December 14, 2016

December 11, 2016 - Isaiah 61:1-3

Theme: Christmas Breaks Captivity
1) From earthly enemies
2) From spiritual enemies
3) From eternal enemies

It's better to give than to receive… Is that true? Do we really believe that giving is better than receiving, especially around Christmas? It’s pretty nice to receive. I think when we use that phrase what we mean is that is more important to give than to receive, or maybe it is morally better to give than to receive. Anyone who says that they don’t care about what they receive in life is most likely lying. We do care, and it’s okay to care. Having a desire to live and survive simply means that you do care about receiving. Receiving doesn’t have to be a matter of over-indulgence and selfishness.

Okay, there may be more than one angle to the notion that it is better to give than to receive. But, I’m willing to guess that if I proposed to you that it is better to receive than to give, that would a lot harder to accept. If I went around the public, telling people that, I would be met with some resistance. To suggest that we should be more concerned with getting rather than giving, especially around the holidays, is not very popular. People may act like they care about getting more than anything else, but they probably wouldn’t advocate for it or wear it as a badge of pride.

But, isn’t that precisely what we should believe about God? To receive from God is always better than giving. Without receiving first from God there is nothing of value that I can offer to Him. My life depends on what He gives to me, in fact, my life began with what He gave. If we are not Christians who defend and promote receiving over giving, when it comes to God, we are not Christians. I want you to think about that now, as I read our text for today from the prophet Isaiah, in which He describes what the LORD God gives us:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is on Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of our God's vengeance; to comfort all who mourn, 3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the LORD to glorify Him.

Part 1 – From earthly enemies

Isaiah’s message is one freedom. Freedom from oppression of enemies to be sure, but freedom from things like: sorrow, worry, hurt, and any other limitation. This message was important to God’s people for many reasons. First of all, they would need freedom from enemies here on earth. In the immediate context of these verses, Judah was at peace. But, this would not last long. In an effort to protect the kingdom from the threat of the Assyrians, the very nation that conquered the northern tribes of Israel, King Hezekiah became friendly toward a distant nation called Babylon. In a moment of folly, Hezekiah invited Babylonian envoys to Jerusalem and showed them the extent of the kingdom and all the riches they had, probably in an attempt to impress them. Isaiah prophesied a message of judgment because of this in chapter 39. After Hezekiah’s reign, Judah would be conquered by the Babylonians.

The people who first read these words would have had to experience this oppression. A message of coming freedom and liberty would have been most welcome. However, this message of deliverance from earthly foes would also resonate with another generation. In Luke chapter 4 we see Jesus quoting these very verses and at the conclusion saying, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.” The people listening to Jesus in the synagogue that day would not have been thinking about the Babylonians, but the Romans. They, like Isaiah’s original audience, were a people under oppression. They desired freedom and they believed Jesus would provide it as the fulfillment of these words. The tragic part of this story, as we know, is that the majority of the people limited God’s liberty to the earthly realm. True enough, with the peace of forgiveness that Jesus brought also came deliverance from all earthly oppressors, but not in an immediate, literal sense. Jesus taught that a person could be free even if an earthly nation ruled over them. True freedom is the knowledge of sins forgiven. If a person’s heart is cleansed and purified by the Holy Spirit, what does it matter what the rest of the world does? It’s the same attitude that David wrote about in Psalm 56: “I trust in God, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me?” That’s freedom.

While Jesus did not come as an earthly Savior, He does neutralize all worldly threats. His promise of “Because I live you also will live” can indeed be true even if our mortal lives come under threat or death. So, yes, this message of a coming Savior, fulfilled by Jesus through His birth and death, is a message that breaks captivity under earthly enemies. But, it only does so by first breaking the spiritual bonds of our slavery.

Part 2 – From spiritual enemies

The fact that Isaiah continually points to the gifts which God will give reminds us that we can’t give enough by ourselves. God is the one who gives us the ability to preach the good news, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty and the year of His favor, to comfort all who mourn, and to console the downtrodden. These are amazing gifts, of a spiritual nature, which come only through the fulfillment of these verses, Jesus Christ. Isaiah summarizes at the end of the chapter by writing, I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful in my God; For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness. We rightly rejoice at these gifts but we also humbly remember that we are insufficient before God on our own.

Here we see one of the greatest spiritual enemies that can easily keep us captive. It is the inward feeling or desire to justify ourselves outside of God. Think about that definition. It is the complete opposite of the way that the Bible describes salvation. The Bible says that Jesus, God, justifies us freely outside of ourselves. The complete opposite is that we would seek to be justified through our works outside of God. This teaching, as blatantly false as it is, is still a great enemy to our faith.

There’s a great danger present in our lives from this enemy for two reasons. First, we are all captive to the enemy of self-righteousness as soon as we enter this world. We are born into sin and therefore corrupted by it immediately. You can’t state it any simpler than Paul did, “There is none who is righteous, not even one.” The second danger is this. We may be freed by Christ from the clutches of this enemy through baptism and faith, but it stays near us for all our days. The fallen nature is an enemy that sits on the doorsteps of our hearts and the only thing to keep it at bay is the power of the Holy Spirit in Word and Sacrament. So, even after being set free, we can at any time slip up and fall victim to the unregenerate flesh. We cannot let up or get any feeling of self-confidence or that could be it.

