April 12, 2016

April 10, 2016 - Colossians 2:18-23

Theme: Keep a good Head on your shoulders

These Scriptures are written that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, we may have life in His name. Grace, peace, and every blessing from God be to you in the name of Jesus Christ. 

An interesting thing about the way the Bible describes salvation is that it often uses financial terms. Sin is spoken of as a wage that we’ve earned for ourselves. Our status as unrighteous before God is likened to a debt. We see descriptions about how Jesus had to pay a ransom for our salvation. The very word, Redemption, is a financial term, meaning “to buy something back.” One particular section of Scripture that uses financial terms is Isaiah 35: "Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters; and you without money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost! 2 Why do you spend money on what is not food, and your wages on what does not satisfy?”

Isaiah began his critique of God’s people by likening their spiritual actions to fiscal activities. What they had done by trying to save themselves was equivalent to spending their money on nothing. And what God had done for them by freely redeeming them was equivalent to buying food and drink without being charged. It’s no surprise that the Holy Spirit has made this connection many times throughout the Bible. Finances are a very important part of life, it gives us an interesting look at the great value of our salvation in Christ. We spend our entire lives working to make a living and to provide for those around us. What a miracle that we don’t have to also work for life with God! That is a free gift to us, but as the words suggest, it was also one that came at a great cost.

As we focus today on the seventh commandment, we consider how we could possible steal from God and how someone could cheat us out of our reward of salvation. Stealing seems like such a simple, black and white issue. It’s not a hard thing to determine whether you have stolen someone. It’s also not hard to tell whom you’ve stolen from, it’s a sin that often directly affects individual to individual. Those parts about stealing aren’t that difficult to understand. But, in what ways might we be stealing from God? In what ways might people be trying to cheat us out of our salvation? Those questions are trickier to pin down. We pray that with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, through His inspired Word, we would be led to Godly wisdom in this matter.

Colossians 2:18-23 Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. 20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations-- 21 "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," 22 which all concern things which perish with the using-- according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

To establish the basis of his argument here, Paul draws upon an illustration that he shared with other Christians. When it comes protecting oneself from being cheated out of eternal inheritance in heaven, it is necessary to remember who is in control. To show that, Paul likens the Christian faith to a body. The head is obviously the most important body part. Without the head, life cannot exist and thinking cannot be accomplished. When Paul calls Jesus the Head of the Christian body, the lesson is clear. Everything begins and ends with Christ. Paul used the same illustration in other letters, too. For example, to the Corinthians he wrote: For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12).

Likewise he taught the Ephesians: That we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-- Christ-- 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (Ephesians 4:14-16).

Paul is not describing a physical body, but what it means to be a Christian. In a similar place, he fully explained what it means to have Christ as the Head: 2 Corinthians 10:5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. The Head is not just the highest part of the body, it is the center of every thought, decision, and action. The head tells the other parts of the body when to move and what to do. As we consider what is important in life, no matter if we’re looking at the seventh commandment or any other topic, Christ must be the dominant force behind our thought-process.

In our lesson for today, Paul applies that to thinking about what you believe. He mentions a number of worship practices that were going on at that time: false humility, worship of angels, deprivation of the body, and other laws and regulations. Paul’s point is clear. If those things are not driven by Christ, they are not profitable for us. The believer’s Head is Jesus, therefore the believer’s thoughts and decisions will flow from the will of Christ.

Paul is careful to explain what he means because one might easily think that they are simply under Christ’s control, like being in a trance or being hypnotized. He further clarifies by saying, “if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations?” The believer never stops being an individual. You never stop being you. The difference of faith in Christ does not turn you into a helpless vegetable that has no control. You retain your will, your rights, and your freedom. The difference is that you are brought into unity with Christ, you become part of His body, the Holy Christian Church, and therefore you obey Him.  

Since Christ is the Head of the Church, those who become members of the Church are subject to Him. That means a number of things.
1) Christ defines what is acceptable and what isn’t.
2) Christ is the power behind works of service and fruits of faith.
3) Christ is the model for us to follow.
4) But, finally, and most important for our text, the glory belongs to Christ because He alone paid for our sin.

Paul was dealing with beliefs that were seeking to take Christ out of the spotlight and put man in His place. Regulations like: Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle; these would elevate man’s glory by emphasizing what he accomplished for himself. In such a scenario Christ fades to the background and man eventually takes responsibility for his salvation, his decision making, and his example. In short, man becomes the Head – and the rightful glory that belongs only to God is stolen. 
We mentioned some of the financial terms that God uses to describe salvation in the Scriptures. It’s sadly ironic that man has done the same thing to suit his own desires. Instead of salvation being an inheritance that was paid by Christ; people now look at it as an earning they accomplished. Instead of truth being readily acquired through the Scriptures, people “shop around” for what their itching ears want to hear. Instead of the source of our faith flowing from the ransom paid, it becomes a matter of subjective reasoning and feeling.

