grace, not rewards of merit. For every true Christian knows that no one in the Kingdom of God may present God with a bill for works of service as if God owes him a reward. “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). We ought to rejoice that our Lord so possesses us unto life eternal that He moves us to perform the works of faith’s love so that He may also reward us with both earthly and heavenly blessings!

This wonderful truth applies to us as we serve in the offices of the church, or as organist, or faithful church cleaner, grounds keeper, or choir member, teacher, janitor, pastor, or whatever.

It applies when we do good unto all people, love our enemies, and give to others without a concern for our own loss; when we witness to our neighbors concerning their Savior from sin, and when we as members of a family serve one another with self-sacrificing love and faithfulness.

In summary: All that we do in love and faith for our God and our fellow man works both heavenly and earthly reward for us. Therefore the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians: “Let us not grow weary in doing good: for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart” (Galatians 6:9).

Yes, dear friends in Christ, everybody wants you for this or that. As we begin a new year, many are squaring off in competition for our attention, our money, our time; and the Devil will continue to make use of all and everything in this life to turn us away from glorifying God in our bodies and spirits and to turn us back to being our own gods as it once was with us.

But you were purchased—heart, hands, feet, mind, ears, body, and will—by the Lord God because He wanted to possess you and bless you in Heaven and on earth through Christ our Savior!

Your Lord wants you more completely in His service in the coming months and years. May He strengthen His grip on us all as He grants us grace through His message of forgiveness. May we resolve with Joshua once again in the new year: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” (Joshua 24:15) Amen.
— Pastor Vance A. Fossum

December 25, 2012

Born Like Us, That We Can Be Reborn Like Him - Dec 25, 2012

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What does this mean? That must have been the most frequent thought around the time our Savior was born.

Can't you see Mary thinking that when the angel told her she was to be the mother of God's Son?

Can't you see Joseph thinking that when the angel told him to take Mary as his wife because the Child in her womb was not the product of unfaithfulness, but was the very Son of God?

Can't you see those rough shepherds internally asking this question as they hurried in from the fields to search for a manger holding a newborn infant? What does this mean?

They had been told what it meant. The angels had told them that this Child was the Savior of the world. That His birth was a great occasion for rejoicing. But these were ordinary people like you and me. And that question echoed in their minds for sure.

Scripture tells us that after the shepherds had left the stable, Mary "treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart". No doubt Mary's pondering centered around that one question: What does this mean?

Countless people could describe the events Luke chapter 2, whether they believe it or not. We ourselves have heard that account over and over on Christmas Eve and on Christmas day. We've read it for ourselves, and might even be able to recite it from memory if we tried hard enough. But we must dig deeper to understand fully, what this means.

Our sermon reading for today helps us to answer that question, and to grasp the full significance of the birth of Christ.

John 1:1-13 (ESV)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
John makes it clear that when Jesus was born into the world on the first Christmas, He had existed for a lot longer than nine months.

Calling the Son of God "the Word", John describes what He was like in eternity by saying, "In Him was life".

John doesn't mean mere biological life. There wasn't even any flesh and bone around to be alive, and yet John says the Word was full of life. So we ask the question, what does this mean that He was full of "life". And we find the answer in a later passage of John's Gospel. In John 17, verse 3 it says...

"And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3 ESV).

The "Life" that John is talking about is "knowing God". Not just knowing He exists, even the Devil knows that, but knowing God in a right relationship with Him. THIS is the relationship that the Son of God had with the Father from eternity.
Relationships are super important for human beings. When people are separated from other people long enough, they start to lose their minds. We need relationships.

And this shouldn't be surprising to us. We were created as a reflection of God, who is Himself an intensely relational being. The Bible says that there is One God, but that this God has three persons. Three persons who that have such a perfect connection to each other that they are One being.

The Son of God was full of life because He was in this relationship with the Father and the Spirit from eternity.
Now, John also says that the Son's life was the "light of men". So we ask again, what is he talking about? What does this mean? It's obvious that John isn't talking about "light" in the sense of rays of light. He's not saying that the Son of God was the source of visible energy. The closest phrase I can think of to convey what John means by "light" is "true wisdom".

The engineer who built the car is the best guy to go to if you want to learn about how it works. The God who created the universe is the best guy to go to if you want to learn about how it works. The Son of God is full of "enlightenment" because He is the one through whom the whole world was created.