The Christmas season has its own peculiar variety of this ancient enemy. We know it as the danger of materialism. Isn’t materialism the reason why we remind ourselves that it is better to give than to receive? We don’t want to become selfish or greedy, for good reason. In this way, giving is a good protector against materialism. But, it’s not a total fix. Swinging too far into the domain of what we must do in order to protect ourselves can lead up right into the trap of the sinful flesh; namely that we block out any thought of what God has done for us and we focus only on our good merits instead. In the end, it doesn’t matter if our thoughts today are centered on greed and desire or the more pious options of giving and humility; if we do not have Christ in our hearts nothing matters and nothing is fixed.

To have strength and power against spiritual enemies, whether work righteousness or materialism, we need to receive what God gives us – Good news, healing, liberty, comfort, and consolation. Isaiah’s message is a far cry from what we typically hear in Christianity, especially in America. Today, the emphasis in so many churches is on those things which you must give to God. Prayer, Praise, Thanksgiving, Time, Talents, Money. It’s not that any of these things are bad, not at all. It’s not that we shouldn’t be doing any of these things. The problem is when they become the focus of your faith.

Simply put, the Christian faith is not about what we do for God. It’s about what He gives us. If we are conditioned only to give and give and give, and we never think about receiving anything, we have a major problem. Isaiah says, “It is better, it is necessary to receive, rather than to give.” If we don’t take this to heart and believe it, we will remain captive under our spiritual enemies. Only Jesus can liberate us. Only He, the Child born on Christmas, can set us free, as He Himself has said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 "And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36 "Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:34-36).”

Part 3 – From eternal enemies

Isaiah first wrote to a people who would be captive under the Babylonians. Jesus spoke these words to those who were oppressed by the Romans. Physical captivity was a reality for God’s people and He promised to free them. Jesus also made clear that His mission was of a spiritual nature; that He sought to free people from the bondage of sin and the prison of their hearts. These things are true of Isaiah’s message, but he also warns us of one, final enemy, the one who would hold us for eternity - Satan.

Thoughts of eternity enter our minds as we read Isaiah’s warning of the Lord’s day of vengeance. God can certainly bring His righteous vengeance to the world in many ways, but there is going to be one final day. I heard a pastor speak earlier this last week about how every belief ultimately is concerned with death. Not in the sense that death is the sum and substance of all beliefs but rather that all beliefs seek to answer something about death. We don’t buy into things and trust them for no reason. We do so because they resonate with us or they answer a question we have. What bigger question exists than what happens after death? Whatever is believed in life, even if it not considered religious, will have something to say about death.

That’s because death is a certainty. No one can escape it and everyone knows it coming. Death is absolutely true no matter what one’s religion is. How amazing it is then, that people choose to believe so many things about death that ignore the matter entirely. People choose to believe that death isn’t important. People willingly plead ignorance about death. People choose to ignore the problem entirely, even though there will come a day that they no longer can. People choose to believe things that can’t be proven in order to help them cope with something that can’t be denied. It’s fascinating in one sense, but also sad. 

Death is Satan’s greatest tool. He was successful in deceptively slipping it into life through Adam and Eve’s sin and ever since it has wreaked havoc on mankind. So much so, that even as wise and advanced as people are today they are nevertheless more dumbfounded over death than ever before. Death, and its eternal consequences, indeed comprise the deadliest prison ever.

What a miracle, that in these few words, and in the humble birth of a Savior in Bethlehem, we have the answer for the questions of eternity. Isaiah gives us the gift of freedom and it’s so simple. All of these amazing promises of God are given to us in Jesus Christ. It’s so simple you can feel it in the words of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus unassumingly enters the synagogue, reads them, sets the scroll down, and says, “Today, these words have come true.”

Do you recognize and believe what that simple sentence means for you today? You are free, to preach, to proclaim, to heal, to comfort, and to console. What wonderful gifts we can give, both to others and to our Lord. But, it all starts as it does in our text, by receiving them in your own heart. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

December 6, 2016

December 4, 2016 - Luke 1:67-80

Theme: Overshadowed and Overjoyed.

Expectations are a big part of our lives. Even though expectations are just ideas, often speculation, they play such a big impact in our lives. Very often, expectations seep into reality and affect what we actually do in life. The problem is, expectations can be like bubbles that burst. Sometimes, we set up expectations that are too high and we are disappointed when they don’t come to pass. Other times, we expect something in a situation where nothing is guaranteed. We can become upset when what we hoped for doesn’t become reality.

Failed expectations hurt and often they can change our mindset of life completely. In the workplace, there’s a certain expectation that if you remain faithful to your employer and you work hard, you will advance and your loyalty will be returned in kind. But, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, life isn’t fair.

When it comes to school, a similar thing applies. Imagine devoting an entire semester or year to one particular project. You study for hours on end. You research questions, you test theories, and you can tell you have actually learned a lot. But, if your end product does not meet the expectations of teacher, it really doesn’t mean much even though you did learn and grow.

What we continually learn from life is that even more important than expectations themselves, is the way in which you respond to their success or their failure. When life doesn’t seem fair, what is the next course of action? It’s been said that a person’s true character is revealed most clearly when he or she is put to the test. Very often, that revelation is made known through the result of one’s expectations. Hear now, a prophecy from one of God’s priests, about one of God’s greatest prophets. It comes from Luke 1:67-80, where Zacharias speaks about the work of his son, John.