Paul lists several examples of this that he had to deal with. Most of them don’t apply to us as much, but we see the same themes in other things. For example, in the last 30-40 years, a main theme with many American churches has been about growth. The idea proposes that if a church is growing, it’s doing the right thing. Emphasis isn’t on the Law and Gospel to effect change within a person’s heart, instead the priority becomes worship atmosphere, facilities, and conforming to the latest trends. Talking about the actual Word of God doesn’t matter so much because the most important thing is how a person feels about himself. And, of course, these methods are validated because numbers increase. The church grows and grows with throngs of people feeling satisfied and fulfilled. Attendance growa, greater and greater offerings flow in, huge sanctuaries, facilities, and campuses are constructed. Amazing what turning a tiny, blind eye to certain parts of the Bible can accomplish.

But, after the fervor dies down; once one gets used to the spectacle of the experience which captivated them initially, there’s no substance to keep that faith going. One critical scholar compared this kind of church growth philosophy to substituting a Styrofoam cup for beautiful chalice. You may still have the wine present, the Word of God, but you’ve dumbed it down to a cheap form of entertainment and a trick to fulfill one’s own feelings. And when that feeling wears off, the Word has been compromised already.

Compare this to the things Paul describes: false humility, vanity, fleshly lusts, and bodily neglect. They share with this cheap form of church growth the selfish, subjective emphasis on what man wants over what God wants. And the result of placing ourselves as the head of the body is the command that one must make their decision about Christ. Think about that difference.

When Christ is kept as the Head, we are led by what He tells us in Scripture. His Word reminds us that “the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).” That there is “one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:5-6).” And that it is through His precious blood that you have been redeemed, bought back, to God (1 Peter 1:18-19). That’s the financial plan from the mind of Christ. That’s the message that God desires you to be conformed to and to have dictate your actions in life. But when man becomes the head, then subjective opinions reign. Christianity becomes a popularity contest. Instead of free grace and faith, one is commanded, by regulation, to decide to accept Christ. Instead of the beauty of forgiveness, the many obligations of church work, like serving others, giving offerings, and being a good example; take center stage over the Gospel. Really, all this can be summarized as stealing the glory that belongs alone to God – first Christ as our Redeemer and the Holy Spirit as our sanctifier.        

This kind of philosophy was so shocking and obtrusive to the pure Gospel that the Holy Spirit had to create a new word just to describe it. That word comes in verse 23 as “self-imposed religion.” Today, that sounds like a familiar thing to us because we’re confronted with so many beliefs that are generated from man’s sinful heart. The true teaching of God’s Word has become so offensive to some that they deny the very existence of truth, which is in itself, a logical contradiction. They would rather believe a blatant, logical contradiction, than the message of the cross and what it means for us, that we have died to the basic principles of the world. When you put all these things together, what results is “self-imposed religion,” an idea so unique that a word had to be created to describe it. One scholar defines it like this: “a set of religious beliefs and practices resulting from one's own desires and initiative, religion thought up by oneself.”

This is what we deal with today in our own hearts and with the majority of arguments against the Christian faith. Really, the arguments are against something more specific than just the idea of faith. They are against Christ being the head. They refuse to submit anyone but themselves, and what it becomes is the most heinous form of thievery known – stealing honor and glory from God and cheating fellow brothers and sisters out of the reward of the Gospel.

My advice to you is the same as Paul’s advice to the Colossians, and the Corinthians, and the Ephesians. Remember Christ as your Head. He’s your Head because you are part of His body, the Church. He is your Head because He purchased life for you. He’s your Head because no religion you, or anyone else, makes up will be good enough. He’s your Head because He paid the ransom against your captors. When the law of God held you captive under God’s righteousness, Christ freed you from those bonds. With that in mind, what sense does it now make to go back into captivity under man-made laws?! That’s even worse than being captive under God’s law!

The “self-imposed religion” of our day is only a carefully shrouded set of regulations. Regulations like: what our building must look like, how many kind deeds we must do each week, how much offering money I must pledge, what our growth quota each year must be, what standard of feeling I place in my heart, and ultimately the most distasteful of all: the decision I must make to accept Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. Do not be deceived, those all sound like good things, but they are not Gospel; they are not the way you have learned Christ, they are just modern additions to list of regulations. And they all come from the Mind of man. 

Remember that Christ is you Head, because by faith He helps guide your thoughts and actions. He is busy thinking for you through His Word. He is helping you every step of the way.

And with Christ as your Head, you will grow and increase and where individual Christians like you grow and increase, so also does the Church of God. Paul said as much in our text: holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. Your spiritual brain is talking to you there, listen! This is the impulse that is sent to you as a member of the body, to get you to move in accordance with God’s will and operate for growth. It’s not a law, it’s the Gospel.

There’s a lot more to God’s growth plan than human vanity and numerical increase. He wants the Church to grow in truth and love, no matter how many may be present in the pews. Keep Christ as the Head upon your spiritual shoulders and you will prosper under His grace. Amen.

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

April 6, 2016

April 3, 2016 - John 20:24-29

Theme: Thomas Teaches us About Faith
1) Faith is Logical and Reasonable.
2) Faith grants Christ’s blessing.

