January 21, 2019

Epiphany 2 - Psalm 128

Theme: Stability isn’t Flashy, but it is Fulfilling
1. Stability in your family
2. Stability in your faith

One thing I really enjoy are Geico commercials. I don’t know what it is but I feel like they have perfected the art of advertising. I mean, you have to give them some credit that they are able to make something as bland as insurance entertaining and funny. That’s the thing about Geico commercials, they use humor. They play to the ironic and bizarre aspects of life. You may have seen on television that Geico is now offering a contest where people can vote on their favorite Geico commercial. Perusing the website brought back a few memories and lots of laughs.

One of the more recent Geico ad campaigns was focused on getting more from Geico. You might remember some of these commercials which usually contain a dialogue between two people doing some ordinary task. In one commercial there is yard work being done. In another, two neighbors are placing Christmas decorations around their yards. As one of the people is describing their savings from Geico, each back and forth scene change includes more items. As the insurance savings are described, the frame literally gets more and more items. It’s a clever way to reinforce their goal, get more savings with Geico.

A funny ad like that also plays to our emotions because we experience the same thing in life. Some people are better at things than we are. Some do have more. One person may think they’ve accomplished something well only to find out soon after that someone else has done it better. More and more is the direction we strive after.

When thinking about God’s work, we have to admit that He does it all the very best. No one is able to do more than He can, as the people humbly confessed of Jesus, “He does all things well (Mark 7:37).” Who would dare suggest that we could improve upon something God has done? Certainly, none of us. Yet, we often live as if we believe we can. We often get discontent with God’s way of doing things, with His order, His creation, and His plan. We often live and act like we know better, like we can improve upon His way. This isn’t part of a funny commercial. There is a limit to what is actually more. We’re reminded of that fact today in a Psalm about family and the blessings God provides through it. In today’s lesson we see that God’s plan – stability, isn’t flashy, but it is fulfilling. We read:

Psalm 128 A song of ascents. How happy is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways! 2 You will surely eat what your hands have worked for. You will be happy, and it will go well for you. 3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house, your sons, like young olive trees around your table. 4 In this very way the man who fears the LORD will be blessed. 5 May the LORD bless you from Zion, so that you will see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life 6 and will see your children's children! Peace be with Israel.

This psalm is the 9th of 15 in a compilation called the songs of ascent. No one knows for sure what this title refers to but it’s generally thought to indicate that these were worship songs used on the way up to Jerusalem for certain festivals. As pilgrims from around Israel would file into Jerusalem they would sing these psalms as reminders of the LORD’s blessings. Blessing is really the key concept here. We see the blessings of family, children, a spouse, prosperity, occupation, and even peace. These are all blessings that focus on normal life. But it’s not really any of these things per se that the LORD hones in on. The overall theme is stability. Stability in my family life. Stability in my job. Stability in my society. And the key to this stability is that the LORD gives more. More than we expect and more than we deserve.

These blessings sound very special, and they are. But the danger is that they are equally easy to neglect and take for granted. So quickly, they also become afterthoughts in our pursuit of more or more. That’s because what we often pursue is based on what is flashy. Think of things that are trendy and popular – things we see other people having and we want. The flashiness of our desires really has discontentment and coveting at its core. And the more we get the more we want. This is the unsatisfied pursuit of blessings. Behind every proper blessing from God is also the potential of a curse if we misuse it from God’s intended purpose.

The more stable, moderating, and God-pleasing blessings are often forsaken as ordinary and undesirable. Yet, both God and experience teach us that the most stable blessings are also the most fulfilling. Work, Family, Society. These are the staples of life. Each of these three blessings are inherent to a healthy world. And each of the three are connected to the other. But, one thing they are not is flashy.

Instead of viewing work as a calling from the Lord to serve Him and others, it’s easy for us to see it as a chore and obligation. We let this mindset dominate our thinking and we put in minimum effort with a cynical attitude that it won’t make a difference anyway in the long run. We’re just there to punch the clock.

How many of us make genuine, quality time for our family? Amidst the busyness of life do we take time to have meaningful conversations with children, looking at each day as a gift from God to lead them closer to heaven? Is the Word of God heard in our homes? Are we able to press to pause button for just a few minutes to read it or to offer prayer? Have we established a habit for our children, for our marriages, that leads us to the foot of the cross? Or are we too busy streaming the next form of media, binging the latest show, or simply going our separate ways?

Most of us are concerned enough about our society. We listen to the news. We read the newspapers. We’re aware of what is going on. But, where is the hope? Talk about sad and despondent reports – every evening we’re consumed by all the wrong things that are happening in the world. Adding insult to injury there seems to be so little we can do to improve things and to right the wrongs. Maybe it’s just better to avoid it. Yet, we quickly forget the connection that God makes here between our personal lives and our society. We can make a big difference in the world in how we carry ourselves, whether or not we speak of and live our faith, and what we pass down to our children. The individual home is the foundation of our society. When one suffers, it reflects on the other.

