January 25, 2016

January 24, 2016 - Matthew 8:5-13

Podcast: http://redemption-clc.podomatic.com/entry/2016-01-25T11_31_35-08_00

Theme: A Strong Faith Thinks of Others
2) Think of your Lord
            A: In Humility – Declares unworthiness
            B: In Respect – Trust sight unseen
1) Think of your neighbor

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel:

Matthew 8:5-13: When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, 6 "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony!" 7 "I will come and heal him," He told him. 8 "Lord," the centurion replied, "I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant will be cured. 9 For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this one, 'Go! ' and he goes; and to another, 'Come! ' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this! ' and he does it." 10 Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, " I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! 11 I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." 13 Then Jesus told the centurion, "Go. As you have believed, let it be done for you." And his servant was cured that very moment.

I want you to think of someone you look up to, perhaps someone you think of as a hero. Someone that you respect so much that you would wait in line to meet or even pay money to see. Perhaps it’s a celebrity, a professional athlete, or a bestselling author. If someone told you tomorrow that you’d be able to meet them and visit with them, I’m sure you’d spend some time thinking about what to say. No doubt you’d nervous as well as the day approached, you’d probably even be uneasy about how it was going to go.

Few of us ever get the opportunity to meet someone that we look up to so highly. Even fewer, when they get the chance, make the most of it. When you’re in the presence of someone you greatly respect, it’s easy to fumble over words or lose your train of thought. And suddenly, the meeting you were looking forward to so much, doesn’t go as well as you planned. It’s an easy thing to miss your one chance.

That’s one of the reasons that our text for today is so special. This centurion had his one chance with Jesus and he didn’t falter. Think of how many people, even just in Israel, wanted this same opportunity. Imagine all the crowds that pressed about Jesus wherever He went. Looking for just a glance, let alone a moment of conversation. To this centurion, it must have felt as if heaven itself was opened to him. The opportunity to request anything from the Son of God. Some might have called it luck, but we know differently. God had a plan through this story, and it continues to unfold to us today.

The lesson we learn is about faith. We see clearly where faith comes from; that’s easy: it’s found in Jesus. But we also what faith can do and how it expresses itself, especially a strong faith. We could point a number of blessings of having a strong faith, but we single out one because this particular blessing eludes us often. A strong faith thinks of others. It may not seem like this is much of a blessing. Much of the world would probably look at thinking of others as more of a hindrance than a help. But when this centurion had his moment with Jesus, it was how he thought of others that impressed Jesus.

Yes, we’re told that Jesus was amazed at what the centurion confessed. Can you imagine having your one, long-awaited moment with your special someone and amazing them with what you said!? It’s quite a surreal thought. How much more when it comes to Jesus! This centurion didn’t impress some movie star or athlete. He was standing before the almighty and eternal God. That’s the miracle of our faith. It doesn’t seem like much on the outside, but it contains the power of God unto salvation. The lesson to be learned for increasing the strength of our faith is to follow the centurion’s attitude. Surely, if this man could impress Jesus to the point that He declared that He had not seen a greater faith, we should perk our ears up and listen. Even the great Jews, the sons of the kingdom, weren’t close to the faith of this centurion. And one of the reasons why this man’s faith was strong was that he thought of others above himself. 

So often our attitude thinks only of ourselves. We get mad or angry at God because we don’t think He’s doing enough for us. We complain to others because they don’t give us enough credit or consider our feelings. What this self-centeredness really becomes is a cycle. Others don’t think about us enough so we get upset and we don’t think about them. All along the way, thinking about God fades away.

In our account, the centurion has a different mindset. The first thing he admits is that he is not worthy of Christ. He is not thinking of himself. He is not only concerned with his desires and goals. Literally in the text the centurion says, “Lord, I am not sufficient for You to come!” That’s the attitude of repentance and repentance in the antidote for selfishness.

With the humility of repentance in this man’s heart from the beginning, he was open to be filled with Christ’s power. And this power revealed itself in the fruit of trust. What power this was too! The centurion didn’t have to see the miracle. He wasn’t about that, as so many others were. He wasn’t there with Jesus to gratify what his flesh wanted. He was there for a blessing and the only blessing worth having comes from God in the way God chooses to give it.

The centurion testified to his trust by using examples from his own line of work. You could tell he was a good commander, a leader that his soldiers respected. He issued a command and they listened. When trust is established, there’s no room for doubt. Sometimes a thought of doubt occurs; that can’t be helped, it happens to us all. But when trust is present, doubt never prevails. Rather, doubt only leads to further strengthening of that trust by trial and perseverance.

