January 24, 2017

January 22, 2017 - Luke 4:40-44

The Difference Between a Believer and a Deceiver
1) Are you willing to confess Christ?  
2) What is the nature of your obedience?  
3) What kind of Gospel do you support?

Dear fellow redeemed of Christ, the Savior of the world,

Do you have the faith of demons? It might be somewhat startling to hear that question asked in church, or just to hear the words “demon” and “faith” used in the same sentence. We don’t often give much credence or credibility to demonic activities in our lives; in this sophisticated, logical, and scientific world many would say we know better than to believe that kind of stuff. But, the Bible is absolutely clear about the existence of demons. It was the actions of one such demon, Satan, that led to our sinful demise.

But, what about faith? Why would we link our faith to demons? Well, our text is one of the few accounts of the Bible that speaks to us about what the demons themselves believe. It contains an absolutely stunning admission of the truth; that even the demons confessed Jesus as the Son of God. We read from the Gospel of Luke 4:40-44:

When the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying out and saying, "You are the Christ, the Son of God!" And He, rebuking them, did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ. 42 Now when it was day, He departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowd sought Him and came to Him, and tried to keep Him from leaving them; 43 but He said to them, "I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent." 44 And He was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee.

When we speak of the faith of demons, let’s get a couple things straight right away. We’re not talking about faith in demons. That would be obvious idolatry. We’re talking about the beliefs of the demons concerning the person of Jesus. Although demons, as angelic beings, are not human; they do have convictions about Jesus and the truth. Therefore, we’re not talking about faith in the sense of an attachment to Jesus for salvation, but more of an opinion that they hold to be true. Faith in a lesser sense we might say.

What we see from these demons is how even they are brought under the power of Christ. It’s a startling thing, that Jesus can even make His enemies, even the supernatural ones, bow to His will. This is startling, but not necessarily surprising, for the Scriptures say elsewhere: For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow-- of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth-- 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11). Not everyone will trust the Gospel of Christ, but God is clear that all will confess it. The truth will not remain concealed forever. Even the demons bend to Christ when directly confronted by Him.

James wrote in a similar manner, using the demons as an example for lackadaisical Christians to wake up: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-- and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? (James 2:19-20) James talked about exactly what we see in our text, perhaps it was this portion of Luke’s Gospel from which James took his example. The lesson is this. If even the demons acknowledge Christ’s power, so much so that they confess it, what do we say about Christ? And so we ask ourselves the thematic question of our sermon, How does your faith compare with the demons’? What’s the difference between a believer and a deceiver? Perhaps we’ve never bothered to ask ourselves that, since we good, pious Christians are in a completely different league than demons. But, there’s much we can learn. Let’s take a closer look at the intention of the Holy Spirit, and as we do, think of your life.

Part 1

The most obvious place to start is by asking yourself if you’re willing to confess Christ. That’s really what we’re dealing with right, confession? Well, the answer’s simple right? We’re all willing to confess Christ, what kind of Christian would say “no” to that question? We talked about this last weekend too, as we considered that familiar text where Jesus says, “He who is not willing to confess Me before men, neither will I confess before My Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32).” The examination of our lives in that point is pretty cut and dry. We’re here in church. We just made a public confession. Our actions show that we are Christians. We take the name of Christ. The answer’s simple; yes, we confess Christ.

Oh, but then we start to think of how God describes the Christian confession in the Bible. He talks about the presence of hypocrites, people who say the right thing but don’t actually believe it. No hypocrite is going to be honest about the truth, that’s what make them a hypocrite. How do you know that you haven’t stumbled into hypocrisy? Furthermore, how do you know that your confession is the variety that is deeper and more meaningful than the demons’? They, too, made confession but it was not because they trusted or believed in Jesus. They were simply confronted by His power in a way that they literally could not deny it.

Now, I can’t answer these kinds of questions for you. Only you can search your heart. All I can do is provoke a thought which reveals or leads you to God’s truth. If you’re confused by contemplating the quality and substance of your faith, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While I don’t want to leave you in doubt, nor would I be doing my job if I did, I do want to shake off the rust and rubbish that can build up around your faith. If you struggle with these questions, it shows you have a proper amount of humility and respect for God. If they are easy to answer or if you never consider the possibility that they could apply to you, then you might be too careless in your faith.

Part 2

God also knows your struggles and the difficulty of these questions. That’s why He also has more to say about it and that’s why we dig deeper. When you ask yourself if you’re willing to confess Christ you can test your answer by moving to the next thought, Do you submit to His Word and will?

It’s at the point of submission or obedience that we break paths with the demons. It is obedience that shows the difference between our confession and theirs. Now, that may not seem to be the case, after all, the demons obeyed didn’t they? They came out of the people they were in. True enough, but the key difference is in the nature of their obedience and ours. The demons obey because they are forced to by the power of God. All people will experience that on Judgment Day too, as Paul wrote.

But, God gives us obedience through another means today. We obey through the Gospel. We submit, not out of force, but out of joy; knowing we are fully protected and cared for by God and the best path is always through His Word. Listen to Paul’s description of this obedience, “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; 15 and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again (2 Corinthians 5:14-15).” The Psalmist also declared the same when he said, “How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way (Psalm 119:103-104).”  