Luke 1:67-80 Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 "Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David, 70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who have been since the world began, 71 That we should be saved from our enemies And from the hand of all who hate us, 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, 73 The oath which He swore to our father Abraham: 74 To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. 76 "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, 77 To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, 78 Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; 79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace." 80 So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Lord, we ask You to sanctify us by Your truth, for Your Word is the truth.

The one to be born as the Forerunner of the Messiah, the last great prophet of God before Christ, had a great responsibility. You can sense the sincerity and love in the words of Zacharias to his new-born son, especially as he said, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins.” Talk about high expectations.

We know how intimidating witnessing can be, especially when it is unpopular. Christian witnesses have the expectation to speak the truth, which means that God cares what is said and how it is said. It goes without saying that we don’t want to upset the eternal Creator of the universe. There’s pressure. Then, we also know that peoples’ reactions to the message of God’s Word can be negative, even dangerous at times. That’s pressure too. It’s tough to be a faithful witness of God’s Word.

Think of John’s position though. He was no ordinary witness. His job was to prepare people for the birth and ministry of God’s Son. This would only happen once. There were no second chances. This was it. If John messed up, it could seriously affect Jesus’ work and mankind’s ability to know and believe eternal salvation. The expectations were never higher. And John delivered. Through his faithful ministry, John would fulfill every one of his father’s predictions in this text.

But, it also meant something on top of all the expectations. John would need to be overshadowed by Jesus. We know how painful it can be to get overshadowed. It’s like the examples we mentioned earlier. You devout your entire life to a certain cause, and you do it well, but very few remember you in comparison to the one who comes after. That was John’s relationship with Jesus, and John embraced it. It’s pretty astounding that this text is really all about Jesus. On the surface, this was John’s time to shine. This was his moment in the Scriptures; the memorial verses about his role in God’s plan of salvation. Could it really be wrong to expect a little emphasis on John, if only for a moment? And yet, in this song of praise at John’s birth, it centers most of all on Jesus, the One to come after.

That’s because John’s life was all about Jesus, both by God’s design and by John’s own actions. Zacharias hearkens back into the annals of Israel’s history to describe the significance of his son’s birth. It was prophesied throughout the ages by God’s prophets. John’s birth was an integral piece to the completion of the covenant promise given all the way back to Abraham and even to Adam. These details were part of the reason why the expectations were so great. But, John also lived to the glory of His Savior in His life.

We see John’s mentality in a very straight-forward story about the transition between his ministry and Jesus’. When John’s disciples come to him with concerns about Jesus’ popularity and how it might affect their ministry, John replies by saying, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said,`I am not the Christ,' but,`I have been sent before Him.' 29 "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. 30 "He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:28-30).”

If John wanted to complain about being overshadowed, he had every right in the eyes of his disciples. He was a great prophet. Jesus Himself said that there was no greater prophet born among women (Matthew 11:11). John could have resisted Jesus’ popularity and influence if he wanted to, and many would have supported him because the expectations for John’s life were so great. But, not every expectation matches reality. John knew, believed, and confessed the truth. His entire life and ministry were present precisely so that Jesus could overshadow him.

John makes it sound easy, but how painful it must have been to be overshadowed. Expectations tell us that we must continually move forward and upward or we’re somehow missing out or not fulfilling our potential. Isn’t this how we feel in our jobs, hobbies, and classes? Isn’t this what the mantra of the world tells day after day; that we should be better tomorrow than we are today? We hear that about church and God’s Word too, don’t we? The world says, if a church is doing what it’s supposed to, numbers will grow, people will come and stay. But is that how it works? John said, I must decrease. How contrary that is to the world we live in.

Imagine John near the end. Imagine him sitting, chained up in the dark, dank prison of Herod’s dungeon. Certainly he would have reflected on his life. How could his father’s words here possibly be true? This end was defeat, was it not? John was God’s great prophet and somehow a spoiled, selfish, and entitled princess, with the queen, gets to take his life in a completely barbaric way? John’s life would certainly seem to be a shattered expectation.

The reality of that proposition depends entirely upon that which overshadowed John. As I mentioned before, the amazing aspect of this prophecy is that it really is all about Jesus. Two titles dominate the section, both of which apply to Jesus. The first is in verses 68-69: 68 "Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David. Zacharias makes mention of a “horn of salvation” that God raised up through the family line of David. He would go on to say that the prophets of God foretold of this horn of salvation.

When we trace this title in the Scriptures we see what Zacharias was speaking about. Psalm 132:17 reads, There (Zion) I will make the horn of David grow; I will prepare a lamp for My Anointed. David himself wrote in Psalm 18:2, The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. This “horn of salvation” was Jesus, foretold long ago as the victorious Messiah to come from God.

Old Testament believers used the horn as a symbol for the Messiah because it was a picture of power. Here, we are speaking of the actual horn of an animal, not the musical instrument. When you think of the use of an animal’s horn, it comes down to power. The horns of deer, goats, and other such animals are used to overpower adversaries. There’s also an application here to Old Testament sacrifices. The altar used for sacrifices was built with four horns, one on each corner. The sacrifice would be tied down to the altar with ropes affixed to the four horns. Thus, in Old Testament culture, these horns became synonymous with mercy, for it was at the altar, and through the sacrifice upon the altar, that God shed His grace and mercy upon the people. We even have examples of people who fled to the temple and clung to the horns of the altar for peace after having committed a crime.