Do you think this centurion wasn’t nervous? Did he had no shortcomings or doubts within his heart? Hardly! He just got done confessing his unworthiness to even be in the Lord’s presence; to be so bold as to take up his Master’s time. This centurion was not the model of someone who had it all figured out. He was crumbling under the pressure of his sins. He was desperate on his own. Such are the very individuals who find the deepest rest and comfort in the arms of their Savior.

The simple fact was that if this man was not as broken as he truly was, he would never have displayed the strength of faith that he did. The lower we are on our own, the stronger we become with Jesus. Dear friends, could it be that our faith is not so strong because our need is not so great? It foolish to think in such a way because our needs are far too insurmountable on our own. It’s folly to suggest that we could ever be in control on our own. Yet, we must talk about it because we’re continually tempted to think in such a way. We are led to distraction after distraction to keep us from seeing our ailments. We’re told that it’s the fault of others and not our own responsibility. And on the darkest corners of that path we’re told that our lack of faith is because of God’s insufficiency.

Isn’t that what we hear, and dare I suggest, what we believe from time to time? God’s Word can’t help me here. Jesus doesn’t solve this problem. This is too modern to be in the Bible. My pastor isn’t equipped to lead me this time. Those pesky doubts will always be present, but they are never greater than faith in Jesus, even when everything else in the world may be screaming the opposite. The key, I repeat, is in thinking of others. As the centurion did, think first of your Lord. He’s more than just a miracle worker. Trust in His power over sickness and disease was certainly strong for those who saw it, but defeat of doubt came at a much greater cost. The humility of respect feeds off something much greater than power over earthly foes or what my eyes can see.

Ultimately, the strength of faith goes to back to the cross. Faith equips us for the variety of problems we face on earth, such as the disease of a loved one as witnessed here. But it only comes from one source; forgiveness in Jesus. We don’t get that impression from what the centurion says, we have to take it from Christ’s response. He said, " I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! 11 I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. Though the source of the problem was initially physical, the ultimate reward would be spiritual and eternal. We know this centurion’s faith was founded in the gospel because the blessing Jesus promised was the pure gospel hope of heaven.

No matter what happened with the servant, eternal salvation in Jesus Christ would never change. That’s where the strength of faith came from. When the centurion let go of his own cares and plans, and thought only of Jesus, he was surrounded in complete hope and protection. That’s the way faith operates. It helps us with the day-to-day problems while always reminding us of the greatest hope in heaven, because that’s where faith comes from. It shifts our focus from our own responsibilities and problems to Jesus. When we think only of ourselves, we separate that connection. When we separate that connection we start to doubt faith’s effectiveness in our lives. Then enters the age old lie that faith must be so strong in order to be effective. And then we’re told; Go ahead and strengthen that faith by works of charity, dedication to the church, sincere thoughts, and the like. And further down we dive, away from Christ our Lord.

Friends, we all want a stronger faith. But it doesn’t come by pitting our works against other Christians, or by creating arbitrary levels of commitment. There is one source – think of your Lord. Look to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the shame, despising the cross, and has sat down at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Once Jesus is in your thoughts and in your hearts, your faith will grow. And that will lead you to our final point, to think of your neighbor. The way our text reads, it sounds like the main emphasis is on the centurion’s love for his servant. It sounds like it is the first thought to enter the scene. But in spiritual terms, the servant came after the Savior. Only when the centurion’s faith was properly fixed upon Jesus was he bold enough to request the healing miracle. To put it in another way, his love from Jesus and for Jesus led to his love for his neighbor. 

Our lives work the same way. The fruits we express for others are to flow from our Savior. If we desire to help someone, but leave Jesus out of the situation, what good are we really doing? Does it help our neighbor to lend aid but lead them farther from Jesus at the same time? That’s certainly not how faith operates. When faith is at work, our connection to Jesus will always be present, not shrouded, because it’s the Spirit who produces those very fruits in our lives.

The key to a stronger faith. It’s not in our works. It doesn’t come by trying harder or being nicer. And it doesn’t help to call others to faith but to leave Jesus out of the picture. The key is to think of your Lord, which will lead you to think of your neighbor. Think of Jesus and everything He has done for you. He is your Redeemer, your Substitute, your King, and your Friend. He has all power in heaven and earth. He is the source of wisdom and love. Now as you think of that, I ask this; what can happen in your life that is greater than Jesus? Keep your focus on Him, and your faith will be strong. Amen.