We have this promise from the Lord, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,” so shall the effectiveness of His Word be in our lives (Isaiah 55:10-11). We pray for the Lord to bless that message of His Word in our hearts today as it comes from John 20:24-29:

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said to him, "We have seen the Lord." So he said to them, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." 26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, "Peace to you!" 27 Then He said to Thomas, "Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing." 28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

In the name of the One whose hands and feet were pierced, and whose side was opened, and who lives to tell about it, dear fellow redeemed:

Do you ever feel like Thomas gets a bad rap? He’s forever called “doubting Thomas.” He’s held up in the Scriptures as an example of how not to act. His attitude of doubt is even mentioned in many other areas of life than just faith and religion. Many people think only of doubting in connection with Thomas. Most don’t know that he was very likely the Apostle who took the Gospel to India for the first time. They don’t know that he was killed for his faith and even today, you can visit his tomb there. He is forever, “Doubting Thomas.”

But in that moment with the disciples wouldn’t have you done the same thing? Everyone knows you don’t believe something so significant just because someone tells you to, even if it is someone you trust. God has given us common sense and reason to help us determine the truth. We shouldn’t just throw those tools out the window because a statement is made in the name of the Apostles, or in our case, perhaps, the name of the church. The Christian faith is not blind faith. Perhaps you’ve been led to think it is though. In our age of high sophistication and critical scholarship Christians are continually put on the defensive for their faith, especially the miraculous parts of their faith. We should be clear, we simply cannot be Christians without believing things that go into the realm of the miraculous and the supernatural. The very concept of God tells us that He is a spirit, a being that goes beyond mere material. Last weekend we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of our own one day. We were reminded that without the resurrection there is no Christian faith, period. Doesn’t get much more supernatural than the idea of life after death.

Because it takes faith to believe these parts of the Bible, opponents often try to pit reason against faith, as if they are completely opposed to one another. But that isn’t true. If we understand God as the source of all wisdom, logic, and reason; then His plan of salvation, the way He has revealed that plan, and the way in which people receive it is definitely reasonable. It’s actually the most reasonable thing there is. Faith and reason are so often pitted against one another because reason is often associated as coming from the human individual only. But true reason comes only from God. Therefore, faith is entirely reasonable and there is more than enough evidence of the claims that God makes in His word. The only difference is that it is not evidence based only on man’s perception. If God is perfect, almighty, and eternal, then He is certainly different than we are. He is something that none of us has ever experienced before, therefore our reasonable way of describing Him will always fall short. Could it be that true reason, reason unadulterated by sin, operates on a completely different level than what we often understand as reason? And could it be that we’ve been pressured by the world into accepting the notion that faith and reason are opposites? I don’t think that’s just likely, I believe that’s the way it has been for many Christians.

Thomas wasn’t wrong to question the other disciples. Thomas wasn’t wrong for seeking evidence. Where he went too far was that he also questioned the word of Jesus. He didn’t have to blindly trust without any evidence. He did have proof. It just wasn’t the kind of proof he wanted. The reason that Thomas, and all people have, to believe in Jesus is the Scripture testimony from Jesus Himself, and that of the Holy Spirit long before Jesus came to earth.

There is this side of God’s nature that is entirely different and foreign to us. A side that we will only see once we get to heaven. As the righteous God; as the source of reason and truth, there are things about truth that remain a mystery to us. Human intuition has discovered much about the natural world that God created, and we continue to learn more day by day. But we’ll never reach perfection in our understanding of natural truth, let alone spiritual truth. And the only resource that tells us about the person of God, is the Bible. The neat thing is that God gives us a tangible connection to that side of His nature now through His Word. We don’t get the whole thing, but we get a lot and we certainly get enough to know that God is our Savior from sin. So, yes, at the same time it was completely reasonable and completely unreasonable for Thomas to doubt. It simply depends on what you mean by reason.

So often we hear the argument that sensible and rational people could never belief such a fanciful tale as the Bible. In fact, the more education a person has in this world, often the more stumbling blocks to faith come along with that. The higher education goes, the more one is taught to question things and to look for irrefutable evidence, especially in those areas in which we have been taught from early on. There exists the assumption within higher learning that what we learned as children could not possibly be accurate until we can explain it as adults. Because of this way of thinking, we see a trend of young people, often those first introduced to higher academics, cave in and forsake their faith in Jesus.

It should be said clearly that this is a multi-faceted issue. People on all sides have a part to play. It’s easy for the church to blame everything on secular education, but the reality is that pastors and teachers don’t always provide the best foundation of God’s Word. They aren’t always equipped at facing and answering tough questions about the faith. Parents might be tempted to place the blame on others too. But instructing a child as to why they believe is just as important as showing them what they believe. And the single individual is also responsible, just as Thomas was. Really, in the end, whoever may be looked at, it is something that each person must wrestle with in his or her heart. And when we can recognize that, most importantly, about ourselves, we see that in the end it is not a question of evidence that leads us to doubt but a question of source.

God has given us plenty of evidence of the truth; but the source is His, not our own. The Christian faith is entirely reasonable when viewed in light of what the Bible tells us about who God is and who we are. When God is allowed to define the parameters of understanding and logic, salvation through Christ alone makes complete sense. It’s only when we replace the source that things change. People, by nature, want to be the boss. They want to make the rules. They want to define truth and what is right and wrong. Who doesn’t like to have the last word?

