October 31, 2016

October 30, 2016 - Reformation Day

Theme: God’s Presence = Protection
1) When you lack control
2) When you lack power
3) When you lack righteousness

Psalm 46 <To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah. A Song for Alamoth.> God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, Even though the earth be removed, And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; 3 Though its waters roar and be troubled, Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah

4 There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn. 6 The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved; He uttered His voice, the earth melted. 7 The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

8 Come, behold the works of the LORD, Who has made desolations in the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariot in the fire. 10 Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! 11 The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

One thing we don’t often talk about with the Reformation is the architecture. That time in both European and World history was known for some of the most beautiful, complex, and enduring forms of construction. This is well-evidenced in the numerous castles that remain to our present day, including the one in which Martin Luther hid as he was condemned by the Roman papacy, the Wartburg castle.

I’ve included a few pictures of these castles in your bulletin as examples of what I’m talking about. When I see these magnificent structures, even just pictures of them, I’m immediately impressed by the location. Many of them appear to be on the tops of mountains or right on the edge of a daunting cliff-face. You can see why these types of landscapes were chosen. They would be nearly impossible to assault, even more so from multiple fronts. In many cases, the castle had one main entrance, making it known from the start where an enemy invader would have to assault.

Martin Luther penned the famous hymn of Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” from the words of Psalm 46, where the Lord is likened to a refuge for believers, a fortress of sorts. Just as the many Germanic castles that Luther surely would have had in mind, and in which he himself found refuge, there is only one way into God’s mighty fortress. For those who would peaceably walk the path to that entrance, the one way comes through Jesus alone. As the words of our Psalm echo over and over again, the key is that we have God’s presence with us: “The LORD of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” To have God’s presence is to have God’s protection, to be in His kingdom and to be sheltered by the enduring walls of His grace.

And to be with God, is to be with His Son, Jesus, who Himself taught this very same. In John 10 Jesus likened His Father’s kingdom to something a bit different than a castle, yet with the same meaning and substance. Jesus said, "Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. "All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. "I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:7-9).

There is only one way, one path, whether we think of God’s kingdom as a sheepfold or as a castle. Jesus is that way. The purpose of the Reformation was to restore this truth to the world. Life with God is not a matter of works that we accomplish, gifts we offer, or decisions we make in His name. It is all about Jesus and what He did for us freely upon a cross outside of Jerusalem. To have Jesus, is to have God, and to have God is to have protection. As our psalm continues, this is first of all protection from that which is out of your control.

Part 1 -  When you lack control

It’s easy to be self-reliant when you have things figured out. To put it another way, it’s easy to trust in yourself when you’re up against something you can control. Our Psalm states immediately what the believer’s hope is: a God who is present with us and who is a refuge and strength. With Him in our lives we have no need to fear. But, we also see what kinds of troubles God helps us overcome: though the earth be removed, And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; 3 Though its waters roar and be troubled, Though the mountains shake with its swelling.

These are not your ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill types of issues. Is the psalmist being literal or figurative with these words? It’s possible that they may be metaphors for the various storms of life that are beyond us but it’s also possible that they are literal scenes from the final day of Judgment. Either way, God is our refuge and strength. Either way, we do not need to fear because God is with us.

Whether we think of some natural disaster in present time or the impending destruction of this world, we have hope if we trust that God’s presence is with us. That’s why the psalmist states that not only is God a refuge and a strength, He is a “very present help in trouble.” To have God’s presence is nothing less than having Jesus by faith. As Jesus said, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him (John 14:23).”  

We face many things in life that are beyond our control. Certainly matters of eternity are outside of our power. But, even the day-to-day matters of life. An unexpected bill; a severe medical problem; internal strife among relatives, uncertainty about school or a new job, whatever it may be; if you have God’s presence with you, you’re protected. 

Part 2 – When you lack power

A beautiful picture of that presence and protection comes in the following verses. There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. 5 God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn. Think about what happens if a castle is put under siege by the enemy. One of most precious resources for survival is obviously going to be water. The Bible actually records a story about this very thing that happened in Israel’s history. During the reign of King Hezekiah, Jerusalem was surrounded by the Assyrian army; the very same group that had just prior to that captured the northern kingdom of Israel. Before the siege, to prepare for what loomed ahead, Hezekiah oversaw the construction of a network of tunnels which would bring fresh water into the city. Without that, Jerusalem surely would have fallen.

In our text, God’s presence among His people is likened to a stream which flows through a prospering city. As water gives life to our mortal bodies, so God gives life to our souls. Jesus spoke in this manner as well by making the promise that His words were a water to quench any need for eternity. He told the Samaritan woman at the well, “the one who drinks shall never thirst again.” Even heaven itself is described in the same manner. John records what he saw in His vision of the eternal kingdom of God: And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. 2 In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1-2).

