March 7, 2016

March 6, 2016 - Luke 15:11-32


Theme: Works Will Always Catch Up to You…Mercy Will Never Let You Go

The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Our portion of that powerful word comes from Luke 15:11-32, which was read as our Gospel selection this morning.

In the name of our Savior, who has reconciled us with the Father, dear fellow redeemed.

Those of you who are parents or have been around young children know how exciting it is when they take their first steps. A child’s first steps are one of those joyful milestones of life, usually captured on camera or written down in the diary for remembrance. The first steps are monumental because once they get started, they never stop. With most kids, once they are able to walk, it doesn’t take long for them to go and to go quickly. It seems that as soon as they hit the ground, they are gone.

I remember this happening with my kids. Both of them, as soon as they could walk, couldn’t wait to get on their way. If I would be holding them or helping them out of the crib, they’d start pumping their little legs even before they hit the ground. It’s like the driver a sports car holding down the break while red lining the engine; as soon as they shift into gear, they are gone.

No parent is sad when their child takes his or her first steps. But what we often don’t realize is that first moment is only one highlight in a long line of events. Parents get to see their children take their first steps in many more ways than just the literal. Every achievement of life is little like learning how to walk. And just like those first steps, children usually can’t wait to keep going. Soon the first day of school arrives, then graduation from grade school, high school, and college. New steps are taken when they start their own career and build their own family. All along the way, they keep moving, faster and farther from those first steps they took.

It’s at this point that our heart strings are tugged a bit and feelings of sadness are mixed with those of joy. We relate with the emotions in the story of our text for today, in large part because many of us have experienced the same feelings. This parable is really all about a child who just kept going once he learned to walk. But it’s also about a father’s persistent love along the way. As we think of our own families God would also have us think of Him, as our heavenly Father. He gives us such an important message to remember as our legs begin to race and we can’t wait to get out into the world and live life. He wants us to remember: Works Will Always Catch Up to You…Mercy Will Never Let You Go.

We know the parable well and are familiar with the many truths that God teaches us through it. But perhaps there are also some things we don’t often consider. Before we get to the main purpose, we should first ask why the son wanted to leave? Why did he request his inheritance? Why didn’t he stay in his father’s house or even his country? Surely, he had good things there. He would never lack for anything. He would always have work and a family to love him. Why leave all that?

To understand God’s message through this man’s example, it’s good for us to analyze why he did what he did. In a word, I suppose we could say it was freedom that led the young man to leave. He wanted to see the world. He wanted to try new things. He wanted to live in independence. I don’t think we can say that the young man intended to squander his inheritance. I don’t think he had bad intentions from the start. He just wanted to live to the fullest extent under freedom that he had.

Surely, we can relate to this as well. I’m not talking about the freedom we have through finances or means, nor am I looking at the freedom have as citizens of America. When we consider the spiritual implications of this lesson it makes us think of the freedom we have in the gospel. The amazing message of salvation is the most liberating thing in the entire world. It frees us from the constraints of sin and the bondage of death. It loosens us from the suffocation of God’s righteous law. It opens to us a new realm of possibilities for us in life, especially in the ability to serve and glorify God’s name.

But perhaps just as amazing as the freedom of the gospel is the fact that God would choose to save us through such a means. It seems to run contrary that to be a follower of God would loosen restrictions, rather than add them. To human intuition it would seem impossible for anyone to be saved by free grace, without work or effort. And it feels counterintuitive that God would send His own Son to the cross and the grave to win a victory that is so easily abused by mankind.

Yes, to have freedom means to have the ability to abuse that freedom too, and sadly that happens all too often with the gospel. Our sinful hearts are inclined to run in our freedom. We are tempted to test the limits of this new found liberty that we have in Christ. At times, we take it for granted. We misuse it by relying on it as an excuse for sin. Like little children, we’re always looking to go, go, go. We’re running before we even hit the ground and sadly we often put as much space between ourselves and God as we can. 

Part of basking in one’s freedom is living without care or concern. We sense that in the disposition of the son as he receives his inheritance and sets out from his father’s house. Everything is ahead of him; he feels as if he can do anything. But it doesn’t take long for the first lesson of the parable to ring true. Through foolish choices the young man squandered his livelihood. Everything that his father earned for him had now been wasted. His title is etched in history for all to remember, the prodigal, literally wreckless, son. As hopeful and optimistic as he was at the beginning of his freedom, he was now distressed and helpless. By his own fault, he found himself on the wrong end of freedom – the results of making careless decisions.