Sometimes human will overlaps with God’s will because He is the one who created us. He set His law in our hearts and we all have it and often we still used most of it to define morality and to judge what is reasonable and what isn’t. But as soon as sin entered the scene there was a plight upon our natures that would continually lead us away from God. What we experience now in present time is the result of generations upon generations of sinful thoughts and actions wearing upon the law of God in the human heart. In many ways we changed this source and therefore our ideas of what is reasonable and moral have changed also.

In this account about Thomas, we see that change manifest itself when it came to believing the resurrection of Christ. Thomas’ sinful nature, combined with many other factors, as we mentioned, but ultimately the sinful nature, led him to doubt the absolute truth. By thinking he was being totally reasonable he was actually being the most unreasonable one of the bunch. Because his source had changed, or at least, was altered for the time being.

What was it that brought Thomas back? Jesus, of course, and quite literally! In love to Thomas, Jesus allowed him to see the actual marks of the nails and the wound from the spear. That had to have been powerful. But Jesus also gave Thomas words. Words that reminded Thomas that he already had everything he needed before seeing Jesus. Words that told him that faith trusts in God’s way of proving truth, not the man-made variety. Words that Thomas would go out and continue to use for the rest of his life. Thomas would reach many people in many distant lands. He wasn’t able to take Jesus with him everything he went, and yet, people still believed.

The same thing has been happening ever since, all the way up to our day. We are living proof of Jesus’ promise to Thomas, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” God would not have His own Son die in our place, just to give us a flaky faith that is blind and without substance. Our faith is reasonable! Reasonable according to the riches of God’s wisdom in Christ Jesus. He is the source of our salvation and our logic! He, all He did, and all He gives us through His Word is the basis of what we deem as reasonable.

But, in the end, reasonable or not, what does that get us? We’re scorned for trusting by faith. We’re labeled as foolish when we deny ourselves and admit we aren’t the end all, be all of authority and truth. Thomas himself, like many of the disciples, is believed to have been killed for his faith. What does Jesus get us? Those things for sure, just as He received from the unbelieving world, but much more. And we shouldn’t be surprised to find our answer from nothing less than His Word. What we have, our greatest treasure, is the state of blessedness. That’s what Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those…” Many people don’t realize this but the word, “Blessed” in the Scriptures literally means “happy.”

We have to use the word “blessed” when speaking about this because, like reason and logic, happiness has such a shallow meaning in our world. Happiness from Jesus is not fluffy or temporary. It is extremely powerful and strong. Jesus says that faith in Him grants us the label, the gift, of being happy. Contentment, security, peace, forgiveness hope, all of those things and more are contained in being in the state of blessedness. That’s why we close our worship every weekend by sharing the blessing that God gave us in His Word. To be a Christian is to be in a constant state of happiness. Not the shallow, external, temporary happiness that our flesh and the world craves. But happiness, blessedness, by faith in our crucified and Risen Savior. And there is abundant reason for that truth.    

Paul touches on this very subject in his letter to the Romans, which I would like to use as our closing. In it, he describes in the best way possible through using human terms, the state of blessedness, by faith.

If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? 33 Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written: "For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." 37 Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. 38 For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39).

Still need more proof after that? If you do, you might to check your source. Amen

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

March 27, 2016 - Easter Sunday

This morning, as we celebrate and rejoice in our Lord’s resurrection, I’d like to remind you that this very part of our faith is under attack from many sides. We might tell ourselves that we would never lose the resurrection, and the peace and hope that it alone can give us. But in reality, many deceiving agents have crept into God’s Church at-large and sowed seeds of discord concerning our Savior’s life after death. It’s important that we today recognize this danger and be ready to confront it when we witness it. It’s also necessary that we are ready to defend every teaching of God’s Word that the world attempts strip away from us. To do so, we have to be on our guard, and we have to train regularly through reading and studying the Word and also strengthening our own faith through the use of the Sacraments. And we must also have keen eye to detect error when we see it.

I’d like to read for you two different confessions of faith that speak about the resurrection, which are printed in your bulletin as well. Both statements are from Christians. Both statements are from Lutherans. Both statements are from teachers. And yet, the two statements completely differ on the validity of the resurrection of Jesus.

Statement #1: “Mythological symbolism contributed to the interpretation of the event of the resurrection. The question has become acute in modern theology whether in the resurrection we are dealing with only a myth or with a truly historical event.”

Statement #2: “It is necessary for every Christian to have before him the testimony of Holy Scripture concerning the resurrection of the dead and then also the resurrection of the Lord Christ; proved and attested by certain revelation; that he must rest firmly on these and abandon outward appearance and the experience of reason.”

The long and short of it is this. One Lutheran, Christian Theologian believes in the historical reliability of Christ’s resurrection, and the other does not. How could they conclude such opposing views yet associate with the same faith and belief? Does it dampen our celebration of this day knowing that scores of other Christians, even Lutherans, are taught that Christ is actually still in the tomb? I hope it doesn’t, because the source of our joy today is not in the reaction or beliefs of others, but in the undeniable truth that Jesus is alive, that He promises the same to those who believe in Him, and that our very faith is built on this pillar.