Submission and obedience to God is always connected to His Word because it is through that Word we know the truth and we know salvation. God has given us His Word directly, and given it through many individuals spanning many generations and cultures. It does not rely on human authority and therefore we have a great reason to trust it; even though it is so often spurned and maligned in our culture.

This text comes on the heels of Jesus’ synagogue proclamation in Nazareth, where He quoted Isaiah 61 and said it was fulfilled; leading the people to try to kill Him. Jesus then moves down to Capernaum in our text and continues to preach the same message and perform miracles. The people of Nazareth, and many from Capernaum, refused to submit to Christ and to obey Him. They rejected the message He proclaimed.

When examining your faith, you would do well to consider the same thing. What is your relationship to the Word of God, because that will help answer what the nature of your obedience is? Do you confess as the Psalmist wrote so simply, “The entirety of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever (Psalm 119:160).”? Is God’s Word true when it says that He created the world in 6 days, each one described in detail as the “evening and morning”? Is the judgment of God that those who do not believe in Jesus will be condemned a righteous one? Did God really mean it when He said that with only food and clothing we could be content? Is the Scripture correct when it tells us that pure and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows?

Each of those things come from God’s Word, but do you confess them? Do you obey and submit to those principles in your life? Remember that the nature of your obedience is one defining separation between your faith and the demons’ faith. 

Part 3

Thinking only of what I confess and how well I obey the Lord doesn’t leave the greatest feeling in my heart. If you feel that same way, consider our last question, What kind of Gospel do you support? Again, this may seem like a no-brainer for the average Christian. But, let me explain where I’m coming from. Today, what people mean by the term Gospel ultimately goes back to that thing from which they need to be saved. At its most basic definition, the word Gospel means “Good News.” Well, that begs the question, what is good news to you? That may be lots of different things. But think of it from the beginning. What is the greatest evil? What is the most serious problem from which you need relief?

For some it’s stress of their financial lives, so the Gospel is money and a good job. For others life’s greatest evil is being restricted in their personal liberties so the Gospel becomes a matter of civil rights. Still some believe that the physical earth is all that there is so the Gospel becomes a matter of environmental responsibility. None us think that any of these matters are insignificant. We want to be responsible with our finances, we want to be good and fair to all people, and we want to be good caretakers of the earth which God has given us. But, for us who live by faith in Christ, it’s comical to think of these things as the Gospel. But what do we show priority to in our lives? Do we spend as much time confessing about Jesus as Savior from sin as we do about temporal and social causes? Are we more obedient to the God who created and redeemed us or to the popular opinions of our time?

The philosophies of different Gospels are not a recent thing either. Ever since the beginning of the church, Christians have had to deal with other belief systems trying to uproot the central doctrine of faith in Jesus. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted-- you may well put up with it (2 Corinthians 4:11)! And later to the Galatians, I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7 which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed (Galatians 2:6-8). 
If God put you to the test, what kind of Gospel would your life show to be supporting? Is it the life-saving message of Jesus as Savior, which comes from, defends, and obeys the Word of truth, or would He see your time, talents, and confession placed in other areas? As you consider what kind of Gospel you support, remember what kind of Gospel Jesus supported. Our text says it all.

The Gospel was the very reason why He preached and what He preached. Our text doesn’t shy away from the honest truth. It reads that Jesus said, “I must preach the kingdom of God…” Literally, He was saying, I must evangelize, or “Gospel” as a verb, to the world. Jesus spent time healing and caring for people, but this was not His Gospel. His was to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name, as the Son of God.
Jesus’ Gospel was also the basis of the kingdom of God. The only path to heaven is through the Gospel.
Jesus’ Gospel was “necessary” to preach. This was not an optional thing for Jesus, rather the Gospel was the express reason why He came to earth. And that’s why it’s not optional for us. He would not be Jesus without the Gospel and we are not Christians without the same.

We began by asking, how does your faith compare to that of the demons? They confessed Jesus as the Son of God and they obeyed Him but not from the Gospel. It’s the power of the Gospel that makes the difference between the believer and the deceiver. Many other details may seem similar, but the end result is astoundingly different. And that’s because of what Jesus has done for you through the Gospel. When your confession doesn’t measure up to bearing His name, He forgives you. When you refuse to submit and fail to obey, He promises to restore you through repentance and faith. Be not ashamed of this Gospel, for as you know, it is the “power of God unto salvation, for everyone who believes.” There you have it, the power of salvation. The true Gospel of Christ is that which saves us from eternal damnation, a fate we all deserve. It’s not about things of this world, or the word of mortal men. It’s about taking our greatest problem away, rescue from sin and condemnation. This we confess and believe, because the love of Christ compels us. Amen.

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

January 17, 2017

January 15, 2017 - Romans 10:8-18

Theme: Fixing a Weak Signal with God
1) Check the Speed – Both Download and Upload  
2) Check the Strength – Is it coming from the right source?

Today, almost everyone knows what you mean when you ask, “What’s your Wifi password?” Internet service is no longer a rarity, everyone uses it, and more often today, people are using it wirelessly. But, ten years ago, Wifi knowledge was not a given. Most people had to use the old Ethernet cable to connect to the web. Funny thing about Wifi, or let’s call it sharing information wirelessly, is that it has existed long before the 21st century. And there is a much more important form of Wifi than the tech version.