All these amazing blessings and potential for a happy life at our fingertips – given by God. Yet, at the same time so many of them seem so far out of reach. Stability is key. It’s not flashy, but it is fulfilling. Through the stability of these seemingly common and ordinary blessings, we see the more of what God offers. In verses 1 and 2 the psalmist talks about happiness. How happy is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways! 2 You will surely eat what your hands have worked for. You will be happy, and it will go well for you. He builds on this thought by describing aspects of a happy home. These are tremendous blessings. Blessings from God. Blessings that bring fulfillment to our lives.
Yet, the LORD can give even more. The psalmist continues by saying, 4 In this very way the man who fears the LORD will be blessed. 5 May the LORD bless you from Zion. Happiness and blessedness are synonymous terms in the Bible. It is in these ways that God wants us to be happy. Not in that we get what we want or we see the fulfillment of our desires. Rather, that we humbly receive what He gives. Things like: a good job, a loving family, and a healthy society.

Yet, there’s also a reason why the two words are translated differently. There’s a reason why “happy” is used in verses 2-3 and “blessed” is used in verses 4-5. Those words mean something different too and they highlight what God gives that is far beyond what we can even receive. In verses 2 and 3, with the word happy, the psalmist is describing a word that refers to an important blessings, but blessings that are a normal part of life. In verses 4-5, with the word “blessed,” the psalmist uses a word that is only used in the Bible to refer to what God does and what God gives.

This is the progression. All blessings come from God. In that sense they are all at the root of truly fulfilling happiness. But, there’s an aspect of God’s grace and power that goes even beyond the typical blessing. It’s not about the object involved. In both words the LORD connects work, family, and society. The special power is in the One who gives. Jesus said in Matthew 7: Matthew 7:11 "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!

God is able to give more. Not in the sense that automatically comes to mind. Not in a flesh-gratifying, flashy, get ‘what I want and when I want it’ type way. But, in God’s own way, through God’s own power, and in His abundant mercy and grace. And always remember, these amazing blessings are always about stability. God doesn’t want your happiness to be fleeting or temporary. He wants you to have something that lasts. So often we pass up what God gives because it doesn’t seem to be what we want. But we lose so much more in the process.

The heart of the gospel, God’s love for sinners in His Son, is at the core of each of His blessings. He wants you to believe and trust that. And the gospel changes our perception of blessing and happiness by showing us how much more God can give. It causes us to take a difference perspective at what God gives. So, when it comes to your job, recognize it as a calling. Take time to thank Him for being able to work, for having a job no matter how miniscule or insignificant it may feel like. Look at it as opportunity to serve, not as a chore. See it as a way that God preserves and prospers your time of grace, to hear His Word, to repent in humility, and to receive pardon in Christ.

The gospel changes your perception of family. It leads you to make time for your family – for your kids. Not just time driving around to school or running errands. Not just time for soccer or basketball practice, or going out to eat. Make time to share and receive the God’s Word and sacrament with your children. Let the Word of Christ dwell in your home richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Show your family that they are a priority in your life, not by giving them whatever they want by using money or possessions to gain influence but by taking time to talk about life. Open up to one another – parent to child and child to parent. Bring each other closer to Jesus and therefore closer to heaven. Use forgiveness regularly. There is no greater gift. With all the things in life that we can’t take with us when we leave, you’d think we’d give a high priority to the one thing we can bring to heaven – each other. Yet, sharing and using the Word of God – the one thing needed, the way of salvation, is matter of stability and fulfillment – not style and flash. God’s gift of more in the gospel, His greater blessing, helps me trust that and re-shapes the way I treat my family.     

When it comes to society, I could tell you to be the change you want to see and it wouldn’t be a bad thing. But I can give you so much more than that. Give the world Jesus. It’s much simpler than trying to do everything yourself and trying to constantly prove to people how good you are. And what greater Friend can there be? A Savior – one who is not just concerned about bread, water, and lilies of the field or the sparrows. But one who has won heaven and a crown of life. One who speaks light and salvation. Yes, give the world Jesus. What more do we need? Yet, He is not flashy or stylish – He’s stable and fulfilling.

God is always about more. But it’s His more – not ours. It’s about the gospel of Christ – an eternal blessing of sins forgiven that only He can give. This blessing is for all – and it changes everything about life. Thanks be to Christ, our Savior, for being stable when we’re not, and for keeping us fulfilled. In His name and through His Word.

Ephesians 3:20-21 Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 21 to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

January 17, 2019

Epiphany 1 - Luke 2:41-52

Theme: Is Jesus Welcome in Your heart?
1. When He lingers longer than expected
2. When He instructs
3. When all you can do is trust

Luke 2:41-52 His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. 43 When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it; 44 but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day's journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. 45 So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. 46 Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. 48 So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously." 49 And He said to them, "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" 50 But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. 51 Then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

We’re finally moving forward from a very popular holiday season in our lives. From Thanksgiving, to Christmas, to New Years, I’m sure many of you have had your fair share of guests in your home during the last few months. Did any of you have the awkward exchange of an acquaintance who over-stayed their welcome? We all know what it feels like. It’s great to have guests over. It’s a privilege to host. But we all have our limits too. Sometimes, it’s extremely difficult to show someone the door. We don’t want to be rude, but even good things have an end and sometimes we need our own personal or family space. Confronting the over-stayed welcome guest can be a troublesome task.

Mary and Joseph found themselves on a similar footing in this, the only account in the Bible from our Savior’s adolescent years. For them, it wasn’t that Jesus was an unwelcomed guest or that He was intruding too much. Rather, it was, as verse 43 tells us, that Jesus lingered too long in Jerusalem. Mary, Joseph, and the attendant family had journeyed to Jerusalem for the Passover festival but it was now time to head home. Not according to Jesus. He had unfinished business in Jerusalem – business of the highest and most pressing need. It wouldn’t be the last surprise from Him on a Passover in Jerusalem, either.