This river of life, symbolic for the Word of God, helps us when we lack power. This need is mentioned in the psalm as when we are confronted by forces within this world that are stronger than we are. Specifically brought to mind are kingdoms of the world who rebel against God’s will. When the believer is up against worldly powers that seek to undermine God’s Word and that would persecute faith in Jesus, there is hope in the presence of God through the water of life.

We see the Reformation come into view here once again. It was the Holy Roman Emperor, supreme authority in Europe at that time, who tried to suppress the efforts of God’s reformers. Luther was captured by his friends and taken to the Wartburg castle precisely for protection. He had become an outlaw of the throne simply for speaking God’s Word. Many who blazed the path for Luther provided the ultimate sacrifice of a martyr’s death.   

One of the very reasons Luther spoke out directly against the Roman Catholic papacy was because it had morphed into a hybrid spiritual-political entity. The popes were taking up the characteristics of secular rulers who “raged” against the Word of God. This process was about control of the people. To accomplish this the Word of God was only used in the public church services. One was required to come before the official Catholic priest in order to receive God’s forgiveness. Regular services were performed in Latin, a basely tradition which kept the people in the dark about God’s true teachings. Church became more about being “in the club,” rather than freely sharing God’s presence in His Word with everyone. Faced with such dire circumstances, out of one’s own control, many grew desperate. But as the Word of God spread, so did His presence among His people, as well as a clear labeling of the unscriptural abuses and a reform of the same.

Part 3 – When you lack righteousness

The greatest abuse that can be committed against God is to supplant His glory. This, too, was at the heart of the Reformation, as we remember how it restored the true teaching of justification by faith in Christ. It shouldn’t surprise us in any way that this was also on the thoughts of the psalmist. The desire to claim credit for life and salvation is inherent to the sinful human heart. It rears its ugly head in all generations and nations of the world.

As Psalm 46 reaches its climax and conclusion, the Holy Spirit directs our thoughts to God’s works. Come, behold the works of the LORD, Who has made desolations in the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two; He burns the chariot in the fire. The result of God working in our lives is that we would have peace. The need for a refuge subsides when peace exists. The psalm describes the scene as the ending of a war, where weapons are dismantled and danger fades away. This is the peace of forgiveness. But, the foundations of that peace are set in our hearts in a way we might not expect. We’re told that in order to bring this peace, God makes “desolations” in the earth. This desolation is God’s judgment of sin, and it certainly convicts the unrighteousness in our hearts.

The Holy Spirit is teaching us to repent of sin and trust in forgiveness through Jesus. This is the purpose of God’s judgment. It is tough on sin as it should be and because we’re sinners it’s tough on us. But, it brings peace. Without repentance there is no lasting peace against the enemies of our faith. God’s allows desolations to come into our lives for the purpose of helping us see the futility of our own righteousness before Him. As Isaiah wrote, our good works are “filthy rags” in the Lord’s sight. As we read from Romans, the wages we have earned through our actions count as death, not life. Luther famously said that God doesn’t need our good works, our fellow humans do. And as we read from Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. The life we live by faith (our righteousness) is an effect of what Jesus has done for us already, not the cause of our salvation.

Here comes the climax of our section and the most well-known verse of this psalm. What does God tell you when you stand before Him lacking the righteousness He demands? He says, “Be still and know that I am God.” This is a call to repentance. God wants us to confess our sins at the sight of our actions and with the knowledge of His holy desolations in the earth. There is nothing that stands against God and survives. He controls the uncontrollable in nature. He laughs at the raging of the kingdoms and nations against His Word. And He sees through the hollow righteousness of our thoughts, words, and actions. Truly, He will be exalted among the nations and in the earth.

But, repentance is more than just confession of sin. It is also humble, child-like, Spirit-wrought faith in Jesus as Savior. God says it all, “Be still and know Me.” Stop running. Stop fighting. Stop trusting in yourself. There are things in this life that are too much for you. This is what breaks the sinful human will. It is the inescapable reality which we all must face at some point. And it is troubling indeed. But, it is not the only truth.

Our psalm’s refrain is this: “The LORD of hosts is with me, the God of Jacob is my refuge.” God calls for us to be still, but also for us to “know Him.” He is ours, we know Him by faith not by sight, because He is with us through His Word. And where He is, there is protection from anything threat. This is Christ, and He was brought back to mankind through the Reformation. A complete Savior for an incomplete people. Our bold confession as a Lutheran Church and as members of the God’s fortress.

“The LORD of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge and strength.”

Therefore, we will not fear.

Therefore, we will drink freely of the water of life.

Therefore, we will behold His works.  

Therefore, we are still and we know that He is God.