In both senses, it fits that Jesus is the “horn of salvation.” In a simple way, He is powerful. He exerts His will over all enemies. As we pray with confidence in the Lord’s Prayer, so we have hope, that God would “deliver us from evil.” He has that power. But, Jesus is also the “horn of salvation” in the sense of a sacrifice. He was the very sacrifice for sins upon the cross but He also chose to die. His love for sinners held Him upon the cross; He was the very horn to which His righteous offering was affixed on God’s holy altar of Calvary.   

The second reference to Christ comes near the end of Zacharias’ prophecy, when he says, “Through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; 79 To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Jesus is called, in our text, the “Dayspring.” Literally, this word simply means the dawn, or the rising of the sun. It refers to the source from which light comes. In our spiritual lives, the light of forgiveness finds its source in Jesus, and therefore He is called the “Dayspring.”

Think of how the Apostle John described this, “In him (Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5).” Through sin, all people are in the darkness. Sometimes, we convince ourselves or others convince us that sin’s darkness isn’t so bad. After all, we are still free in our lives to do as we please. But, the darkness is a prison. We may live and act as if nothing is wrong, but we are still in darkness. A prison is not always about physical bondage and shackles; it can be anything that holds us captive. Without Christ, the Light, we have no hope of escape. We can move and live freely to a certain extent in life, but on our own we will never rise above the darkness. We need Light to show us the way.

This is why we confess what we read from 1 John, This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. Those who refuse to repent before Christ may feel free in their hearts, but they are still in darkness. They are as Jesus described the Pharisees, “blind leaders of the blind (Matthew 15:14).” Jesus offers and gives forgiveness; an eternal gift that lifts us out of the prison of darkness and frees us to serve and glorify God in the light.

In these two descriptions of Jesus, John was indeed overshadowed. But, this was no defeat for he. This did not mean he failed in fulfilling his expectations. For John, to be overshadowed by Jesus was to be overjoyed. John was not overshadowed by darkness, but by light. He, and His important work as a prophet, were completely covered by the light of the Dayspring. This was God’s plan, not to demote John as insignificant, but to exalt him by the death and resurrection of the Child for whom John would straighten the path.

And this is God’s plan for you, too. Being a Christian and living by faith, and not by sight, may carry with it a fair-share of unfair things. You, as well as others, may build up expectations in your mind about what you should do, who you should believe, and how accomplished you must be. But, remember, expectations don’t always equal reality. What God says is greater than what others say. And, to be overshadowed doesn’t necessarily mean you have been conquered. In Jesus, it means you, too, are covered by the Light just as John was. Praise to God, may He keep us humble and faithful! Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

November 28, 2016

November 27, 2016 - Advent 1

Theme: Prepare the Royal Highway

Luke 17:20-25 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; 21 "nor will they say,`See here!' or`See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." 22 Then He said to the disciples, "The days will come when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 "And they will say to you,`Look here!' or`Look there!' Do not go after them or follow them. 24 "For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day. 25 "But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

701:1 Prepare the royal highway; The King of kings is near!
Let ev'ry hill and valley, A level road appear!
Then greet the King of glory, Foretold in sacred story:
Hosanna to the Lord, For He fulfills God's Word!

Whether we’re talking about the first advent of Christ, or the second, both share a very important feature: they are about His kingdom. This morning our sermon text will be framed by verses of hymn 701. The task for believers today is to prepare for God’s kingdom. This is an advent hymn, meaning it is usually sung in connection with Christmas. As we begin that season we remember the people who prepared for Jesus’ birth. We think of who they were and how they worshiped their Lord. We don’t do this just to think fondly of the past, but we do so because it keeps us focused on our own preparation. We’re not waiting around for a child to be born, we’re waiting for a King to return. And yet, the connection between to the two is clearly present. As we remember the first advent it helps us be ready for the second.

God’s kingdom is important to both. When Jesus was born and as He grew on earth and became well-known, people began to think about what this Man was here to do. Clearly, His power and greatness was evident. The question was, to what end and for what purpose? For some, the focus of the kingdom was on the domain, or the location. These believed in what we might call an earthly kingdom. They desired Jesus to rescue Israel from the bonds of servitude under Rome and once again restore them to an autonomous nation. The idea of Jesus’ kingdom was that it would be here on earth. People would see it and experience membership in it in time and space.

We know that this first vision of Christ’s kingdom was a man-made illusion. Jesus clearly stated that His kingdom was not of this world and He constantly implored people to seek spiritual riches, not physical things. We get another saying to that effect in our text when Jesus tells the Pharisees that the “kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus was telling them what was in their heart was most important, for that is where God would establish His presence by faith. Focusing on external things would only serve to get in the way. This is the proper understanding of God’s kingdom. It is not about location per se, but rather about His ruling presence. In this sense it is very much like church. When we think of church we think of a building, a location. But, that is not what makes a church. A church is where Jesus is present and that can be any place where His Word is used. He said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20).”

The first step for our preparation is to avoid the same mistake that so many made when Jesus first came. Location was not important, but rather what was going on in the individual’s heart. We can learn and teach all we want about the domains of heaven and hell, but that knowledge means nothing without God’s ruling activity in our hearts by faith. Our preparation continues with the next two verses of hymn 701.       