A right relationship with God is life. And it is also the only way human beings can grasp the full truth about anything. When mankind abandons God and starts trying to figure everything out on his own, he comes up with all sorts of horrible and conflicting ideas.

Look at modern man. He teaches things like there is no such thing as truth. Modern man says each person can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and each person's idea is equally valid. So, there is no such thing as being right, but we're all right. That makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

If you travel into religions like Buddhism you get to even more silly reasoning. Many people have fallen in love with Buddhism, or with parts of it at least. But when you get to the core of what Buddha taught, it's a nonsensical dead end. Buddha taught that there is even no such thing as "self". Buddha taught that "heaven" is reached when you finally learn that you don't really exist. What kind of wisdom is that? I mean, what are you going do with that?

But in Christ we find true wisdom. Listen to what 2 Timothy 3 says about where true wisdom is found.

"...from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:15-17 ESV).

The light of Christ reveals the way to salvation. And along with this wisdom comes more wisdom. Wisdom that doesn't teach us to create our own morality, but to learn God's. A wisdom that produces good words and actions instead of empty philosophy.
This is the way John describes the eternal Son of God, Having a right relationship with the Father, and being filled with real knowledge.

Now, why are we talking about all this on Christmas day? Aren't these ideas a little heavy for today? Aren't we supposed to be simply rejoicing over the birth of a little Child instead of pondering the deepness of His "life" and "light"?

But knowing what is in Christ helps us to understand why His birth is so important. Christmas is not just about a mother traveling 90 miles on dusty roads before giving birth in a city far from home. Christmas isn't just about the quaint scene of a Baby laid in a manger instead of a proper cradle.

John brings us to the significance of Christmas in verse 11-13. There he writes...

"11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:11-13 ESV).

The eternal Son of God was born into the human race, so human sinners might be reborn, back into the family of God.

When the first two human beings were created by God, they were like Jesus. They not only had biological life, they also had that other kind of life, that relationship with God, that "spiritual life". And they had "light". They had a perfect knowledge of God's will.

But when they sinned, they severed their connection to God, and became spiritually dead. Right away they lost the light of Godly wisdom. The most obvious proof of this is that they tried to hide from God after they sinned. That's just plain DUMB.

And so every child since that time has been born in the same condition. Disconnected from God. Spiritually still-born and lost in a world too big for us to understand.

That's why the Son of God became human, to restore our connection to God. He suffered for our sins on the cross, thus taking away the punishment for them. And like John writes, all who receive Him, who believe in His name are born over again, back into God's family. Back into a right relationship, like the Son always had with the Father. Back into a relationship where God teaches us true wisdom. John would say we're born back into real life and real light.
The Son of God is unique, and always will be. The Bible calls Him the "only Begotten Son". He was always in this relationship with the Father and always will be. We can never become that, but we can come close. Through faith in Christ, God has given us rebirth into a relationship with Him that will carry us through this life, and into His very presence in heaven.

In First John it says...

"See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 1:1-3 ESV).

Through a simple trust in God's Son, and all that He endured for us, we are reborn Children of God. We are reconnected to the Almighty. And this has amazing consequences.

Think about it like this, if you're connected to the source of ALL life, both biological and spiritual life, what could possibly harm you? Pain may come in this life, physical death even, but so long as that connection to God remains physical death can only be a temporary thing. Just as Christ Jesus rose back to life, so shall all those connected to Him.

And while in life, if you're connected to the source of ALL true wisdom, you'll always have direction and wisdom beyond that of godless mankind. Severed from the branch, the vine can only wither and rot away. But connected to the branch, the vine will grow.
"What does this mean?" Joseph wondered about the Christ Child. "What does this mean?" Mary pondered. "What does this mean?" the shepherds thought on as they returned to their fields. And we have the answer to their question. Christ became human, so that we could become reunited with the divine. Reconnected to real life, real wisdom, as Children of the Father. Children who see Him in part now, but will see Him fully not so long from this very day.

What does the birth of the Savior mean for you and me? It means our rebirth, that's what it means.

Let that carry you through this next year. When the frustrations come. When the pains come. When the troubles come. Remember, in Christ you have been reborn, reconnected to the Almighty. And so even in those days, we can rejoice in God and in the Christ Child whom He sent to make us His eternal Children. He was born like us, so that we could be reborn like Him. That is His Christmas gift to us.