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

October 24, 2016

October 23, 2016 - Genesis 32:22-30

Theme: Productive Wrestling with God
1) It starts with the meditation of Word and Prayer
2) It ends with the blessing of the gospel

Genesis 32:22-30 And he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. 23 He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had. 24 Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. 25 Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob's hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. 26 And He said, "Let Me go, for the day breaks." But he said, "I will not let You go unless You bless me!" 27 So He said to him, "What is your name?" He said, "Jacob." 28 And He said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed." 29 Then Jacob asked, saying, "Tell me Your name, I pray." And He said, "Why is it that you ask about My name?" And He blessed him there. 30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: "For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved."

Dear fellow saints and members of God’s household:

Wrestling tends to wear you down. That’s true for just any kind of wrestling. I’m not an expert in wrestling. I never competed athletically. The only wrestling I really did growing up was with my brother, either in the living room or outside. Neither of us were skilled in positions or strategy but no matter what we always wore each other out. Today, I wrestle most often with my kids; a process which usually involves chasing one another up and down the hallway. Again, not professional by any means but exhausting nonetheless.

In our text we hear about how Jacob wrestled with God Himself, certainly a difficult opponent. God put Jacob’s hip out of joint which certainly was painful by itself but also would have required Jacob to exert extra effort from the rest of his body. It’s a miracle that Jacob lasted as long as he did, and he was no doubt exhausted at the conclusion. But, at the end of this whole ordeal, thought he was exhausting physically, he was renewed spiritually. So it goes for all Christians who wrestle with God from time to time. It can seem like a daunting and painful process, and it certainly is at times. But, done appropriately, it always renews.

There are plenty of types of wrestling that simply wear the person down. Indeed, almost all eventually lead to fatigue. That’s kind of the point, right, who can last the longest? The Holy Spirit impresses upon our hearts today a king of productive wrestling with God which does not wear us down, but rather builds us up. It works in two ways: 1) It starts with mediation on God’s Word and through prayer. 2) It ends with God’s very own blessing through the gospel promise. As God encourages those who have ears to hear, to let them hear, so let us listen and learn from this Word today.

Part 1 – It starts with the meditation of Word and Prayer

To get a grasp on the need for God’s Word and prayer at this point in Jacob’s life, you must understand what was going on. The Jabbok ford is a tributary that feeds the Jordan River. Jacob was traveling on his way home from Laban’s house. His two wives, Rachel and Leah, were with him, as well as the rest of his immediate family. Earlier, Jacob had sent half of his party ahead, across the Jabbok, to scout out the area. Why? Because Jacob knew that eventually he would encounter his brother, Esau. Remember the way things ended between Jacob and Esau some 15 years earlier? Jacob had deceived both Esau and their father, Isaac, when it came to receiving the family birthright. We know, to say the least, that things did not end well.
Without a doubt, there is a healthy amount of fear and uncertainty for Jacob. No one is sure how Esau will respond to Jacob’s return or what he might have planned as a vengeful response.

Once Jacob sees to his families’ safe transport across the Jabbok, he returns to the shoreline as the last one to cross over. We’re simply told that he was “left alone.” What exactly Jacob did in this interim will never be known. But, as a believer with great concerns looming on the horizon it’s not hard to imagine that his time was spent in prayer and meditation. In fact, this text is often used as a reminder of persistence of prayer in the life of the believer. Just as Jacob clung to the Lord until he was blessed, so we are encouraged by God to communicate regularly with Him, even to demand it.

Prayer is certainly on our minds here. But, I would implore you to think of something even greater. Jacob wrestled with the Lord, and stuck with it, not because of the quality of his prayer life, but because he desired the Lord’s blessing. The Lord’s blessing for Jacob was not a simple pat on the back of “well, done, you have endured and showed your worth.” The Lord’s blessing then was the same as it is today for us, a reminder of the assurance we have in Jesus, our Savior. Jacob knew about this promise because it had been passed down from generation to generation all the way from the very beginning when it was first given to Adam and Eve. He also knew it well because God had already given it to Jacob earlier. In Genesis 28 the Lord gave him the vision of the heavenly staircase with the angels and there assured Jacob that the Messianic promise given to his grandfather, Abraham, was also his.

This gospel-centered promise was on Jacob’s mind and heart as he contended that evening with God. Prayer comes into this story, not because it is the main point, but because it is a gift God gives us to keep us attached to the promise. More than focusing on the power and persistence of his own prayer, Jacob was meditating on the Word of his God. It was that Word that gave him hope. It was the substance of the promise contained within that kept Jacob clinging, even through the pain and obvious limitation. 