701:2   God's people, see Him coming: Your own eternal king!
Palm branches strew before Him! Spread garments!  Shout and sing!
God's promise will not fail you!  No more shall doubt assail you!:
Hosanna to the Lord, For He fulfills God's Word!

701:3   Then fling the gates wide open, To greet your promised king!
Your king, yet ev'ry nation, Its tribute too may bring.
All lands will bow before Him; Their voices join your singing:
Hosanna to the Lord, For He fulfills God's Word!

We’ve mentioned the first advent when Jesus was born and the second advent when He will return. In these verses, we are pointed to a third advent – His preparation to ascend the cross. Scenes of Palm Sunday are scattered throughout the verses of this hymn. The refrain is the same phrase of praise that the children sang. Verse 2 makes mention of laying down palm branches before the King. And the verse of Psalm 24 is quoted in verse 3: Fling, or lift up the gates, and the King will come in.

This is a reminder to us that although we are removed somewhat from Palm Sunday and the crucifixion as we prepare for Christmas, we undoubtedly must keep the two close in our thoughts. Palm Sunday was a day of triumph for Jesus, but just days after the doubters and mockers came forward. Jesus knew what ridicule was, first-hand. His willingness to suffer on account of our sins and to receive the slaps to the face, the spitting, the thorns, the scourge, and the nails showed that He trusted His Father’s plan. Imagine going through all of that while being innocent; we have a hard enough time suffering even when we are the cause of that suffering! If Jesus could endure under that weight, while being innocent, we can certainly trust Him to help us get through the jeers and the taunts.

We see that come forward in our text when Jesus tells His disciples not to follow those who would spread false rumors about His coming. He tells them that they will say, “Look here or Look there!” Those that detract from Christ surely want His followers to focus on anything but the cross. We hear the same advertisements even today.
·         “You’re such a horrible sinner, God couldn’t forgive that.” 
·         “Don’t believe that old Bible story, you know better than that.”
·         “That person is just the worst, they don’t deserve to be forgiven.”
·         “You’re doing just fine, don’t dwell on your mistakes or sins.”

And the crowd goes on and on, drawing us ever further from Jesus. But He says, don’t listen to them. There is only one path. Don’t get caught up in what’s going on there or there. Stay focused. Prepare your heart. Isaiah said this of staying on the path, A highway shall be there, and a road, And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass over it, But it shall be for others. Whoever walks the road, although a fool, Shall not go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, Nor shall any ravenous beast go up on it; It shall not be found there. But the redeemed shall walk there, 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, And come to Zion with singing, With everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, And sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:8-10).

There’s a reason he called it the “Highway of Holiness.” There is only one path. It is only for the righteous by faith. Jesus was the only One who could walk that path alone, and so now we can walk that path with Him. It started, formally anyway, for Jesus on Palm Sunday. That path of glory and praise was the path of the cross, and the establishment of the Highway of Holiness for all believers. That’s our second preparation reminder, we can only walk with God if we walk with Jesus, and where He has gone before us. We continue with the final verse of hymn 701.

701:4   His is no earthly kingdom; It comes from heav'n above.
His rule is peace and freedom, And justice, truth, and love.
So let your praise be sounding, For kindness so abounding:
Hosanna to the Lord, For He fulfills God's Word!

To think of Jesus’ advent is to think also of Palm Sunday. And to think about Palm Sunday is also to think of Good Friday. That connection really comes through at the end of our text. Jesus said, "For as the lightning that flashes out of one part under heaven shines to the other part under heaven, so also the Son of Man will be in His day. 25 "But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”

Jesus states that His second coming will be like lighting that flashes in the sky. In other words, it won’t be missed. His coming will be clear, no one will escape it. Paul phrased another way by saying, “For it is written: "As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God." 12 So then each of us shall give account of himself to God (Romans 14:11-12).”

Having the night sky break forth with light is unmistakable. That is how the second advent will be. But, it’s also how the first advent was. We remember how the multitude of angels broke open the night sky around Bethlehem, both with their chorus of praise and the inescapable light of their presence. Interesting how each time the Son of God comes to earth, light ushers in is His entrance.

But, here’s the contrast. In order for the Light of the world to shine, darkness had to have its day too. On Good Friday, the culmination of that triumphant Palm Sunday display, the sky became dark at noon. Light was defeated; darkness reigned. God’s power seemed to finally succumb to Satan’s desires. Righteousness had been snuffed out of the world. The Son of God had died. What amazing scenes these must have been, in both contexts. Good vs. evil, sin vs. salvation.

Enter here the final lesson in preparing for God’s kingdom. It comes in ways we would not expect. No human person expected victory to rise out of the ashes of defeat. No rational person would predict that God’s mission would be accomplished by sacrifice. And, yet, that’s exactly what happened. Jesus said as much here, “I must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation before I have My day.” Jesus didn’t suffer and die because He was actually being defeated. He suffered and died because that’s what it took to win the victory over your sin. No one expected it, least of all us, but God fashions His work out of the impossible.