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

January 20, 2016

January 17, 2016 - Micah 3:5-12

Theme: The Herd Mentality Can Protect or Endanger
1) It depends on what you see as an enemy
2) It depends on what you see as justice and equity

Oh the depth of the riches of God’s knowledge, how unsearchable are His judgments and how untraceable are His ways. That portion of His knowledge that is revealed to us this morning comes from Micah 3:5-12:

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who make my people stray; who chant “Peace” while they chew with their teeth, but who prepare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths: 6 “Therefore you shall have night without vision, and you shall have darkness without divination; the sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be dark for them. 7 So the seers shall be ashamed, and the diviners abashed; indeed they shall all cover their lips; for there is no answer from God.” 8 But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. 9 Now hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10 Who build up Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with iniquity: 11 Her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the Lord, and say, “Is not the Lord among us? No harm can come upon us.” 12 Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of the forest.

In the name of Jesus, the One to whom we confess our sins and the One who offers us free forgiveness, dear fellow redeemed:

Lions have always been my favorite animal and I especially enjoyed shows that revealed their lives and habits on the African plain. It can be fascinating to watch lions operate as the supreme predators that they are. They move with agility, speed, and power, yet they are also smart in what they do and who they choose to attack. On the outside the prey that lions hunt seems to be greatly outmatched. As a child I often wondered why a lion would scheme and plan so much in a hunt. Why not just attack immediately? The answer is that lions have to be cunning as well as powerful. The prey that they seek, while often inferior to the lion on their own, have great strength in numbers. No matter what animal you’re imagining, whether zebras, gazelles, buffalos, elephants, or hippos, they congregate together when a lion is around. They stay together for protection, and when they do, a single lion cannot attack them and survive.

If you’ve ever seen similar shows on lions or other predators, you know well that because of the herd mentality of many animals, lions go after the weakest. If an animal is injured or young, you can sure be that a lion will be smart enough to target it. The fact that is, that animals that are hunted, stick together as close as they can, for protection. When it comes to the ruthless life of the wilderness, there is strength in numbers.

The Holy Spirit would have us keep in mind this same principle as we think of our lives. God has provided a way for us to have strength in numbers through the blessing of Christian fellowship. Fellowship protects us from the attacks of Satan, whom the Spirit tells us operates like a ravenous lion, seeking to devour our souls (1 Peter 5:8). Yet, in order for us to thrive under the protection of fellowship, we need to first understand what we’re up against. For the herbivores on the African plains, the enemy is well-known. For us, although Satan is as dangerous as a devouring lion, recognizing the danger isn’t always easy. Satan is far more cunning and deceptive than any other predator, and many times people have a hard time seeing his traps.

When things in life are going well on the outside, there’s an increasing danger to get lazy and complacent with in life. We can easily fall into a false sense of security and become numb to the unique ways that Satan tries to get at us. It’s important that we ask ourselves if we have reached this point in our lives. Do we genuinely treasure everything that Jesus has done for us? Do we take advantage of every opportunity to grow in the grace and knowledge that God freely offers? Are we busy building defenses against sin or are we partying in the freedom we have through the gospel? Micah brought a message of judgment upon Judah and Israel because they had become complacent and lazy when it came to the security of their faith.

To examine ourselves, we must first figure out what we see as the enemy. Do we let God speak through His Word about right and wrong or have we allowed others to decide for us? Micah describes how the prophets, seers and diviners claimed to have the right message, but led the people astray. They chanted
“peace” when danger was at the door.
Obviously, these teachers carried the majority of the blame for this. But the people were also at fault for allowing it to come to this point. God’s judgment would be upon them because they allowed others to dictate where the danger was, instead of listening directly to God. The result of this foolishness was just as Micah described; like the plowing of a field. Israel and Judah’s spiritual lives were ready to be ripped up.  

In this case, the herd mentality ruined God’s people. They joined into what was popular even though it was void of the truth. The titles of “prophet, seer, or diviner” or our modern day equivalents of “pastor, priest, or elder” mean nothing if the message doesn’t come from God. Human credentials play a very minor role in determining whether or not their words should be heeded. The same is true of how the message makes you feel. I’m sure the majority of Israel and Judah felt pretty good about the proclamation of peace. But that feeling alone didn’t change reality. In truth, it probably made things even worse because they were on the cusp of God’s judgement, when that’s the last thing they expected.

When we take the time to recognize our enemies, let us heed the same message. Take your truth from God, regardless of what others say. Certainly we should develop and build relationships with those that we can trust. But it is God alone that we follow. Leaders are here to help, but they don’t believe the message for us. The blessings of fellowship only exist when the truth takes precedent. And so, when God says, it’s a sin to curse and swear; it’s a sin to have lustful thoughts in your heart; it’s a sin to be disrespectful; and no matter what else it may be – we recognize those things as enemies to our souls, no matter how trivial we may think they are.

Sin never becomes less dangerous just because we feel at peace or because the majority is giving in. Thinking like that is following the herd toward destruction, not protection.