Part 2 – It ends with the blessing of the gospel

How do we know this to be true? Well, the blessing came through the Word spoken, just as it does for us. Jacob said, "I will not let You go unless You bless me!" 27 So God said to him, "What is your name?" He said, "Jacob." 28 And He said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed." To the untrained ear and unawakened heart, this hardly sounds like a promise. Usually, any promise worth receiving contains something of value – some possession or gift. A new name doesn’t seem to mean much.

It’s not how the name sounds that makes the difference, rather it’s what it means and represents. The name Jacob means “heel.” It was a reminder of the way that Jacob entered the world. He clung to his brother’s heel in birth. Metaphorically, Jacob was always clinging for something in life. Up to this point he never seemed to have everything he wanted. And just as he wrestled with God on this river plain, along with Jacob’s struggle always followed wrestling. Early in life he wrestled with Esau, contending for his father’s approval and for the family birthright. Later he wrestled with Laban, working seven additional years for Rachel after finding himself on the receiving end of human deception. Now Jacob found himself contending with the greatest adversary possible, not God, but himself.

God was not there to cast Jacob to the mud and ridicule his existence. If that’s what God had wanted He surely would have delivered it. God was there to confront Jacob’s own fears and insecurities. His entire life up to that point was born of struggle. To get his way, Jacob relied on his own strength, persistence, and craftiness. Sometimes those things work in earthly struggles, but they always leave their ugly marks. Along the way Jacob had ruined his relationship with his brother, tarnished his relationship with his father, and made his first wife feel inadequate and unloved. Jacob was certainly a survivor in human eyes but at what cost? Was he really “winning” in life, as we might say today?  Not really. Here, on the edge of the Jabbok, Jacob was really lost and that’s precisely why God came to him. All of these thoughts were wrapped up in the name, Jacob. Henceforth, that would change. No longer would be the “heel,” the “wrestler,” he would be Israel. God’s own, God’s people. God’s one who was called to a purpose in His name.  

By itself, Israel literally means, “he who contends with God.” But this was the title God would give His own, and it was fitting in its own right. Yes, throughout their history Israel would contend with God. There was a constant tension in their relationship because of sin and wickedness. We know that struggle well, too, for we are spiritual Israel. We have been given a new name through the death and resurrection of the world’s Savior, for we are part of the world. From that moment on, all believers would likewise wrestle with the Lord.

There is tension in our relationship with God when sinful cares and desires flood our lives or when temptation comes looming around the corner of a thought or action. There must be that tension. If there wasn’t God would not be God. He is holy by nature and hates all that is not. He must or He would not be true, perfect, and just. The struggle is intense at times because, like Jacob, God must detach us from sin. The problem is that is so rooted into who we are that it is literally a detachment from ourselves, or perhaps more appropriately, a dislocation.

No one argues that wickedness and evil should be punished. But, when the mirror of God’s holy law points the crosshair His judgment at us, we resist. Jacob was guilty. He tried to run. He tried to make excuses. He tried to hide from what he had done in the past. When the time was right, God confronted him with the truth. But, this was not a confrontation of judgment or destruction. It was an honest moment of reflection and blessing. Therein rests the truth for our lives. To be blessed by the Lord is to be brutally honest about the truth. There is no other way. We have no hope in the gospel if that hope is in ourselves. God must detach us from the error of death. As Solomon wrote and as Hebrews quotes, “The Lord loves the one He disciplines (Pro. 3:11-12, Hebrews 12:6).”

What is your wrestling with God like? Are you honest about things you’ve contributed to the tension, or are you still trying to dodge the truth? Do you cling to Him in order to impress others with your amazing personal resolve or because you hunger and thirst for the Word of blessing? Is that blessing that you desire rooted in your own efforts and power or in the only Savior who paid the penalty for your sins? There are many lessons to be learned from Jacob’s wrestling match but none greater than attention to and reliance on the Lord’s promise of forgiveness. It was that very blessing which sustained Jacob throughout his life and taught him to trust in God alone.

We want our wrestling with God to follow the same pattern. There’s always different points of exhaustion given the situation you’re in. That’s the nature of the struggle. We might call it a product of this sinful and failing world. But, even God can work through that mess. What a miracle! He takes what is broken and dissolute and renews it! Why, then, are we so quick to doubt Him? Why don’t we trust? Could it be that sometimes we get in the way? Jacob did and so do we. But, always, with the Lord, at the end of the painful struggle, there is blessing. Not a temporary, earthly blessing that fades away like everything else. But, an eternal promise of life in Jesus Christ. This is true, because the Word of God.
Ephesians 1:13-14 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.


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

October 18, 2016

October 16, 2016 - Mark 9:38-50

May God grant to each of us a faith that will not waver, though the waves of persecution and ridicule beat against it daily. May that same God also grant us the wisdom to avoid ever becoming our own worst enemies. Amen.