What does this have to do with God’s kingdom? Well, remember, it’s about His ruling activity in our lives. Perhaps God rules in ways that are beyond our understanding. He creates faith in those whom we wouldn’t expect. He forgives sins which mankind deems unforgiveable. He loves people who show little to no love for others. God is continually doing the unexpected, the unexplainable, and sometimes the exact opposite of what we think would make sense. Advent shows us that each time we look at it. Not so much because a Child was born in a unique, miraculous way; but because of what that Child would go on to do. As with many other things concerning God, to understand it the best we can we have to look at the entire picture. The prepare the royal highway for God is to connect His kingdom work in His birth, at His death, and when He returns. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

November 26, 2016

November 24, 2016 - Thanksgiving Day

Theme: Learning the Secret to Being Thankful
1) It is related to contentment.
2) It is a product of Christian maturity.
3) It is strengthened by Jesus Christ.

Philippians 4:10-13 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that once again you renewed your care for me. You were, in fact, concerned about me but lacked the opportunity to show it. 11 I don't say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content-- whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. 13 I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me. (HCSB)

Philippians 4:13 is one of the most well-known passages of the Bible and one of the most widely used. You often see people use it in public. Athletes and celebrities are not afraid to quote it as a measure of their confidence. Thanksgiving is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in our nation. It’s fitting that it would go well with Philippians 4:13. The idea of finding strength in Christ is just as popular as gathering for Thanksgiving. But, what exactly does Christ empower us to do and how is that connected to being thankful? This is the main thought we’ll focus on today as we think about the secret to being thankful.  

So often we associate power with getting what we want, but is that what Christ is doing for us? The unique aspect of the power of the Christian shows itself when we don’t have what we want and when things aren’t going our way. Paul trusted in Christ’s power because He absolutely needed it. And that power gave him confidence even when he was lacking or was in need. In fact, it was in those very moments that the power of Christ displayed itself most fully. 2 Corinthians 12:9 And He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Here we see that being thankful is closely connected to being content. It’s easy to act thankful when things are going your way, but a heart of true gratitude shows itself when the going gets tough. Paul writes that the power of Christ allowed him to master any situation he was in. Whether he was having a good day or a bad day, he was thankful to the Lord, and in large part because he was content. Paul knew what hardship was. He described that in depth in another letter: 2 Corinthians 11:25-28 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness-- 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.

Paul had physical toils and mental concerns, but in all matters he was content. He learned the secret that His Savior taught when He said, "Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses (Luke 12:15)." Therein is why contentment is so important to thankfulness. It’s not the perils of the world that will rob you of happiness, rather it’s the riches and prosperity. Many, many people have fallen prey to the allurement of greed, only to be “pierced through with many sorrows (1 Timothy 6:10).”

Part 2
However, as we know by experience, contentment is not an easy virtue to have. It takes maturity. Paul doesn’t use the word maturity in our text but it really comes out clearly in the way he writes. You can almost sense the calm and peace with which Paul reflects on the many trials of his life. He had grown and learned throughout the process. We talk about the same thing, too, when it comes to the various tests that God gives us, but it’s a lot harder to go through it.

It’s helpful to remember that God is building our maturity as Christians. We know the same to be true in the much smaller matters of life. As adults, we think of the things we spent our money on when we were younger, the way in which we managed our time, and how we treated others. Sometimes we cringe at those memories don’t we, but that’s okay, because they are a testament to how much we have grown. Younger members here are either in the process of experiencing this very thing or leading up to it. If you can sense the value of maturity in those areas of life, how much more so in your faith in God?

Paul also reflected on this very thing in another letter, 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

Notice how he applied his growth as an individual directly to his earthly life as a Christian. As believers, we share in the same struggle. We have a relationship with God by faith today, but interacting with God is like looking at a fuzzy image in the mirror. We sense that God is present in our lives but it’s hard to make out all the details because our sins blur the image. We were created to be pure, crystal-clear, reflections of our God but we have fallen significantly. Sometimes, our wickedness is so prevalent that we can’t even see ourselves as His children, let alone those who witness our actions, thoughts, and words in our lives.

Part 3:

Christian maturity is just how Paul described it, it’s a mystery that must be revealed to us. It’s like finding the answer to a secret. That answer, for us, and for all people, is Jesus. Colossians 2:2-3 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Here we see the importance of v.13 in our text and why it is so treasured and beloved by Christians. Jesus reveals the mystery to us. He tells us the secret to these hidden treasures of contentment, maturity, and thankfulness. He gives us power to do the things that He has called us to do, not the things that we wish or desire for ourselves. Perhaps, it is God’s will that a particular possession be taken out of your life. Perhaps it’s His will that you go without a certain need for a time. These are things that God has every right to do and He calls you in Christ to trust His plan. Remember, contentment and maturity are needed precisely in the hard times, not the easy things.   

We asked at the beginning, what exactly does Christ empower us to do and what does that have to do with being thankful? For many people, the power of Christ is a catchphrase, a popular statement that sounds good, but is often thrown around devoid of the context in which Paul wrote it.   

Can we be thankful even if we don’t have everything we want in life? Do we have strength in Christ even when things aren’t going our way? Absolutely, in fact, that’s the true path to thankfulness. If our gratitude and willingness to give thanks hinged only on how good things were, there would be no need for Christ’s gifts of contentment and maturity. If the measure of our thankfulness is having what we want, then what happens when we don’t get our way? Our thankfulness will suffer.