December 23, 2012

John Prepares Us to Celebrate Christmas - Dec 23, 2012

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This Advent season we've been letting the Gospel writers prepare us for Christmas. Matthew showed us that Jesus was descended from King David, just as the prophesy foretold. Mark reminded us how repentance prepares our hearts to receive Christ. Last Sunday Luke laid out the many miracles that happened around Christ's birth and so emphasized that Christmas is not about what we can do, but about what God has done for us.

Today we turn to the last of the four Gospels, to hear from the apostle John. The first three Gospels focused our attention on events that happened in human history. But John's scope is greater. At the beginning of John's Gospel, he brings us all the way back to eternity. John begins his Gospel with these weighty words...

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2 ESV).                                 

Now, God uses many different names for Himself in the Bible. Names like, Yahweh, the Lord, the Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I'm sure you could think of half a dozen more without much trouble. To these names John adds another referring specifically to the second member of the Trinity. John calls God the Son "the Word".

And so John invites us to throw our minds back to the beginning. Before anything existed, there was God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Glorious. Eternal. Radiant with power and majesty. And then in verse 14 John writes the following. This is the main portion of our sermon reading for today.

John 1:14-18 (ESV)

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) 16 For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
One of my favorite books is a series by Stephen King called, "The Dark Tower". The stories in this series are built around a quest to reach the Dark Tower. But not much is known about this tower. The people who seek it don't really even know which world it's found in. They believe the tower to be a sort of nexus holding infinite parallel universes together, binding existence together like an immense linchpin. Everything is said to be tied in to the tower.

The main character of this story is a man named Roland who wants to find the tower in order to climb its steps to the top. If possible, Roland would see what, or who, is in the tower's highest room.

Whether he intended to or not, Stephen King has written into the fabric of this story many of the questions and hopes of the whole human race. Questions about existence, about reality, questions about God.

One of the characters in the book expresses the desire to find the tower, but maybe not to enter the top room. He says that perhaps he is afraid of some sort of accounting that might come when you enter the presence of the almighty Dweller of the tower's highest level.

Every culture of mankind has longed to reach God. The religions produced by these cultures have come up with different methods to climb the stairs, but each one has had the same goal - to see, to know the Almighty Creator, the source of all things.

But John, a humble fisherman from the region of Galilee doesn't offer us one more story cut from the cloth of human longing. His story is altogether different from the concept of human beings climbing their way to the top. John says that idea is all wrong. Something else has happened which allows us to see God.

God Himself, the Word, became flesh and lived among us.

The way that John writes may make him seem a bit like a dreamer and a poet. But John had a difficult task laid on him when he began this Gospel. He had to choose his words carefully. He had to help his readers imagine what we cannot fully comprehend. Someone once said, "As the ant understands the man, so we understand God".

But even against such odds, John endeavors to make us understand what he saw when he met Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal Son of God.

He uses three main words to describe Jesus: glory, grace and truth. In verse 14 John says...

"...we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:1 ESV).

What do you think of when you hear the word "glory"? I'd guess a lot of people think of light. Like the way that the daytime sun shines when it's noon. Or like the way the setting sun shines differently, more condensed and powerful as it sinks below the rim of the horizon.

Perhaps light is part of what John is thinking of when he says that he saw the glory of God's Only Son. Once John saw Jesus actually radiating light from every pore of his body. On a mountain where Jesus had taken a handful of disciples to pray He was changed, and became as bright as the shining sun.

But there were other times when the glory of God shone out through Jesus in other ways. How about all the times when Jesus healed people of diseases with a touch of His hand, or with a simple word? That was God's glory radiating from Jesus as well.

Or how about every time when Jesus opened up the Scriptures to the people through His teaching. Not adding new things to the Bible, but reaching into it and opening it up, helping the people to see what it had always meant, but they had failed to grasp. Each time Jesus showed His complete understanding of the Word, God's glory was shining.

Or think of how Jesus knew the minds of men. Not just the fact that He understood how people think. There were times when Jesus knew the actual thoughts of individuals and told them so. Each time Jesus revealed the thoughts of people or the events of their pasts, the glory of God glimmered in His words for just a moment.
One of the other main words John uses to describe Jesus is "truth". John and everyone else who heard Jesus speak noticed that He didn't speak like the other religious teachers of the day. His words weren't offered as possible understandings of God. His words were offered as the only understanding of God. And this isn't just to say that Jesus spoke confidently while others spoke with reservation. When Jesus spoke the things He said were self evident. His words held the weight of "right-ness". Even if you didn't like what Jesus was saying, even if you spoke out against what He said, inside you still knew that what He said was true.