What we see in this story first of all is one of the bumps that comes along with sinful parents caring for a sinless child. There was a learning curve here. Mary and Joseph no doubt felt that they were in the right, yet Jesus’ actions were proven just as He was invested in fulfilling His Father’s business here on earth. Along with this somewhat minor lesson is a monumental teaching point for Mary, Joseph, and you. Put yourself in Mary and Joseph’s position and ask yourself, when your Savior does the unexpected, is He welcome in your heart?

It may not seem like this was the question that needed answering from Mary and Joseph, but it was. Their struggle with Jesus’ choice to stay in Jerusalem ultimately was a struggle about whether or not they would trust His will as their Savior. Did He have a place in their hearts in that manner? Does He have a place in our hearts or has He over-stayed His welcome? In three similar ways, that same question comes into our lives. 1. When Jesus lingers longer than expected. 2. When Jesus instructs 3. And when Jesus presents something that requires faith. We ask for the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen us through His Word today.

Part 1: When Jesus lingers longer than expected

Maybe all that Mary and Joseph wanted was a heads up. Perhaps they were okay with any decision Jesus made so long as He let them know ahead of time. But, Jesus did what He did for a reason. It was a necessary reminder that He was not here for any ordinary purpose. Within that moment of surprise and anxiousness for Mary and Joseph was a built-in memory that would always remind them why Jesus was different.

In many ways, Jesus can be equally surprising to us. When He is, do we follow, trust, and obey Him or does He become an embarrassing burden? It’s commonplace to want Jesus on our terms – to fashion Him into the God we want or bind Him by our wishes and desires. Many people today accept Jesus – so long as fits into their terms and stays there. That is not faith. It is treating Jesus as an unwelcome guest.

This kind of thinking is often marked by preaching the positivity of Jesus. The mantra goes that Jesus loves all people, therefore He is constantly seeking the best for His followers and affirming their dreams and desires. If anything about the Christian faith veers of this course of self-fulfillment then it is quickly jettisoned from a person’s confession. This positivity is dangerous because it allows lies to enter a person’s heart while veiled under half-truths. Jesus does love all people. Jesus does want the best for us. Jesus wants all to be happy – that’s actually what the Biblical word “blessed” means. But, Jesus doesn’t do that by affirming all lifestyles. Jesus doesn’t always tell us yes. And Jesus does not bend His will to fit yours. In addition to what we perceive as positive things Jesus does, He also acts in truth and justice. What we need to understand about being a sinner is that what we want or what we call good will not always be true or just. If it was, we wouldn’t be a sinner.

What do you do when Jesus lingers longer than expected? This isn’t saying that Jesus remains in the Temple. Rather, it’s symbolic for the times when Jesus confronts us with something unpleasant to our ears; times when Jesus tells us no, or says with the full authority of God “Thou shall not…” Have we fallen into the seeker-salvation trap of wanting Jesus sometimes but not at other times? Does He become a burden when our friends aren’t Christians and we’re afraid of offending them by living our faith? Is it awkward when relatives don’t confess the Christian faith and we’d rather not have Jesus around if it means causing commotion? It’s so easy to treat the Lord of heaven and earth, our Savior and Redeemer, like a doormat in our hearts by accepting Him in certain circumstances and being ashamed of Him in others.

Mary and Joseph were in that same boat. Jesus confronted them as Lord, God, and Savior; not just as a child. And when Jesus lingered in the temple it was also a test of Mary and Joseph for the other times He would do something unexpected. Would they follow, trust, and obey? Do we?

Part 2: When He instructs

That test would be given in Jesus’ response to their rebuke. He replied in verse 49 "Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" While Jesus had been instructing the teachers of the temple earlier, the true lesson was given in this question. For Jesus, the work before was not an optional thing – like so many approach religion today. For the majority of the world, even Christians, faith is a mere “take it or leave it” thing in life. And, that’s before we even question what kind of faith we’re talking about. Religion has been denigrated to the masses, becoming a mere social choice that is no more than wish-fulfillment thinking. Such is what we do when we get our hands on God’s creation. For Jesus, though, the principles of the Christian faith were not optional, they were His Heavenly Father’s business. Jesus found it absolutely necessary to follow through on His work, not just because He subjectively believed it and because others could believe what they wanted. Jesus believed this because it was a fact; and one that was absolutely necessary to accomplish. And finally, a fact one that equally applies to all people.

The test was whether Mary and Joseph believed the same. For us, the test is whether we do. When Jesus instructs, do we listen, or is not what we’re here for? When Jesus says it is necessary that He complete the Father’s business, do we agree? At another time Jesus said the same thing to His disciples, three times actually, He told them that “it was necessary” that He go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the Pharisees, die on a cross, and rise again the third day. This was His Father’s business.

And don’t we all remember Peter’s famous rebuke at Jesus’ insinuation that these things were necessary. “Far be it from you Lord!” Peter said. And Jesus sadly but firmly judged – “Get behind Me, Satan!” Foolish Peter. Yet, isn’t that the same thing we do when we fail the test? Are we any better than Peter when Jesus instructs us of His Father’s business and we scoff at His Word as if it were a mere opinion? You can take whatever it is; whatever rubs you the worst in Bible, whatever is deemed most politically incorrect, whatever modern Christianity has moved on from – if we react the same way at what the Word of God (written or incarnate) instructs then we are no better – and we have failed the test. Jesus wants us to do more than recognizes that He instructs, but to believe it and to cherish it just as much as He did.