It’s frustrating to see such a divergence of beliefs among Christians regarding the most important teaching of our faith. But you can’t allow that frustration to overshadow your own hope and joy. You can’t believe in Jesus just because others do, so you also can’t abandon faith in Jesus just because others do. Statement #1 was taken from a textbook for training future pastors which is used by the largest Lutheran denomination. Statement # 2 came from Martin Luther. These kinds of statements are important for understating what people believe about the resurrection, but for ourselves we go back to what the Holy Spirit says, written through Paul to the Corinthian congregation:

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you-- unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. 6 After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. 8 Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11 Therefore, whether it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

What do we believe about the Resurrection? It’s important to know what is being taught in the world today. It’s important to listen to the scholars, and the professors, and the pastors. But most important, you must know what the Bible says. Therefore, we consider what Luther wrote long ago. We pay attention to what people are saying today. But to know the truth we must go back the beginning, to the source, for truth does not change.

When we go back to foremost chapter in the Bible that addresses the validity of the resurrection, we see how the matter is quite simple. Simple for our faith, but also simple for how we confess and defend that faith. Already at that time, before the turn of the first century, people were doubting whether or not Christ actually rose from the dead. These words were written at time when some of the very people who saw Christ alive were still living themselves. Paul listed himself in the category of those who witnessed the resurrected Christ in visible form as well as other notable apostles who were still working in the Church. If people wanted eye-witness testimony they had plenty. If people needed proof they need only ask. And yet, even that testimony, built on the human senses, was not good enough to prove the resurrection. People still doubted, and so like us today, teachers like Paul had defend the resurrection.

The answer to the resurrection is not in proving by reasoning. Even those who killed Christ knew He wasn’t in the tomb but they still tried to cover it up. The answer is in faith. Faith in Jesus. Faith in what Jesus has done for us. And Faith from the words of Jesus in the Scriptures. That’s the only way anyone can belief in a resurrection. And that’s precisely where Paul started with the Corinthians.

Before he even talked about himself as an eye-witness or others, he led them to the testimony of God’s Word. In verse 1 he said, “I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you…” He continued in verse 2: “if you hold fast to that word which I preached to you…” And on in verse 3: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” And finally verse 4: “and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” Four verses, four statements about the validity of Christ’s death and resurrection from the Word of God. It’s only after Paul lays this foundation, from the word of God, that he proceeds to give evidence of the eye-witnesses. What Paul said was exactly what the Church needed to hear. But things haven’t changed that much either, for it’s precisely what the Church needs to hear today. Paul’s telling us: The best way to defend the Resurrection is to believe the Resurrection. Romans 10:17

Those who question it or deny do so because they just can’t believe it. It’s either too miraculous or too good to be true, or too different from the way that logical life goes. And so new terms are introduced to explain it away, things like “mythological symbolism,” and “questions of modern theology.” But it’s actually not that complicated, not even close. Think of how easily Paul expresses the resurrection. He says, I simply gave to you the very same thing that Christ Jesus gave to me, the truth. The truth He suffered and died, and that He rose the third day. Truth that is based “according to the Scriptures.”

But this truth would have fallen on deaf ears, as it has with so many others, if Paul did not believe; if he did not have faith. And that’s what he says at the end of our text: 9 For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

The truth of the resurrection is not just a piece of information in the Bible. It’s not just a historical fact that we must argue for and defend in the face of higher criticism. It is the basis of our faith. It is the foundation of God’s kingdom in your heart. It is the very reason why you have the promise of change in your life. Change from the daily sins of thought and deed but also change from death to life at the end. Paul says that this aspect of God’s grace changed his life from being to worst sinner to being a humble messenger through which Christ displayed His power.

God’s grace in the resurrection was not worthless to Paul and its effectiveness in His life was not worthless. It changed him. It was not “mythological.” It was not confusing. It was not empty superstition. It was not just a “spiritual resurrection.” It was not backward thinking. It changed him because it was based on historical truth. The victory over sin and death happened in time here on earth and God did it that way so that we could have something to point to for our faith. Just because God’s grace changes the sinful heart and runs contrary to the way we lived before Christ, does not give us the right to discredit its reliability.

In response to skeptics we can cite as many proofs for the resurrection as we want. We can show how no body was ever found. We can quote from secular unbelievers who wrote about the resurrection themselves. We can show how the resurrection has always been a pillar of the Christian faith, all the way back to the first churches and the first creeds, it’s only recently that it’s been doubted by so many. We can show how Biblical writers stressed the many eye-witnesses who saw Christ (beginning of Luke and Acts). We can try to prove and show even more but it won’t matter to those who vehemently deny. Because ultimately, the resurrection is a matter of faith. The best way to prove it is to simply believe it. Believe in the risen Christ and the change of faith will show in your life. Believe that you are helpless sinner and that God did, in fact, have to send His Son to secure salvation for you; believe that that was the only way. God did all that so that you would believe, and that is the best way to defend the truth because the reasons for doubting the resurrection come from the very same place that it seeks to heal, the sinful human heart.

If what the Bible teaches it true; that Jesus had to come to earth to die for mankind’s sin and rise to guarantee that victory, it means that every single person must answer to God. We have nowhere else to turn and no more excuses to give if God’s own Son was the only one who could save us. And ultimately, that means we can’t trust ourselves. We can’t work for heaven. We can’t gain access to God by our efforts. The more we try the worse off we are. And that’s why overemphasizing our reason and logic when it comes to believing and defending the resurrection leads to more problems, because we’re pushing ourselves away from faith to only physical proof. And the resurrection will never make enough sense to us to generate our own faith in Jesus. If everything the Bible says about the resurrection is true, then our only option is to repent and believe. And that, is the kicker, because repentance and faith don’t come naturally for us.