God reminds us through this to be wise in our pursuits and in how we use our possessions, because eventually our works will catch up to us. We are free to do what we please, but part of that means accepting responsibility for our choices too. It’s easy to see ourselves in the place of this first son, even if we don’t always like to admit it. There’s no shortage of ways that we have wasted the precious gifts, both physical and spiritual, which God has given us.

But the same warning of works applies equally to the second son. He’s the one that’s often overlooked in this parable. The first son may have been bolder; more apt to wear his emotions and desires on his sleeve, for all to see. The second son was really only different in appearances. He, too, had works that caught up to him, even though he kept them hidden. He didn’t leave his father’s house. He didn’t waste his inheritance. He was responsible and mature. But he still had a problem in his heart, a problem based on his works that eventually came to the surface. He believed that he was better than his brother and that he deserved better because of things he did. His assurance of favor from his father became a matter of what he did in comparison to his brother, rather than the fact that they were both children in the family.

In both sons we see the same problem, an over reliance on themselves. But in both cases we also see the same response from the father. Rather than dwelling on his son’s mistakes as a determinant of his favor for them; the father displayed mercy. His love for his children was not works based, but rather truth based. They were his sons, his blood heirs. That was the undeniable truth. No sorry lifestyle or arrogant attitude could change that. And for that reason he loved his sons no matter what, and a product of that love was patient correction that he showed them.

You see that the father’s mercy toward his son’s went hand in hand with the freedom they had. If at any time, the father relinquished his sons’ freedom, even to make mistakes, he would not have been operating by mercy, but by compulsion. The fact that his son’s both failed in their freedom gave the very backdrop that was needed to emphasize the father’s mercy, and that’s the theme of the entire parable because it is so greatly contrasted against the sins of both sons. With freedom still intact, even in moments of weakness, we can say the second part of our theme with complete certainty. Mercy will never let us go because we always live in freedom.

Dear friends, I hope you can clearly see the meaning of this parable for your lives. Yes, you know it speaks to you of God’s mercy and love but how does it do that? In what ways does it touch your life and affect your thoughts and actions, indeed your very relationship with God?

We see here the confession of a Christian, of someone who knew the truth ahead of time and lost it or severely damaged it. This parable is not about conversion; it’s about those who have the faith and squander it. It’s about us – the believers. We are the reckless and careless sons and daughters who were given our great inheritance from God the Father. We have tasted the beauty and joy of the gospel and therefore we know of the freedom we have. But we are children. We have the innate desire to test the limits of that freedom. We want to run as soon as we learn to walk. We want to see what God allows as soon as we come to know that He loves and forgives us.

Perhaps even more than the first, we see ourselves in the second son. We judge based on works. We compare our merits against others. We whine and complain that our father has not been as good to us as He has to those who don’t deserve it, all the while forgetting everyone is cut from the same cloth, all believers are from the same family. We get so used to living under the shadow of our Father’s mercy that we forget it’s there; we forget that it applies to the beggar, to the proud, to the rich, to the immature, and to the foolish equally. 

Our plea should continually be the same as the first son, even though it takes great courage and faith to honesty believe it: Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son. We should believe the same thing each time we confess our sins. We should make that statement with the same honesty. We do not deserve God’s inheritance anymore. We do not deserve to be called His children. Is that what you think of when you confess your sins? Or do you casually fall in line while still hanging on to your pride in your heart?  

Friends, it’s okay to be honest with ourselves and with God. Honesty, though, is a lot more than having the right words, or in our case as a church, having a solid confession based on the Bible. True honesty is about the heart. What we really mean, regardless of the words that come out of our mouth. And it’s okay to be brutally honest because we are under our Father’s mercy, and that’s a gift that will never let us go. The question is, have we starved enough to see it? Have we fed on the pods of the world enough to recognize the difference? Do we hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness? Or are we running from the truth? Remember: Your works will always catch up to you. You can’t outrun them. The truth is the truth. You can’t change it. But just as much as that applies to your sin and its consequences, it also applies to God’s love. Your Father’s mercy will never let you go.    