There has always been a wireless connection between God and believers. God is able to communicate to us without the need of wires or machines, and we can communicate back through prayer. But, there’s a problem that can disrupt that communicate just as our home or work networks can be disrupted; and that problem is a weak signal. We’re used to checking our Wifi signal on our phones, computers, and even TVs now, but how strong is your connection with God? Is your spiritual Wifi as strong or as fast as it could be? Probably not, and that’s precisely what we examine in our text for today, from Romans 10:8-18:

But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart " (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved." 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!" 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our report?" 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. 18 But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: "Their sound has gone out to all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world."

Part 1

If you’ve ever shopped around for internet services, you’ve noticed that a big draw for good internet is the speed. People want blazing fast speeds, especially when there’s so much to do on the net. Wifi capability has progressed so much that internet providers can now deliver top speeds wirelessly. But, most people don’t realize that there is a difference between upload and download speeds.

The upload speed, usually much slower than download, governs how long it takes for you to put something on the internet. When you post pictures, videos, articles, or whatever it may be, it takes upload speed. Download speed is the type that most people think about when considering internet speed. It determines how long it takes to get something off the internet, or to use it, like streaming a video, loading an image, or simply going from website to website. Wifi today is usually pretty good about both of these areas, since because of social media people are increasing the amount of the things they upload to the internet.  

But, both types of speed have a bearing on your connection with God too. Paul here talks about both those things we would download into our hearts and then upload to others. He writes, "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart " (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation

Notice how Paul talks about both what we receive from the Lord and also that which we produce through it. We know this connection simply as the difference between justification and sanctification. Those are the Scriptural terms for what God gives us (salvation through Christ) and what we do in response (fruits of faith by the Holy Spirit). Think of justification as that which we are downloading from the Lord and sanctification as that which we are uploading to the rest of the world.

The question is, how fast is our connection in these matters? When it comes to receiving God’s grace, are we slow and indifferent about it? Do we hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness as Jesus commanded or we more like a computer stuck on the loading screen? This isn’t to say that every matter of receiving something from God is a quick, no problem thing. Sometimes it takes great time, pain, and struggle to receive what the Lord is trying to give. But, the question of speed centers on our hearts and intentions, not on the Lord’s process.

Like our earthly Wifi networks, God also places a higher priority on what we download. Listen to what King Solomon pinpointed as most important in worship: Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2).

Paul also said very matter of factly, in another letter: It is written, "I believed and therefore I spoke," we also believe and therefore speak (2 Corinthians 4:13). Very simply, we need content from the Lord in our faith in order to keep it strong. If it’s not strengthened by the Holy Spirit, you won’t be uploading anything of value to anyone else. Jesus said that our download connection and speed is like abiding in Him as a branch abides in the vine. If you cut off that connection, there is no production of fruit.

Therefore, we want both our download and upload in the Lord to be fast, but we place a greater emphasis on the things He gives to us. We have His promise that when we live around His Word and use it, the Holy Spirit will produce fruits in and through us. But, cut off our reception of information from the Lord or choose to over-emphasize what you must upload to God and the world, and you have what Paul described to the Galatians, You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Galatians 5:4).

Part 2

Of course, speed is not the only important part of having a good signal. Strength of the connection is also important. You can have the most blazing fast speed but it won’t mean anything if your reception is spotty. It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that Paul also talks about how strong we are in the Lord. The interesting thing about his description is that he frames his argument from the starting point of the source of your connection. When you think of a wireless signal, there are many more factors than just the source that affect its strength. But, for the Christian, the source is what it’s all about. If the source of the signal is correct, it will be a strong signal. That source, of course, is Christ our Savior.
Paul says, again very clearly, that “the Scripture says, "Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” There’s no mistaking the truth of those words. Jesus is clearly Lord and Savior of all, and He freely offers salvation to all people. The source of the true, Christian faith is unmistakable and impenetrable.

But, Paul also knows that people tend to deviate from the source. Sometimes, it seems like the answer to all of our problems is so simple, that we can’t resist trying something more difficult. Therefore, in the following verses he walks us through the simple progression of establishing our source. Jesus is truly the only way, but one of the easiest things to mess up is how Jesus comes to us. The way Paul tells us sounds just like establishing an unbreakable connection: 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent?

These are the steps of how we connect to the source and what governs the strength of our connection to Jesus. We work from the end to the beginning in our text. It starts with the Lord leading someone to go and preach. Once the message is proclaimed the next step is listening and hearing it. Once the Word which has been preached is received and worked on by the Holy Spirit, it produces faith in the heart. And the final step is when that faith leads us to call on God’s name, as children call upon their father, in thanksgiving, praise, supplication, and confession. This is the unaltered connection between the source (Jesus) and the believer. The thing is, if your connection breaks at any of these points, the whole thing breaks.   

We have plenty of examples of this from the Bible, depicting the breakdown at various stages of the connection. For example, when James famously wrote, “faith without works is dead (James 2:20),” he wasn’t’ saying that we are saved by works. Rather, he was talking about a break in the end of the connection between a believer and God. The “calling on the name of the Lord” as Paul writes. It’s the fruit of our lips that we offer to God and thereby to our fellow humans. You can’t claim to have faith in Christ if the fruits of your life are out of sync.