Repentance is so easy yet so difficult, depending on how you look at it. It actually means that everything has been done freely for us already; we don’t have to fight and scrap any longer; but it also means you have to turn from sin. You have to honestly admit wrongdoing and failure. That is hard for us to do. Admitting complete helplessness and leaving all to God grates against our natures more than anything else. Yet, it’s the only way to Christ and without it we cannot believe.

You can spout all the facts about the validity of the resurrection that you want. But that’s not going to convince anyone. It may get them to investigate further but it won’t change them. They need faith, not just bare information. And there’s nothing more powerful to give evidence of faith than the effective working of God’s grace in a person’s life. Evidence that Christ did die for sins and rise again according to the Scriptures.

Do people see the change of the resurrection in your life? Do you see it? That change can be subtle;
  • ·         it can be refraining from vulgar language,
  • ·         a small word or act of kindness,
  • ·         a moment of thanksgiving in prayer,
  • ·         a humble attitude in life,
  • ·         wise use of money and possessions,
  • ·         Regular time around God’s Word.
  • ·         Forgiving your enemy rather than hating them.
  • ·         Looking away instead of lusting after.
  • ·         Something as simple as one thought of patience rather than anger.   

Small things, really. So often we’re looking for the big change, the life-altering proof of a redeemed soul. But, you only see the big changes by building on the little ones. If you haven’t developed the simple, day-to-day habits of faith, which no but God sees, you won’t be moving mountains anytime soon.

It’s frustrating to see people, even Lutherans, cast doubt on the validity of Christ’s resurrection. Let’s be busy defending it. We can learn facts and points of history and studies that have been done in the past. That might help our defense. We can talk about statistics and probability, we can reason about what seems most logical. That might help our defense. But nothing is stronger than the evidence of the Holy Spirit. Because that evidence shows that Christ has changed you through His death and resurrection. It is undeniable proof that God can take sinners like you and I, and shape us into people that serve Him in righteousness. That is proof.  Every fruit of faith, every act dedicated to God’s glory, from the small to the big, is proof that Christ rose from the dead.

He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed. And we have all we need for faith and defense, in the Scriptures. With childlike simplicity we can rejoice, because Jesus died and rose for us. Not in some mythological way. But in reality. And not just for academic understanding, but for life-changing faith in your heart. He is with you now in this very way and you show it each time you listen to His Word, believe it, and live it. And that’s how we defend the precious teaching of His resurrection. Amen.

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

March 25, 2016 - Good Friday

This year during our Midweek Lenten worship we focused on personal accounts from certain eye-witnesses present at Christ’s trial and crucifixion. This evening we take a look at the final of our eye-witnesses, the Roman Centurion who was present at Golgotha as he speaks to us about the seven statements of Christ on the cross. In between each of the seven we’ll sing hymn verses that correspond to each, from hymns 180-186 in the Red Hymnal. The Centurion’s bold and miraculous confession of faith comes from Matthew 27:54.

So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, "Truly this was the Son of God!"

I was there on the very first Good Friday to witness Jesus, the Son of God, on the cross. As a centurion, I had a unique perspective that day. I was standing guard to keep order along with some of my men. It was more of a formality than anything. There was no need to worry about Jesus or either one of the thieves escaping from the cross. I had overseen plenty of crucifixions before. Despite their horrific nature I had become quite used to them. And also, as a man of war, I had become accustomed to seeing atrocities. That part of it didn’t really phase me at all.

Yes, it takes a lot to surprise a man of war. And it was something different about Jesus that surprised me and all my men that day. It wasn’t the pain or the suffering. It was something much simpler; the words of Jesus on the cross. We all heard them. We saw those whom He directed them to. And they changed us all. My confession of Jesus as the Son of God came directly from the few things I was blessed to hear from Him. Let me take you this evening through each of the seven statements from Jesus on the cross. After some brief thoughts on each, you can offer your own songs of praise with hymn verses.

The first words Jesus spoke were to many the most surprising of all. I can attest to the impact they had on me. After everything that had been done to Jesus, He prayed to His Father for forgiveness for His enemies. His reasoning was that they acted in ignorance. I didn’t know much about Jesus, whether He was guilty or not. But I did know enough about crucifixion to know that plenty of wrongdoings were regularly committed. Soldiers and bystanders alike took extracurricular liberties with the condemned. They would often taunt and mock those who ascended to the cross. We soldiers in particular would get a few extra shots in behind the scenes. Our entire occupation was about catching the wrongdoers; there was a sense of satisfaction when you could lay you hands upon one. But, Jesus endured the mistreatment better than anyone else. Usually cursing and swearing would be exchanged but He remained silent. And then, He prayed for the forgiveness of those who mistreated Him? It was astounding and it caught my attention. And I’m grateful for I continued to listen.