That’s right, God has you. You are his. He holds you in His hand. To the skeptic that sounds like the opposite of freedom. It sounds like oppression; like God has grabbed us up and keeps us in the crib of His Word without letting us run on our own. But the miracle of God’s mercy is that He has provided a way to pay for your sins that did not demand giving up your freedom. Because He offered up His own Son in your place, God holds the claim to your life. He owns it because He bought it back from the dead on the cross. But He didn’t do that for you to be a slave. He did it for you to be His child. Even after everything He went through for you, He still gives you freedom. You can never get to a place where His mercy doesn’t have claim to you, but you’re also never forced to trust it and to believe it.

As sons and daughters of our Father, who get lost often in our lives, we remember the hope that we share with King David, from Psalm 51:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart-- these, O God, You will not despise.

Whether you’ve strayed in body or in soul, the time is now to come back home. If you think you can keep on running in life and not worry about sin, don’t be foolish. Works will always catch up to you and your works will never stand before God. But if you’re tired and weary from running don’t despair. There’s no where you can go, in this life, where God’s mercy does not exist. To those who are repentant, God will never turn away. But this life is not forever. The time to believe is now. But be of good cheer. You are free. Keep running, but not away from God, but for God. No matter where you go, His mercy will never let you go. 


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

March 4, 2016

Midweek Lenten Service 4 - March 2, 2016


Matthew 27:24 When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it."

Dear friends, this evening our study centers on our fourth eye-witness, Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Roman governor of Israel during the time of Christ and therefore he was the one in charge of cases of capital punishment. There is much to be learned from Pilate’s dealings with Christ. In many ways, his attitude mirrors the skeptics of our modern day, who place their confidence and hope in their reason. Jesus was crucified in the year AD 33. Pilate left office three years after. He was sentenced back to Rome because he viciously persecuted a group of Samaritans. This was the final act in a long line of tyranny from the reign of Pilate. Not much is known about his life after he left Israel. Some claim that the sentencing of Jesus plagued him so much later in life that he eventually became a Christian. In the Ethiopian church, Pilate is considered a saint to this day. However, there is no credible evidence that Pilate ever came to faith in Jesus. What is certain is that at the time of Christ’s trial Pilate was definitely not a believer. Keep this in mind as we hear from his in the form of a fictitious letter written sometime between the death of Christ and Pilate’s expulsion from Israel. 

Pontius Pilate

To the most excellent, Vitellius, Roman governor of Syria. Greetings in the name of our esteemed emperor, Tiberius.

I write to you to inform you about some strange happenings in the region of Israel, particularly in the city of Jerusalem. It all centers on this individual named Jesus, who supposedly was a prophet and a king of the Hebrews. The whole story perplexes me greatly, which is why I seek your advice. You are the closest Roman governor to my region; therefore I find it to be imperative that you are aware of the situation. There’s no doubt that if you haven’t yet dealt with these followers of Jesus, you soon will.

They are a determined group, seemingly even more dedicated to their beliefs than their Jewish brethren, which isn’t surprising since many of their converts are Jewish. Their entire faith is founded on Jesus and recent events that took place in Jerusalem. I write this to you from my home in Caesarea. As you know, I prefer to stay away from Jerusalem since there always seems to be thoughts of revolt among the people there. Yet, just recently, I had to be present in the capital city because of the Jewish Passover feast. Tiberius expects me to be present at times of festival in order to keep the peace. But what transpired was beyond my control.

I have served as governor in this region for nearly 10 years, and I have seen a lot. But I have never seen such fervor and chaos as I did at the last Passover in Jerusalem. The Jews, the very people this Jesus supposedly served; begged, pleaded, and demanded His death. I know that news of this event has already reached your court, yet I must try to describe it for you. It was truly something to behold; no mere letter can contain the full extent of what I witnessed.

Prior to the Passover, I knew of a few happenings surrounding Jesus. But as with most headlines, I left it to my secretaries to keep track of. All I knew about Jesus was that He was popular among the common people and that there were rumors about His ability for the supernatural. Up until that point, I assumed that only the Jews could believe such nonsense. I have never understood their religion and why it is such an important part of their culture. I fear this is one thing that our Emperor simply does not understand. It is near impossible to govern a people who are so attached to religion.

I have tried to rule with authority, exercising punishment and force, to keep the people in line. You know of my swift dealings with Galileans who refused to submit to Roman law. You would think they would fall in line when blood was shed. But, despite what they may say, I haven’t been unjustly cruel. I have also tried subtler methods. My command to display the image of our Emperor in the cities was not meant as a sign of disrespect, but a reminder of Roman authority in this land. Yet, the foolish Jews took it as sacrilege; as blatant idolatry. Would they rather I ruled with the sword? There seems to be no logic with these people. I still wonder how they can submit to Caesar without offending their ideology.