Jesus was unique. He was not merely another man teaching his own ideas. Jesus was the only Son of the Father, teaching the unshakable truth about the way things actually are. And this too, was a glimpse of God's glory.
But John would say that above all these other flashes of glory were the moments of grace that came from Jesus. That's the most important word John uses to describe his experience with the Son of God - grace. In verse 16 John says,

"For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16 ESV).

The word "grace" refers to a gift given without the recipient deserving it in any way. John saw Jesus give many of these gifts. Lunch for thousands from a few loaves and a couple fish. Healings. Demons cast out. Leprosy cleansed away. Spiritual insight granted. The dead raised back to life.

But above all these "little" graces, John saw Jesus offer His own body and soul to be beaten, mocked and crucified to death. And when all was said and done, it came out that all of this was allowed by Jesus in order to save sinners from the eternal punishment that our sins deserve.

The glory of God shone out from Jesus in all the little gifts He gave people. But the glory shone most brilliantly in the dark on the cross of Calvary. There Jesus suffered hell on earth in order to do away with the eternity of hell that our sins had piled up.

In verse 17 John says...

"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17 ESV).

One of the reasons John spoke so reverently of Jesus was that He saw clearly that Jesus was not just another teacher offering another method for climbing the steps to God. Those teachings all led to a dead end. Even Moses, who received the Law from God Himself on Mt. Sinai could offer nothing more than another dead end. If you take the Ten Commandments and try to use them to climb the ladder to God, you're going to be disappointed. Trying to keep the commandments as a staircase to God is a slippery route. One wrong step and you tumble down to the bottom. God's standard is perfection, and no one who has ever committed even a single sin can approach God on his own merit.

But the Word didn't become flesh to repeat the commandments. He came to give us Grace with a capital "G". The gift of gifts, the gift of freedom from what we deserve. The gift of forgiveness.

Later in his Gospel, John records the words that Jesus spoke to a religious teacher named Nicodemus. Jesus told this man...

"...God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:16-17 ESV).

On that first Christmas day, the door at the top of the tower opened. And down those slippery steps a sure footed figure came. Down the endless flights His footsteps echoed quietly. And when He stepped out of the tower, His earthly mother laid Him in a manger - a newborn human Child.

The Scripture tells us that later He re-ascended those steps, and that all who hold His hand by faith, cannot tumble to the bottom any longer.
Let me tell you one more story. In our country, about a hundred and fifty years ago, a slave by the name of Booker was born on a southern plantation. He was later released from slavery by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and became an important leader for African Americans in the late eighteen-hundreds. But in his early years, Booker didn't foresee greatness in his future. Listen to the following excerpts from his book, "Up From Slavery".

"From the time that I can remember having any thought about anything, I recall that I had an intense longing to learn to read. I determined when quite a small child, that, if I accomplished nothing else in life, I would in some way get enough education to enable me to read common books and newspapers" (Up From Slavery, page 34).

"I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The pleasure of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise" (Up From Slavery, page 14).

Booker longed to simply read. But nobody close to him knew how to read. He could get books if he tried hard enough, and he did, but unless a teacher could be found, it just wasn't going to happen. Without a teacher, reading would simply remain beyond his grasp.

The human condition is the same when it comes to knowing God. You can't truly know God without knowing His grace. Sure, you can learn from the creation that He is powerful. Sure, you can learn all about His rules and commandments from your heart, conscience, and from the Bible. You can learn about His stern justice from the same. But that's only part of God's character. In order to really know God, you have to know His grace. And you can only know God's grace through knowing His Son. That's why God's Son was born on the first Christmas - that we might truly know God.

In the final verse of our reading John writes...

"No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known" (John 1:18 ESV).

John invites us to the manger this Christmas with these thoughts in mind. Here lies our Teacher. Not just a teacher of kindness and good behavior. Not just another moral leader. But a Savior full of glory, truth, and above all - grace. A teacher who offers to show us all that the Bible really means. A teacher who offers to show us what the Father really looks like. A teacher who says first of all that He has erased our sins, and who then offers to hold us tightly, and introduce us to the Almighty.