But recognizing the enemy is only the first step toward real peace and life. Micah also says that having a proper handle on justice and equity is important. The lies of peace from the false prophets led to a breakdown of justice and equity. If you look closely in our text, you can see where Micah provides the key. It’s easy to miss it if you don’t read the words carefully. In the middle of describing the Lord’s judgment Micah adds the simple message of Law and Gospel in v. 8: But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. Micah doesn’t need to dwell on his role or status before God, one quick verse will say it all. His simple task, as it is with all believers, is to preach sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness. That’s the true measure of a Godly preacher, of one who has the Holy Spirit. He must be willing to confront sin and not run from it by preaching an empty peace. This is true, not because of qualities in the preacher or the hearer, but because the message of Christ crucified for sins is the only lasting protection to gather around. This is the herd mentality that saves. Our fellowship is meant to keep individual Christians strong under the power of Christ. This can’t be done by lying about the truth of sin, but it also can’t lead us to any real peace without the promise of forgiveness. For every misstep off the path of God’s moral law, Jesus is there to bring us back. In each moment of doubt concerning our standing before God, Jesus has completed each requirement in our stead so that we can rest in peace. This gospel is what gives us life, and so we gather around it for protection from our enemies.

Micah describes the blessings of the gospel as equity and justice. Israel and Judah abhorred these blessings when they forgot their enemy.

While the world may be scattered in belief about what exactly is dangerous, no one denies that justice and equity are good things. It’s basic human nature to seek justice and equity because we are moral creatures who are aware of right and wrong. America especially prides itself on standing for the ideals of justice and equity. Therefore, when God promises these blessings through His Son, we have a striking point to talk about the gospel.

As Americans, we may feel protected because we have freedom to do what we want but all sin make us slave. True freedom comes only through Christ’s forgiveness of sins. He alone has broken sin’s grip on our lives. He is the Great Physician who came for the sick and the dying. He is the righteous Man who came for the sinners and the unholy. The fact that He is the only Savior demands that those who come to Him are sinners who need help. They are the ones who recognize the real enemy, even when it resides in their own hearts. And so, it is also repentant sinners who feel the protection of God’s grace in the gospel and in a fellowship that keeps that message of grace as the pinnacle of faith.

Fellowship is a gift that is meant to protect us from Satan’s dangers. But a fellowship will only be as strong as that from which is flows. If the basis of fellowship is in the mentality of the world, where each is to his own to determine the truth and to recognize the enemy, then we are more susceptible to attack. By placing confidence in ourselves, we are immediately marked by Satan as one who is weak. But, if the basis of our fellowship is in the Word of God, and primarily of the gospel of Jesus, we have something that Satan can’t defeat. The Word helps us readily determine the enemy and see his tactics they come upon us. And we remain under God’s protection. But, through the Word we also build our defenses and we can get to point that we can take the fight to the enemy.

Some people say the best defense is offense. And that’s the way the Gospel works. It may feel like we’re weak and exposed when we confess our sins. But, then Christ strengthens us by forgiving our sins. He recharges us with the gifts of justice and equity. He empowers to spread the glad tidings of His resurrection victory to further scatter Satan’s ploys. Likewise, we may feel misguided when so much of our faith contradicts the way the majority of the world thinks. So many high profile voices condemn us as foolish and na├»ve. We feel like an insignificant minority as Christians. And yet, when the Gospel has control, none of accusations of the world matter. We have more hope in the simple statement of our Savior, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” than any other person could give us. 

Fellowship creates a herd mentality. But not all gatherings are good. Sometimes, they can put you in danger. The key is in the foundation of your fellowship. God desires to share with you the blessings of repentance and forgiveness. Through that gospel we have hope for real justice, equity, and peace. With God, the threats and danger of our enemies are clear. But, more importantly, the blessing of His free promise is among us and within us. Amen. 

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

January 13, 2016

January 10, 2016 - Matthew 2:1-15

Theme: Lessons in Fear and Hope
Lesson 1: Herod’s path of fear and anger
Lesson 2: The Wise Men’s path of hope and worship

Our sermon for today is based on our Gospel reading, which we just read from the bulletin, Matthew 2:1-15.

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That phrase sounds like it could be the theme for our sermon text. It sounds like it might be a passage out of the Bible. Certainly we would agree with what it says. But, it’s not from the Bible, it’s actually a quote from a movie. It was a piece of advice given by the Jedi master, Yoda, to his young apprentice. Anyone who’s seen Star Wars before knows how important the concepts of fear and anger are to the story.