You know how we were trained, Vitellius. The rule of law comes first. It is above all else. Without it, everything crumbles. Religion is certainly important. Even I offer prayers to our many gods. But the Hebrews are different. They put religion above all else. This religious pride pinnacled at the Passover in Jerusalem. I was expecting a relatively peaceful proceedings, and I allowed the people to exercise their rituals unheeded. But then their leaders brought Jesus before me. I expected the evidence to be insurmountable given their hatred against the Man. They spoke about Him as if He were the vilest of all offenders.

Yet, when it came evidence, it all pointed to Jesus’ innocence. I feel that voices across the empire are conspiring against me because I condemned Him. It’s easy to summarize and say that I sentenced an innocent man to death. But the reality of it all clouds the matter. Jesus was no Roman. I tried to reason with the Jews but there was no order to be had. They knew what they wanted, regardless of the truth. I could have stood defiantly in their way and said no to their demands, but to what end?  So that one of their own, masquerading as a king, could go free again, only to be lynched later on by his own kind? So that the mob could revolt under my rule once again and make me look weak before the Emperor?

Sometimes the rule of law is hard to put into practice. I regret that I had to sentence Jesus to death. But if His own people didn’t want Him, what was the value of His life anyway? And yet, it still bothers me that justice was not upheld that day. I was cornered into a decision, no doubt, but what good is a representative of Rome if he does not uphold justice? I feel as if I neglected my responsibility but I also feel as if I had no choice. I did all I could to appease my conscience. I ceremoniously washed my hands as an act of defiance to those wicked Jews. Yet, I cannot shake the guilty feeling from my conscience. I should have listened to my wife and dismissed the case entirely.

I ask you, Vitellius, what are we mere mortals to do when given such great responsibility yet faced with such difficult circumstances? I really tried to help Jesus even though I know His followers hold me responsible for His death. When the first witnesses tried to condemn Him for insurrection, I told them they had no evidence. I abruptly denied their request because I could tell that their stories were in contradiction. After they still wouldn’t relent, I offered to execute Barabbas instead. If blood was what they wanted, they could have it; and from someone who deserved to die. But they still cried for Jesus.

In final desperation I turned to the accused Himself. What did Jesus have to say about these accusations? Could He give me anything to help with His own defense? I was willing to listen. But, He remained silent. I could not believe i! Never before had I seen a man so willingly give Himself up to those who hated Him, and without just cause! It was as if He cared for them even after everything they did to Him. When Jesus finally decided to speak, it was near impossible to hold back the mob. And He didn’t exactly help His situation. They accused Him of being a king, and He didn’t deny it; though His words gave me pause. I still remember what He said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here."

What kind of king freely claims His authority yet in the same breath so willingly gives it up? And what was the purpose of dying for a kingdom that didn’t exist on this earth? I am still perplexed by such logic. The Jewish leaders seemed to think this kingdom was bound up in their historic promise of Messiah figure. It was clear that Jesus claimed to be this Messiah, but to what end? His opponents tirelessly tried to persuade me that Jesus’ intent was against Rome. But if so, why was there no record of rebellion in His past? If so, how come not one credible witness could come forward? All evidence pointed to the fact that Jesus was a respectable, law-abiding citizen. I could certainly pin more political crimes to the Sadducees than I could to Him.

There was also an indescribable calm about Jesus as He sat there on trial. His was not the demeanor of rebel. Most men would have lost their wits under far less scrutiny. Part of the reason I scourged Him was to see if He would break down or if His enemies would be satisfied. His innocence was never in question. I cringed having to punish Him that way but if it could spare His life in the end would that not have been just?

Yet, through everything that transpired: the false testimony, the heinous insults, the painful beatings and mockery, Jesus remained calm and resolute. I ask you, Vitellius, have you ever heard of such a thing? It’s almost as if Jesus knew He was going to die. Almost as if, dare I say, He wanted to die. If He was not the Messiah that the Jews wanted, I wonder who else in the history of mankind could live up to such a standard. To act with such grace and patience in the midst of such hostility, is truly something I presume I may never see again.