Dear Fellow Christians:

Whether we care to admit it or not, trends in Christianity affect us. On the one hand that might seem like an overly obvious statement. We are Christians, after all, so of course such trends connected with Christianity affect us. We face two separate difficulties here. The first is that we tend to lament the bad things that are happening even while we assume that we are immune from their effects—mostly because we are aware of what is going on. In other words, we tend to see society’s slide into abject immorality as something happening to others. We try to keep the world at arm’s length, so we assume we are protected. The problem is that as the “heat” increases, “arm’s length” isn’t always far enough.

Here’s an example. You get a phone call one day from a local official warning you that your aged next-door neighbor, a WW II veteran, was found to be in possession of a live hand grenade in his basement.“Not to worry,” they assure you, “Just stay in your house, don’t go near any windows, and you’ll be fine.” The next week you get a call from a public official informing you that your nutty neighbor on the other side of your house has constructed a small nuclear weapon in his basement—in which case remaining in your home is probably not a real good option.

The point here is that Christians tend to miss the fact that the farther society drifts into abject immorality, the greater the danger and, therefore, the more decisively we need to separate ourselves from it. Again, arm’s length doesn’t necessarily cut it today.

Here is the first problem we need to understand—that this isn’t our grandparents’ society we are dealing with any more. The second problem is that whenever we see, for example, a growing trend toward persecution of Christians in our country, we naturally assume that as conservative, confessional Christians we are of course the victims. What never crosses our minds is the idea that in some respects we might actually be the ones doing the persecuting. But what if the problem isn’t “out there”? What if the problem is me? What if I actually see the problem in the mirror? This is one insight we gain from our text for this morning, found in the Ninth Chapter of Mark’s Gospel.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

So far the very words of our God. Truly these are perfect words, spoken by the Savior himself. Therefore we can never study or meditate on these inspired words too often or too carefully. This is the pure, life-giving Bread of Life. That God the Holy Spirit would work powerfully in our hearts through our study of these words we pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your Word is truth!” Amen.

Part I

Satan has had 6000 years to perfect his craft. He knows what works and what does not. Count on him to always return, in one form or another, to what works. In fact, with each advancement of mankind comes a repackaged variation on an old theme from the great Destroyer. So what are some of the trends in our day?

Polls have long verified what most of us have learned from experience: the vast majority of new contacts for any Christian Church—somewhere in the mid 90 percentile—are a direct result of face-to-face, heartfelt invitations from trusted friends and family members. What is the devil’s counter-plan? His plan is to destroy man’s power to personally communicate by making him forget how to communicate in the most effective way. He fills man’s world with the impersonal—with whatever form of communication is most easily overlooked, ignored, deleted. Teach man to text, tweet, Facebook, and email. Again, make it as impersonal as possible and as easily dismissible as possible. Share everything, and nothing—nothing, that is, of real, lasting, spiritual value.

The next problem for Satan is this: the availability of God’s Word. Where once man yearned for the Word of God that he could not possess, now technology allows the gospel to be carried to nearly every corner of the world—instantly. The devil’s solution to that problem? Destroy man’s ability to concentrate in the absence of entertainment. Knowing that it takes a certain amount of work or human effort to actually listen to God’s Word, to study it, and to apply it personally, the devil’s solution was to deaden mankind to whatever is not exciting, new, energizing, and stimulating. His reasoning is disturbingly accurate: who would ever want to sit and listen to someone talk when he could be killing imaginary computer villains, or being wowed by the latest viral video, or being dazzled by a non-stop, action-packed, tear-jerking feature film.

All of this makes it clear that Christians need to ask their God for divine wisdom—daily! It needs to be a staple of our daily prayer-life if we are ever to have a chance at recognizing and counteracting the demonic threats that imperil our very souls on a daily basis. In our text, our Savior communicates to us in unforgettable words just how radical our separation from sin needs to be: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”

What exactly is Jesus advocating here? Does he want you to gouge out an eye if you glance lustfully at someone who is not your spouse? No. Rather, he is teaching us that separation from sin is almost never a simple, painless process. Most Christians are aware of just how seductive and addictive sinful pleasures can be—from loving to gossip to sexual immorality. Sin generally feel good. Sometime it even feels right. You will also, therefore, understand how cutting such things from your life can feel almost like cutting away a part of yourself, so painful or difficult is the separation. Stated from a little different perspective, the problem is no longer sin—since Christ has broken the death-grip or slavery of sin. The problem is us, and whether or not we invite sin into our lives as a permanent, welcome houseguest. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but sin has the terrible power to erode and eventually destroy that saving faith.