But wise Yoda was not the first to speak about the connection between fear and anger. God has several things to say about it as well. In fact, it very well might have been from the Bible that the writers of Star Wars took this thought. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives the simple advice, Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the heart of fools (Ecclesiastes 7:9). John instructs Christians in his first letter through a similar way: But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn't know where he's going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:11). Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:15).

And in our text for this morning we see the same lesson through the actions of King Herod. Let me re-read the first 3 verses of our Gospel reading: Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him." 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

At the news of Christ’s birth we’re told that Herod was “troubled.” This word literally means to stir up or to throw into confusion. When people were troubled in this way they would even shake and tremble because of their concern and fear. The news of Christ’s birth shook Herod to the core. He was worried about losing his power and riches. He was afraid that this Child would be a new earthly ruler who would supplant his authority. And so he reacted in fear, which led to anger, which led to hate, and eventually to murder. Matthew goes on to record the atrocities that Herod’s fear led him to commit. Herod issued an order to terminate all the male children who were two and younger in Bethlehem and the nearby districts. Herod thought he could eradicate the Child before He posed a threat, but Herod was too entrenched in his hate to see the truth. Not only was Jesus no threat to his earthly kingdom, Herod was also trying to thwart God’s own plan. Surely common sense would tell him this was not possible. Yet, fear and anger lead to blindness.

Yet, Matthew tells us that Herod was not the only one who was shaken to the core by the news of Christ’s birth. This chapter also tells the story of the Wise Men, who traveled a long distance to see Jesus. They were not fearful of this Child, but were hopeful. They trembled in joy, not because they were afraid of losing wealth. In fact, they had hope that Jesus would help them lose something, their sins. They had hope about who Jesus was and what He would accomplish. They trusted in the promises of God throughout the Old Testament. And when they finally arrived, they worshipped. Here we see the contrast between human fear and hope in God. Hope leads to worship and faith, fear leads to anger and murder.

The Wise Men’s journey represents why we have hope and not fear in our lives; it’s something we celebrate at Epiphany. This is the great truth that God has come for all people. The rest of the New Testament tells us of the difficulty that people had with this thought. The Jews especially did not respond kindly to the idea that Gentiles too were heirs of God’s salvation. In their culture there were plenty of opportunities for fear and hatred of those who were different, especially those of a different ethnic background. It took a long time for the early church to properly understand that Christ’s atonement was universal. It was one topic that Paul and the rest of the Apostles had to address time and time again.

But all the way at the beginning of Christ’s life on earth, God’s message was salvation for all. This truth is contained in the story of the Wise Men and it’s also connected to the lesson about fear and hope. Herod wasn’t worried about the ethnicity of Jesus. He was worried about Jesus being the King of the Jews. But plenty both past and present still practice the same fear when it comes to others who are different. Regardless of where the fear comes from, it can lead to the same problems of anger and murder.

We’ve seen this play out in modern history many times. Hitler feared the Jews and other minorities and this led him to anger, hatred, and murder. Most other wars in modern times are fueled by fear and hatred of the opposition. America has its own history of this behavior as well. The oppression of Native American tribes was a product of fear. More recently we’ve seen how fear has dictated policy against terrorism and even Syrian refugees. As a nation that prides itself as the melting pot of all ethnicities, there are always going to be reactions based on fear and anger.

We often write Herod off as nothing more than a mad man. Perhaps he was even mentally ill. But sometimes, wickedness happens simply because of the sinful heart. Sometimes there are no higher explanations like insanity or mental instability. Sometimes, it’s just pure evil within humans. There’s no doubt that Herod was troubled, our text says as much. How much we may never know. But it doesn’t matter either because regardless of how much we know about Herod, there’s a lesson to be learned for our lives. We might sit back and ponder how Herod could commit such wickedness, even being willing to massacre infants in order to hang on to power. In our minds we distance ourselves from Herod and tell ourselves that we would never do such a thing; that he’s way worse that we are. Sure we’ve been led by fear before, and it’s caused us to hate others; but we’ve never killed anyone, let alone infants. In human terms Herod certainly was far more evil, but are we really any better in God’s view? And are we really any different on the inside?

We, too, are troubled by our sins, even if we have a hard time admitting it. We all have our own particular things in life that we are afraid of; things that lead us to respond in anger. Maybe we’ve never be led to commit murder as Herod did, but remember what God said through John, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer…” I wonder, who are the ones that we look down upon in life; the ones we fear to the point of hatred? Is it the slick politician who can’t be trusted because he’ll say whatever he has to to get elected? Is it the outcast teenager who doesn’t fit our norms or expectations? Could it be that we fear our parents or superiors because they just don’t understand what life is like today? Could it even be my fellow Christians who act like they’re close to me but don’t really understand my problems? The list could go on and on, we’ll never find an end to those that challenge the way we think and make us afraid of what we’re not used to. For Herod it was a tiny baby. For us, the settings change but the thoughts and intentions of our hearts are the same.