Think of the story of the ten lepers. All ten got what they wanted. Perhaps we could even say they got what they needed, at least for their bodies. But even then it’s not as if good health is a given here in life. But, even though all ten were healed, only one returned to thank Jesus. They all received what must have been considered a basic life necessity, namely good health, but it still didn’t lead to hearts of gratitude. Perhaps those that didn’t return thanks did so because they were too busy looking for the next thing they wanted, instead of being content with what they had. Maybe they were so concerned about their physical bodies that they lacked the maturity to realize that Jesus could help them with a much bigger disease than leprosy.

Easy to judge from a distance isn’t it, but we know these things to be real possibilities because thy same attitudes have reared their ugly heads in our lives. Contentment and maturity stress to us that Jesus helps us with much greater things than the things of this life only. When we confess that we can do all things through Him who strengthens us, are we thinking about the most important things? Remember, the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Those blessings can’t be bought by money, only by perfect blood of Jesus shed for sinners.

Solomon called the pursuit of only worldly things “vanity”, when he wrote, Ecclesiastes 6:7-9 All the labor of man is for his mouth, And yet the soul is not satisfied. 8 For what more has the wise man than the fool? What does the poor man have, Who knows how to walk before the living? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.

Christ empowers us to something greater, something eternal, and along the way He give us contentment and maturity to see the difference. This is why we bless His holy name today, and return our thanks for being healed. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

November 23, 2016

November 20, 2016 - 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5

Theme: The Victorious Faith
1) Blessings for us through God’s choice.
2) Stable ground for unstable people.

2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5 But we must always thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God has chosen you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, so that you might obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, either by our message or by our letter. 16 May our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal encouragement and good hope by grace, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good work and word.
3:1 Finally, brothers, pray for us that the Lord's message may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you, 2 and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not all have faith. 3 But the Lord is faithful; He will strengthen and guard you from the evil one. 4 We have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do what we command. 5 May the Lord direct your hearts to God's love and Christ's endurance.

Most of you know what an oxymoron is. It’s a figure of speech in which two contradictory things are spoken in conjunction. For example, some famous oxymorons are: random order, big baby, and government intelligence. Sometimes, though, oxymorons actually make sense while still sounding contradictory. For example: virtual reality, jumbo shrimp, and passive aggressive are all oxymorons that are commonly used and understood. 

Oxymorons pop-up in connection with the Bible too. In fact, our text today speaks about a glaringly obvious one – the victorious faith. From a strictly logical perspective that phrase makes absolutely no sense. Faith is extremely fragile and oftentimes very fleeting. In our culture, faith has become known as the opposite of all things certain and reasonable. Every day, faith is snuffed out or destroyed. How on earth could something like faith be deemed victorious?

This was certainly the way it was for the Thessalonians too. They were fragile Christians in an increasingly hostile world. Just prior to our verses Paul warned them of a coming apostasy from the Antichrist. This “lawless one,” as Paul calls him, would cause many to turn away from Christ. They would have plenty of moments where they felt helpless and where they would wonder what good this faith in Christ was doing for them. They certainly wouldn’t always feel victorious.  

This is the great oxymoron of Christianity. We are called “more than conquerors” through Jesus Christ. We are told that we await a “crown of righteousness” in heaven. But, we struggle so much here in the world. On top of this, the exclusive nature of salvation in Christ alone brings a whole new brand of scorn and disdain from the world. To confess and live as Jesus has taught, namely that life is only found in His name, is not a popular dogma in our world. We are not hailed as victors for being Christians.

And yet, though paradoxical in thought, the victorious faith is entirely accurate. It is because of this faith that Paul begins our section by giving thanks to God, not by bemoaning and complaining the circumstances in which we find ourselves. To give the Thessalonians hope in their victorious faith, and us, Paul describes the important, yet seemingly oxymoronic, aspects of this faith. The first is that it is ours by God’s choice.

Part 1:

If you take a moment to dissect the words Paul uses here, you’ll notice that he touches on some very deep theological concepts. He uses the words: salvation, sanctification, faith, truth, and gospel. It’s almost like Paul is running down the glossary in the back of the Catechism. These terms are not outdated, dusty doctrines, though. Rather, as Paul describes, they are the backbone of what our belief in Christ is all about. They are blessings for the believer. They make the connection between these Scriptural teachings and the individual, Paul gets personal. He says,  
·         “our gospel” v.14
·         “our Lord Jesus Christ.” V.14
·         “our word or epistle” v.15
·         “our God and Father” v.15

Faith attaches us to Christ and therefore He, and everything He has and is, become ours. We have the right before God to claim these blessings as our own, even to claim Himself as our God. This may not seem that important since we are used to having Christ, but consider the state of our nature. It is very much as Joshua described to the children of Israel when he said, Joshua 24:14 "Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD! 15 "And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD." 16 So the people answered and said: “We also will serve the LORD, for He is our God." 19 But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.

What Joshua said was harsh but absolutely true. We can say whatever we want but on our own we cannot serve God. On our own, by our own power or works, it is oxymoronic to think that we can call God our own. We cannot serve Him and He is a holy God. No sinner can be in His presence, let alone claim Him. But, this is why we don’t approach God on our own. We do it through Jesus. It is through Jesus that God has “called you to our gospel” as Paul wrote. God must first call us before we can even sniff at calling Him our own.