May the Holy Spirit fill our hearts with wonder as we gaze down into the humble manger this year. May the Christ Child fill us with peace and with faith. And may the Father be seen in our hearts as He is, full of glory, grace with a capital "G" and truth. Amen.

December 16, 2012

Luke Prepares Us to Celebrate Christmas - Dec 16, 2012

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During the Sundays of Advent, we've been letting the Gospel writers prepare us to celebrate Christmas. We've heard from Matthew and Mark. Today, we hear from Luke.

Luke was a friend of the apostle Paul, and a doctor. On occasion, Luke traveled with the apostle Paul when he was spreading the message of Jesus throughout the ancient world. Being a doctor made Luke a great candidate for chronicling the events of Jesus' life. He was good at interviewing people, making observations, taking notes, and recording the information he gathered into a simple, easy to follow narrative.

We have two books from the pen of Luke, the Gospel that bears his name, and the book of Acts. The book of Acts chronicles how the Holy Spirit used different people to push the Gospel out in to the world that needed to hear it.

Now, Luke's Gospel is unique because it gives us so much information about the events that happened just before and just after Christ's birth. Luke himself tells us that he got his information from eyewitness accounts. That is, Luke interviewed people who were there when these things happened. Now, I hope it goes without saying that while Luke was the writer, the Holy Spirit was the author. The Holy Spirit guided Luke to write accurately and exactly what the Lord wanted preserved for the generations to come.

So, let's dive in. Our selection from God's Word for today is found in...

Luke 1:26-38 (ESV)

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Perhaps you noticed that this section of Luke is filled with miracles. By my count, there's at least seven different miracles here that either happen, or that Gabriel says are going to happen soon. This is notable, especially since the years before this time were devoid of miracles as far as the Biblical account is concerned.

Every Bible has a division between it's two main parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. This division stands between the book of Malachi and the Gospel of Matthew. If you've got a simple Bible there isn't much between these books. Maybe a blank page marked only with the title, "New Testament". But in the actual chronology there were about 400 years that intervened between the time when the last Old Testament prophet put words to a page, and when the Savior was born. During this period of 400 years, the history of the Jewish people marched on. Different foreign invaders came and either ruled kindly, or ruled roughly over the lands of Palestine.

But during this time, God was silent. There were no new prophets writing books or preaching sermons. There were no new prophesies made concerning the Savior to come. And, like I said, as far as we know, there were no miracles happening. It was a time of silence from the almighty.

But then, as Luke informs us, there was a Cambrian explosion of miracles around the year of Jesus' birth. First, an angel appeared to a priest named Zachariah to tell him that his elderly and barren wife would soon give birth to a son. And that this son would be a great prophet who would prepare the people to receive the Savior. When Zachariah doubted the message of the angel, he was struck dumb until the birth of his son John. And the conception of this child was miraculous in itself. Luke tells us that Zachariah's wife Elizabeth was not only past the time of child bearing, she was also known to be barren! But all the sudden, she's a mother.

Then you've got our reading for today. Did you search through for the seven miracles yet? First there's the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary. Miracle number one. He tells her that she's going to have a baby, even though she's a virgin. Miracle number two. Not only that, but the Child would be called the "Son of the Most High", that is, God's own Child. Miracle number three. Gabriel also says that this Child will rule on David's throne forever. Miracle number four. He says that this Child, yes, a human Child, will be called "Holy". He would be a sinless Child. Miracle number five. Then it seems that Gabriel noticed that young little Mary's jaw was on ground, so he gives her a little help to believe all this. He tells her that old barren Elizabeth is with child now also, because nothing is impossible with God. Miracle mention number six. And finally, the Holy Spirit works a little miracle right in the heart of Mary - she believes the message of Gabriel. Miracle number seven.  

For God, miracles are like fireworks. You know, like the pyrotechnics that explode at a concert when the band comes on stage and starts to play. God uses miracles to get people's attention. To say, "Hey listen up! Check it out, I'm about to communicate to you in a pretty important way, and you need to pay attention!"

I think this is why God refrained from doing anything miraculous in that 400 year period. It was, excuse the phrase,  a "pregnant pause". It was a calm before the storm of miracles that would surround the birth of the long promised Savior. And it all serves to draw our attention to that Savior. Here He is! Salvation is finally going to happen for all you sinners who need it so desperately!