This is why a celebration like Epiphany is so important. For many Christians, Epiphany is nothing more than an afterthought. It’s the lesser known holiday that comes after Christmas, sometimes we use it as a gauge for how long our Christmas decorations should stay up. Most people don’t even know what Epiphany is all about. But Epiphany is vitally important to our faith because it reminds us that all people matter. Jesus came to save the entire world and He calls us to go to all people with that Word of salvation. That’s the real meaning of Epiphany and even we today need that reminder.

Our sinful heart will always lead us to fear those who are different and if not checked that fear will turn to hatred and murder. Because of Epiphany, we don’t have to be like that. We have a way that we can embrace those who are different than us. We can reject the path of fear which Herod chose and follow, in faith, the path of hope that the Wise Men chose. Their hope stemmed from their worship of Jesus. It wasn’t because they brought such great gifts, even though gold, frankincense, and myrrh were great treasures at the time. The value of their worship came from the One they worshipped. In their worship they were connected to their Savior. In that connection new life was breathed into their hearts so that their sins were taken away and they were renewed with the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what led the Wise Men to rejoice at the sight of the Child, Jesus. They knew in their hearts who Jesus was for them. And in that moment, after their long journey, God blessed them with the opportunity to connect with their Savior. There was no place for fear or hatred in that setting for Jesus wiped it all away. It’s not that the Wise Men never felt the way we do, or Herod did. They knew what fear was like, they knew what anger looked like. But the difference is that they had hope against those problems. They were sinners in a sinful world yet at the same time completely protected from that sin in Christ Jesus. You and I are in the same position today and every day.

We have a connection to Jesus through the Word of God. We have opportunities to sit at His feet and receive His life giving forgiveness in worship. Herod’s story reminds us why we need that forgiveness. The Wise Men’s story reminds us that all people have it.

I saw a meme on facebook yesterday that reminded of this. For those who are unfamiliar with what a “meme” is, it’s just picture with a short message or statement on it, usually meant to invoke feelings. It was a picture of the world from space and simply said, “Imagine what 7 billion people could accomplish if we all loved and respected each other.” That’s true isn’t it? It’s sad that fear and anger dominate people so much because of sin. But even more so, what a perfect opportunity to be reminded of our Epiphany hope. We can try as much as we want, but on our own we will never bring humanity together. We can hope, we can wish, we can try change people by showing how foolish anger is. But that will never change. The world will always be like that.

Instead, we can show people that God can change things. He has a solution to fear and hatred. He can gather people together and lead them to work together to love their neighbors. That’s what He’s been doing from the very beginning and it’s why He sent His Son to earth. He wants to unify His creation under the holiness of His Word. But to be united with God means to be disconnected from the things that separate us from Him and that starts with the evil and wicked thoughts in us heart. People aren’t always so willing to give those things up.

When you are tempted to draw battle lines in your heart with those who are different than you, remember what God has done for you. Before you judge someone else, remember that not everyone fits in your way of seeing expectations and attitudes. Before you cast an evil thought, word, or action someone else’s way, even if they deserve it, remember where fear leads. And before you doubt the Lord’s work in your heart or in someone else’s, remember the meaning of Epiphany. No matter who you are, we really aren’t all that different. We’re sinners who struggle with fears and sinful thoughts of anger and hatred. But we’re also all saved through our Lord Jesus Christ and we draw closer to that truth through worship and His Word. Amen.

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

January 4, 2016

January 3, 2016 - Ecclesiastes 9:11-18

Podcast: http://redemption-clc.podomatic.com/entry/2016-01-04T13_07_52-08_00

Theme: Time and Chance Keep Moving On
1) Don’t worry about dangers or rewards
2) Build your wisdom in God’s Word

Ecclesiastes 9:11-18 Again I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong, or bread to the wise, or riches to the discerning, or favor to the skillful; rather, time and chance happen to all of them. 12 For man certainly does not know his time: like fish caught in a cruel net or like birds caught in a trap, so people are trapped in an evil time as it suddenly falls on them. 13 I have observed that this also is wisdom under the sun, and it is significant to me: 14 There was a small city with few men in it. A great king came against it, surrounded it, and built large siege works against it. 15 Now a poor wise man was found in the city, and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 And I said, "Wisdom is better than strength, but the wisdom of the poor man is despised, and his words are not heeded." 17 The calm words of the wise are heeded more than the shouts of a ruler over fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner can destroy much good.