Part II

Our text also deals with another very real problem, and once again the problem isn’t “out there.” Once again, the problem is me. We pick up in our text with the disciples approaching Jesus in a bit of a righteous dither. Apparently someone in the area had been using Jesus’ name to cast out demons. Wasn’t that a good thing? Why would any follower of Jesus be upset when someone was using Jesus’ name to do good, to resist the devil and weaken his power over human beings? The disciples evidently believed that Jesus’ name had a sort of copyright that protected it from being used by those outside of their intimate circle of followers. You can see here a bit of the petty jealousy that crops up in the disciples from time to time. They seemed to have lost sight of the object (defeating Satan and winning souls for Christ) because they were too preoccupied with the rules and regulations of the game.

As a conservative Lutheran Church body, we face exactly the same threat or challenge. The danger is that we lose sight of the souls and the goals, and we quarrel instead about rules, procedures, and mannerisms. In effect, we forget the trees because we claim to be interested in the forest. We also expend a tremendous amount of energy warring against our allies.

So we ask again: “Is there persecution against Christians today?” Of course, but again we have to also ask the thematic question of our sermon for this morning: “Are we/am I ever part of the problem?”

Don’t underestimate either the importance or the difficulty of the problem that we face as conservative, confessional Christians living as we do in an increasingly Godless society. The disciples in our text wanted to make the problem go away by over-simplifying it: If anyone is not a part of our little group, they are enemies. In our text Jesus lets them (and us) know that it’s not that simple, yet what he teaches here is often hard for confessional Christians to hear. It makes our job infinitely more complex. We cannot fellowship with those who teach falsely, but we are not supposed to prevent or hinder the work they do in Christ’s name.

Note, however, the perfect balance struck by our perfect Savior in our text. Three separate truths provide that balance. Remove any one, and the balance is destroyed. On the one hand, Jesus told his disciples not to hinder the man from doing what he was doing. “For the one who is not against us is for us.” That’s the first truth, and it should actually be most comforting to acknowledge and remember. God accomplishes his good pleasure in a number of different ways. Yet there would have been no balance had Jesus left it at that. Satan would have been given too great a beachhead from which to mount attacks of all kinds against the Church. So Jesus provides perfect balance by establishing two other pillars or truths. The first is that while we are not to try to hinder the kingdom work of others, we are not supposed to join them. We are supposed to separate from those who teach something “contrary to the doctrine which we have learned,” but it’s not our job to try to prevent the Lord’s work from being carried out through them. But what about the error? Condemn it and separate yourselves from it. It’s not our job to fix another church’s errors.

We tend to have a problem with that, don’t we? We tend to see ourselves as the Super Heroes that are called to correct all injustices we encounter in life. We need to also therefore learn when to leave such things to God. So also in our text our Lord provides that third point of balance: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Do you see the problem if Jesus had not added this last? How easy for the devil to promote unionism, doctrinal laxity, and indifference. How easy for him to play down the importance of every single doctrine of Holy Scripture. Suppose Jesus had only given the command not to hinder another Christian’s ministry. Wouldn’t he have thereby been giving some sort of stamp of approval—not only on what other Christians were doing, but also on what they were preaching and teaching? Jesus erased any possible misconstruction or misunderstanding with the dramatic words of verse 42, “Whoever offends one of these little ones…” To “offend” means to cause someone to stumble in his faith. It is a very strong word with its roots in the image of a death trap or deadfall set to crush the life out of an unsuspecting target. Jesus was not going to prevent those who were not part of his core group, but he offered all such the strongest of warnings concerning the effects of false doctrine and practice on precious souls bought with his blood.

Again we see the strength in Christian balance. There is nothing weak here, nothing non-committal or lukewarm. Christianity calls for drastic, decisive action—which should not surprise us. Christianity itself, from first to last, was born of drastic, decisive action. Already in the Garden of Eden the tone was set. After man had sinned, God cursed the ground and decisively and mercifully drove mankind from the Garden so that they would not eat of the Tree of Life and live forever in sin. When God saw that the world was too evil to survive, he sent the Flood and began over with Noah and his sons. When God saw that there was no nation suitable to bear the Promised Savior, he called Abram to take drastic action—to leave father and mother, house and home, move to an unknown land, and begin a new race. Down through the ages men of God were called upon to take drastic actions, leading finally to the most drastic action of all: God was made man in the person of Jesus Christ, who then offered his life in the death on the cross—all in an effort to save man from his own sins.

There is nothing whatsoever that is indecisive or halfhearted about any of this. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son…” Think about that for a moment. There is nothing soft or non-committal in what God has done for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. He sentenced his own Son to pay for our sins with his very life. Because of that, you and I stand holy and righteous in God’s sight. Your sins are forgiven—by grace through faith. The act that won that forgiveness was both dramatic and drastic.