Another example would be when Jesus taught that “He who confesses me before men I will also confess before My Father, and He who denies me before men I will also deny before My Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33).” Jesus is talking about the preaching of His Word. As Paul says, how will people believe unless someone preaches to them? But, you must remember that preaching is not just the pastor’s job. Jesus is calling all believers to share His Word with the world. Are you willing to do that? Are you giving a proper witness of your Savior with your life and what you choose to support and promote? Preaching the Christian truth is an important step in our signal strength.

Another example is Jeremiah’s words from God, 28 "The prophet who has a dream, let him tell a dream; And he who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. 30 Therefore behold, I am against the prophets," says the LORD, "who steal My words every one from his neighbor. 31 "Behold, I am against the prophets," says the LORD, "who use their tongues and say,`He says.' 32 "Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams," says the LORD, "and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness (Jeremiah 23:28, 30-32). Here, the connection is intact, but the source is wrong. The signal may seem normal but it doesn’t broadcast anything of value. It’s like having a wireless router that broadcasts, but isn’t connected to the internet. You can have the fastest and strongest signal, but without the proper source you get nothing from it.    
Think of your life and your faith now. Are you receiving the fastest and strongest signal from God? If not, where might you need some help? Verse 17 sums our section up well. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of God.” We know that faith is the connection between us and Jesus, and Jesus is the connection between us and God. Therefore, the truth of salvation is simple, just as Paul says, “whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame.” Faith and salvation are good, and they are both found in Jesus.

But, today we have considered the other question behind the scenes, but equally important. How do I get faith and keep faith alive? Here we are given the answer – through staying connected to the Word of God because it is through that Word that we know we are getting the true message of Jesus. This is a message that follows the wireless path from God’s heart to yours. It starts with someone sent. And it moves along when someone preaches. And it continues when that message is heard, received, and blessed by the Holy Spirit. And its beautiful conclusion is the production of fruits in your life, so that others may be directed to the same source, and establish a signal of faith in Jesus.   

As you are confronted with numerous wireless signals, don’t forget about the most important and the longest established one – Grace and Truth is Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

January 9, 2017

January 8, 2017 - Matthew 4:12-17

Theme: An Epiphany of Repentance

Gretchen and I had an interesting discussion this week. It centered on when to take down the Christmas tree. I’m sure you’ve probably had a similar conversation with your family before. I’m of the opinion that you take the tree down sometime shortly after New Year’s Day. It just feels kind of depressing to have all the reminders of Christmas around the house but to be over with the general celebration. For many others though, Christmas doesn’t really end until Epiphany. We have the famous 12 days of Christmas from the 25th to January 6.

Regardless of when you take your decorations down, it’s really important not to forget Epiphany. Epiphany is sometimes called the Gentile holiday because it emphasizes the salvation of God for all people. Often, the wise men are used as examples of this truth. They were Gentiles who rejoiced in the birth of Christ. Even though they were not present on Christmas night to witness the new-born Child, they were on their way; led by the star and navigating Herod’s craftiness. When you think of the wise men you can see why a person who want to stretch the Christmas celebration out a bit longer.

Epiphany brings those thoughts to mind and rightfully so. But, it’s really about much more than Gentile salvation. Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus; the time marked to remember His introduction to the world; when people first began to take notice and to listen. That’s why we look at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry this morning. It seems strange given that we’re only two weeks removed from Christmas, but this is exactly where the Holy Spirit leads us in the text. We read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, His Epiphany, in Matthew 4:12-17:  

Matthew 4:12-17 Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: 15 "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: 16 The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned." 17 From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

I’m always surprised when I read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry because the first message He spoke was one of repentance. It makes me wonder how Jesus would be received in our culture today if He said the same thing. So many people today are shocked that anyone could reject Jesus and they wonder how such a good person could be killed by His own brethren. But, many of the same people refuse to preach repentance and chastise anyone who would dare to. In the end, it’s not all that surprising that Jesus was rejected. Chances are, the same thing would happen in our culture. And yet, knowing full well what the natural human reaction is to repentance, Jesus still boldly proclaimed it. 

Jesus says very clearly that the only path to safety from sin is through repentance. It was so important that it was the first major message He preached in His public ministry. It was also the first message John the Baptist preached. Matthew records John’s initial message in chapter 3, when he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 "and do not think to say to yourselves,`We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 "And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7-10).

Repentance is so important because it marks the beginning of bearings fruits of faith. If you’re not repentant, you won’t trust God, either. To be repentant means to fully confess your unworthiness. As with all genuine statements in life it also means that you actually believe it. When someone is completely broken down by repentance, they can completely be re-built through Christ. But, if you’re only partially repentant you will only partially trust in Christ. If you wonder why you have such a hard time trusting Christ have you thought about repentance? The problem is that when doubtful, so many are pushed to look at themselves for hope. That’s the wrong direction, we need to deny ourselves and then trust naturally fills in the void when the Holy Spirit is present through Word and Sacrament.  

The thing about repentance and trust is that they are two things than don’t come naturally for us. This is the way it has always been and Matthew quotes from Isaiah to remind us of that. He says, "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: 16 The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned." Zebulun and Naphtali were two of Jacob’s sons. However, when we think of a Messianic promise, and we also think of the prominent sons of Jacob, these two really don’t come to mind. Zebulun and Naphtali’s territories were indeed in the region of Galilee and so we see why they are mentioned in that connection. We also know that Jesus spent a great deal of time in His ministry in Galilee; in fact, it’s where His hometown was and where He began preaching. But Matthew and Isaiah show us the ultimate reason why Jesus preached in Galilee, in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali. It wasn’t because they were more important than the other twelve tribes. It was because they really needed Jesus.