1. Jesus, in Thy dying woes
Even while Thy life-bIood flows,
Craving pardon for Thy foes:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. Savior, for our pardon sue
When our sins Thy pangs renew,
For we know not what we do:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. Oh, may we who mercy need
Be like Thee in heart and deed
When with wrong our spirits bleed:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

The next words Jesus said were actually part of a private conversation with one of the thieves who were crucified next to Him. This thief had previously mocked Jesus with the others, but now had a change of heart. I remember thinking that Jesus’ prayer to His Father must have had some merit because it seemed to work immediately. One who had defiantly blasphemed now confessed his wrongdoing in total repentance.

And what Jesus said in response was nothing short of amazing. He spoke of a Paradise that this thief would witness that very day. All the soldiers looked at one another with perplexed expressions. How could Jesus and this thief possibly think of Paradise when they both were about to die? If Jesus had promised the same to me I probably would have scoffed at the notion. Yet, just as amazing as the promise itself was the thief’s reaction. He died that day upon the cross in complete peace and confidence. Something indeed had changed within him and today I know what it was: the peace of forgiveness and eternal life.

There’s a passage in the Scriptures that tells us that all of God’s promises receive a “Yes” because of Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). That’s precisely what I witnessed with the second statement that Jesus spoke, the beautiful conversation between Himself and the thief. He could promise Paradise and deliver because He earned the right to say “Yes” to all of God’s promises. All people feel a certain amount of fear when it comes to death. Even I, who spent most of my life around war and death, have a healthy respect for the end of days. But, very few have the same peace that the thief did. I wanted that too, so I kept listening.   

1. Jesus, pitying the sighs
Of the thief who near Thee dies,
Promising him Paradise:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. May we in our guilt and shame
Still Thy love and mercy claim,
Calling humbly on Thy name:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May our hearts to Thee incline,
Looking from our cross to Thine,
Cheer our souls with hope divine: Hear us, holy Jesus.

Jesus’ next statement was directed at those who knelt at the foot of His cross. It was as if He was trying to reach out to everyone who was present in some way. In particular He addressed His mother and one of His followers who was there with her. Spiritually, speaking, there wasn’t much to what Jesus said. He simply requested that His disciple look after His mother. It was common for those condemned to death to make requests for their families for after they were gone. In that sense, there wasn’t much of any significance to Jesus’ words.

But in reality it was a very significant moment, and not just for Jesus’ mother. In most cases, the loved ones of those who suffer offer the comfort and support, not the other way around. You would think that His mother and disciple would be concerned about Jesus but they were the ones who needed His assurance. And in that moment the pieces finally came together in my head. This third statement was essentially the same as the first two, but simply addressed to someone different. Jesus took the three categories of people that were around Him and helped all of them. His enemies, His fellow sufferers, and now His family. Each statement was one of comfort and support; an example of Jesus following the very Law He ordained, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

You are not so distant from this support either. You, too, gather every week at the foot of Jesus’ cross. You, too, hear His words’ many more actually than those present on Good Friday. What do those words mean to you? Do you find the same peace and hope in them that we did? I do hope so, for that was the very reason Jesus endured the cross; to give us all hope.

1. Jesus, loving to the end
Her whose heart Thy sorrows rend, And Thy dearest human friend: Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. May we in Thy sorrows share, For Thy sake all peril dare,
And enjoy Thy tender care:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May we all Thy loved ones be,
All one holy family,
Loving for the love of Thee:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

Jesus’ next words marked a dramatic shift in His demeanor. He went from conversing with those around Him to talked to His Father. And what He said made the strongest of men tremble. He shouted out with whatever remaining strength He had, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” It was at this point that I began to really think about who this Jesus could be. Surely, if He was masquerading as a cheap imposter, He would have broken character at this point. What would have been the reason for continuing the claim of being the Son of God? Almost no one believed Him, and it certainly wasn’t helping His cause. Who would endure such extreme agony for a lie? Why would Jesus continue to follow His Father if it was His very Father who forsook Him upon the cross? What other explanation would fit other than that it was all true?

I’m not saying that this was the moment of my conversion. But it certainly made me keep digging in my mind about who Jesus was. And now that I know more of God’s Word, I am sure this moment was the gateway to the Holy Spirit working upon my sinful heart. For when I sought to learn more about Jesus, it was His Words of Grace and Truth that gave me the answers I was looking for. You Christians who are used to the Holy Spirit’s work may not consider such a moment to be so monumental. But never discredit His work and never doubt the effectiveness of the Gospel message.

As Jesus cried out in agony I ordered two of my men to give Him something to drink. Perhaps the simple feeling of a damp sponge on His parched tongue would help alleviate the suffering. Jesus declined, but I could see the changed expression on my men’s faces. They started the day by despising Jesus as a cheap deceiver. They mocked and they beat Him; some even drove the nails through His hands. They now started to recognize the same that I did, that Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be and He was suffering to pay for our sins.

1. Jesus, whelmed in fears unknown,
With our evil left alone,
While no light from heaven is shown:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. When we vainly seem to pray
And our hope seems far away,
In the darkness be our Stay:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. Though no Father seem to hear,
Though no light our spirits cheer,
May we know that God is near:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

A short time passed before Jesus spoke again. It was clear that He was languishing far more quickly than the other two. His breathing was quite labored at this point. I felt fatigued just having to listen to it. His face was swollen and bloodied. Fresh blood continued to trickle down His brow as His head swayed. At this point however, who knows how much His nerves even responded to the embedded thorns. He body was puffed up by bruises, yet His figure was lean and gaunt. The scores of gashes on His back were beginning to clot yet you could easily tell the rough cross kept Him in a perpetual state of discomfort.