And even more miracles came on the actual night of Jesus' birth. Only this time they were more like fireworks than ever. The brilliant messengers of God, the angels of heaven, burst out in praise of the Lord before a crowd of startled shepherds. And the sign wasn't dismissed or ignored by those shepherds. They went quickly to see why God had gotten their attention.
Now, miracles are attention getters. But there's something else about miracles that teaches us a lesson here. When God does a miracle, it is by definition something that we human beings cannot do. A miracle is something beyond the natural order of things. Miracles get our attention because we can't do them. And this is an important thing to note. Each time God caused another miracle to happen in connection with the birth of His Son into the human race, God was emphasizing the fact that salvation is something beyond us. We cannot do it. Saving sinners from the punishment their sins deserve is something that only God could do. Salvation is God's work, not ours. It is His gift that comes to us in Christ.

If there was a way for sinners to erase their own sins, than all these Christmas miracles would be merely sparkle and entertainment. If finding our way back into God's good book was really something that individuals could accomplish with enough effort and determination, than the whole birth of Christ Jesus wouldn't be something to celebrate. But Scripture is clear on this point, no sinner will be able stand before God on the Last Day and receive His stamp of approval on the basis of what we've done with our lives. Even a good life, a great life of love and compassion, even that life is riddled with evil thoughts, lies, sinful actions, and good things left unsaid and undone. Only Christ was truly holy, as the angel Gabriel said He would be. And only standing with Christ beside us are we holy in the eyes of God. Thank God for the Christ Child, and for forgiveness through His cross!
Last Sunday in Bible Class I brought up something I heard on the radio recently. I think it was an ad for "World Concern". World concern is an organization that "attempts to transform the lives of poor and marginalized people through disaster response and sustainable community development" (

Now, I myself haven't been personally involved with World Concern, but it sounds like what they're doing is a great thing. What bothered me was the ad on the radio was what it suggested. The ad said something like, "Donate to world concern, and help people who need it this Christmas. In doing this you'll be getting back to the real meaning of Christmas."

Now, call me a big religious humbug, but it bothered me that they talked about getting back to the real meaning of Christmas, but never mentioned Christ. As if the real meaning of Christmas is giving physical gifts to the poor and needy. That's a great thing to do, and it's particularly meaningful at Christmas if it's meant to be a reflection of God giving Christ to us. But the fact remains, Christmas is not about what we can do.

The world around us is always trying to turn Christmas into something other than a celebration of the birth of Christ our Savior. For business owners, Christmas is a time to sell, sell, sell, and get out of the red and into the black. For others Christmas is a time to celebrate different cultures and their many religious beliefs. For still others, Christmas is a time to rest and enjoy family time, to reset priorities, and to be thankful. To Charles Dickens Christmas was a time to celebrate the "spirit of Christmas", that is, to celebrate giving to help others.

But all these things are things that WE CAN DO. When Luke records all these miracles in his Gospel, he's directing us to watch a story unfold that is all about what ONLY GOD CAN DO, and what GOD DID DO FOR US!

He sent the eternal Son to be born as a human baby, so that He could live, suffer, and die in the place of sinners. God sent Christ into the world to be our sin eraser, to be our Savior.
When the apostle Paul traveled around the Roman Empire carrying the message of sins forgiven to people who didn't know Jesus, one group of people he shared that message with was slaves. People who were literally the property of others. Paul never led a revolt of slaves against their masters. He didn't work with government officials to lead them to legislate the end of slavery. He may have wanted freedom for his fellow Christians that were slaves, but more important than freeing them from slavery to human masters was the freeing of them from sin and eternal punishment. This comes through faith in Christ.

Let's keep this in mind as we prepare to celebrate Christmas. It is about freedom from sin, through Christ our Savior. As important and noble as it is to try to improve the quality of people's earthly lives, this must NEVER become the meaning of Christmas.

When we look at the miracles Luke records in the first few chapters of his Gospel we see this. The miracles that God did here were amazing, but they were not miracles to eradicate physical pain and earthly difficulties.

Mary and Joseph received no special miracle ride to Bethlehem. They had to hoof it on foot. Both Elisabeth and Mary gave birth to their babies in the natural way. When Mary and Joseph found there wasn't room for them to stay comfortably in Bethlehem, God didn't have His angels erect a house for them to stay in. No, they bedded down in a place meant for animals.