We were sitting at the dinner table this past week and Micah was talking about his upcoming birthday. Although he’s only turning 5, he said he wished he was 28 years old. I told him that I’d change places with him. He could be 29, and I would be 4. If he wants to be older, he can, and I wouldn’t mind going back to childhood for a while. After pausing to think about it, he said, “No, I think I’d rather be 8.” It’s funny how quickly opinions change, especially those of a small child. But there’s a certain amount of truth to the desire to change places once and a while.

I’m sure Micah was thinking, when I’m older I can eat what I want, watch TV when I want, and do what I want. I won’t have to ask permission for anything or share toys with my sister. To a 4 or 5 year old that certainly sounds pretty good. I’m sure you thought the same way as a kid too. I think we all envied the independence that our parents had and there were plenty of times when we couldn’t wait to grow up. But from my perspective, it would kind of be nice to be a kid again sometimes. No bills to worry about, no obligations, no stress, no deadlines to fulfill, and none of the heartache that seems to come with adulthood. Just like when we were kids waiting to be older, sometimes when we’re older we wish to be younger again.

The reason we long for different things in life is because we get used to what we have. But no matter how much we change our lives to try to fill in what missing or to provide what we desire, we will always want more. That’s the point that Solomon makes in our text with the reminder that no one can escape time and chance. The true key to happiness is finding peace and contentment with what God has given us today. But to do that you can’t worry about the past or the mistakes you’ve made. You also can’t focus only getting attention and fame for the present. The key to peace and contentment is to learn from God’s wisdom; the wisdom of salvation in Jesus Christ.  

We focus on this today because at the beginning of a New Year people take time to pause and reflect on their lives. As you do this for yourself, remember this message. You can’t escape time and chance; but you can have peace. We ask the Holy Spirit to bless us with wisdom through these words today, just as he blessed Solomon.

Time is no mystery to us. It's usually the time aspect of life that we focus on the most. Days, weeks, months, and years keep moving steadily. Nothing we do can halt the process of time. That reality is abundantly clear to us at the New Year. Another year on this earth, another year older, another changing season; all things that are true. But, are we also another year wiser? That alone is not a guarantee.
The aspect that Solomon highlights which we often overlook, however, is chance. That too, like time, is a constant in this world. But we must properly understand what is meant by chance. When we hear chance we often think of things that are completely random without any order. There are certainly many things in life that feel completely random and chaotic, but at no point does that mean that God has lost control. He is always in control. Chance is used in our text to describe how these things feel from our perspective. Yes, there are many things in life beyond our control and power, no matter how well we try to plan and prepare. But these things never supersede God’s power. Nothing catches Him off-guard and no event is too much for Him to handle.

Solomon describes the effects of time and chance in several illustrations. It doesn’t matter how swift, strong, wise, discerning, or skillful you think you are, time and chance can trip you up at any moment, like a fish caught in a trap or a bird caught in a snare.

Because of sin, we live in an evil time. It doesn’t matter what the exact date is, or how new or fresh our outlook on the New Year is, we live in a cruel world where terrible things happen because of sin. And often, from our perspective, those terrible things can feel like random acts of chance, because we have so little control. This thought is really a central them in the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s why Solomon opened the book by saying this: "Absolute futility," says the Teacher. "Absolute futility. Everything is futile." What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Can one say about anything, "Look, this is new "? It has already existed in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those who will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:1,9-11,14).

This theme of futility or vanity runs through the entire book. It’s not really a very uplifting message, especially at the beginning of a New Year, but isn’t it so true? We strive and fight daily in our jobs, trying to scrape out some semblance of a good life here on earth, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. Time and chance move on. One day no one will remember us, let alone anything we did on earth. As Paul told Timothy, “We brought nothing into this world, and we can certainly take nothing out (1 Timothy 6:7).” Solomon’s point is that the pursuit of earthly wealth and riches is really futile. In the end there is no point in it. Having temporary pleasure and security means nothing in the grand scheme of things, if in the end all is lost for eternity.

Treasures and riches may change in form but there is nothing new under the sun. The most sought after treasures in 2016 will be vastly different than those in Solomon’s day. I-phones, tablets, sports cars, didn’t exist for Israel, but they had their own pursuits. All cultures do. What we should ask ourselves is what is worth striving for. What should I spend the majority of my time, money, and talents on? Are careers, mortgages, or investments really any different? To Solomon, they are all futile.

The same is true of the non-material pursuits as well. Solomon tells a story to teach us about this. It’s a simple tale about a poor man who saved a city from destruction. We don’t know the man’s name, but that’s the entire point. He is unmemorable, but it’s what he did that remains. He showed true wisdom and saved many people; that’s all that matters. The lesson we learn from this story is that we don’t do the right thing so that we will be remembered. The poor wise man certainly wasn’t remembered, but his legacy didn’t change the fact that in the moment of need he responded the right way. Material blessings are not the only things that succumb to time and chance. Glory and honor fade with time too. Seeking only those things leads us down the same path of futility. 