Part 3: When all you can do is trust

So, what was Mary and Joseph’s response to this test? It doesn’t sound so good. Verse 50: But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them. Even hearing an answer from Jesus baffled Mary and Joseph. They didn’t understand. But this was not a total failure of their faith, rather it was a description of what was at the root of the struggle. What sinner can witness the wonderful works of God and not be left with a puzzled countenance? Who stands in God’s presence without feeling inadequate? If we think we do, then we aren’t paying close enough attention.

Mary and Joseph’s response reminds us why some don’t follow Jesus. There comes a point for every disciples of Jesus, and often multiple points, where they come face to face with things that they can’t understand. And logically, it’s easy to see why so many turn away from Jesus. He isn’t a God that you can contain. He can’t be fashioned and molded like the other idols and false deities of the world. He defies understanding. In one sense that is an indictment of our sin. But, in another sense it’s a comforting thought. The God that invests His business in my salvation cannot be controlled. He power is infinite. His love transcends all human knowledge. His peace surpasses all understanding.

So, as far as the test is concerned, verse 50 is only the beginning of the answer. See the complete picture in the next verse: …His mother kept all these things in her heart. Once again, Mary shows her faith; not in what she is able to understand about God but what she trusts. The idea here for “keep” is to guard or treasure a truth in the deepest way possible. Think of it as hanging onto something at all costs. This was Mary’s faith. Was she perfect? No. Did she know it all? No. But she was not ashamed of her Savior, even in the most trying moments that defied her expectation. She trusted in Him. She trusted in what He could accomplish even if she couldn’t understand. And that is the true sign that Jesus is welcome is a believer’s heart; that he or she trusts Him in all things and cherishes the opportunity to listen to His voice.

Is Jesus welcomed in a trusting way, by faith, in your heart? Remember, He will surprise you. You won’t always understand. But, that’s not what it’s about. Hang onto, treasure, guard, and keep the simple fact that Jesus has accomplished God the Father’s business, the task of your salvation and the entrance right for you to be in heaven. Praise to be Jesus, and may you always trust in Him! Amen.

January 7, 2019

Epiphany - Ephesians 3:1-12

The Mystery of God’s Grace
1. Shrouded in sin
2. Revealed to all in Jesus

Ephesians 3:1-12 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles-- 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God's grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (ESV)

The mystery genre is one of the most popular and enduring types of literature. We all have our favorite mystery books, or series. What makes it so popular? I found a website (bookish.com) that listed some of the must-haves in a great mystery. Some of the items on that list include:

·       A gripping first chapter
·       A human hero
·       A page-turning pace
·       A lot of clues
·       A spectacular twist
·       An elegantly simple solution
·       A story you want to read again      

You might add something else to that list, but I think most of us would agree that those components are what make mysteries so great. Today, we get a text from God’s Word that has the theme of mystery as well. What makes a good mystery in God’s eyes? How does He use the word, or the genre in His book? Well, you could actually take each of those qualities we listed and see it in the Bible too. A gripping first chapter. A human hero, and even more, that same human is also divine. A page-turning pace – maybe not so much to those of us who have read the Bible multiple times but it is an action-packed book. Lots of clues or what the Bible calls prophecies. Definitely a spectacular twist where Satan thought he had defeated God, only to be conquered by the open tomb. An elegantly simple solution – God saves us by the merits of His Son, no effort or works required on our part. And, finally, the Bible is certainly a story worth reading again and again.

Sounds like God’s Word might actually be a good mystery novel. Maybe in some details, but we know it’s also much more. For one thing, the Bible also contains many other genres of literature. Also, the Bible is not a novel, nor is it fiction. In many areas it might more accurately be called a history book. And yet, we see the clear theme of mystery here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The same idea pops up here and there throughout the Bible, but by no means is it a dominant theme across the book. These verses today are the most concentrated section in the Bible that speaks of God’s mystery. While we see some striking similarities between a good mystery novel and the Bible, there’s much more to the mystery that Paul speaks about. God’s mystery is not about page-turning suspense, or surprising twists – though both thoughts could apply. God’s mystery is ultimately about His grace. A mystery that remains elusive in sin, but one that becomes open and known by Christ Jesus.

The reason God describes that blessed gift in terms of a mystery is because He’s speaking about it from a human perspective. In fact, at the root of this mystery are some very human issues.

First, we see our sins. The grace of Christ is a mystery to us because we are sinful. That seems a bit out of place, because isn’t grace, especially the grace of our Savior, meant for underserving sinners? Even Jesus said that those who thought they were righteous on their own didn’t need grace. Grace is specifically given to the unworthy. How is it, then, that grace is such a mystery to those who need it and to those for whom it is meant?

Such is the effect of our sin. Paul writes to the Corinthians about this fact, and what it means in terms of a mystery. 1 Corinthians 2:7-10 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But as it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 

God’s grace in Christ is a mystery to sinners because sin blinds us from understanding it and from reaching God on our own. It’s certainly not that grace isn’t intended for sinners. It very much is. The truth of the matter is that without God’s power, we cannot even perceive that grace in Christ exists. That’s where the Holy Spirit’s work comes in and why it is vital to our Christian lives. The Spirit reveals, namely shows us the meaning of the mystery, so that we can understand and believe in Christ’s grace for us.