We see a bit of this from distant references about Zebulun and Naphtali in the Old Testament. Zebulun was one of Leah’s sons. If you remember, she was not the original choice of Jacob to be his wife. Therefore, her sons would not be as prominent as Rachel’s. We’re also told that Zebulun’s tribe failed to follow the LORD’s command to drive out the Canaanites when they reclaimed their homeland. This mistake would lead to years of idolatry and mixed faiths. This moral laxity showed itself in a specific story as members of Zebulun’s tribe disrespected the Passover of the LORD around the time of Hezekiah.

Naphtali’s tribe followed very much the same way. They too, were not the most well-respected of the tribes, perhaps also due to Naphtali’s birth. He was not born of Leah or Rachel, but rather Bilhah, Rachel’s servant, in an attempt to circumvent the LORD’s plan. Naphtali’s descendants also failed to cleanse their land of idolatry at the time of Joshua. What these historical points show us is exactly what Matthew declared as the reason why Jesus began His ministry among these people. They were in darkness. They needed help. As Jesus would say later on, they were a people who were sick and in need of the Great Physician (Matthew 9:12).

Because of the mixed marriages following the re-entry to Canaan, it was also an area with a large amount of Gentiles. Therefore, the second part of Isaiah’s prophecy also came true, as our Epiphany theme reminds us. Jesus was also the Savior of the Gentiles and at the very onset of His ministry He sent a clear message to that effect.

Some might say that Zebulun, Naphtali, and Galilee were just victims of their circumstances. Did they really need to repent? Were they really a people living in darkness? To say that sounds harsh in our day and age. Yet, regardless of who was to blame, and be assured that no one was innocent, it was the truth.
We would often like to think the same thing in our lives. So often, we want to play the victim. We’re encouraged to blame God, or our parents, or our fellow Christians; when we really should be looking inward. When confronted with a painful and ailing world, the easy option is to act like things are just so out of our control that nothing matters. Why strive to serve God if following His commands perfectly is impossible? Why act moral when it’s not the normal thing to do anymore? These are questions that we are confronted with every day.

But, the reason we can’t simply lie down and play the victim is because God calls for repentance. That means, first of all, that we’re far from innocent. You can’t blame problems on circumstances around you unless you are guilt-free. That’s not us. Second of all, the call to repentance means that we have hope. Believe it or not, it is the hope we have in Jesus that most of all shows us why we can’t blame others. Everyone has problems, but not everyone has a solution to those problems. We do! What wretched Christians we really must if we have Christ and all His blessings before us but we’d rather wallow in our sinfulness! The call of repentance is a call that changes us.

When you’re trapped in the darkness of sin, how you got there doesn’t really matter than much. Either you’re in sin or you’re not. Many people refuse to repent because they don’t believe it’s their fault that they’re in sin. They want to blame others. They don’t want to be honest about the mistakes they’ve made. Does that describe you?

Remember that proving your own personal innocence doesn’t matter as much as the way out matters. Think about it this way. If someone was trapped in a gulch and water is quickly rising; what’s more important to figure out: how you got stuck there or how you can get out. If you knew the way out, would you sit and argue with the person who was stuck? Not at all. In the end, all that matters is getting to safety.

Jesus provides eternal safety in heaven for us. Let us not get caught in the unending pit of self-righteous defense of our lives. It’s okay to admit wrong. It’s necessary to repent. I’m sure the people of Galilee could have blamed others. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali could have held their ancestors accountable; for the mistakes they made, going all the way back to Jacob and even Abraham.  But, what good does that do?

The be in sin is the be in darkness. Jesus is the opposite. He is the Light of the world. He came into the world for the express purpose of giving light and life to all people. Those who believe in Jesus have this light. Be assured that your Savior won’t lead you astray. If He says you need to repent to be a member of His kingdom, then believe that and do that. Don’t let the world tell you otherwise. Don’t let your heart get you to turn away because you feel a need to defend yourself. Just repent and believe.

The Epiphany is celebrated to remember when Jesus made Himself known in the public. Repentance is what He chose to emphasize in that moment. Let’s emphasize the same in our lives.

Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD; 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. 3 If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. 5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope. 6 My soul waits for the Lord More than those who watch for the morning-- Yes, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the LORD; For with the LORD there is mercy, And with Him is abundant redemption. 8 And He shall redeem Israel From all his iniquities.

January 2, 2017

January 1, 2017 - Isaiah 28:14-18

Theme: What will be your New Year’s Covenant?
Will it be made in haste and soon forgotten?
Will it be made by God and last forever?

If I asked you what was the worst shipwreck in modern history, what would you say? I’m willing to guess that many of you, if not all, would mention the Titanic. The sinking of the Titanic is a pivotal piece of American history, from a time of industrial innovation and expansion. Pop-culture and media have solidified the Titanic’s story in peoples’ minds; as it was famously dubbed as “the unsinkable ship.” In total, over 1500 passengers lost their lives the night that the Titanic struck the iceberg. 

A famous saying posits, “Those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it.” We could mention several examples, I’m sure; but that saying came true of the Titanic’s history as well. One of the major issues with the Titanic was that there were only lifeboats available for about 1/3 of the passengers. Simply put the safety measures of the vessel were quite lacking. 