God has therefore provided not only the solution to our sin problem by sending his Son to pay for our them. He has also given us perfect direction for how we are to share that message of forgiveness with the world. The problem, all along, was me—not someone else. It was my sin that caused Jesus such torment, and it is still my own sin that causes such trouble in my life. All of which causes us to treasure our Savior and his perfect plan all the more. God grant us balance and wisdom in all that we say and do—separating from all that is evil while never attempting to prevent that which God will use to accomplish his good pleasure. “Always and in every way, dear Savior, make me part not of the problem but of your divine solution. Amen.

Sermon by Pastor Michael Roehl, used by Pastor Tiefel at Redemption, 10-16-16

October 2, 2016

October 2, 2016 - Luke 16:19-31 (Part 2)

The “Great Gulf” Between Heaven and Hell             
1) And these will go away into everlasting punishment,
2) But the righteous into everlasting life! (Matthew 25:45-46)

We pick up our study this morning on the story of the rich man and Lazarus, by considering the second “great gulf” mentioned in the text, the divide between heaven and hell. We read verses 22-26:

Luke 16:19-31 "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20 "But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 "desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 "So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 "And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 "Then he cried and said, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' 25 "But Abraham said, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 `And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' 27 "Then he said, `I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, 28 `for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' 29 "Abraham said to him, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' 30 "And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' 31 "But he said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'"

Another sermon this morning on the difference between heaven and hell. Perhaps, you look at it and think, “I already know this topic, what more can be said?” Certainly, this is hardly the first sermon on heaven and hell and it certainly won’t be the last. The basic topics of heaven and hell are pretty easy to understand. Heaven is the believer’s home, the kingdom of God. Hell is the abode of Satan, the prison where those who reject Christ dwell. That’s pretty much it. But, this morning we’re not focusing on bare definitions so much as we are applying what Jesus says to our lives.

To start that off this morning I’d like to turn your attention to another sermon on heaven and hell. This one was written and delivered long ago by Colonial minister Jonathan Edwards in 1741. It has been held up as a classic sermon of that time period and esteemed by many Christians as a proper description of heaven, but mostly of hell. The sermon’s title tells you a lot about its theme: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.

Listen to a few excerpts from Rev. Edwards in that sermon:

“The Observation from the Words that I would now insist upon is this, of an angry God. There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one Moment, out of Hell, but the meer Pleasure of GOD. By the meer Pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign Pleasure, his arbitrary Will, restrained by no Obligation, hinder’d by no manner of Difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s meer Will had in the least Degree, or in any Respect whatsoever, any Hand in the Preservation of wicked Men one Moment.”

“The Bow of God’s Wrath is bent, and the Arrow made ready on the String, and Justice bends the Arrow at your Heart, and strains the Bow, and it is nothing but the meer Pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any Promise or Obligation at all, that keeps the Arrow one Moment from being made drunk with your Blood.”

The sermon continues on this theme throughout, mainly depicting the horrors of hell and how we are in no control over our fate, only sinners in the hands of an angry God. By definition alone, Edwards was absolutely correct in his portrayal of hell. It is something people should think about. It is a real place, not just some imagination in the heart. There is something to be said about accurate statements about the danger of hell. At that time period, dating back to the beginning of the Christian Church, believers were conscious and serious about hell. Today, not so much. I think the general feeling among many people, even Christians, is all too often that hell is just part on one’s imagination. The teaching of hell has followed the same current that so many others have in our modern culture, that being, believe what you want, reject what you want, everyone’s opinion is legitimate and all that matters is what you have faith in.

When it comes to the severity of hell, Edwards was right. However, his major blunder was in His description of God. The very notion of an angry God is really only a half truth. It’s true that people must realize that God hates sin. The Bible actually mentions a few explicit sins that God hates such as: divorce, child sacrifice, and idolatry. In that sense, God has every right to be angry at the sinner. But, that’s not the whole story. To tell only half the truth is not to tell the truth at all. God is holy and just and therefore must punish sin, but He’s also loving and merciful and therefore He forgives sin. To hold back on the second half of who God is is to literally hold God from people.

God does not hold us over the flame of hell in His hands and use that as motivation for us to believe. God does not draw the bow of His righteous anger and say, “Now choose what is right or I will release.” God’s love is the powerful motivator for conversion. His wrath is meant to point us to His grace. Edwards preached the way he did, by focusing only on God’s wrath, because that was a strong motivator for people. But, it was not a motivator that pushed people to Christ, rather it pushed them to the works of service or conscience that they felt they needed to do to be assured of forgiveness. At that time, often called the Great Awakening in our history books, people received Edward’s message with open arms and they sought a moral equality with God. Not a distasteful thing on the eservice, who doesn’t want to be more moral? But, it was a failed activity because no matter how hard we try, eventually the rotten decay of our sinful heart will show, even through our so-called sanctified living. We need something more, something stronger.