The second human issue we see that makes grace a mystery is a specific effect of sin on our lives – a dangerous desire to hoard this gift of God from others. The sinful attitudes of some Jewish believers in the Church led them to discredit the work of Christ for Gentiles. There was either a denial that Jesus was Savior for the Gentiles or there were added requirements that Gentiles had to keep in order to be part of the church – requirements based in Old Testament ceremonial laws. Paul knew these restrictions well, having grown up as a Pharisee. But Paul also knew the Gentile population well as one who has born as a Roman citizen and as the chief messenger of God’s grace to the Gentiles. Paul’s message was clear – the grace of Christ must no longer be a mystery to the Gentiles. Salvation has been revealed for them, just as for the Jews, with no strings attached. He says in verse 6: This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

This is really the message of Epiphany – that salvation is for all people. Of course, it wasn’t only at Epiphany, or through Paul, that God first made this clear. Even the Old Testament prophets declared that God’s grace would be for the Gentiles. In fact, the very first promise of a Savior given to Adam and Eve included all their descendants. The problem was that certain Christians wanted to restrict God’s grace for their own selfish motives – sometimes deliberately, sometimes in ignorance.

For Paul, this mystery of the Gentiles was deeply connected to the mystery of Christ in the gospel. In fact, they are two sides to the same coin if you will. The revelation from God that the Gentiles were co-heirs of salvation was simply a narrower picture of salvation in Christ for the entire world. And it was the same inward sinful heart that threatened both promises and that caused them to be shrouded in mystery from the start.

Four times in our text Paul uses the word “mystery” and each use goes back and forth between referring to the gospel of Christ and the truth that Gentiles would be saved. To have one is to have the other, just as to restrict one is to restrict the other. This is what made the nationalistic factions within the early Church such a dangerous issue. It struck right to the heart of the gospel. If Christ was not the Savior of all nations, how could anyone have confidence that He was their Savior – whether Jew or Gentile? If Jesus was only for the Jews then God lied about promising to save all people.  

Instead, though, Paul could boast that his mission was “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Now that Christ has come and completed the work of salvation, there is no need for the mystery to endure. The story of salvation is complete. All people have an equal view of God’s grace in Christ through the Scriptures. No more should anyone be shrouded in ignorance or unbelief. Paul stressed the importance of this so much that he spoke of being a witness to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” That’s how powerful the grace of Christ is when open for all to see. Even the hosts of heaven marvel and rejoice over it and see it for the precious gift that it is.

Some might call this a great story – and it is. The story of Jesus has twists and turns. There were moments that were shrouded in mystery. There were stunning proclamations and acts performed by God. And no one could have suggested that God Himself would come as a human and lay down His life for a rebellious people – talk about a twist! And yet, Jesus did all that and even more.

But, there’s much more to this mystery than a stirring plot and a surprise at the end. More than a mystery, it’s a story of God’s love – and that’s a simple thing to understand. That’s the entire point of Epiphany – revealing the simplicity of God’s love in Christ. The Church father Augustine once said, “The Bible is shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim.” Within these grand works of our Savior, which in reality no mortal mind can fully comprehend, is the simplicity of grace – the love of God our Father in His Son, revealed by the Holy Spirit through the Word. It doesn’t get any simpler, or more powerful, than that, and that’s what God wants all people to know.   

At another time Jesus spoke of mystery when He said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants (Matthew 11:25).” That’s really what makes a good mystery from God. It’s not about all the literary bells and whistles that fascinates the human ear. It’s not about the daring twists and turns that swirl our emotions. It’s simply about His love for sinners. The mystery that has been revealed is all about what God has done. For some, who are wiser or more learned in their own eyes, that may not seem to be good enough, or worth the time and effort to listen. But, for a sinful child of God who needs grace, there is no greater treasure, and no more endearing message. This is our Epiphany word – that God has revealed His grace in Jesus to all people! Amen.

January 2, 2019

Advent 4 - 2 Kings 1:2-17

There is a God in Israel!

Our sermon text is found in the first Scripture reading from 2 Kings 1:2-17.

As I studied this text in preparation for today’s message, I kept thinking of Peter. Peter, on the top of the mountain as our Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured before His eyes. And you remember what Peter said, “It is good to be here, Lord.” Yes, it is Peter. Saints throughout the ages have remarked the same thing when brought before the glory and majesty of Jesus – It is good to be here.

I want you to think of that as we come before God’s Word today. I want you to remember that, and to trust that, because in addition to being here, we all bring something here. It’s common to talk about what we bring around this time of year, isn’t it? One day away from Christmas Eve. Two days from Christmas. You can hardly show up anywhere without the question escaping a person’s lips, “What did you bring?” 

That’s a celebratory question around our house, as the kids flutter with excitement at what could be under the tree. What did mom and dad bring this year? These last few weekends we’ve touched on that anticipation and excitement that comes along with the Advent season; not just to receive gifts but to receive a Savior born for us. But today, and each day, that question means something else too. And it takes on a bigger meaning around Christmas too. What did you bring? So many of us have additional stressors, insecurities, and fears around Christmastime. Despite the cheery pictures portrayed on the television in commercials and on the radio in Christmas jingles, this time of year is not always merry and bright for everyone. We’re all bringing something today, to God’s house. Not just in anticipation, but also in anxiety.