Decades later, in 1987, a ferry from the Philippines called the Doña Paz departed for Manila. It sounds like a harmless trek, not even one in the open waters of the ocean. However, the ferry was packed with some 4,000 passengers when it’s capacity was only 1,400. Disaster struck when it collided with an oil tanker, causing a massive explosion that quickly sank both ships. A passing ship pulled a couple dozen survivors out of the water, but as many as 4,375 perished It was the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster and has even been called "Asia's Titanic".

We’ll never know how much the captain of the Dona Paz knew about the Titanic’s history, but regardless, he repeated it; and to a much deadlier result. Today, is New Year’s Day and usually we look ahead to the future today. But, in order to learn for the future, we must also remember the past. It fits for us too, that if we fail to learn from history we will repeat it. That was certainly the case for God’s people as we pick up with our sermon text for today. The prophet Isaiah records:

Isaiah 28:14-18 Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scornful men, Who rule this people who are in Jerusalem, 15 Because you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we are in agreement. When the overflowing scourge passes through, It will not come to us, For we have made lies our refuge, And under falsehood we have hidden ourselves." 16 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; Whoever believes will not act hastily. 17 Also I will make justice the measuring line, And righteousness the plummet; The hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, And the waters will overflow the hiding place. 18 Your covenant with death will be annulled, And your agreement with Sheol will not stand; When the overflowing scourge passes through, Then you will be trampled down by it.

The LORD’s warning in these words was spoken in response to a covenant that Judah made with the nation of Egypt. It was a difficult time for Judah. They were threatened by the vicious and powerful Assyrians, dubbed in our text as the “overflowing scourge.” Instead of consulting the LORD and trusting His plan, they did what we do all too often as well, they went their own way. Isaiah described this treaty at length in chapter 30: “Woe to the rebellious children," says the LORD, "Who take counsel, but not of Me, And who devise plans, but not of My Spirit, That they may add sin to sin; 2 Who walk to go down to Egypt, And have not asked My advice, To strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, And to trust in the shadow of Egypt!”

Hadn’t Judah learned its lesson? It’s true that the Assyrians posed a legitimate threat. They had already conquered the northern tribes and they wanted more. But, going to Egypt, and not the LORD, for help was a mistake. The Egyptian treaty would turn out to be hollow. They were simply using Judah as a buffer for their own protection against Assyria. They never offered any substantive help. This treaty was exactly what God called it in our text, a “covenant with death.” Such are the terms when people ignore the LORD.

We know from the famous Bible story of Sennacherib and Hezekiah how this particular event concluded. Judah survived the onslaught of the Assyrians, with no help from the Egyptians or from themselves. As arrogant Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem it was the Lord’s angel of death that defeated the foreign army. Even without His peoples’ trust, God protected them.

You have to wonder what Judah was thinking. It’s surely enough to doubt God but of all the nations to make an alliance with, why would they choose Egypt? Had they not remembered their own history? Just about 700 years earlier, it was the Egyptians who were trying to keep the Israelites as slaves. They were practicing controlled genocide, if there ever was such a thing, in order to keep them subjected. The exodus was a monumental point in the history of Israel. Throughout the entire Old Testament, writers go back again and again to the exodus as a reminder of how the LORD rescued His people and brought them back home. Make no mistake, this history was never forgotten. The people of Isaiah’s time surely remembered their ancestor’s suffering in Egypt. And so the saying goes, those who fail to learn from history are sure to repeat it. Once again, God’s people would rather be played as fools by the Egyptians than trust Him in reverence and humility.

This wasn’t the only time it happened either, and it wasn’t only at the hands of the Egyptians. Not long after Isaiah’s text, King Hezekiah sought the favor of another foreign power; this time the Babylonians, who would use that opportunity to eventually invade Jerusalem and sack the Temple. The judgment of that message sounds eerily familiar to the words of our text: 2 Kings 21:12 "therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel: `Behold, I am bringing such calamity upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears will shudder. 13 `And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab; I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.

The lesson learned here is simple. Problems arise when you trust others things over God. This is a very basic concept; pointing directly at the first commandment. What makes it difficult to follow is that sin constantly leads us away from the simple power of God. Isaiah speaks of a Messianic prophesy in our text. Peter quoted the words in his first letter as a reference to Christ. Jesus is called the corner-stone. God’s promise of hope was that He would use His righteousness to level out the mis-deeds of His people. With a measuring line and a plummet, or level, God would correct the sins and errors that led Judah astray. It shouldn’t surprise that the word iniquity, a frequently used synonym for sin in the Bible, literally means crooked or perverse. That’s the true nature of unrighteousness. It perverts that which is abundantly simple and true from God. If we would but trust in Him above all else, we would have no troubles. Yet, in a sinful world, that which is easy on the surface becomes absolutely impossible for us.

Judah tried to elude the truth in this covenant that they had made. Isaiah writes, “…you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we are in agreement. When the overflowing scourge passes through, It will not come to us, For we have made lies our refuge, And under falsehood we have hidden ourselves.” On the outside, Judah tried to act like everything was okay. They said, “We’ll be fine, nothing will hurt us.” God said otherwise, from verse 18: “Your covenant with death will be annulled, And your agreement with Sheol will not stand; When the overflowing scourge passes through, Then you will be trampled down by it.”