Finally, He cried for a drink. The agony of dehydration must have been equally difficult to bear. It was around midday yet the sky was covered in darkness. This foreboding shadow across the land placed a feeling of uneasiness within the hearts of the onlookers. The fury and commotion of the early part of the day gave way to an unsettling silence. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who took time to reflect. The uproar of the mob has a way of making things feel right in the heart. But once one has time to stop and think, not everything seems so simple. Great doubt entered my heart about what had been done to Jesus.

I think of this same image often now as I consider my actions in life. How often have I followed the mob, the crowd of the world, feeling great along the way while my Savior withers under the pain of my sins? Yet, soon enough, that initial feeling of pride gives way to guilt. I thank God for helping me remember the pain Jesus had to endure, not because I enjoy the guilt, but because only through Jesus is my conscience at rest. I know by faith that even my guilt and shame were taken away that day.

I pray that you feel the same. To be at one with God you must recognize your guilt. You must take responsibility for the consequences of your sin. Unless you do, you’ll always be hiding from the truth. But there is no way that you can separate yourself from God in which Jesus cannot bring you back. Many are those who begin their lives with hope and optimism for the future. They put off the pressing questions about God and eternity because they don’t feel the need to address them. They go along with the crowd because it’s easy. But life goes quickly and it doesn’t take long for the easy commotion of the morning to give way to the unsettling silence of the afternoon. What once seemed right and proper in our immaturity is soon revealed to be nothing. That’s how I felt on Good Friday. I went along with what I thought was right. I put my doubts and feelings of guilt in the back of my mind. But once the commotion died down, and I was left to ponder my actions, I could no longer hide from the truth. You may not have one day in your life where you feel all of those emotions at the same time. For many people, it stretches out for years, from adolescence, to adulthood, to old age. The point is, it’s never too late for Jesus, and it’s never a waste of time to draw closer to Him.        

1. Jesus, in Thy thirst and pain,
While Thy wounds Thy life-blood drain,
Thirsting more our love to gain:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. Thirst for us in mercy still,
Satisfy Thy loving will:
All Thy holy work fulfil.
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May we thirst Thy love to know;
Lead us in our sin and woe
Where the healing waters flow:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

The final two statements of Christ, although distinct, were spoken almost as if they were the same. Upon receiving some relief through the sponge, Jesus declared “It is finished,” and His finals immediately after were “Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.” After that, there was silence, at least from Jesus. What happened next, though, was anything but silent. The eerie quietness of the land was broken by the rending of the earth. The ground split open, rocks tumbled down from the hills, and everything shook violently.

Screams and shrills filled the air. People ran in terror and fear. Some wailed in agony at the sight of Jesus. Everyone could sense the regret, knowing what had been done. The righteous Son of God had come to earth and we humans had killed Him. We were so caught up in our own affairs that we ignored the clear signs of His coming. The long-established prophecies, the reason for the signs and miracles He did, the authority and wisdom with which He preached, and most importantly, the unique hope that He offered through sins forgiven. We missed it, we missed who He was, simply because we were too busy with ourselves.

In that moment of God’s judgment and anger we realized what we had done. We all felt guilty. We were all led to feelings of despair. All felt it. But, only some also realized this was not the end. Yes, we crucified the Lord who came to save us but the Father knew in advance that it would happen. He knew it needed to happen, and so even through our failures He kept His promise. Even when we chose death, He created life. And so, that is why Jesus said, “It is finished.” He didn’t come to earth to impress with miracles or to astonish through teaching. He came to die and through His death fulfill all righteousness before His Father; atone for your sins and for mine. Yes, we should all feel the guilt of what we did to Jesus. I know that feeling better than most, having been in charge of the very men who put Him on the cross.

But Jesus also wants you to know the peace He brought. He wants you to trust in His words as a victory cry, “It is finished,” for you and for me. The culmination of that day’s events happened as Jesus yielded His life to the Father. Through what I saw and heard, the Holy Spirit moved my heart to believe in Jesus and make my confession. One might say it was easy to believe that day, having seen all we had. But without the coming days and years of using God’s Word, I dare say my faith would have extinguished. I saw more than you have, but my faith came from the same source as yours. The words and promises of Jesus, my Savior. As the young church grew I was able to grow also. I pray that God gives you the same confidence of faith to overcome your doubts and guilt, because all that was needed to give you eternal life has been finished.

1. Jesus, all our ransom paid,
All Thy Father's will obeyed,
By Thy sufferings perfect made:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. Save us in our soul's distress,
Be our Help to cheer and bless
While we grow in holiness:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. Brighten all our heavenward way
With an ever holier ray
Till we pass to perfect day:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

1. Jesus, all Thy labor vast,
All Thy woe and conflict past,
Yielding up Thy soul at last:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

2. When the death shades round us lower,
Guard us from the Tempter's power,
Keep us in that trial hour:
Hear us, holy Jesus.

3. May Thy life and death supply
Grace to live and grace to die,
Grace to reach the home on high:
Hear us, holy Jesus.