If that’s where the story ended, I might eventually have peace. But, as you know, the fame of Jesus endures to this day, and in fact has grown. Many even claim that the Man Himself still lives. Before you discount me entirely, good Vitellius, consider this. On the night of His death, the very Jews that killed Jesus requested that His tomb be sealed. Of all things, they were fearful of His claim that He would come back from the dead. Supposedly He had promised that very thing. Whether they all believed this or not is beyond me; indeed some were worried about a plot by his disciples to promote a false resurrection.

I thought the fear was unwarranted. His closest followers had all but abandoned Him. There were a few at the cross, some others who requested His body after death, but none so bold as to die in His name for a cause that never materialized. If anything, the Jews should have been reveling in their victory. The time of Jesus as king had come and gone. Yet, because of their incessant complaining I gave them two guards and allowed them to seal the tomb. I wanted some semblance of rest during my remaining time in Jerusalem.

It’s at this point that I wonder. For not more than three days later, the tomb was broken into and is now empty. Where the body of Jesus is I do not know, but it is not in the tomb. The guards are an absolute wreck. No one knows for sure what to believe. When I examined them, they couldn’t remember what had happened. Yet, I also have it on good authority that they both received large sums of money from the Sanhedrin. Even that very afternoon, a courier from the temple arrived at my quarters and requested that I meet with the Sanhedrin. I refused, and I have no plans to reconsider. I washed my hands of Jesus once, I don’t want any more to do with Him.

But I fear that despite my efforts to ignore Him, He will eventually be the cause of my fall. His final words to me burn in my mind, night and day: "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above." No one had ever so defiantly spoke against my authority, and yet of all those who would, it was an innocent Man condemned to death. Who says such a thing to a leader who is control of whether He lives or dies? What did He mean by “power from above?” Could that be where His kingdom is? I know how foolish this sounds, Vitellius, but one must consider the possibility, especially now that the Man’s dead body is unaccounted for.

Has Jesus gone to be with God or the gods, whoever they may be? The Jews certainly would have me believe not. They choose to accept that Jesus’ disciples stole His body away in the middle of the night. But how? These disciples are uneducated commoners; not master thieves. They not only lack the cognition to pull off such a heist, but they also have no manpower or resources. On top of this, no Roman soldier would allow it. No Jew, friend or foe of Jesus, could attack a Roman soldier without word spreading. And furthermore, we know the Jews to be liars already. Shall we now trust them? As reasonable men we must consider the most reasonable explanation. Is a resurrection really less plausible than someone stealing His body without anyone knowing and managing to cover it up all this time?    

This is why I cannot help but continually think of Jesus. Everything I witnessed about His life ran contrary to what others expected. Could it be the same of his death as well? If the resurrection is not to be treated as credible then what of the followers of Jesus? To this day, they continue to grow. I know you have already had to deal with their presence in Syria. They’ve established churches in: Jerusalem, Damascus, Caesarea, and even as far north as Antioch. I’ve even heard rumors of a movement in our beloved Capitol, Rome. If Jesus really was nothing, why would He be so popular, even after His death? His followers are fearless, yet moral.

Yes, it seems clear that the idea of a resurrection is the very basis of this new faith in Jesus. Without it, everything falls apart. If Jesus really was an imposter like the Jews say, it shouldn’t be difficult to prove the resurrection to be a lie. But then why do Jesus’ followers so confidently declare it to be true? Why can’t anyone refute it? Why have even Roman soldiers joined the faith of Jesus? Why must the Jewish leaders bribe others to keep silent? Where is the body? Perplexing questions that I think about every day.

If Jesus is somehow alive, what does that mean for me? Surely if He wanted vengeance, I would have defense. Would He come for me? Or would He show me the same kind of grace and kindness He showed the Jews? Would He forgive? Who could? I know what logic says, but then again, everything about Jesus is different.

I ask for your guidance and support in these strange days, good Vitellius. May this letter find you in good health. Perhaps next time we meet it will be on better terms.

Isaiah 53:3-7 He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.

Jesus was the Son of God, and had to silently endure the pains and torments of the cross, and everyone’s sins, to pay the world’s way to forgiveness.

Isaiah began these words with the simple question, “Who has believed our report?” Sadly, to our knowledge Pilate was one who refused to believe this message. Yet, we can hope that there was a day when Pilate heard these words, or others like them from the Bible, and received the answer that perplexed him so much during and after Jesus’ trial. What He witnessed surely stuck with him for live. We thank the Lord for opening our ears and hearts to the beautiful words of forgiveness and life in Jesus Christ. May we always treasure it above all else. Amen.

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