The unique aspect of God’s call through the gospel is found in the word itself. When Paul writes in verse 13 that God “chose” them for salvation and sanctification it means that God lifted them up. The word itself really doesn’t mean a strict choice per say, that is not the primary definition. It literally means to exalt something from a lower status. But, that sense fits with God’s call. The gospel invitation lifts us up, exalts us, from the level of unregenerate sinner to the level of redeemed saint.   

Here again, we see another oxymoron. We claim God’s blessings as our own, but not by our power or authority. God must call us to that truth. He must lift us up to that level before we can say that anything is ours. This paradox puzzles people so much that they end up changing the simple words of the Bible. It doesn’t make any sense we could own something without having to exert any effort or work to attain it, especially something as important as God Himself. You would think that if we can call these things our own, we would also be able to take credit for having attained them. But, that goes beyond the simple words of the Bible in passages like: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not your own doing, but the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Or Romans 3:28, “We come to this conclusion, that a person is saved by faith, without the works of the law.”
Actually, the idea of God’s free salvation isn’t all that complicated. It’s as simple as any gift we get. A gift is given freely, not earned. The best gifts are given out of love, not pressure. The Bible also uses the word “inheritance” to describe salvation, a term which fits the same description. What makes it difficult to understand is when we put our own thoughts above God’s. For something so important, namely eternal salvation, it just seems too easy that it would come by faith alone. We naturally want to lay some claim or credit to it, because it seems like if it’s something worth having, it shouldn’t come for free.

God did not plan salvation by faith and not by works because He wanted to confuse us. He did it that way because it was the only way it could be done. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).” Without the Holy Spirit working through the gospel call, there simply can be no ownership of God’s blessings. The personal nature of life with God is unattainable because sinners cannot be in the presence of a holy God.     

Part 2:

Another aspect of our victorious faith is that it gives us stability. Paul uses many similar phrases in our text:
·         v.15 Stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught’
·         v. 3 The Lord will strengthen you
·         v. 4 We have confidence in the Lord
·         v. 5 The Lord directs us by the endurance of Christ

These phrases all point to the stability that faith gives us. Yet, again, we see an oxymoron here. Faith is supposed to make us stable and strong in life but what we experience seems to be the opposite. So often, life is out of our control. Things change day after day. It seems like as soon as we find steady ground it immediately falls out from under us because of some catastrophe. Relationships can sour over time. Financial security and wealth can vanish overnight. Good health can become bad health in the blink of an eye. Peace so often seems to lose the battle to strife and contention, between nations, races, communities, churches, and even families. 

There’s a thought in our text that describes this instability quite well. It comes in verse 2 under the translation “wicked.” More appropriate to that word would be the translation “out of place.” The Greek word is atopos. Topos means a place or location. It’s where our English word topography comes from, literally the study of places. Atopos means to have no place or location. Think of it as the familiar expression, to “be out of sorts.”

To be out of place is to lack stability in life, whether in a physical or mental sense. When it comes to faith it means to lack confidence or assurance of the work of Christ. It’s interesting that God describes being out of place as the opposite of having faith. Faith in the Biblical sense is so much more than an inward virtue of being human. It is faith in Jesus Christ, someone who did something outside of us to achieve salvation. Biblical faith finds it source outside of the individual. Therefore, the translation of “wicked” is not entirely off-base because anything outside of reliance upon Christ is indeed wicked, for it leads away from salvation, not to it.

Those who do not have faith, do not have stability. They wander throughout life looking for something that makes sense but also something that conforms to what they want. But the thing about Christ is that He’s not here to give what we want but rather what we need. Sometimes what we need is not on our thoughts or hearts and therefore God needs to re-adjust our focus.

The world often discredits Biblical faith because it re-adjusts the sinful heart. It leads an individual to repent, not to follow every inclination of their heart. It impresses the absolute, unchanging, unshifting truth upon our hearts; confronts us directly with the facts from which no one can escape. That’s a difficult thing to honestly come to grips about and even more difficult to fully trust, so many take the much easier way out – by ignoring the truth. They believe the lies that say:

-Faith will make your life better immediately. You will transform into a new person who never does anything wrong and your actions will be the ultimate measure of how strong your faith is.
-Faith will never be judgmental. You can believe what you want and it will work out in the end. Faith does not specifically define what is right and what is wrong.
-Faith is a conscious choice you must make in your life. God will not help unless you help yourself.

If those descriptions are accurate about our victorious faith, then the way the Bible defines faith is indeed an oxymoron. Because Jesus said that faith would lead to persecution, that faith cannot exist apart from the truth, and that faith is not produced by works. Rather, the true model of the victorious faith is the heart of a small child; a heart that doesn’t have it all figured out but trusts someone who does. That someone for the believer is God.

The world may preach that it makes no sense to trust God without having answers first. Our own hearts may scream it at us from time to time. It might feel like the most blatant contradiction in the world. But, remember that your victorious faith in Jesus is not defined by others, or even by yourself. God tells you exactly what you need. You have claim to His gifts. Big things like: salvation, sanctification, trust, and truth. They are yours today through Jesus. It’s not because God hoards these blessings until we are found worthy. It’s because they only become ours when we have a perfect substitute in our place, and that’s Jesus. God isn’t holding out on you, instead He’s leading you to the only hope for heaven. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.