The point is, the miracles of Christmas were to draw attention to the Savior of sinners. And this was more important to God than miraculously addressing any social concerns because a relationship with the Savior would lead to far greater and more lasting benefits than any other help He could offer.

In a very real sense, God was addressing EVERY social concern by sending His Son into the world. Through Him we are invited to experience peace with God our Creator. And one day, through Christ we will be ushered into a new world. One no longer infected with poverty, pain, hunger, tragedy, murder, genocide, hatred, war, or want.

This is what God can do, and what He WILL do. This is what Christmas is about: What God has done for us in Christ Jesus.   
Again, don't misunderstand me, help others in need. Christ commands us to. Just don't make Christmas into a command. Let it remain what it really is - the gift of salvation from God, given in the form of the little Baby Savior.

Prayer: Father in heaven, thank you for getting our attention with all your miracles in the Christmas accounts. Thank you for doing what we could never. Thank you for sending Jesus to be our perfect Savior. Thank you for sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts through your Gospel message of free forgiveness in Christ. Help us to reflect your giving heart in the ways that we help others. Help us to give generously to those who do not have as much as we do. Help us to champion the cause of the poor and those who cry out for justice. But help us to keep perspective Lord. Help us never to focus on what our own hands can do over and above what you can do, and have done for the salvation of all people. Keep us trusting in YOU above all, and praising the precious gift of Christ. Amen.

December 9, 2012

Mark Prepares Us to Celebrate Christmas - Dec 9, 2012

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This Advent season we're letting the Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—prepare us to celebrate Christmas. Last week Matthew showed us that Jesus' family tree was full of sinners. This fact reminds us that the whole reason the Son of God became human was to redeem sinners.

This week we turn to the next book, the Gospel of Mark. Interestingly, Mark was one of the DISCIPLES of Jesus, but NOT one of the twelve apostles. Mark traveled with the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey, and he also traveled with the apostle Peter on occasion. The preaching of Peter was probably one of the major sources that Mark relied on to write his Gospel—that and actually asking Peter questions. So, in a sense, the Gospel of Mark is really the Gospel of Peter. More about that later. Let's read the first eight verses of the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 1:1-8 (ESV)
1  The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the Prophets:
      “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
      Who will prepare Your way before You.”
3     “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
      ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
      Make His paths straight.’
            4 John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. 5 Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
            6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. 8 I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark is the only Gospel that doesn't include any early history about Jesus. Nothing about his birth at all. Mark launches right into the beginning of Jesus' ministry by talking about the "Forerunner". The man known as "John the Baptist" whose job it was to prepare the people for the ministry of Jesus.

All of the Gospels are pretty sparse when it comes to information about Jesus' childhood. Luke gives us the most with his Christmas account in Luke 2. But other than that we hardly have ANY information about Jesus' years from age two to age thirty.

Of course the reason for this sparseness of information is that the Gospel writers were writing to present Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior from sin that had been long promised by the LORD. They weren't writing to give us a biography covering all the cute things Jesus did when He was a toddler.

By bypassing the early history of Jesus, Mark gets us right into the meat of things. He would prepare us for celebrating this Christmas, by preparing us to have an enjoyable SPIRITUAL encounter with our Savior.  For this, repentance is required.

Outer preparation for Christmas is fun, and good. Wreaths, and greenery, and sparkling lights, and stars, and decorations, and presents, all help us to get in the holiday mood again. But the more crucial preparation for celebrating the birth of Jesus is the inner preparation of having a humble and repentant heart.
To get our hearts ready for Christmas we first have to remember who this Jesus is. Mark gets us headed down this road in verse 1 by calling Him, "the Son of God".

The quotation that Mark inserts next is from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. It talks about the Forerunner. It says that this "Messenger" who would prepare the way would prepare the way before the "LORD". You'll remember that when you see the capital L-O-R-D in an English translation of the Bible that means that here in the original text was the proper name of God, "Jehovah" or probably more correctly pronounced, "Yahweh".

In these two ways Mark shows us that the little Jesus who's birth we celebrate on Christmas, is God Himself. The Son of God, Yahweh.