Have you come with burdens? Perhaps, someone close to you is no longer here this year. Maybe the last few weeks or months at work have been frustrating and left you wondering what you’ve made of your life; feeling like you’re all out of options. For some of us, we’ve been let down by someone else in our life. Someone that we staked so much on; perhaps someone we committed to, even in the deepest way, only to be let down. For some of you, the burden doesn’t have a name or a face. You feel it and it affects you, and it causes pain, but the remedy escapes your ability. And in your heart you feel like you’re careening ever deeper into the emotional abyss. These burdens, and a thousand others are accentuated during Christmas. And no matter who are, you’re carrying something, and you’ve brought it here today.

Our lesson from God’s Word isn’t high on the list of popular Advent or Christmas texts. Yet, it is a lesson about what God does for what you bring. It doesn’t start that way, however. King Ahaziah had a problem. Perhaps not a life-altering problem at the start, but that’s exactly what it became. He hurt himself by falling and he needed help. It wasn’t that his initial injury was so deeply concerning, it’s more of what his reaction to this injury caused him to do.

As in all situations where a person is confronted with something that displays their limited mortality, Ahaziah sought help. And what better place to turn than God? The problem was, Ahaziah sought the wrong god. Why he did this isn’t hard to understand. Ahaziah was the son of Ahab, one of the most wicked kings in the history of Israel. Ahab had plenty of run-ins with Jehovah and a His servant, Elijah. You can sense that Ahaziah knows about Elijah because he can identify him by his appearance. I’m sure Ahaziah grew up hearing his father Ahab complain about the prophet of God that continually called him to repentance.

Instead of seeking the true God, Ahaziah goes after a Philistine god, Baal-zebub. This was an easy thing to do. The village of Ekron was right over the border into Philistia. Ahaziah certainly would have also been influenced by his mother, Queen Jezebel, who was from Philistia and was the daughter of one of Baal’s prophets. Ahaziah was seeking help for his affliction, but through his own choices he added to his plight. His chief mistake was that he made his decision as if Jehovah no longer existed. Elijah called the king out once again, saying, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.” This particular decision carried a weighty consequence, as decisions tend to for those whom the Lord has put in leadership positions. Ahaziah would die because of his choice – that was the prophet’s message. 

At this point, repentance on Ahaziah’s part certainly would have been in order. But he was the king. He got what he wanted. He didn’t let God, or His prophets, dictate to him. So in his pride, he took the next step – he demanded that God do what he wanted. This demand started by doing what his father, Ahab, never could – getting rid of Elijah. Like any petty dictator, Ahaziah decided to destroy his opposition, instead of listening. Three times he sent detachments of troops to arrest Elijah. Twice, they were consumed by fire from above.

Then, something amazing happened – a sure sign that there was still a God in Israel! The king’s servant did what the king refused to, and in so doing received what the king never would. The captain of the third detachment of soldiers fell on his knees and pleaded before Elijah saying, "O man of God, please let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight.

What resulted was the strongest sign of God’s power that day. It wasn’t about the fire from heaven or the swift act of judgment and raw power. It’s never just about those types of things with God. It was about grace and mercy. It was peace and love. God showed the greatest of His virtues to that captain and his men, not because they deserved it, but because they recognized and believed that they didn’t.

Two men needed something that day. Two men brought what they carried. But, what each one received was different, because of what they believed. Ahaziah no longer believed there was a God in Israel, at least not one worth believing or one that was greater than Baal-zebub. He carried his burden in anger, hostility, and defiance. The captain lost all control and power, at least of his own, yet gained the grace of the true, eternal God. He carried his burden with humility, sorrow, repentance, and most of all – trust.

Centuries later, the worship of Baal-zebub was not so popular in Israel. The name of that god was more of a backhanded insult used to mock and ridicule. But that doesn’t mean anything had changed. For it would be to God’s own Son that the people gave this title, crying out at the sight of His power that it was given by Baal-zebub. Jesus’ reply summarized the problem in their hearts just as much as the problem in Ahaziah’s. Luke 11:23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (ESV)

We all carry something, but without Jesus our efforts are scattered as much as grains of sand in the wind. It’s a powerful thing to know and believe that there is still a God in Israel. Elijah knew that and he believed it. The unnamed captain knew that and be believed it. What about you?

What do you carry today? What did you bring with you this morning? What is your burden this Christmas? Let us not play the fool and think we are stronger or more resilient than those in need. Let us not be kings who trust in their power, riches, and strength. We all have something.

The thing about these burdens and struggles, is that very often it’s only you that knows about them. The things that hurt us the most are deeply personal. They easily hidden. They are all too often suppressed out of sheer feeling of helplessness and guilt. But you know them, and here’s what I want you to know. There is a God in Israel. Not Baal-zebub, not Satan, not power or money, not even you. A Savior. A Son. A Brother. A Lord. There is a God – Jesus. I may never know what you’ve gone through, what you’re going, or what you will go through. But I know there is a God and I know who He is and what He’s done. Your father and your mother; your sister and your brother, your closest friend – they may never know what you’re carrying – but there is a God who does. I want you to know that. I want you to believe that.