See the progression of Judah’s unfaithfulness and lack of trust? It started with an alliance with Egypt, which on the surface didn’t seem so bad. But, in the end, that same lack of trust caused them to doubt the LORD’s own Word. God promised destruction but Judah buried its head in the sand and chose not to listen. The truth is often so incredibly simple; it’s following that is much harder.

Under such crooked and perverse settings, it was Jesus, the cornerstone who would enter the scene and level the building. In the end, as we know, the LORD had all things under control. The Assyrians were defeated in one day. The Babylonians would have their time of victory but only under the LORD’s allowance. Nothing would be able to hinder the eternal plan of Christ’s birth to save all people, both Judah and the rest of the world.  

It’s New Year’s Day. People are thinking about the future. I’m sure you have plans and goals for this year. Have you taken time to think about the past? What have you learned? You have something to gain from Judah’s story. The Holy Spirit would have it be an unrepeated lesson for you. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.” That’s the lesson to remember, and it’s a simple one. But, like Judah, you suffer from sin too. You’re going to need help if you are to keep from being yet another statistic of repeated mistakes.

God’s covenant with you is one of life, not death. One of the resurrection, not of Sheol. Jesus has paid the price for your salvation. He has constructed a dwelling within your heart in which the Holy Spirit establishes God’s kingdom. This home of faith is level and true, crookedness has no place there; nor is perversity present. But, this also means that God’s covenant with you is one of faith. It takes patience to be faithful. Trusting in God means following and obeying even when the way seems unclear. Recognize the difficulty there; don’t be overconfident in yourself. But, recognize the great power you have in Christ as well.   

We sang in our Advent midweek hymn,
“This is He whom heaven taught singers, Sang of old with one accord;
whom the Scriptures of the prophets, Promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines the Long-expected, Let creation praise its Lord. (98 v.4)

Peter tells us that the power of Christ the Cornerstone is what makes believers living stones. We have the ability to live, but also to build upon the same foundation that our Savior, and all Christians before, built. That is great privilege indeed.

Studies have shown that most people give little effort to New Year’s resolutions because they know ahead of time, even before they make them, that they have no intention of keeping them. Talk about a vain promise. “Resolution” is a word that ought to convey assurance and stability but in our culture it has become a by-gone promise.  Judah’s covenant with Egypt was like this kind of New Year’s resolution. It was established but it was doomed from the start. It was not a true alliance, but rather a desperate attempt at self-preservation and semblance of personal power. And so, God called them on it, and called it what it really was, a covenant with death.

God’s promises are unfailing. God does not act hastily. God means what He says. This is the covenant of life in Jesus Christ. You can see the difference clearly. It’s not a complicated thing. Be ready this New Year, though, because the entanglements of sin lie at every corner. You will be tested and overwhelmed at times. You will do things you regret and you will hurt others at times. But God’s promise to you will not change. He will always come to you with the Gospel peace and freely offer it, asking for your trust by faith. Whether or not Jesus is in your life will determine whether or not you repeat past history, or walk a new path by the Spirit. Lord, help to walk in Your ways. Amen.

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

December 25, 2016 - Hebrews 1:1-12

Theme: The Birth Announcement of our Savior
1) A Proud Father Glorifies in His Son’s Birth
2) A Willing Son Glorifies His Father Word

Hebrews 1:1-12 God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. 5 For to which of the angels did He ever say: "You are My Son, Today I have begotten You "? And again: "I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son "? 6 But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: "Let all the angels of God worship Him." 7 And of the angels He says: "Who makes His angels spirits And His ministers a flame of fire." 8 But to the Son He says: "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your Kingdom. 9 You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You With the oil of gladness more than Your companions." 10 And: "You, LORD, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the work of Your hands. 11 They will perish, but You remain; And they will all grow old like a garment; 12 Like a cloak You will fold them up, And they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not fail."

Think about the highlights of life that people most often mention. We talked about a big one last weekend with the announcement of an engagement and marriage. Right up there with that is the birth of a child. Usually, peoples’ greatest memories involve one or both of those things. It’s fitting that following the Sunday that we saw the beautiful depiction of the desire that Jesus is for believers, we would see today an amazing description of that Child born on Christmas. This section is no ordinary summary of Jesus, however. It is framed by the Holy Spirit through the words and promises He authored long before Jesus came.

The book of Hebrews was given that name because it was written to Jewish individuals within the NT church. These people were extremely familiar with the Old Testament books and therefore Hebrews contains an astounding amount of quotations from the times of the psalms and prophets. These prophecies act like a fingerprint which can be traced throughout history. The one who matches the promises, is the Chosen One of God. With remarkable accuracy, Jesus Christ fits the fingerprint identity of the Old Testament. As we read the opening of Hebrews, it’s almost as if God the Father is introducing us to His Son. We get an inside look into the identity of the Child born in Bethlehem, just as the shepherds did who first saw the Jesus.

As we might expect with any ordinary birth announcement, the Father displays great pride and glory for His Son. Consider all of the honorable qualities bestowed upon Jesus:
·         Made the worlds (v.2,10)
·         Express image of His power (v.3)
·         Uphold all things by His word (v.3)
·         Purged sins (v.3)
·         Sits at the Father’s right hand (v.3)
·         Begotten in eternity (v.5)
·         Worshipped (v.6)
·         Eternal Throne (v.8) 

The writer calls to mind for the reader why God takes such pride in His Son. The text phrases this as how the Father “appointed Jesus as heir of all things” and later in verse four how Jesus has received this inheritance. Paul wrote in a similar way to the Colossians when he called Jesus “the express image of the invisible God and the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15).” Jesus received these distinguished titles because His Father glorified Him.