We shutter at the sound of Solomon’s words, not because they’re false, but because they’re so true and applicable today. If we had to summarize the point in one sentence, it would be that shaping and living our lives according to the things of this world leads to nothing. It is futility and vanity, but it is precisely the trend of the world we live in. And we Christians are not immune.

The two extremes aren’t easily avoided. On the one hand, we are tempted to get so frustrated with the current state of affairs in the world that we give up and despair in cynicism. That attitude says that nothing ever changes, life is cruel, there’s no point in having any hope. The other extreme leads us to believe that life’s struggles can be solved, or kept at bay, by enjoying the good things that are offered. This is especially tempting for us in America who have access to a lot of good things. And part of the difficulty is that life does have many blessings that come directly from God. In other parts of Ecclesiastes Solomon instructs the reader to enjoy these things, for God wants us to enjoy them. But when the blessings of life become our only source of joy, or when they block out our time with God, the end is futility. They can help us feel joy for a time, but there is no lasting peace in them, for all things of the world are subject to time and chance.

The key to hope and peace is to pursue wisdom. We know why Solomon pinpoints wisdom; it was the unique gift given to him by God. We need to remember this. When Solomon talks about wisdom, it’s not the wisdom that comes from a university classroom, or 30 plus years on the job. It’s not the wisdom of philosophers or the wisdom that leads to new social movements or governments. There was one source of wisdom for Solomon and that source was God. Solomon was blessed to see wisdom from God’s perspective because God shared it directly with Him through a unique and miraculous way. We haven’t had the same encounter with God, but we do have an equally powerful blessing of being able to learn from God’s wisdom in His Word.

Only the wisdom from God has power against the constants of time and chance. Solomon wrote about this in another book, from the first chapter of Proverbs, The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7). It’s very easy to boast in our own accomplishments or our riches, and think that we don’t really need God. Indeed, that’s the sad display of a heart that rejects the truth of God’s Word. But in such a philosophy there is no hope against time and chance. The longer we’re in the world, the more we’ll have moments when the harsh reality of sin strikes us down and our seemingly powerful ego will be brought low. No one has escaped this and you’d be foolish to think that you’d be the first.

As we begin a New Year, the best change we can make is to grow in God’s Word. As we grow in the Word God’s wisdom unfolds the beautiful array of His glory in Christ. In the Word, we learn of Jesus who makes us wise for salvation through faith. The Word teaches us what makes the wisdom of the cross different from the fixed philosophies of man. The wisdom of the cross gives us hope in a world that seems to go on in changeless futility. And with that wisdom from God our faith is established and sustained.

Yes, in the end, it’s all about faith, and that’s especially clear around the New Year. You may ask yourself, “What reason do I have to believe that things will get better?” “Why can I have faith and what is my faith in?” Do you live by the principle that things are always better on the other side of the fence? Is change the reason for your faith? Or does happiness come from new possessions? Will life get better with a bigger TV, a smoother car, or the latest smart phone? Is that where your faith is? Or is the key in how well you’re recognized for your accomplishments? Do you hope that you are better appreciated or more well-respected this coming year? Is that the source of your faith? Is that will lead to hope?

There are many options, that’s for sure. But take a lesson from the wisest man in the history of the world, in the words given to Him by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Both faith and hope come from one and only one source of wisdom. That God has, in His Son, brought you back from the death of your sins, and through it has changed your life. You are a new creation; the old has passed away. Your faith and hope are found in Jesus. Through faith in Him you have hope of life that will never end in heaven; sometimes what we call the competition of our faith. What a wonderful change that will be!

But through faith in Jesus you also have hope for today. Not because it’s a New Year. This hope was with in 2015 as well. Also not because of your accomplishments. Solomon is right at the end of our text when he says that a sinner can do a lot of damage, and you and I have. But faith in Jesus is real because He is real. He came; He was born; He lived; He fulfilled; He suffered; He died; and He rose again. That is the wisdom of the cross; true Godly wisdom; because it actually happened and it actually changes us. And it works today. When we’re unsure about the future, faith in Jesus gives us hope that God has a plan. When we feel like we’re not receiving recognition like we should, faith in Jesus give us hope that it doesn’t matter what others say. When we worry because every day feels the same and it never seems like we’re improving, faith in Jesus gives us hope that we are new creation through the power and grace of His Word.

All people have hope and faith in the New Year, but not all have hope and faith that can stand the test of time and chance. You do though, the wisdom of the cross in Jesus Christ. Amen.

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