There was something else that Jesus said that day, when in one of the greatest ironies of all time, He was called by the name of the ancient Philistine god – Baal-zebub. He did warn them that those who oppose Him will be scattered. But He also offered hope – because He knows we all have something to carry – both those who believe and those who do not.

After hearing what Jesus said and seeing what He had done, a woman cried out, "Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!" 28 But He said, "More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and treasure it!"

That is for you, dear friend. At a time when we celebrate our Savior’s birth, and we see just how highly honored Mary was; not only to be in the presence of her Lord and Savior, but to nurture and care for Him. At a time like this, when we’re also confronted with the less-pleasant realities of our mortal limitations, our burdens, and our struggles that we carry; Jesus holds us close by His voice and says, More than that, blessed are you – you who hear My Word and treasure it in your heart.

No matter what you’ve brought today – there is a God in Israel! And more than that, there is a God in the United States, there is a God in Washington state, there is a God in Lynnwood, and there is a God here at Redemption. And most importantly of all – there is a God in your heart. Sometimes what you carry will cause you to doubt that. But, today, and especially as we approach the commemoration of this God’s birth, I want you to know that, and I want you to believe it.

That’s the joy-filled, hopeful message of Christmas. That’s the word of God that we treasure and that blesses us time and time again – that there is God and He is for me. Your Jesus, who knows you by name, who planned your salvation in eternity, who came – conceived, born, and becoming – just like you, who suffered, died, and was buried. Your God’s life is a gift to you – a beautiful tapestry of your inheritance in heaven, from the fragile moments of His conception and birth to the horrifying moments of His punishment and judgment upon the cross. It was all for you.

And your privilege today is to proclaim that there is a God. No matter what I carry. No matter what I’ve done. No matter where I’ve come from. No matter what I have in my hands. I have this God.

One last story. The most pivotal moment when God’s faithful thought all was lost. The most pressing time for not only them – but us. When all seemed lost. When Satan was thought to have gained the upper hand. When the lights of Christmas were dim. When darkness covered the earth. No carols. No singing. No gifts. Just a cold, lifeless tomb, and two frightened men fearing the worst – carrying what they had brought; the over-bearing load of their unfaithfulness.

And the angels said, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? "He is not here, He is risen (Luke 24:5-6)

There is a God in Israel. There is a God for you – Jesus, the Christ. No matter what you bring – it is good to be here, Lord. Amen.

Christmas 1 - 2 Samuel 7:1-16

Powerful Promises for Broken Plans

2 Samuel 7:1-16 Now when the king lived in his house and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2 the king said to Nathan the prophet, "See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent." 3 And Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you." 4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, 5 "Go and tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. 7 In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"' 8 Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. 9 And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.'" (ESV)

Dear fellow redeemed:

Now that Christmas is past us, the time of returns, exchanges, and refunds is upon us. Customer service lines around our nation will be filled for the next few weeks as people return the gifts they didn’t want or the ones that were duplicates. I suppose the busyness might extend well into the Spring with items that are under a 60- or 90-day warranty period. Some stores even have dedicated locations for refurbished or open-box items that were returned. The business of returns and exchanges has kind of become a season in and of itself.

Most of the time in these situations, the best you can hope for is an exact exchange or a complete refund. Sometimes, you may have to pay extra postage or a re-stocking fee, but if it’s between that and an item that you don’t want, it’s a pretty fair trade. Imagine if you returned an item and received double the credit back. Imagine if you took in a broken item in and received a newer, better model, and the money it cost in return. Imagine if you were past the return or warranty period and you still received the latest model in exchange for your broken one. We can’t do that with products because companies would lose money. But, the Lord does that and more with the plans we make in life.

Much more than a time for returns and exchanges, this is the season of the New Year. We all ponder about new plans, dreams, and ideas around the New Year. We want to improve. We want to start over in the areas where we made mistakes. But the harsh reality that lurks behind the freshness of the New Year is that in 365 days many of our hopes, dreams, and plans will come crashing down if not before. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a return policy on past mistakes? Wouldn’t it be nice to exchange faulty dreams for satisfying goals? Our portion of God’s Word directs us to that very blessing from our Savior, Jesus.

The story is about one of King David’s greatest dreams. He wanted to build a temple in Jerusalem. There was no doubt that David loved God and loved to worship God. Many of the psalms David wrote were originally worship hymns to the LORD. In those songs, David spoke of his great joy in coming to the Lord’s house regularly, of the hope of calling upon the Lord’s name in prayer, and of the comfort that David received in his heart from the Lord’s Word. David, like every believer, loved to worship God, and wanted to honor and glorify God’s name by building Him a temple.

David’s trusted prophet, Nathan, approved of this plan. He even said that the Lord would be pleased by it. Yet, that same night the LORD told Nathan that it wouldn’t come to pass. David, despite his good intentions and believer’s attitude, would not be the one to build the LORD’s temple. This lifelong goal of David would fail. Yet, through it the LORD would exchange this dream for an even greater promise. That’s what God does with our failed missions. He takes up the mantle with His power and love and provides an even greater promise for us that far supersedes our initial plans. It’s a truly miraculous exchange process but it doesn’t always seem like it.