And that’s why God recorded in His Word exactly what the power to salvation is, as written in Romans: For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation… Another portion says, This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Galatian 3:2-3). If believers are converted by the Holy Spirit, working through the gospel alone, then why would we use the threats of the law, accurate as they are, to convince someone to believe? It makes no sense.

This is the “Great Gulf” between heaven and hell, which Jesus taught about in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. We know the difference between the two in definition, that’s easy. But, at times its harder to see just exactly where we’re being led. Like Paul said, false teachers us “fair words and smooth talk to deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17-18). Sometimes that smooth talk is only feeding people the wrath of God. The “great gulf” between heaven and hell is really the great gulf between a righteous and loving God. To detract from either respect of who God is is really the same as detracting from either heaven or hell. We must walk to the middle of the road.
The thoughts of our text today almost seem like the Hindu teaching of Karma. Almost everyone knows what karma is. It’s that sensible idea that whatever you do to others, good or bad, will be returned upon you at some point. Doesn’t that fit? The rich man was cold and cruel to poor Lazarus during life. The rich man certainly knew who Lazarus was, after all the beggar sat at his gate day after day, hoping and pleading for something. Lazarus, on the other hand, trusted in God despite his poor circumstances. In the end, the roles were reversed. As Jesus would say elsewhere, the “first became last and the last became first.” (Mark 10:31) Isn’t’ that karma?

Obviously, it wasn’t. Karma doesn’t actually exist. It’s not a real force. Sometimes life turns out that way, but not because of some mysterious force called karma. Changes happen and roles are reversed because of God. The rest of our text continues by explaining what the difference was; it’s the topic we consider next weekend for our series’ conclusion, the “great gulf” between signs and scripture. Like Paul wrote, the power for change is bound to the Word of God, and specifically the hope of forgiveness in the gospel. That is what exalts the lowly, while the law remains intact to humble the proud. That was the difference in the places where the rich man and Lazarus ended up. It wasn’t some random twist of fate or the desires of the gods in some distant and out of touch reality. It was the true God, the One who came down into this world and made sure that the Word He had breathed-out centuries before was completed. He made sure of this by guaranteeing it with the shedding of His own blood and the offering of His own life.

It’s discouraging when Christians preach karma, even if it’s only in tongue and cheek, because so many people are led astray by it. Why even joke about karma when you have the full authority of God’s Word of truth at your disposal? Remember, eternal judgment is an impending reality for everyone. It’s not time to take that lightly or to misconstrue our faith in any way. People simply cannot afford that kind of indifference, especially those who are misled about truth and salvation.

But, we should also come to realize that messages like Jonathan Edwards’ are, in effect, committing the very same mistake. Sure, Edwards preached about God. Sure, most of his message was spot on. Sure, his descriptions were accurate. But, in the end, if it doesn’t direct the hearer to Christ and His cross for the cure, it has failed. If the message doesn’t lead to the Gospel, even though it come from a Christian and it uses Bible text, it does not accomplish any more than the elements of heathen religions like Hinduism and karma. Because, it leaves people in God’s wrath, in the “hands of an angry God” as Edwards put it.

I often ask people, does the power of God give you comfort? Almost everyone says yes, especially if it’s under the context of a class or some other element of church. What kind of Christian would dare speak ill of the power of God? Well, that’s true. And I for one wouldn’t argue with taking comfort in the power of God. But that’s only because I also know of the love of God. Without forgiveness, mercy, or gospel, the power of God is not a comforting thing at all; and I’m certainly not led to life by the Holy Spirit. Without God’s love, in connection with His power, I have no hope.

The same is true of heaven and hell. As you contemplate eternity and judgment, which in your heart you know is an impending reality, don’t focus on God’s power alone. You’ll never have any hope without the complete picture. God’s love in Christ is the missing piece that all people seek. I hope that we all believe with the sincerity of Jonathan Edwards, fully recognizing the danger at hand in these latter days. That information is important, we need to hear it and we need to continue preaching it with clarity. But, let our hope remain in Jesus. Let our motivation toward sanctified lives be that which tells us that “while were still sinners, Christ died for us, and that is how God demonstrated His love for us (Romans 5:8).”

The divide between heaven and hell for the rich man and Lazarus was not some arbitrary, random act by God. It was determined by the deliberate work of Christ for sinners in the world that God the Father chose from the foundation of the world. Our lives are not up to mere chance with God simply deciding who is worthy enough and who isn’t. Let us not throw that burden on ourselves or on others. We don’t need to live in despair and fear; for we have power and hope. Today, and every day we can declare and believe with confidence that we are forgiven sinners, held securely in the hands of a loving and just God. Amen.

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