When a child is born, one of the proudest moments for father and mother is seeing a child that is theirs. A child that looks like them and will grow up to be like them. Jesus was the greatest example of that when it came to the eternal God. When someone witnessed Jesus they would see the exact representation of God the Father. But, that could only happen if Jesus was born, because we sinful mortals could only gaze upon a Savior who came as one of us.

God’s glory for His Son also comes into play as it pertains to revelation. The writer opens by calling to mind the many ways that God revealed Himself in the past. He doesn’t take the time list them, but for the reader knowledgeable in Biblical record, many examples come to mind.
·         The burning bush
·         The pillar of fire and cloud
·         The ark of the covenant
·         The still, small voice
·         The bronze serpent
·         The direct testimony to the many prophets
·         Manifestations of angelic beings

God revealed His will in many ways, but that all was building up to one point – the birth of Jesus. The text affirms confidently, “God has now spoken to us by His Son.” There is no greater revelation from God than the fact that He sent His Son to earth. We can focus on many different topics and themes in the Scriptures, but nothing is more powerful than the work of that Son. This is why, in all we do, we seek to reveal Jesus to one another and to those outside God’s Church. He is the Father’s greatest witness, not just because of His many powerful attributes, but ultimately because of what He did for the world and its problem with sin.

Part 2

Here we see the other side of this birth announcement. The Father’s Glory for the Son is the Son’s Glory for the Father. There is more to the Christmas story than a distant God’s promises about a coming Savior. It is also about that Savior’s very upholding of His Father’s will; accomplishment and victory in the space of time and history. Without Christ’s willingness to serve and suffer, there would be need occasion to glory about His birth.

Here is where the writer paints a beautiful picture of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus. It can be a difficult relationship to understand because of its complexity but it also shows us the great length to which God would go for our salvation. On the one hand there are phrases which indicate the Father bestowing glory upon Jesus which serves as an indication of the humility which Jesus assumed when coming to earth. But, at the same time, the writer conveys how Jesus earned all the glory which he received. True enough, Jesus was appointed heir by the Father and did receive an inheritance. But, Jesus also has the power to uphold all things by His Word, and He actively purged our sins by His life, death, and resurrection.

You see, Jesus did receive things from the Father, but not without reason. It’s only because Jesus stepped into our place and consciously made the choice, and completed the work on our behalf, that He receives such honor from the Father. Therefore, the writer speaks at length about how these attributes and actions make Jesus better than the angels. We obviously agree. With such a thorough discussion of His deity, Jesus surely far surpasses the angels in power and glory. But, if we don’t pay attention, we might miss the import of the Christmas story at this very point.

The glory that the Father displays for His Son is indeed connected to His Son’s deity, but also to His Son’s humanity. The incarnation, suffering, and humiliation of Jesus are also parts of His nature which make Him far superior to the angels. That’s why Psalm 2 is quoted right away as the first OT reference in our text. "You are My Son, Today I have begotten You ". Those words of King David, spoken by inspiration, pointed to the Son’s mission to become the begotten of the Father; born in the manger and lifted up upon the cross.

In many ways in the times past God spoke to His people, but in these last days He has spoken through His Son. If the Father’s oration of His Son was only about power and authority, it ultimately would not be a picture of Jesus. A tale of that stature would indeed be spoken of one greater than angels, but not one greater than sin, death, and hell. To accomplish victory over Satan, that powerful Savior, the express image of the Father, had to be born in humble conditions. The rudimentary, common, and lowly Christmas story is at the heart of eternal life for all people, because it fills in the ultimate title of Jesus. He’s more than omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He’s also the Son of Man.

In order to give the greatest glory to His Father and to earn that same approval from the same, Jesus had to do the unexpected. Base power was not enough for our salvation. Instead, what seems to be simpler but what was also impossible for us to do was needed instead. Seeking the interest of others over yourself. Forgiving sins and wrongdoings. Returning kindness for wickedness. Speaking good when revile would make sense. Curbing a lust of the heart instead of easily giving in. Honoring God in heart and action. These are the kinds of things Jesus did, and it wasn’t about supernatural miracles. These things happened in the dirt and filth, the reality of this world. In settings as simple and crude as a smelly stable, course straw, and the Judean countryside; with implements as rough as: nails, a cross, and a crown of thorns.

It is in the birth of Jesus that this eternal, Almighty, and seemingly distant God came down before men and became the God close at heart; the King among His people. God surely went to extreme lengths to get this message to people, from the very inception of sin. But, there is no louder or clearer message than the coming of His own Son. And that is how He speaks to us today. Truly, what honor and glory the Father has for His Son, and what honor and glory the Son has shown His Father.

What does all this mean for you and me? The greatest gift this Christmas is that God allows us to have the very same glory and honor. Not to our credit or because we earned it in any way. But, because Jesus is ours by faith. His glory becomes our glory. His holiness becomes our holiness. His honor to the Father becomes our honor to the Father. His inheritance becomes ours.

1 John 3:1-2 Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. 2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.