If you put yourself in David’s position, you can sense some of the frustration he might have had. After all he had done for the LORD, after how faithful he had been, after all he had accomplished, he would not be allowed to fulfill one of his greatest desires to serve the LORD. To us, that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, especially since David had good intentions. It’s not as if he was trying to pursue something contrary to God’s will. This is part of the miracle in the way God works. We see situations that seem fool-proof and we want God to rubber stamp His will to the matter and make it happen. And if it doesn’t, we start to doubt. Yet, that is the very process God uses to turn it into something much better.

The first reality we have to admit is that even our fool-proof plans are not perfect. Sometimes we’re so used to the way that life on earth works that we apply those same standards to God. It’s easy, after being let down so much in a sinful world, to take a cynical point of view toward righteousness. What we see in the world is that there is no truly perfect plan so it’s easy to think perfection can never happen. Yet, God still operates in the realm of total righteousness. All of His ways, plans, and actions are perfect! And so, good for us, and good for God are two different things sometimes.

David came face-to-face with that reality a few chapters after this as he fell into adultery with Bathsheba, planned and executed the betrayal and murder of her husband, and deceived the people of Israel about the matter. In just a few moments, the brutality of David’s sinful heart was laid bare. Like all matters of sinfulness, it was a reminder that his own ways, including his own plans and desires, were not always righteous. The same is obviously true in our lives. Each moment of unfaithfulness to the LORD and His Word is a harsh reminder that we are careless captains of our own destinies. The LORD beckons us to trust in Him as a better and surer Guide of our plans.

Within this answer of “no” from the LORD was also a test that was meant to strengthen David’s faith. The only reason David would have for getting upset at the LORD’s plan was if David was more concerned about himself. Remember, that building the temple would also be a legacy for David’s reign as King. Even today, the architect of the temple, David’s son, Solomon, still lays claim in name to that building. It will always be known as “Solomon’s temple” in that regard. There was a great temptation for David to make this project about his legacy first and foremost. It would have been easy for David to use the cover of the LORD’s honor to conceal his own inward, selfish goals. I’m not saying this was what David’s plan was, but the LORD’s test would reveal it if it was. The LORD was testing what was most important to David; honoring the LORD’s name, or David’s?

David’s response to the test showed that it indeed strengthened his faith. From verse 18 to the end of the chapter David spoke a message of praise and thanksgiving to the LORD, despite the LORD’s answer of no. David was truly most concerned about honoring God. It wasn’t about his own legacy.   

We, too, will receive the same test from the LORD when it comes to our plans of serving Him. Do we look at projects at church, such as the upcoming carpet replacement, as ways to serve God in humility or ways to put our mark on His house. Are we more concerned with the color or style, or the purpose it will serve to honor God in this place? It’s not just about carpet, either. The same test pertains to all functions of serving in the name of God. Church cleaning, committee work Sunday School teaching, homeless donations, outreach projects, worship style and procedure, budget considerations, and many more things. Take all the noble plans and goals we have to serve God in the coming year and ask whether you care more about getting your way in those matters, or doing everything you can to honor God’s name. That’s the same test God gave David and if you received a “no” answer in some of those areas would still react with praise and thanksgiving? Test your faith in that way for it will show whom you are truly serving.

The LORD works in mysterious ways, and at times we will certainly wonder what His method and plan is. However, one certainty we have is that no matter what the outcome or the answer is, there will always be a promise of hope. We see that as the last, and most important, takeaway from the LORD’s answer to David. The answer was no, and the plans fell apart, but God’s promise endured. When Solomon finally reached the point where he broke ground on the temple construction, it was due in large part to the financial gains that David had accumulated for the project. David would never see the temple building, but without his diligence there would have been no funds to cover the project. God promised that David’s line would endure and that the temple would be completed, just not in the way that David envisioned. The LORD allowed David to have indirect influence through His promise.  

I think you’ll find the same promise alive and well in your life. Even in plans and desires that God says no to, He often opens another door by which you can play a part. What decides whether or not you take this opportunity is often a matter of where your heart leads you. And I’m not talking about following your own desires and inclinations; I’m saying that what is in your heart will influence your actions. To trust in God’s righteous plan means to recognize and believe that His way is perfect. He knows best! James tells us that “every perfect gift” is given from God above, and that He shows no partiality or deception. That’s pretty clear in the way that God operates but so often we think that God is holding out on us or not being fair if He says no to us. Faith in Jesus, what is in your heart as a believer, trusts that God’s way is perfect, not just in His own mind, but in reality for our lives. And if we think and act by that faith, we also understand that God often gives, and gives much more, even at times when He says no.

Finally, the first promise given to David ultimately led to the second and greater promise. The eternal succession of David’s reign, the completion of the temple through his son, Solomon, were both micro-promises of the gift of eternal life. God was not promising David eternal earthly power, that gift would have meant nothing. God was promising David a place in heaven as a redeemed believer. The throne of David, as a picture of the Holy Christian Church, endures forever. And our own lives are fulfillments of that promise as we receive the same gift as citizens in that kingdom. You see, with God it is never just about our plan. Far greater than that is His promise. For David, the temple was a priority, but not what was most important in his life or in his faith. That’s why David could rejoice with Thanksgiving even though God said no to his plan. Likewise, let us not hang everything in our lives and in our faith upon the plans we make – even the best plans. We have a far greater treasure. A promise given and fulfilled through our Lord Jesus Christ – forgiveness of sins today and life eternal in heaven. That is truly an exchange worth having. Amen.