But Mark adds one more detail to show how high above Him this little child is. In the last couple verses of our reading, John says that he doesn't consider himself worthy to loosen the sandal strap of the One who will come after him.

John was not a flowery guy. He lived in the desert, wore camels hair robes and ate locusts. He wasn't the type to say something like this if he didn't mean it. He really didn't consider himself worthy to touch the stinky sandal strap on the Savior's foot. This was because the Savior was so far above Him, so much more important to the world.
Okay, so the next thing we have to do is understand the ministry of John the Baptist. He was, as Isaiah put it, to tell the people to "Prepare the way of the LORD" to "Make His paths straight". Now, of course this obviously doesn't mean that the people were supposed to actually make a new road for Jesus to walk on. No, Isaiah is talking about something else here. Isaiah, was talking about being straight with the Lord in our hearts. Being true and honest. Not like a rocky and undependable road, but like a straight, true, level, dependable blacktop highway. Nothing hidden there, everything plain and in the open.

Now we don't want to get the idea that John means we need to be perfect and sinless before we are ready to have a spiritual encounter with Jesus. That's just not possible. What John meant was that we should be open to God in our hearts. Honest with Him. Confessing our sins, and admitting the absolute evilness of the things we've said, done, and thought.

Mark writes that John the Baptist's ministry was all about repentance. Turning around. Changing your attitude. Turning away from sin, instead of embracing it, trying to live God's way instead of sin's way.

For the people who came to John out on the banks of the Jordan River, part of repentance was being open with other people as well as being open with God. Admitting publicly that they were sinners who needed God's salvation. Accepting the baptism of repentance that God's prophet offered was like saying, "I can't make it on my own. I need God's forgiveness". It was an open expression of repentance and faith.

Openness is a characteristic of repentance. Don't get me wrong, you certainly can be repentant about something that you don't want to talk about because it's so embarrassingly shameful to you. What I'm saying is, that even the sins that you still cringe to think of, you'll bring those up if the time is right. If your talking about them will help someone else to know Christ and His forgiveness.

Earlier I mentioned that Mark's Gospel could be considered Peter's Gospel because much of it probably came from Peter's preaching. One of the things that makes scholars come to this conclusion is that Mark's Gospel is subtly different than the others. In chapter 8 Mark omits a word of praise that Jesus gives to Peter. But Mark makes sure to include the sharp words of rebuke that Jesus aims at Peter in that same chapter. In the account of the Peter's denial of Christ during Holy Week, Mark includes some aggravating details that the other Gospel writers pass over in silence.

It appears that because Peter was genuinely repentant, he was in the habit of calling attention to his weakness and sin without mincing words, while the other apostles didn't dwell on the shameful details of Peter's denial.

We find the same attitude of openness in the apostle Paul also. Throughout the book of Acts Paul tells the story of his conversion over and over. A story which started with Paul being a persecutor of Christians and a murderer. Paul was able to tell these shameful stories for the same reason Peter could. He was sorry for the sins of his past, and He knew that in Christ He was forgiven. God given repentance and faith enabled both of them to be open about their past, and to be at peace, knowing their sins were forgiven in the highest court.
So, Mark prepares us to celebrate the birth of Christ by reminding us that this Child is God, and by moving us to repent of our sins, and trust in Christ Jesus for forgiveness.

But one more thing that Mark (and John) seem to encourage is an attitude of general humility toward Christ Jesus. Again, John the Baptist said that he wasn't worthy to even loosen the dirty sandal strap of Jesus. But also, John was full of a servant mentality. He was living isolated from the rest of the world out in the desert because He was told to be there by God. He was preaching the message that God had told him to preach. He dressed in camel's hair robes and ate locusts and honey, and yet he was content to do all this because He was serving His great God and Savior, who would sweep away all John's sins, and open heaven to Him.
So, let's take John's preaching to heart. Christmas is a lot of things, but first and foremost it is our celebration of the birth of God's Son, our Savior. Let's not ever forget that.

In order to welcome the Christ Child this Christmas, let's cultivate a heart of repentance by reading God's Word, being convicted by the law there, and made alive by the Gospel forgiveness found there also.

Lastly, let's be joyful about our Savior, but always remember to have John's attitude. Always remember that we're really not worthy to even touch His dirty sandal. But even so, we have been invited into His family for this Christmas, and for eternity.

In Christ Jesus our crucified and living Savior, Amen.